As a little girl, Cynthia Haven loved reading classic works of literature. At sixteen, she began her career as a reporter. And years later, those two interests converged as they led her to interview and write books about three writers and thinkers whom she also came to call mentors: René Girard, Czeslaw Milosz, and Joseph Brodsky.
Cynthia joined Tyler to discuss what she’s gleaned from each of the three, including what traits they have in common, why her biography of Girard had to come from outside academia, Milosz’s reaction to the Berkley Free Speech Movement, Girard’s greatest talent — and flaw — as a thinker, whether Brodsky will fall down the memory hole, why he was so terrible on Ukraine, why Cynthia’s early career was much like The Devil Wears Prada, the failings of Twitter, and more.
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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. I’m very happy today to be chatting with Cynthia Haven. She is listed as a visiting scholar at Stanford, but I think of her as an independent scholar in the very best sense of that term. Quite recently, she has published the definitive biography of René Girard that is called Evolution of Desire and a biography of Czesław Miłosz. She has written extensively on Joseph Brodsky and is published in just about every other outlet you might imagine. Cynthia, welcome.
CYNTHIA L. HAVEN: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.
COWEN: If I think of three of your main interests — Girard, Brodsky from then the Soviet Union, Miłosz — they’re all individuals in exile. Why are you fascinated with the theme of exile?
HAVEN: Ah, that’s an interesting question. I’d never thought about it that way. I am interested, and they were three people I happen to know.
COWEN: But that’s endogenous, right? You got to know people who were exiled, self-exiled.
HAVEN: René was not self-exiled. He came here after the war because it was a place where he could get a job. He was recruited by the Americans that were going abroad and looking for bright young men to come and refill colleges after the war and teach the GIs on the GI Bill.
COWEN: Why does exile interest you so much, and what kind of exile do you live? What are you exiled from?
HAVEN: [laughs] It doesn’t interest me so much. I don’t think that was what attracted me to them. I guess we’re all exiles in a way. I feel like one.
COWEN: Is there some kind of Eastern European liberalism they have in common? There’s a theme of Christianity running through Miłosz and Girard. They’re all from what you might consider — well, at least Brodsky and Miłosz — failed societies in a certain way. Is there some new vision of liberalism running throughout the works of the three?
HAVEN: Their politics and their thinking was not quite that easy to characterize. René considered himself — I think they all — certainly Miłosz considered himself a liberal in Poland. But the terms changed so quickly with the rise of Stalinism, with what was happening in Europe, that suddenly the terms keep shifting, and it’s hard to place any of them politically. René has been called a conservative, but he was pretty mainline democratic. These are terms that we’ve put a great deal of meaning on, and I’m not sure that they’re that fixed as we think they are.
COWEN: Mainline democratic was a kind of conservative in his time, right? Conservative in the literal sense.
HAVEN: Five years ago, I suppose.
COWEN: Maybe 15, 20 years ago.
HAVEN: None of them are really political animals.
COWEN: Aren’t they all quite political in some ways? Girard is writing about sacrifice and kingship, and he’s obsessed with the Bible and Shakespeare. Those are all highly political themes. It’s people today who are political that seemed most interested in Girard, right?
HAVEN: I’m not very political myself, and I adored the man.
COWEN: If we take Miłosz, is there a way in which we can think of him as expressing a more liberal side of Dostoevsky? Is there such a liberal side of Dostoevsky?
HAVEN: A call for universal love — I think that’s beyond politics.
COWEN: He was obsessed with the intellectual corruption of the intellectuals in France post World War II, when so many French intellectuals were Stalinist. He writes his masterwork of social science, The Captive Mind, about how conformist everyone is, and that they’re unwilling to think independently, right?
HAVEN: He was writing about totalitarianism and the pressures that were brought on people by that system.
COWEN: But these are people living in France that he’s criticizing, not people living in the Soviet Union. It’s both.
HAVEN: Yes, it was purely mimetic. [laughs] Yes, it was a pretty universally Stalinist atmosphere, and the only person that befriended him was Camus. There were a few others, the people in culture, but they were Polish émigrés themselves. There’s a lot of conformity. I don’t think conformity is left or right or liberal or conservative. It’s just human nature.
COWEN: Are he and Girard thinking through what are the broader systemic implications of so much mimesis, whether or not it’s a particular political vision?
HAVEN: Again, I don’t think it’s political. I don’t think they were thinking in those terms.
COWEN: Let’s say I asked you to compare Girard’s vision of human beings and how they copy each other, and Miłosz’s vision. How are those two visions different?
HAVEN: I don’t think they were. I think that they had a great deal in common in that regard, but they expressed it in a different way. They used a different language. For one thing, one was a poet.
HAVEN: I would think so. It was the central point of his whole work, for René Girard. But we’re looking at human phenomena, and they’re pretty much everywhere.
COWEN: How did Miłosz react to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement?
HAVEN: [laughs] He was sympathetic with the students, but as he commented, they complain because they have too much. It was very different from the environment that he had just left, where students had very few rights and very few freedoms. The famous incident, of course, is when he was going through the campus, and he was surrounded by protesters.
COWEN: How did he react to that?
HAVEN: With his best Slav accent, he waved his cane and said, “Begone, spoiled children of the bourgeoisie.”
COWEN: Did he think they actually favored free speech?
HAVEN: I’m sure he did, yes.
COWEN: He once wrote, “The man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.” Do you agree?
COWEN: Would Girard agree?
HAVEN: I think he would, yes.
COWEN: Wasn’t he more of an objectivist in the sense of viewing Christianity as an objective vantage point for evaluating cultures, polities?
HAVEN: He was viewing the scapegoat mechanism, the thing that united all these societies.
COWEN: He’s a systemic French thinker, in a way. Miłosz seems to me much more relativist.
HAVEN: Yes, I would agree.
COWEN: Why did Miłosz translate parts of the Bible?
HAVEN: I think because he wanted to make it more part of himself. Remember, he was going through an enormous amount of suffering at that point in his life, too, with his wife dying, with his son going mad.
COWEN: To what extent do you think his theory of intellectuals in postwar France explains American intellectuals today, that they’re just highly conformist?
HAVEN: [laughs] I think it pretty much explains them, yes. I think there’s a great deal of conformity in our culture as well.
COWEN: We academics — some of us have tenure. What are we so afraid of in particular? How does the calculus operate?
HAVEN: One wishes for esteem. One wishes to get approval from one’s peers. That can be as powerful as the fear of losing a job.
COWEN: But in a lot of realms, you get that esteem by innovating or by deviating from established opinion, right? If you’re a musician, you’re expected to do something at least a bit different. Why is academia — why does it have more conformist standards for acceptance?
HAVEN: Well, one is allowed to make the great breakthrough book or whatever, as long as it’s a breakthrough within certain confines, within certain limits. That’s an interesting point. What is the point at which it becomes something unacceptable or outrageous rather than just innovative, and who decides that? How does that get decided?
COWEN: Why do you think no tenured academic wrote a comparable biography of Girard? Who, in a way, is not such a controversial figure, right?
HAVEN: He’s becoming more and more mainstream, but it’s taken a long while for that to happen. He was in academia, but not of academia, in a lot of ways.
Basically, the head of the Michigan State University Press’s series — when they approached me and asked me to think of an idea for writing about René, I noted that there had never been anything weaving together the life and the work, so the only reason that it happened is because I did it. I think that it was the core conformist thing. Nobody wanted to stick their heads out. People wanted to hold him at a distance.
COWEN: What do you think of the current Silicon Valley infatuation with Girard?
HAVEN: I think it’s very mimetic, don’t you?
HAVEN: A lot of that is Peter Thiel’s influence. It’s kind of a mixed bag. It’s interesting that people always want to ask me about Peter Thiel as the leader of this mimetic wave, but I think he’s got a lot more to say about a lot more things that are going to be of long-standing interest. We’ve already had some good analyses of his effect on Silicon Valley. But his effect on human behavior, his call for universal forgiveness, his call for being more independent, not being mimetic, and all into one’s desires — I think that those are his enduring messages that are more important than the world of technology.
COWEN: What did Girard think of social media? He saw an early form of them, right?
HAVEN: He was not tremendously interested. Of course, he used a computer; he was on the internet. He was always on his own wavelength. He was an amazing man to know, an amazing man to talk to.
COWEN: Sure. How did Proust influence René Girard?
HAVEN: Oh, I think that was one of his first major literary interests. Finding that book as he was leaving for America — he found that in a bookstore. It was very influential, leading him to see how social groups work, and the snobbery of social circles, and the way that they can lure you and repel you at the same time.
COWEN: Do you think Girard’s thesis of mimetic desire is empirically falsifiable? Or does it suffer from the weaknesses of a lot of continental philosophy? That it’s a big idea thrown out there, and then selectively withdrawn when it doesn’t fit the facts.
HAVEN: I think it’s not a prediction, it’s not a way that you can predict something. I think that there are too many variables in almost any equation to make it foolproof in that sense. One of the things that always interests me about René was the way he could pull up factors that you didn’t see in a situation, the thing that you weren’t looking at.
COWEN: What did he think of Buddhism? Because Buddhism, at least on the surface, is an attempt to escape the cycle of mimetic desire.
HAVEN: He wrote a book about some of the Eastern religions called Sacrifice that was mostly focusing on Hinduism. People ask that question, “What about Buddhism? What about Confucianism?” But we use these labels of religions. There are millions of individuals within them, and whatever the religion says, there are mimetic behaviors. Human behavior doesn’t suspend itself because of the label of religion that you’re going under.
He did say and he did feel that Christianity and Judaism — beginning with Judaism — were the first religions to focus in such a concentrated way on competition, strife, and the reasons for conflict, and the pressures to scapegoat.
COWEN: If you were to characterize or conceptualize Girard’s talent as a thinker, how would you express that? He wasn’t a details person, right? What was his great talent?
HAVEN: Intuition. The way he saw these patterns, and saw patterns that no one else did, of competition, rivalry, violence. His big religious intuition was that the New Testament is moving us from the kingdom of violence to the kingdom of God, and what that meant to make that transition.
COWEN: Is it true that Girard had no mentors?
COWEN: That’s quite unusual. How do you think that shaped his career and thought?
HAVEN: That’s what I meant when I said that he was in academia, but not really of academia. He climbed no ladder. He had no mentors within academia. He wound up in academia, really, pretty much by accident.
COWEN: Do you think of him as one of your mentors?
HAVEN: Oh, yes.
COWEN: Or are you, like Girard, with no mentor?
HAVEN: [laughs] Oh, no, I’ve had many mentors. I’ve written about mine.
COWEN: Who’s your main mentor?
HAVEN: I don’t think there’s a main one. I think that there are three of them that I’ve written about, and I’m sure that there are others that I will write about.
COWEN: Who are those three?
HAVEN: René, Joseph Brodsky, and Czesław Miłosz.
COWEN: So the three people you’ve written the most about.
HAVEN: Yes. They’re endless. All three of them are endless. You can spend forever in their works.
COWEN: In an article you wrote, you once quoted René Girard: “Joining the mob is the thing people don’t realize. They feel the unity, but don’t interpret it as joining the mob.” Do you agree with that? So, people who join, say, Twitter mobs on the internet — they’re oblivious to the fact that they’re part of a mob?
HAVEN: They think they’re speaking up for their rights. They think that what they’re saying is true.
COWEN: But do they also think they’re part of a mob? Or do they have false consciousness?
HAVEN: I don’t know about false consciousness, but the momentum of a feeling can drive one into a mob without one being aware that that is exactly what they’re doing. It’s a very subliminal thing.
COWEN: What is your best Girard story?
HAVEN: Okay, I’ll tell one. You asked about Peter Thiel. I was asked to fact-check that Peter Thiel had wanted an answer to a question about René’s theory and drove up immediately to René’s house to get the answers that he needed. Someone asked me to fact-check that, and I got the answer. René was not a guru. He did not live on top of a mountain, and, of course, that didn’t happen, so I had to let down the person who asked the question.
COWEN: So, it hadn’t happened.
HAVEN: It hadn’t happened. René did not run an open house. He had a surprisingly conventional private life, was madly in love with the one woman he was married to for 60 years.
Here’s a story for you. Martha and René had a marriage that was so harmonious, they apparently never gave each other presents on birthdays or whatever. The children had to call and tell them that their 60th wedding anniversary had just happened because it went by without them noticing.
COWEN: Sixty, wow. Now, there’s an anecdote — it’s in your biography, Evolution of Desire — that Girard claimed he had witnessed a lynching, and that influenced his thought. But if one traces the chronology of that claim, it’s not obviously true. If we fact-check that claim, can it be verified? Or is he just making that up? Was he a fabulist of some sort?
HAVEN: No, that was a writer’s trick.
COWEN: A writer’s trick, meaning he made it up?
HAVEN: No, I was the writer. I was interviewing Jean-Michel Oughourlian in Paris, who was at one time . . . René said many people were his best friend. Jean-Michel Oughourlian was one of the people that he often said that about.
He claimed that René had told him that he had witnessed a lynching. This was one of those moments, one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever had in an interview, and the floor opens up when someone says something like that. I thought, “Wait a minute, how can that be true?” But it was my job to check it out and see whether it could be true.
More than that, it was an opportunity for me to explore what lynching meant in the US and abroad, and talk about that. I was surprised, in my research, to find out how recently lynchings had happened. I had thought of them as something from a much earlier decade in the 20th century, and having ended.
It gave me a chance to think about it. It gave me a chance to talk about it, and later in the interviewing process with Jean Michel, I said to him, “Oughourlian — that’s an Armenian name. Were your family involved with that?” And his face fell. He had lost a number of his extended family in that genocide, and that is why he grew up in Beirut and not further east.
What I concluded in that chapter was that Jean Michel Oughourlian, having been a second-generation Holocaust survivor — that had impressed him. That what seemed outrageous to us — the idea that René had seen a lynching — was not so outrageous to him because it had actually happened in the not-too-distant memory. So I told the story that way. I told that chapter that way. It was a way of going back and revisiting that past, and revisiting the impression that it had on the man standing in front of me.
No, I don’t think he sees . . . He hadn’t seen a lynching. You don’t go and watch a lynching. You’re either one of the people throwing the stones or you’re the lynchee. It has that kind of attraction; it’s not something that you can watch from far away.
COWEN: Okay. How good was Girard as a critic of Shakespeare?
HAVEN: I think he was fascinated by Shakespeare. It was a love affair of sorts. That was his marriage to the English language. It’s the only book he wrote in English. I think he had a great deal to say. I think that that’s one of the most interesting explorations that he had in his books. He has envy, he is very critical to his corpus, and I think he’s an excellent critic.
COWEN: So, you don’t think one is just getting Girard. One is getting some reasonably accurate understanding of Shakespeare.
HAVEN: Yes. I think that there are other ways of seeing Shakespeare besides René’s. René had a lot of interesting things to say, but I don’t think he’s the only person that said interesting things on that or any other subject.
COWEN: Why is there more mimetic desire in the comedies?
HAVEN: Ooh, I think it allowed Shakespeare to play around a lot more. There’s a lot of mimetic influences in the other plays as well. Julius Caesar is an excellent one for mimetic desire that leads to basically a lynching. I think that comedies give you a chance to play with it, and I think that that’s a large part of their delight.
COWEN: What do you think was Girard’s greatest flaw as a thinker?
HAVEN: I think that he had an unfortunate tendency to say “always” or “never.” If you quizzed him more thoroughly, he would say, “No, not always” or whatever, but I think that that has sometimes been tackled on by people as a flaw.
COWEN: Do you think Miłosz as a thinker has a future in the way that Girard has turned out to be really extremely influential and popular?
HAVEN: He’s a poet, and I think that that’s a problem, as poetry — well, it’s not taught the way it was. The humanities have somewhat gone by the wayside — not for people who love poetry, but it’s not taught. I would like to see Czesław Miłosz taught in schools as an American. That’s the premise of my book. I think he had an enormous amount, but he was not a systematic thinker. As a poet, he was not trying to create a system, but he had an enormous amount to say to us today.
COWEN: Did it make sense for Curtis Yarvin to have written a whole long blog post tribute to Miłosz? Have you read that?
COWEN: It’s just online somewhere. He’s sometimes considered the father of neo-reaction, Yarvin. He’s very controversial.
HAVEN: [laughs] I’d like to read that. I don’t think I’ve read that.
COWEN: He was really quite intrigued by Captive Mind that he saw as a diagnosis of the intelligentsia here today. Yarvin has a kind of cult following. He’s very influential. It’s not my thing. I’m very much more in the tradition of classical liberalism, but nonetheless, here was someone giving Miłosz a huge push. I haven’t seen it lead to anything, but Miłosz is not just a poet. Very few people read Polish who are not Polish, but plenty of people I know have read Captive Mind.
HAVEN: That is his only book that has been continuously in print and a best seller since it was published in 1953. It’s an amazing book, and yes, it’s an amazing book to us today. It has a lot to say to us about what you’re talking about, and a lot else — about the conformity, about the pressures to what he called the Murti-Bing pill. You’ve read Captive Mind.
COWEN: Yes. He wrote, “Consciousness does not help them to shed their bonds. On the contrary, it forges them.”
HAVEN: [laughs] Yes.
COWEN: What has gone wrong in freedom — since we have a relatively free society — that a work from someone who grew up under communism and then wrote about Stalinists in postwar France — that that work could still be relevant today? What have we done wrong?
HAVEN: Then we get back to René, don’t we? It’s imitation. It’s the desire to conform. It’s the desire to rise, get a better job, get tenure, whatever it is that’s still precious.
Miłosz did not grow up under communism. That didn’t come about until the fall of Warsaw and its destruction. Human nature remains the same. It’s just a shame that it’s getting more pathological forms.
COWEN: But why do we copy the bad things rather than the good things? What’s the missing part of the theory?
HAVEN: The bad things are attractive to us. We’re followers. Why has Putin still got support in Russia after what he’s doing? Why are there Trump supporters? [laughs]
COWEN: But say, if I read Freud or I read Wilhelm Reich, there’s some account of why people might crave the bad. If I read Girard . . .
HAVEN: Crave the bad as a bad —
COWEN: As a bad.
HAVEN: — not thinking that it’s a good?
COWEN: They’re just compulsively drawn to some things that are bad. They may even feel good to the people in the moment, but there’s an account of craving the bad in those thinkers. Also in Pareto, there’s an account of craving the bad. For Miłosz, what’s the account of craving the bad? Or for Girard?
HAVEN: For Miłosz, I don’t think he did crave the bad, ever.
COWEN: No, he didn’t, but he portrays other people as craving the bad.
HAVEN: I don’t think he talks about that so much. In Captive Mind, there are people trying to get along and live within the system, and the way they pathologically divide themselves into two people so that they can avoid the martyrdom that happened to so many of their peers.
COWEN: What did he find of such great interest in Simone Weil?
HAVEN: His favorite phrase of hers was, “Distance is the soul of beauty.” That was a big part of his Nobel speech, getting the right distance from someone. She was a profoundly religious thinker. He was quoting her all the time.
COWEN: Does she make sense to you as a thinker? Or is it aphorisms?
HAVEN: [laughs] Aphorisms are a powerful way to learn.
COWEN: But does it cohere? Schopenhauer, Nietzsche — more or less, their aphorisms cohere into a particular worldview. Do hers cohere?
HAVEN: She was an odd and extreme thinker. I think many of them do. I don’t see her as a systematic thinker in that sense.
COWEN: Why does Miłosz assign such an important role to nature in his understanding of America? Was that just a California thing? What if we had sent him to Rhode Island?
HAVEN: No. We did, more or less. He spent time in Washington, DC, and New York City, but his first calling was to be a naturalist. That was his first attraction as a child. He studied nature from a child. The American wilderness puzzled and somewhat confused him. As he put it, ten different kinds of oaks instead of three, like you’d have in Poland.
COWEN: Will Joseph Brodsky fall into a memory hole? Do people still care?
COWEN: You can’t read him in Russian, right? Or most people can’t. Poetry itself is much less popular unless you count something like rap music as a form of poetry, but that won’t help Brodsky. The essays are quite fine, but they don’t seem culturally central. What about Brodsky will last?
HAVEN: In America or in Russia?
COWEN: In America, and then in Russia.
HAVEN: [laughs] In Russia, he will never die. He’s one of the great poets of the 20th century. In America, I think a lot of it depends on the future translations. The wordplay in his poems, the inventiveness is such that it makes it very difficult to squash it into the English language. There’s been attempts, there’s been controversy, there’s been issues with the estate and everything else. I hope that we someday get a good complete volume of Joseph Brodsky in English that is as magical as the original version.
COWEN: What do you think of the claim that he was the first or maybe only Russian poet to have mastered the English metaphysical tradition like John Donne?
HAVEN: I think mastered is a big word. [laughs]
COWEN: Grappled with.
HAVEN: I think he grappled with it. It’s hard for us in English to see how well that works. The Butterfly is a masterpiece. As you know, I wrote Conversations with George Kline, and that was a masterpiece translation. Give us more masterpiece translations, and we’ll have a better judgment.
COWEN: Why was Brodsky so terrible on the Ukraine issue? His poem on Ukraine, you can find a version of it online. You can hear it in the original Russian on YouTube. He sounds as bad as Putin, right? Why? Where did he go wrong?
HAVEN: It’s not just that poem. He got into a fight with Derek Walcott at a famous conference when he was belittling the smaller nations of the world. There’s a national imperialism of Russia that is not just Putin. It goes all the way down. I think that poem about Ukraine is indeed very unfortunate. It’s not going to serve his legacy well. It doesn’t serve common sense well.
COWEN: How do you model the mistake he made? What was the problem in his broader worldview?
HAVEN: He was a Russian imperialist. The fight with Derek Walcott was on the importance of his own nation, and it’s a strong streak in the Russian culture.
COWEN: And he simply never gave it up, even after he came here.
HAVEN: “What’s bred in the bone will out in the flesh.” Yes, he never gave it up, not entirely. I think it became a smaller portion of his psyche.
COWEN: If we think of your own career — you’re, at age 17, a reporter, and now you’re writing books about continental philosophy. How did that happen? And was that bred in your bone, so to speak?
HAVEN: Yes, very much so. I began at 17 as a reporter, actually at 16. It teaches you a lot of things. It teaches you to perform on deadline. It teaches you not to object to your work getting edited, which is a problem with a lot of authors. It teaches you to be flexible. It teaches you how to ask questions. It teaches you how to do interviews. Lots of good skills there.
COWEN: When and how did the turn to philosophy come?
HAVEN: I don’t know there was a turn to philosophy. Literature was part of me, too. I was reading Les Misérables as a little girl. I’m not interested in philosophy per se. I was interested in René Girard. I think I can promise I would not write about another philosopher. It’s a huge field of study.
COWEN: But you’re interested in philosophical poets and writers, correct?
HAVEN: I’m interested in thinking.
HAVEN: We’re talking about thinking. I’m interested in people who ask big questions, and all those people ask big questions.
COWEN: Why such a strong interest in interviews? Which I share with you, obviously, doing a podcast, but where does that come from in you?
HAVEN: As a young woman, it gave me a chance to meet interesting people. Lots of people like to be interviewed. It was a chance to ask a lot of questions and learn a lot of things.
COWEN: What is your philosophy of what is missing in most other people’s interviews?
HAVEN: I don’t know that it’s a philosophy.
COWEN: You must think you’re adding something, right?
HAVEN: I’m interested in big questions. I think a lot of people aren’t. A lot of interviewers aren’t. It’s not an era for big questions, is it?
COWEN: 2022? I’m not sure.
COWEN: Maybe the questions are either too big or too small and not enough in between.
HAVEN: That’s an interesting point of view.
COWEN: There’s plenty of ideology in the world and in this country. It doesn’t have to be a good thing, but —
HAVEN: Ideology is different than big questions, I think.
HAVEN: The kinds of questions Miłosz asked, about questions of being.
COWEN: What do you think is the best question he asked?
HAVEN: The best question he asked. He was fascinated, beginning in the 1970s, with the loss of what he called “second space,” with the loss of the religious dimension in human thinking, with the loss of any notion beyond the little here and the little now. He explored that beginning with a fragmentary science fiction experiment called Second Space. Second Space was the title of the last volume that is published with his supervision. He was very restless about that, and I think it is a powerful thing to explore.
COWEN: Do you like Stanisław Lem?
HAVEN: Yes, I’m intrigued. Yes.
COWEN: That’s literary, but also philosophical.
HAVEN: Yes, I can’t claim great familiarity with him. I’m not a fan of science fiction in general, but I am a fan of Miłosz.
COWEN: How did you become a good reader?
HAVEN: Starting young. [laughs] I was reading George Bernard Shaw and Victor Hugo when I was in elementary school.
COWEN: Because you had to or because you wanted to?
HAVEN: Because I wanted to.
COWEN: You wanted to.
HAVEN: The stuff that they were giving us was dreck. [laughs] I like the good stuff.
COWEN: Has Shaw held up well at all? I look at it periodically, but it never interests me. I love Hugo.
HAVEN: Oh, that’s interesting. It’s hard — he was so solidly of an era. His plays aren’t performed much, and they haven’t been for a long time. I like the wit. I like the sharpness. I think they’ll last, but yes, we could use a revival.
COWEN: What did you learn when you worked for Vogue?
HAVEN: [laughs] Oh, you’ve seen the movie, The Devil Wears Prada?
COWEN: Yes. I quite like that movie.
HAVEN: It was very much the same way in London where I was working for Vogue and Condé Nast. The same kind of ladders. I was under Bea Miller rather than her American counterpart. That was the first job I could get in London. I was very glad to have it, but they didn’t make me into a fashion plate — horribly hopeless on fashion.
COWEN: But you wrote for them?
HAVEN: No, it was more like The Devil Wears Prada. I did edit an article by the sister of the Princess of Wales, or the Princess of Wales to be. That was my highlight — editing an article by Sarah Spencer.
COWEN: What’s your favorite long train ride?
HAVEN: Oh, jeez. Kathmandu to Delhi?
COWEN: How long does that take?
HAVEN: Oh gosh, it was so many years ago. Can’t recall.
COWEN: How’d you end up in Kathmandu?
HAVEN: Flew. Airplane. [laughs]
COWEN: Why Kathmandu?
HAVEN: Actually, I was working with Vogue’s travel editor, and he had just come back from Kathmandu and was telling me how beautiful it was. I was also seeing a man who was a concert pianist who was about to give a concert in Kathmandu. This was a twofer, so I could do both and pack it all up and leave for India and Nepal. I turned the pages at the concert.
COWEN: What did you think of Kyiv and Odesa when you visited there?
HAVEN: Oh, I loved them.
COWEN: What years were these?
HAVEN: That was 20 years ago, maybe. Odesa is charming, and Kyiv is just absolutely beautiful. I love the lavra caves, those tombs that they have underneath Kyiv. I very much hope that it survives all of this and that Odesa is restored to Ukraine.
HAVEN: Moldova, too.
COWEN: Is Moldova fun or just interesting? Everywhere is interesting.
HAVEN: I love traveling. I love traveling. I visited a Pushkin house in Moldova, I believe. Pushkin had houses everywhere in the Russian empire. He had places that he stayed, and they’re all memorialized in Eastern Europe.
COWEN: How does traveling fit into your conception of yourself?
HAVEN: I don’t know that it does. I just want to see everything before I die.
COWEN: Well, that is a conception of yourself, right? For me, it’s a kind of ultimate unit of account. I value money, but I value money because it can get me places.
HAVEN: I agree. It drives me nuts I won’t even be able to . . . I’ve never been to Greece.
COWEN: I don’t love Greece. I’m certainly glad I went, but it was uglier than I was expecting. Seeing ancient Greek civilization in Turkey and Sicily was, in some ways, more rewarding than seeing it in Greece. The museum in Athens was amazing, but I was a bit let down overall, I have to say. Just too much concrete somehow.
HAVEN: What’s your favorite country?
COWEN: I love Latin America. I’ve lived in Germany, New Zealand, been to Mexico, I think, 31 times. My wife is from the Soviet Union. There are so many places I could pick, but my favorite country is the next one perhaps.
HAVEN: What will that be?
COWEN: It will be Ireland in June, and then Colombia in July and northern India in August.
HAVEN: I have never been to Ireland either, Greece and Ireland.
COWEN: It will be, I think, my fourth Irish trip, but I’ve never been to southern Ireland. I’m going to see Cork and Limerick, which are huge gaps in my knowledge base, but I will be there.
HAVEN: Doesn’t it bother you that you could die without having seen everything? [laughs]
COWEN: I have this strange ambition to actually see every significant city in the New World, which is not everything by any means, but I don’t really have a strong ambition to see all of Africa. It would interest me, but it just seems not feasible for a number of reasons. If I keep decent health, I feel within five years, I’ll have been able to see the significant cities of the New World. That will make me happy, and I’ll write a book about it — the process of doing it, and what I thought the major questions were, and what I learned.
HAVEN: That sounds like fun.
COWEN: That’s partly why I’m going to Colombia. Northern Brazil is a big gap in my knowledge. The little countries — the Guyanas and Suriname — those are gaps. Venezuela is a problem. If anything stops me, it’ll be danger in Venezuela. There’s another version of it where I get everywhere but Venezuela.
HAVEN: What do you want to do before you die, besides see all these countries?
COWEN: See everywhere in Europe, minus Russia.
HAVEN: Minus Russia?
COWEN: It’s just not feasible anymore to include Russia. But I’d love to go to Saratov, of course, but I’m not optimistic about that country. If I can, I will. I’ve only been a few times. I’ve never been to Lithuania or Malta or Montenegro. Obviously, southern Ireland, northern Poland. I’ve never been to eastern Slovakia. I’ve never been to Puglia in Italy. I’ve never been to Brittany in France. There are these huge gaps, but it does seem that they’re manageable. It’s not like someone saying, “Oh, I’ve never been to Austria,” and they’re starting from scratch.
HAVEN: Yes. Can I go back and tell a Brodsky story about his imperialism?
COWEN: Tell us the story.
HAVEN: I was on Facebook, and for some reason, I posted something about Brodsky. I can’t even remember what the topic was. It was when he was asked what he thought was the best way to see Moscow, he said from the cockpit of a B52. Everyone just attacked me for posting this, and how horrible it was that someone should say this.
A few days later, there was the attack on Ukraine. The thread went silent. It suddenly seemed not such a vicious idea as it had when he posted it. I hope that things change; I hope that Russia changes. I have another book coming out in Russia.
COWEN: How much interest in Russia is there in Girard? I hear quite a bit. Is that true?
HAVEN: In Girard? Really?
COWEN: In Girard. Do you ever get readers in Russia who write you emails?
HAVEN: Somewhere here, I had the Russian edition of Evolution of Desire. It was a top seller in Moscow.
COWEN: So, there’s quite a bit of interest then.
HAVEN: Oh, you said René’s interest in Russia?
COWEN: No. Russia’s interest in René.
HAVEN: Yes, there is. That’s why I was anxious to see it come out in Russia.
COWEN: How do you think Russians read him differently?
HAVEN: I haven’t spoken to them, but I think that what they’re going through has got resonances. Again, this is not most of Russia. We’re talking about the intelligentsia who are buying the books in Russia, not the people in the provinces. I hope it gets through. I want to go back to Moscow and, most of all, Petersburg.
COWEN: How do you think Russians read Miłosz’s The Captive Mind?
HAVEN: It must have gotten a Russian edition now. Again, I think the problem is, the Russians I know, my Russian friends — they know all of this stuff, but how do you get through to the others? How do you get through to the ones that are still casting their votes for Putin?
COWEN: Does the Russian intelligentsia know? I’m never quite convinced. They seem to know and not know. The ones even who move to the United States and face no censorship — a lot of them are still pro-Putin, especially if they’re not Jewish.
HAVEN: The ones that I know are ashamed.
COWEN: They’re ashamed of the war, but before the war, they were often pro-Putin or at least anti-anti-Putin.
HAVEN: [laughs] No, there’s a liberal class in Russia, and those are the ones that are publishing my books. Maria Stepanova is a good friend of mine. She’s one of the leading writers in Russia. My publisher for the Brodsky book has a lot of Russians on its staff. They know what the truth is.
COWEN: Don’t you ever wonder how Russian propaganda works? During the pandemic, Putin works very hard to convince people the vaccine is great. People are really not sold on that notion. There’s a low rate of vaccine uptake in Russia. People worry about batch problems — correctly, it turns out. They’re skeptical about the vaccine to begin with, even though in theory, actually, the vaccine is probably not so bad. The propaganda doesn’t work.
Then there’s this much more horrible message being sold to people — not “take the vaccine,” but “The war in Ukraine is a good thing. It’s a police action.” Whatever account of it you wish to give. So many Russians buy that, yet you can’t talk them into the vaccine. What are we supposed to think about that? Isn’t there some abnegation of intellectual responsibility at some level in a society like that? They are capable of resisting messages from Putin.
HAVEN: I have no answers for that. Maria closed her online newspaper, Colta, a few days after this began, after her whole staff signed an editorial saying “no war.” It was on the front page. If the good guys can’t publish, who’s going to be disseminating information?
COWEN: There’s plenty of rumor. There’s plenty of sources of samizdat, even under the Soviet Union. There are plenty of official claims that during the Soviet Union, people simply didn’t believe. But now, today, “the war is okay” is, for the most part, the winning message in Russia — I think. It’s hard to tell from this distance.
HAVEN: Maybe it’s as you said — under-the-cover imperialism coming to the fore again.
COWEN: Just like Brodsky was keen about stomping on Ukraine.
HAVEN: Let’s keep in mind that Brodsky didn’t have a lot of military power or political power. It’s one thing to mouth off from a pre-existing imperialist streak for Russia. It’s another thing to attack and kill Ukrainians. Is there an active samizdat in Russia right now?
COWEN: People using VPNs or different ways of accessing the internet? There seem to be at least a few million people doing that.
HAVEN: Okay. I was thinking olden days with passing out leaflets and things, but you’re right. Of course, there’s VPN. Let’s hope it gets through.
COWEN: What do you think are the forms of propaganda that we Americans are falling for right now? You believe in mimesis. You like the thought of Girard, Miłosz. What is it? Russian citizens are screwing up the war in Ukraine. What’s our failing as American citizens?
HAVEN: You’re on Twitter, yes? [laughs]
COWEN: I’m on Twitter. But what do you think is the failing?
HAVEN: It’s mimesis. It’s this tendency for people to just join in to meet two momentums. It happens very fast in the US, I think, because so many of us are on social media. It’s our willingness to believe. I think our value system has become so seduced by commercial forces, it’s hard to find serious forms of thinking. Maybe not for you, but for people in much of America.
I might be killed for saying this, but when your models are people like Trump, what are you going to get in the way of depth? What are you going to get in the way of . . . I keep saying, “If you want those kinds of people to go away, we have to change the value system in America.”
One of the things that creates a value system is the humanities. In a place where the humanities and reading are suffering decline, then the other models are going to come up and spring and be forceful. We listen to crappy commercials. We listen to crappy memes. It’s going to be — without changing how we think by changing what we admire, what we are willing to imitate, the worst will rise to the fore. Does that make any sense?
COWEN: Yes, but I wonder often whether the truly dangerous mimesis is some form of people attacking the superficially dangerous form of mimesis. I’m not at all a Trump supporter, but often, I see more Girardian behavior amongst the critics of Trump than the Trumpians themselves. In some ways, they seem more free-thinking to me, and in ways I object to.
But if you want to see your real Twitter pile-on, praise Trump in some manner, even for something good he did, like Operation Warp Speed, one of the few things he did where I would say that was really wonderful. You get creamed much more for supporting Trump than attacking him. Where the dangerous mimesis really is embedded in the system, I’m never quite sure.
HAVEN: I understand your point, and I agree with it. I would just like to see us value more thinking. I’d like to see us value literature again. I’d like to see us value poetry again.
I think that this is a question about argument. People have tact, and they’ve talked about Nazis that used to listen to Haydn and stuff like that, but I do think that there’s a better chance of something good getting through if you’re reading Czesław Miłosz than if you are reading Twitter feeds. If we valued intelligent thinking, intelligent speaking in our public lives, I think we’d be less likely to get the kind of candidates that we’re getting.
COWEN: Now, you spent some number of years writing profiles of Stanford faculty. Without asking you to name names, but what’s your sense of the system overall? Is it producing and supporting those great thinkers?
HAVEN: When I was doing that for Stanford, I wanted to focus on those people that I thought were the last of their kinds. I thought of them as living legends. I wrote profiles of people like Robert Conquest. You know him?
COWEN: A great scholar, of course.
HAVEN: A great scholar who was the first to really uncover the extent of Stalinism and the murders and the crimes under Stalinism. He was also a poet. I wrote about Joseph Frank, the noted biographer of Dostoevsky, a five-volume series. That was my excuse for getting to know René Girard, as I profiled him. Carl Weber, the dramatist who was a student of Bertolt Brecht.
COWEN: Brecht, yes.
If we’re so mimetic, why aren’t we reproducing those people?
HAVEN: Because we don’t value them.
COWEN: They’re famous names. They’ve probably earned — some of them — a fair amount of income.
HAVEN: Oh, I don’t think you get rich by being a — [laughs]
COWEN: Not rich, but within academia, they’ve done relatively well. Joseph Frank — I still know who he is. I’m just some old economist.
HAVEN: Well, they all died within a few years of my getting to know them. That’s the problem of dealing with the old giants — the old giants tend to disappear. I asked the same questions you’re asking. Who replaces them? Who’s asking the big questions?
COWEN: Do you ever wish you were ensconced in academic life with tenure? Like really wish it. I know at times, you might think, “Oh, it would be nice.” But truly, in the button-pushing sense, wish it.
HAVEN: [laughs] I’m the first in my family to have any university degree at all. The idea of becoming a faculty member never crossed my mind until I found myself working within academia. Sure, I fantasize. Sure, I think it’d be wonderful to be able to have a salary and to be able to not live as a freelance writer.
On the other hand, I couldn’t have done the things that I did. There was an enormous pressure towards conformity within academia. Would I have been able to write the first biography of René Girard if I had been? I don’t think it’d be something that necessarily would’ve been encouraged within an academic atmosphere. This is something I could do because I was an outsider to some extent.
I’ve had a wonderful life doing this. I’ve been able to sit there and explore the greatest minds that I’ve known in my life, some of the greatest people. René was not just a wonderful and seminal thinker. He was a genuinely decent and generous human being, one of the best that I’ve known.
Czesław Miłosz was a hell of a lot of fun to interview. I was lucky because I happened to be the last person to get in to interview him before he went back to Poland. Those were opportunities that I had to take advantage of while they were still there. Had I waited —
COWEN: Our last question to close out the hour. What will you be doing next?
HAVEN: That’s a secret.
HAVEN: I’ll tell you offline. [laughs]
COWEN: Okay. In any case, we all wish you luck with that. Very good chatting with you, Cynthia L. Haven. And, everyone, she has numerous books, most recently a biography of René Girard called Evolution of Desire, and also a book on the life of Czesław Miłosz in California.
HAVEN: I should add the Penguin Modern Classics anthology for René Girard, which I’m editing, will be out next year.
COWEN: Cynthia, thank you very much.
HAVEN: Thank you.
Thumbnail photo credit: Margo Davis