THE NEW YORKER August 30th 2010 SIMON PARKE SPEAKS WITH THE DEAD Book trailers-the low-budget previews modelled on those used by the film industry-have quickly grown tiresome. They're never very interesting, often overly impressionistic and pretentious, and rarely rise above the level of those silly historical reA"nactments you see on cable. They might get better over time, or die out; either is preferable to their current state. An exception, though, are the finely wrought previews for Simon Parke's Conversations with - A" biographies, published by White Crow Books. In this series, Parke bypasses the more quotidian aspects of historical biography by conducting interviewsA" with his subjects-Jesus, Meister Eckhart, Arthur Conan Doyle, Vincent van Gogh, and Leo Tolstoy-with the answers coming from their published writings. The trailers are stagey-with Parke and the actor playing his subject shown in the recording studio while a musical score soars behind their voices-yet the interviews nonetheless feel natural. Much of this feeling owes to the straightforward and unadorned nature of the exchanges, as when Parke asks Vincent van Gogh why he drinks, and the master answers, If the storm gets too loud, I take a glass too much to stun myself.A" The shot cuts to At Eternity's Gate,A" van Gogh's portrait of a man with his head in his hands, but you can imagine the whorls and swirls of the artist's favored darkened skies as well. Here, Parke conducts his interview with Tolstoy in the assured and chatty style of a British talk-show host: http://whitecrowbooks.com/conversations/page/conversations_with_leo_tolstoy This gambit may be viewed as simply a clever gimmick, but there is something compelling about Parke's style, which in a way that is always promised but rarely delivered, does, in fact, bring his subjects to life. Parke's role as the good-natured interlocutor seems to be an essential component of the project, a disposition on display in this cheeky description of his imagined time spent with Tolstoy: He also proved an appalling husband, hated Shakespeare, never came to terms with his sexual appetite and yet had a profound influence on the non-violence of the young Gandhi. My time at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's country estate, was never dull; and sometimes, surprisingly comic. Soon after I left the great man, at the age of 82, he ran away from home. by Ian Crouch Loose leafs from the New Yorker Books Department.
About the Author
Meister Eckhart - theologian, psychologist, philosopher, mystic - has become more and more appreciated the longer he has been dead. In recent times, thinkers as varied as Eric Fromm, Dag Hammerskold, Matthew Fox and Eckhart Tolle have all acknowledged his inspiration in their teaching. Born in Thuringia in 1260, Eckhart joined the Dominican Order at the age of fifteen, and continued to serve this order in various ways until he died in 1328 - in church custody and facing charges of heresy. He taught theology at the University of Paris, acquiring here his title 'Meister', which means 'Master'. But most of his life was spent away from academia, leading monastic communities in Erfurt, Strasburg and Cologne. In a century of flowering female spirituality, he was a supportive figure to many Dominican nuns and women in the burgeoning lay communities, so hated by the authorities. Meanwhile, the church leadership was in crisis. The Papacy, exiled in Avignon, was involved in unedifying power struggles; while the Franciscan-led Inquisition was turning against its rival Dominican Order. In a time of insecurity, Eckhart's daring talk of inner spiritual experience was considered dangerous. It was his sermons that gave full scope to his adventurous thought. He pictured God as an abundant spring overflowing into the world; while he named detachment above love as the greatest virtue. In this, he echoed Buddhist teaching, as he also did in his emphasis on nothingness and the emptying of self. He believed God too precious to name, and even said in one sermon that 'we must take leave of God.' The church condemned him after he died, attacking his memory with either slander or a veil of silence. But through followers like Henry Suso and John Tauler his thought lived on; while nuns of the South Rhineland committed his sermons to memory and wrote them down. The Pope declared Eckhart 'evil-sounding, rash and suspect of heresy,' but many have begged to differ.