Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon
Summary: An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.
We’re talking Boston noir — the seedy, gritty underside of gentrified Boston. It’s literary, and it’s the stuff of Hollywood now, but it’s real life here too. The dark corners behind the glitz; the townies, thugs, mobsters and bullies you never read about in the Globe, fighting for their lives and their turf.
Listen: Boston Noir, Thursday 9pm, WBUR Dennis Lehane so rules the neighborhood of Noir ("Nwaaah," as we say in Boston) that he gets street credit for work he didn't write, like "The Departed" and "The Town." But does the author of "Mystic River" and "Gone Baby Gone" get credit enough for a body of artistic work way beyond his gift for Boston-accented dialog?
We're in the studio with Daron Acemoglu, the MIT economist and the co-author of Why Nations Fail. Well into President Obama’s second term, deep in the doldrums of the status quo, he says the state of the union is "dangerous." Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone joins us on the phone. He is by now a Diogenes on Wall Street. Before that: a ten-year stint in Yeltsin's Russia, when the crony state ran riot. He tells us, "A lot of things that I saw in the former Soviet Union we're starting to see here."
Each one of Anton Chekhov's short stories, like each of Beethoven's string quartets, can feel like a fresh experiment. They all seem different in size, shape and feeling, each one a reinvention of the form. "Gusev," the third in our reading-aloud series, is just such a one-off surprise, in 12 dense pages — nothing like our first two, "Vanka" and "Dreams." Chekhov wrote "Gusev" on shipboard, returning from his stark study mission to the prison island of Sakhalin in 1890. He was 30 years old, ten years into a concentrated writing career that would end with his death of tuberculosis in 1904. The story is about a peasant soldier, ill and yearning for family and home, on a troop ship ferrying him back from a military assignment in the East. It is full of the sorrows of empire, of loneliness and alienation. To our chorus of actors, general readers and amateurs in my living room, however, more memorable, more marvelous, more instructively "Chekhovian" was something very like ecstasy in the underwater ending of the story. It reminded me of Sandra Bullock's return to earth and seawater in last summer's astonishing film Gravity. Or more precisely, as I watched Alfonso Cuarón's movie months ago, I was sure that he had learned a lot from Chekhov's "Gusev", in the realm of the space-travelers' spiritual longing and then in the astonishing palette of colors and the vitality of fish and vegetation in the closing scene. And up above just then, on the side where the sun goes down, clouds are massing; one cloud resembles a triumphal arch, another a lion, a third a pair of scissors... A broad green shaft comes from behind the clouds and stretches to the very middle of the sky; shortly afterwards a violet shaft lies next to it, then a golden one, then a pink one... The sky turns a soft lilac. Seeing this magnificent, enchanting sky, the ocean frowns at first, but soon itself takes on such tender, joyful, passionate colors as human tongue can hardly name. The close of "Gusev," p. 121 in Anton Chekhov: Stories, translated by Richard Pevear and Larrissa Volokhonsky. Bantam, 2000. We took the story to be a meditation on inescapable death and, just as powerful, the transcendence of life in nature. It brought to mind a conversation with a compleat Thoreau in our time, Bernd Heinrich, and his prize-winning book, Life Everlasting, and his revision of the Ash Wednesday reminder, "dust thou art, to dust thou shall return." Isn't it provocatively true to observe, "from life thou art, to life thou shall return." Which affirms in turn Dostoevsky's epigraph in The Brothers Karamazov from the Gospel of John 12:24: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." James McConkey of Cornell has written beautifully of "Gusev" along some of the same lines. Our "Gusev" readers are Luke Salisbury, who teaches literature and writing at Bunker Hill Community College; Sarah Barton, "a librarian by day, an actress by night," as she put it; Ken Cheeseman, a stage and screen actor and artist in residence at Emerson College; and Donna Sorbello, an actress in Boston. Among the voices heard in our chorus were Dan Pritchard of the Boston Review, actor Nijazi Jusufi and writer Sarah Lydon. We’ve been reading from the Bantam collection of the Stories of Anton Chekhov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Thanks to Yo-Yo Ma for his version of the Rococo Variations composed by Chekhov’s friend Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Special thanks to the audio pro on so many stages Jim Donahue, who wired us all for sound. Listeners out there, we’d be delighted to hear your take on "Gusev" and on our impressions of it. Next up, if you care to read ahead, will be the mini-story "The Student." Not everybody loves it, but Chekhov called it his favorite.
On the way to Herbie Hancock's opening Norton lecture at Harvard, "The Wisdom of Miles Davis," we're remembering Norton feasts of old, a series that has included luminaries like John Cage, e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim, and Orhan Pamuk, who spoke with us in 2009 after giving his six Norton Lectures, which filled the air with ideas about fiction. "The novel is not about the characters but about their world," for example, part of the reason that Pamuk has never titled a book with a character's name. (No disrespect to David Copperfield, Jane Eyre or the Karamazov brothers, either; but Pamuk is more in tune with Thackeray, who called his masterpiece not "Becky Sharp" but Vanity Fair.) Two recurrent images in those talks will stick forever: first, the scene, endlessly revisited, of Anna Karenina on the train to Petersburg from Moscow after she first danced with Vronsky — "with a novel in her hand and a window that reflected her mood." This is for Pamuk the most perfectly saturated picture in the greatest of all novels. And then there was the portrait Orhan Pamuk painted of himself, an insatiable teenaged reader, in his family's grand apartment in Istanbul in the late Sixties into the Seventies, expanding his character, forming his soul, confronting his great teachers: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Thomas Mann, Dickens and Melville, among others. So the conversation begins: I argue that for the last 150 years novels have been the global literary form... It is a very democratic form. You can talk about the biggest issues of history, life, ethics, things that until recently only philosophers or religion addressed... In my youth, that's why I think I took novels seriously and read lots of classics. Not only as entertainment but also as guides to understand the world, examples for my spirit, variations on the colors and shades of human spirit. You read Dostoyevsky, you understand something about human spirit. You read Stendhal, you understand something not only about mid-19th century French culture, but the adventuring human spirit and freedom versus community. Novels taught me not only to understand life, but also how to see and understand myself. I am not a Freudian in the sense that I do not believe that human spirit is formed only in childhood. I argue that although some part of us may have been formed in our childhood, we continue to re-form, to progress, to make ourselves adapt to new conditions, and in fact radically change even in our twenties and thirties. And I think naively that I did this through reading novels... Perhaps because I felt that I was at the edge of Europe, for me, novels represented the best of European culture. I wanted to acquire that. I read novels in my teenage years and early twenties just as someone gets essential liquid for life. Orhan Pamuk with Chris Lydon at Columbia University in New York, 12.12.09. By now Orhan Pamuk is in the front rank of global novelists for My Name is Red and Snow, books about not so much the clash as the interlacing of cultures, in the terms of his Nobel Prize citation. His new one, The Museum of Innocence, is stuffed with the collectible evidence – the earrings, the cigarette stubs, the views out the bedroom window – of a blissful love affair going bad. In his Norton Lectures, that’s what Pamuk said most novels are: they’re word museums stuffed with the human details of a period and a place. "No ideas but in things," as William Carlos Williams put it. In our conversation Orhan Pamuk is inviting me and all his readers to see the real museum he’s building now, in Istanbul, to show off the substance, the real stuff of this book. Think of the novel, he says, as an annotated catalog of that Museum of Istanbul in the last quarter of the 20th Century.
Here’s how to read David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page door stop and masterpiece Infinite Jest: it’s a Boston novel the way Ulysses is a Dublin novel, as Les Miserables is a Paris novel. Infinite Jest is a novel about Wallace’s alcohol addiction and recovery on a route through Boston we all walk and drive and manage not to see into: the “clot and snarl of Prospect St in Cambridge,” those “Live” and “Fresh Killed” poultry signs in Inman Square, the clang and squeak of the B-Line trolleys along Comm Ave, Brighton past the halfway houses on the hill for catatonics and drunks where Wallace’s life turned around. Maybe it helps to read Infinite Jest as a tour map of one man’s battlefield. Re-enactments every day. We’re talking a walk through DFW’s Infinite Boston this hour. We got 200-and-some contributions for this conversation posted on Reddit so far. IJ, as they say, is about addiction, entertainment, compulsive consumption, emotional isolation, TV, the Internet, anxiety, panic attacks, -- and loneliness throughout. One of the Reddit writers said: “Infinite Jest, it's still where I go to understand the queer sadnesses of 21st-century life.” Our guests include Bill Lattanzi, poet, playwright, and the original Infinite Boston tour guide; D.T. Max, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the acclaimed Wallace biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story; Sven Birkerts, the writer, critic, and editor who was a friend of Wallace's; and Deb Larson-Venable, executive director of Granada House, where Wallace began his road to recovery, and the extraordinary inspiration for the extraordinary Pat Montesian, a character in the novel. A reading list, for the insatiably curious. "An Interval," an excerpt from Infinite Jest that was published in The New Yorker in January 1995, including a description of Ennet House director Pat Montesian, the character based on our guest, Deb Larson-Venable, "Deb's Story," a partial autobiography by Deb Larson-Venable herself, on the Granada House website, and "An Ex-Resident's Story", an anonymous article (credited to Wallace) about Granada House, the Brighton halfway house that became Ennet House in Infinite Jest, "The Unfinished," the article by D.T. Max about Wallace's biography and career that spawned his book, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, "The Map and the Territory," an excellent article by Adam Kelly on Bill Lattanzi's Infinite Jest tour, Infinite Boston, designer William Beutler's amazing record of his own whirlwind tour of Wallace's Boston, Thanks also to Nick Maniatis, founder of Howling Fantods, who sent us an eloquent audio love letter to DFW (mp3), and Christopher Boucher, the writer and editor teaching his students to walk Infinite Jest at B.C. Image credit: Janette Beckman/Redferns
Sven Birkerts is a literary critic and essayist as well as a professor at Boston University and the editor of the literary quarterly AGNI. He was very nearly present at the creation of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" more than 20 years ago, but in this conversation, I wanted him to begin with today: how Wallace's masterpiece became a touchstone for a generation, and whether he's ready to call it a great book.
The writer Bill Lattanzi led us on a tour of Infinite Boston, inspired partly by Bill Buetler's website. He began in the "seat of empire," so to speak, Harvard Square -- epicenter of the ivy-clad buildings, cobblestone streets, churches, libraries, museums, the ancient glory of Boston and New England — which is to say, everything that David Foster Wallace did not write about. We are looking at the Boston traversed by addicts, the homeless, the-down-on-their-luck.
Listen: DFW's Infinite Boston, Thursday 9pm, WBUR Biographer D. T. Max on David Foster Wallace: "David is the author of his time who has the fairest chance to be read 50 years from now... I really feel the way David touched the themes of the 1990s - themes of addiction and excessive entertainment in American culture have become even more outstanding and more relevant to most of us, and when you reread Infinite Jest today - it's really a novel that's fundamentally about television and video, but you read it today and you think you're reading a novel about the Internet."
In 2000, Chris interviewed the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, who died today at 94. Here is Pete Seeger on "The Connection." As Chris noted in introducing him, Pete Seeger wrote and popularized folk music for over 60 years. He always used his voice and his banjo for a purpose. He never sang a song that didn't have meaning. His convictions about social justice were deep, and his performances changed lives. There's little doubt the FBI had a huge fat file on him back in Washington, and for his liberal politics he was the target of mob attacks too. He sung anti-American songs in Moscow, and was at one time banned from television. He continually inspired other people to action to stop the Vietnam war, to fight racial inequality, and to save the world.
We're trying to locate Aaron Swartz, a year after his death, as a landmark in the culture and the age. Swartz had commented after his arrest two years ago that he read Kafka differently: The Trial, he realized, was not fiction but meticulous documentary coverage. And nothing engages me more about Aaron Swartz than the news (to me, anyway) that he was an astute reader and commentator on David Foster Wallace and his mad epic Infinite Jest. On his blog Swartz had "solved" the mysterious ending of Wallace's novel. It is as if he were trying to deduce the algorithm in Wallace's head that produced the book. I am feeling tremors of a convergence here of iconic figures — two geniuses, two suicides and perhaps two parallel visions of an American apocalypse.
In the tradition of the BBC's "Desert Island Discs," I asked Richard Powers to hang our conversation on a few favorite pieces among the scores that figure crucially in his new novel Orfeo. They turned out to be Gustav Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder," Oliver Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time," and Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring." Richard Powers is referred to as "the most ambitious novelist in America," a writer of Melvillian scale in our midst. I couldn't help telling him that for his mix of erudition, imagination and lyricism, I can't think of anyone else like him.
In the annals of Boston medicine two historic chapters in the last 50 years were the near conquest of sudden death by heart attack and (not unrelated) the rise of corporate, cathedral hospitals around the practice of heroic scientific medicine with a big arsenal of new drugs, surgical measures, by-passes, catheters and stents. All this is the stuff of our guest Dr. Tom Lee’s biography of a giant cardiologist and an expanding industry in Boston. His book is Eugene Braunwald and the Rise of Modern Medicine, a complex and fascinating tale. Don Berwick – a doctor who’s running for governor -- is covering the downsides all around this story: overtreatment for some, undertreatment for many, intrusions of finance and breakdowns in the humanity of doctoring, and of course gigantic expense. We’re talking this hour about Boston’s bluest of blue-chip industries, medicine, in a prosperous maybe triumphant time that may also be the moment for rethinking and reform. Dr. Braunwald and Nobel Prize winner Bernard Lown make cameo appearances -- drawn from longer podcast visits with each of them. Perhaps the core question is: where’s the better medicine that would make all of us all healthier, even without miracle surgery?
Eugene Braunwald, who gets credit for presiding over the modern science of cardiology, is reminding us how little, in fact, the best doctors and textbooks professed to know about heart attacks when he got to medical school around 1950. A heart attack was considered a bolt out of the blue or an act of god. They couldn't be anticipated; they could barely be treated. On rough average, it took a heart attack patient 12 hours to get the hospital and be seen by a doctor; a third died on the way; a third died when they got there, specially when they were set apart at great distance from the nurse's station to give the injured hearts a chance to rest. It was World War II that triggered a tremendous change, when American doctors at the front faced troops whose chests had already been blown open by bullets and shrapnel. By the end of the war there was no question that the beating heart could be operated on, and the rest - open heart surgery, bypasses, catheters, stents, and the miracle drugs - is history. Dr. Braunwald says he had a hell of a ride through a half century of "the era of the heart;" if he were starting again today he says he'd want to be plunging into the era of the brain, hoping to do for alzheimer's what he did for sudden death by heart attack.
Heba Morayef, guardian angel of human rights and decency through Egypt's stumbling revolution, considers the persistent threat of official thuggery...