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A Modern Chekhov, in Memory of John Lukacs, and Morning Edition’s New Theme Song

Also: In praise of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Mount Yoshino, and more.
A Modern Chekhov, in Memory of John Lukacs, and Morning Edition’s New Theme Song

Born in Prague in 1896, Józef Czapski was “a scion of an old and distinguished family, he graduated in St Petersburg before moving to newly emancipated Poland to take up his studies in art. He spent eight years in cosmopolitan prewar Paris, exchanging ideas with French and Russian artists and writers, forming passionate attachments with both women and men (including one with Vladimir Nabokov’s younger brother Sergey, who would perish in a Nazi camp where gay men were subjected to hideous medical experiments) and devoting himself to realising a vision of painting he found pursued in the work of Cézanne.” When he was imprisoned by the Soviets, he gave a series of lectures to his fellow prisoners on Proust . . . and Pascal: “Whereas Pascal turns from the world with disgust, Proust seeks salvation in its fugitive sensations. Born and buried a Catholic, carrying a small oilcloth Bible with him when he travelled in Russia in search of the truth about his fellow prisoners, Czapski was a religious man. A Tolstoyan pacifist in his youth, who resigned from the Polish cavalry because he did not want to kill other human beings, he was attracted to the mysticism of Simone Weil (1909-43) and became a close friend of the God-seeking Russian philosopher Dmitry Merezhkovsky (1865-1941). Czapski was not mistaken in finding in Proust’s work a kind of religion: not a story of redemption, but a struggle to defy time and disillusion, and eternalise the passing moment in memories of meaning and beauty.”

 Amos Reichman writes in praise of France’s beautiful Pléiade editions. We have a couple of these, and they are wonderful: “When he founded the Pléiade, Schiffrin’s idea was to make the greatest literary works in the world available to as many people as possible in an accessible format. Schiffrin wished to make quality more generally available by targeting the Pléiade collection at a broad readership rather than producing books only for the elite. As André Schiffrin noted, ‘the Pléiade Proust would be less expensive to buy than all the volumes in the regular editions, for example.’ In addition to making works of great literary quality widely accessible, Jacques Schiffrin also wished to make his Pléiade editions physically beautiful. The books were and continue to be printed on paper used for bibles and are wonderfully illustrated, in particular by Russian painters living in Paris in exile.”

It is time to break up tech monopolies: “In his recent book Can American Capitalism Survive?, Steven Pearlstein highlights the difference between voluntary exchange and economic coercion: ‘The moral case for market capitalism rests on two principles that strike us as fair and just. The first is that markets are rooted in voluntary exchange….The second principle is that people are entitled to own and keep what they produce.’ Pearlstein goes on to note that an entrepreneur’s ‘just deserts’ should include compensation for ‘talent, ingenuity, and risk-taking that we bring to that effort,’ in addition for one’s time and effort to bring a product to market. And yet the exchange between online merchants and content creators—‘edge providers’—on the one hand, and tech platforms such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google, on the other, is not strictly voluntary.”

The historian John Lukacs has died. He was 95.

NPR’s Morning Edition gets a new theme song: “For the first time since it began broadcasting in 1979, the program replaced its signature song with a propulsive and layered new theme that features real and electronic instruments while still paying homage to the buoyant melody its nearly 14 million weekly listeners had come to know and love.” Listen to it here.

Paul Seaton reviews Peter Lawler and Richard Reinsch’s A Constitution in Full: Recovering the Unwritten Foundation of American Liberty: “The subtitle of this book signals its countercultural thrust, as well as indicates its inspiration in the thought of the nineteenth century American Catholic social and political thinker, Orestes Brownson (1803-1876). He wrote about, and put into currency, the notion of ‘the unwritten Constitution.’ Brownson ‘thought a humane political order must be reflective of a people’s history, as well as their deeper cultural, philosophical, and theological assumptions about humans, society, and God. This unwritten constitution of a people must anchor their extant constitutional settlement.’ Therefore, to understand America, and American constitutionalism more broadly, one needs to consider the necessary, the chosen, and even the providential, connections between the written Constitution and the complex social order it presupposed.”

Essay of the Day:

In The New Yorker, Joshua Yaffa writes about the life and work of Maxim Osipov a cardiologist and writer who left Moscow for a quiet life in a small village where finds a “comic despair”:

“For many years, Maxim Osipov lived with a gnawing sense of frustration. He had always thought of himself as a writer, but, as a student in the waning days of the Soviet Union, he trained as a cardiologist and worked for three years in a busy Moscow clinic. In the early nineties, when Russia was in the throes of economic transition, he started a publishing house, which specialized in translating medical textbooks, and, in 1994, he left his hospital job to run it full time. The company proved successful, yet life was somehow less than complete. Osipov, a humorous and energetic man with a baritone voice like thick honey, was in his early forties when he realized that he was a doctor who didn’t practice medicine, and a writer who had never published a line.

“As a child, Osipov spent most of his summers in Tarusa, a town on the bank of the Oka River, where his great-grandfather had a house. As an adult, he lived in Moscow with his wife, Evgenia, a pianist, and their two children. Around the time he launched the publishing house, he acquired some land of his own in Tarusa, which is a two-hour drive from Moscow, and built a dacha, a place to spend weekends and summer holidays with his family. The house is set on a hill above the center of town. From the upstairs windows, you can see a sloping tableau of red, brown, and green roofs, the onion domes and rising bell tower of the central cathedral, and a bend in the river. In the mid-two-thousands, when Osipov’s urge to return to clinical work intensified, it seemed logical that he should take a post at the local hospital, which lacked a cardiologist.

“In April, 2005, when Osipov saw his first patient in Tarusa, Moscow was booming, with high oil prices fuelling a culture of consumption and reinvention. But none of that was evident in Tarusa. The hospital was a dispiriting place. Wires hung from the ceiling, the wards smelled of urine, and rats darted across the corridors. Osipov, who saw patients there two days a week, brought his own echocardiogram machine with him. He sometimes joked that the best medical service that the hospital offered could be found in the cafeteria, where at least patients were served a filling meal. The disposition of the people he treated reminded him of the way Anton Chekhov, who had worked as a village doctor, described the human condition, as ‘a dislike of life strangely combined with a fear of death.’

“In 2007, Osipov gathered his thoughts on his life and his medical practice in an essay, In My Native Land, which was published in the literary journal Znamya. It is a perceptive and exacting piece of writing. Recalling Chekhov’s observation, Osipov writes of how his patients appear to lack the motivation to recover: ‘They don’t want to die, but nor do they want to go to a provincial capital, to figure out a solution, to make a fuss.’ Osipov’s tone is one of comic despair. He notes, for instance, how often he has the same conversation with his patients, in which they tell him that they cannot read the prescription that he has written for them because they didn’t bring their reading glasses. ‘Well, then, if you’re without your glasses, I guess you didn’t plan to read anything today—this is illiteracy,’ he writes.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Mount Yoshino

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