Aaron Swartz

“I do not know you in person. I am just a year older than you. We have something common which unities—THE INTENET. We belong here. This is our world where boundaries are torn apart. I cried. Literally cried reading about you.” Shri Vignesh

I had never heard of Aaron Swartz until the day after he committed suicide. And yet like so many others, close friends to distant unknowns, I was deeply affected by his death early last year. Ever since, I’ve been trying to understand why.

I know the sudden death of any young person saddens me, particularly a person as talented and articulate as Aaron. Swartz was 26 years old and well-known among computer programmers as a software genius. At the age of 14, he participated in the development of RSS software. The following year he wrote the code for Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons, a Web site advocating alternatives to current copyright laws. At nineteen he started Reddit, a user generated news Web site.

Aaron cared deeply about the injustice of current copyright laws and in 2008 he and a few others wrote the “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto.”

Two years ago he downloaded over a million articles from the JSTOR, the academic database of professional journals. A single copy of a JSTOR article usually costs around $30-$35. Not long after, he was indicted on several felony counts; if convicted he stood to spend a fair number of years in prison.

Most of what I learned about Aaron stems from Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker profile (3/11/13), Requiem for a Dream. She describes him reverently, says he was sometimes depressed, suffered from ulcerated colitis, dropped out of Stanford and later MIT and, in general, couldn’t finish projects. She wrote:

“He didn’t like people who did things that were just silly, that seem to have no purpose….he never internalized any notions about what he was supposed to be doing or not doing as a young person.”

Swartz became a political activist of several causes, but abandoned each one each one out of frustration with their limited, effectiveness. He tried living in San Francisco to work at Wired’s office, hated it because it was too loud, and the people were “shallow.”

Everyone was shocked when they learned of his death. The eulogies poured in all over the Web. His friend put up a Web site, Remember Aaron Swartz that included a video stream of his memorial service. Aaron represented many things to many people. I am among them and feel quite personally the loss of someone exceedingly important.

Here is how his friend, distinguished attorney and colleague Lawrence Lessig felt:

“I don’t want to be here. It’s like he jumps off a bridge and he pulls me over with him. I can’t go back. I don’t know what I can do. Nothing ever has come close to this, in its effect. I am never lost. I’ve never been so lost. I don’t know what to do.”


Solo Faces

Last year wasn’t a terrific year of reading for me. Like everything else, some years are better than others. Nevertheless, James Wood, the book critic for the New Yorker said he had a good one, starting off with the works of Elena Ferrante, an author I had read and liked, but that was several years ago. He mentioned Jamie Quatro’s book of short stories, unfamiliar to me.

And then Wood waxes eloquently about Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. His review in the magazine led me to buy the book. I’ve tried reading it three times now, getting a little further but never staying with it very long. Yes, she writes a brilliant sentence once in a while, but that by itself doesn’t make a great novel. Besides the story is about people who really don’t speak my language. However, I will not give up so easily

I made a list of the 30 or so books I managed to finish last year and really only one stood out, James Salter’s Solo Faces. Although it was written in 1979, I read it for the first time last year, 34 years after it was published.

A great mountain is serious. It demands everything of a climber, absolutely all. It must be difficult and also beautiful, it must lie in the memory like the image of an unforgettable year. It must be unsoiled…The mountain magnifies. The smallest event is irreversible…

His name is Vernon Rand, he’s a mountain climber, obsessed by it, the only thing that matters in his life. After a series of aimless jobs in California, he leaves one day for Chamonix in the French Alps, where he begins climbing the perilous mountains there.

Salter’s description of his climbs are exciting, tense, you can’t put the book down. Rand’s climbs are dangerous, risky, each one more dangerous and riskier than the one before. Sometimes he climbs alone, sometimes with friend, sometimes with anyone who will go up with him.

The Dru, Pointe Lachene, the North Face of the Triolet, the names of the steep, icy, mountains he climbed. There was an accident on the Dru, the West Face, far up, the climbers were still alive. No one could reach them, the helicopters were useless, one rescuer was killed. Rand takes a crack at it. He reaches them, brings them down safely.

“When he woke he was famous. His face poured off the presses of France. It was repeated on every kiosk, in the pages of magazines, his interview read on the buses by working girls on their way home. Suddenly, in to small rooms and houses the ordinary streets, he brought a glimpse of something unspoiled. For two hundred years France had held the idea of the noble savage, simple, true. Unexpectedly he had appeared. His image cleansed the air like rain. He was the envoy of a breed one had forgotten, generous, unafraid, with a saintly smile and the vascular system of a marathon runner.”

He travels around, meets and discards one woman after another, thinks they are all the same anyway. Bored, restless, he decides to climb the Walker—alone. It did not take him long before he realizes he wasn’t going to be able to do it. “The will was draining from him. He had the resignation of one condemned. He knew the outcome, he no longer cared, he merely wanted it to end.”

He says that once you’ve lost your courage, nothing else matters. He knows his days of mountain climbing are over, his world had come apart. “It’s finished. Once it’s over, it’s over.”


Mavis Gallant

“Literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death.”

For years I was an avid reader of Mavis Gallant’s "Letters from Paris" that appeared in the New Yorker. They were my introduction to Europe and to the city that for a while became my first and final destination each time I went there. So too were the stories she wrote for the New Yorker—116 in all.

Earlier this week Gallant died at the age of 91 in her apartment in Paris. She had lived there most of her life, after leaving Canada as a relatively young woman. She had no children, was not married and none of her work that I have read betrays any longing for the country or city (Montreal) of her birth.

Throughout the years Gallant lived in Europe she kept a daily journal. They are her accounts of the many changes in Europeans and their cultures after World War 2. The war ended in 1945. My first trip to Europe was nine years later. Rubble was still on the streets of London and almost every city in Germany I visited. People had scarcely any money and in Madrid, where Gallant lived for a while, Franco was still in power.

A friend of Gallant’s, Frances Kierman, is currently editing the vast, mostly handwritten entries for what will be the first of several volumes of her daily journal entries. During her last years, when she had been quite ill, she continued to work with Kierman in recalling the details of some of the incidents she wrote about.

Jhumpa Lahiri recently met Gallant to conduct an interview for Granta magazine. After their meeting, Lahiri wrote, "I had never met a writer who has inspired me so greatly, and towards whom I felt such enormous debt." Lahiri has recently moved with her family from the United States to Rome. Born in London to immigrant parents from West Bengali, raised in Rhode Island, she knows well the effects of such a background. In remembering Gallant, she commented: “the great act of bravery to leave Canada to live in Paris alone and to survive solely by means of her writing is such an extraordinary thing to have done. She was completely on her own.”

In her Paris Review interview Gallant said: “I believed that if I was to call myself a writer, I should live on writing. If I could not live on it, even simply, I should destroy every scrap, every trace, every notebook and live some other way.”

In her remembrance of Gallant, Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor of the New Yorker, also cited a passage from this interview: “Writing is like a love affair: the beginning is the best part.” Well maybe, but I can think of many exceptions.

Several excerpts from her journals were recently published in the New Yorker. They are drawn from four months 1952 when she was struggling to survive as a writer in Madrid.

I live on bread wine, and mortadella. Europe for me is governed by the price of mortadella.

When I think of my life before I came here, it is like someone else’s life, something I am being told. I can’t write anyone. At the moment I haven’t the postage, but even if I had, what to say?

Sunshine and little to eat (potatoes and potatoes). To the Prado, that small container overflowing with good things. Back to Goya. I go back and back and still he is haunting and terrifying.

No one is as real to me as people in the novel. It grows like a living thing. When I realize they do not exist except in my mind I have a feeling of sadness, looking around for them, as if the half-empty café were a place I had once come to with friends who had all moved away.

Today from the balcony I see a blind man tapping his way long the buildings across the street. He reaches a street crossing; everyone watches, silent, and lets him walk full on into the side of a building. When he has recovered (for a moment he was like a butterfly beating its wings in a box) the spectators just walk away.

Today I have no money and no food.

Note: Portions of this expanded post appeared earlier on Marks in the Margin.



Death teaches us that everything can stop in a moment. When everything ends, all that remains is love.
Cardinal Bertone

When I went to see "Amour" I knew what it was about. I had read the reviews, knew that some claimed it was not a film I should see or that I would like, let alone stay to the end. But I had to see it and when it was finally over, I’m glad I did.

It is a film everyone should see, grim as it is, for it is likely you will experience the events it depicts. We don’t talk about them, we do everything to avoid that, but when it arrives it will hit you savagely. And there isn’t anything you can do about it now or then.

Over sixty years ago the two main characters in the film, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant were young film stars.

As the film opens, firemen break into a Parisian apartment, begin searching for the source of the foul smell, and discover the body of an old woman in bed. We learn that the woman is Anne (Riva) who along with her husband Georges (Trintignant), now both in their 80s, are musicians.

We switch to a concert hall where eventually we discover them sitting together among the vast audience. They are listening to a performance by a pianist that Anne once taught and to whom he later tells that whatever success he has achieved is due to her.

Like them, their apartment, once quite elegant, appears to be wearing out, yet filled with books, photos, a grand piano, and mementos of their long life together. They are having breakfast, as they do each day. Suddenly Anne begins to stare into the distance, fixed on something. Georges tries to talk to her, she doesn’t reply, he shakes her, asks her what’s the matter, without a reply.

We learn that Anne has had a minor stroke, apparently the result of a blocked carotid artery. An operation must be performed. It is unsuccessful and her condition worsens. She returns to the apartment in a wheel chair, unable to get about on her own, although she is still quite coherent.

She grows weaker, and needs to be helped with the basics, shown in all their reality—eating, cleaning, excreting. George vows to care for her. But eventually it becomes too much. He hires an aid, then another, none stay for long and once again George becomes her only caretaker.

The tenderness George conveys to Anne throughout their long and difficult ordeal is an act of the purest love. It is the other half of this grim movie.

In The Coming of Age Simone de Beauvoir writes, “When we look at the image of our own future provided by the old we do not believe it: an absurd inner voice whispers that that will never happen to us—when that happens it will no longer be ourselves that it happens to.” Beauvoir wrote that sentence over 40 years ago. How prescient she was.

Our future is longer than it was then. The so-called marvels of medicine will keep you alive almost forever now. But as she said, you will no longer be the you that you are now. "Amour" makes it clear what you will become and the way it will affect those who love you.

Almost everyone who sees "Amour" has two reactions. It is difficult to watch and once you’ve seen it, you can’t get it out of your mind. The film delivers an important message, a personal message to everyone in this increasingly medicalized world. The experience you live through in watching the film will in time occur to you. The only unknown is when.

It is for that reason that it is such an important film to see, in spite of its excruciating depiction of old age. You have to ask yourself if you want to do anything about it, rather than let it unexpectedly descend on you. When it does, it will be too late. Who can predict when it is time to act?