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P.D. Soros Fellowship for New Americans

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Meet Paul Holdengräber

09.03.15
Nishant Batsha
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    New Trustee Paul Holdengräber in conversation with Jay Z and Cornel West, 2010.

    Photo Credit: Jori Klein/ The New York Public Library.

 

When I spoke with the Fellowship’s newest board member, Paul Holdengräber, it was clear that he has a rare pleasure of being situated upon an undimmed horizon of the world around him. As director of the New York Public Library’s Public Programming and founder of LIVE from the NYPL, Holdengräber uses conversation as a way of curating culture in its fullest sense. Not content with talking with a handful of writers or academics, he has organized and conducted interviews with figures as wide-ranging as Umberto Eco, Patti Smith, Werner Herzog, Jay-Z, President Clinton, and countless others. He came to the position after having founded the Institute for Arts and Culture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He had done so after leaving an academic life—he has a PhD in comparative literature from Princeton University and has held several academic positions.

Movement, both professional and geographical, has defined his life since before he was born. His parents escaped Vienna at the dawn of World War II and spent the war years in Haiti. From there, they moved to Mexico City, and onwards to Houston, where Holdengräber was born. They then moved back to Europe, eventually settling in Belgium. He completed his studies in Belgium and France before returning to the country of his birth.

Despite, or perhaps because of his biography, he maintains a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor, readily apparent whether he sits in the chair of the interviewer or the interviewee. He spoke with me via telephone from his office at the New York Public Library.

What was the context in which you became familiar with the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship?

Well, many, many years ago, before you were born—no I’m just teasing. But about 11 or 12 years ago, I can’t quite remember. Let’s say 11 years ago, Jeff Soros approached me, we were sitting on the board together at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in Los Angeles, and he said, “I want you to be on the selection committee”. He explained to me what the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship program was all about and he said, “would you be willing to do that?” And I said, “yes!” And I think, though you haven’t quite yet asked me this question, I think I’ve served on the selection committee every single year since.

The committees are often divided into arts, law, and science. What committee do you usually sit on?

In this particular case, I was just on the selection committee. I was just interviewing the last selection of candidates before they get a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship. I wasn’t sitting on any committee. I was what I suppose you could call an interviewer or judge.

Do you have any particular memories that are ready to hand for you about the interviews?

Well, I would say that one of the most extraordinary aspects for me of serving on this process every single year is just how humbled I feel and how it makes me feel each and every year. It makes me think, “what on earth have I done with my life?” It really is quite amazing and extraordinary to see these 22 or 23, sometimes up to 29-year-old young men and women who are so devoted, so dedicated, and so extraordinarily articulate in what they are pursuing that every year it reminds me of the academic world I left—it’s a bridge. I pontificate truly in the Latin sense of pontifex. I build a bridge to a former self that was part of the academic world.

Every year it’s a reminder in January or February how extraordinary this roster of applicants is and how difficult it must be for those people who select among a thousand candidates and brings it down to 77 for us to consider and then down to 30 Fellows who get this incredibly insightful and far-reaching Fellowship. It’s a rather more extraordinary Fellowship than most because it provides the people who get it with something that will last their lifetime and hopefully—it’s very much the idea of Paul and Daisy—they will return that incredible gift to the next generations.

I’ve probably answered many of your questions. After all, this is what I do for a living.

When I accepted this, it was a bit nerve wracking to interview the interviewer, so to speak. So I took the job with–

Trepidation

Yes, quite a bit of trepidation.

I hope the trepidation doesn’t leave you. I hope at the same time it encourages you to ask me any question.

Sure, I want to backtrack to your conversation with Jeff Soros. I know it’s 11 or 12 years ago, so it might be pushing it. But when he described the values of the fellowship when he was telling you about the selection committee, what resonated with you? Why did you say yes?

I think that the core mission of the Fellowship, the fact that this was granted to people on the basis not necessarily of need, though of course many of those who get the Fellowship are in need of the Fellowship in order to do the studies they wish to pursue, but really on the basis of excellence of a first-generation new American. The fact that someone—namely in this case Paul and Daisy—had the foresight to sponsor somebody’s studies in a new country that might seem extremely difficult to navigate. I take that Paul when he arrived, he arrived without that level of support so that in a way, he was projecting on the future generation something he himself had not had. As we know, he made sufficiently to be able to give back and give back in such a creative way. And of course, since a lot of things speak to us-- since they speak to our own experiences, Paul and Daisy’s experience spoke to my own.

I come from a very colorful family, from a family that has traveled great distances. My parents are Viennese, my grandparents were Romanian and Polish, and my parents left Vienna just in time. My father is still alive. I’m actually going to see him next week in Brussels. He’s turning 97 very soon. It makes my wife despair, just how much more of me there is. I’m genetically so well predisposed, she has another half century with me. My parents were married a little over 70 years, my mother died about a year and a half ago. They left Vienna and spent the war years in Haiti. There was a very small Jewish community in Haiti. They went from Haiti to Mexico City. I was born in Houston, Texas. And then we lived in a half-dozen countries in Europe.

And all of that voyage of exile and immigration and an appeal to integration and a return for me to my place of birth in some way, though I’m a complicated American, if anything—I’m told I have a slight accent. There’s a mixture of being born here, so I could be elected president. I’ve lived in so many countries in Europe—nothing that 10 or 15 years of therapy couldn’t help. We moved around a lot. I went to school in Belgium and then in France, and I did a graduate degree at Princeton in comparative literature, then I taught at various universities, then I created the department in Los Angeles at LACMA, then I came here. So there’s been a lot of moving around and I think the appeal of this Fellowship has something to do with my own story. And my own story isn’t obviously quite the story that Paul and Daisy Soros look for because I never came here with my parents—my parents never lived in the United States. But I can understand the struggle at first. Hearing and reading the stories—I’m sure you wrote one, because you’re a Fellow too, aren’t you?

Yes, I’m a 2013 Fellow.

So you probably wrote one of those. But I didn’t speak to you in an interview did I?

I don’t think so. I interviewed in New York in 2013.

Well, you could have, but you would never forget me, I can tell you that. I’m one of the only people, I think, on that committee who relentlessly asks people for what have you read. I ask them questions that have very little to do with their essays. I’m one of the few people, I think, that is squarely in the liberal arts. I can’t read the applications in the fields of mathematics, computer science, or law, and even less so in medicine, since there’s so many people that are future doctors. I can read their applications, but I certainly can’t understand the supporting material of the incredibly erudite essays that they submit in medical journals.

I do try to see when I’m confronted with these candidates what their scope is, partly because I came from a world—a Mitteleuropa world, a World of Yesterday as Stefen Zweig speaks about. It’s a world in which the more interests you had the more interesting you were. The more scope or horizon you had, the more importantly you could contribute to the world in an interesting way. So I always try—since the Soros Fellowship always tries to imagine where people will be in ten years from now, in twenty years from now—I try in some way to find what provides a tingle in the spine of the future honorees of this Fellowship.

Speaking of scope, world, and horizon, I want to get a sense of how your own voyage, your own movement, informs your work that you do at the New York Public Library.

There are so many things to say.

I learned early on from my father and mother, from my father in particular, but also from my mother, that I needed to fend for myself, that I needed to learn how to speak to everyone. The various languages that we learned—English, French, German, and Spanish, more or less all simultaneously—obviously contributed to that sense of not necessarily having a mother tongue but several father tongues. It also contributed to the fact that now I’m able to speak to—whether it’s Patti Smith or Zadie Smith, Ricky Jay or Jay-Z, the library guards or the board of trustees, everyone has a story to tell. I think that being exposed to so many different places and so many different stories, and coming from a family where you were never allowed either to be bored or to feel entitled—I think that contributed greatly.

I always ask my guests for a biography of themselves in seven words. I once was asked what my seven words were. When I was eleven years old my mother said to me, you know Paulie, we have two ears and one mouth. I think that contributed greatly to the way I think about the people I speak to, which is: listen, pay attention, don’t interrupt, leave a silence. I’m sure my mother said that to me at that age because I wasn’t listening. I’ve heard now that this expression actually exists and people use it: two ears and one mouth.

I often say to various people who ask me where the inspiration for my work came from and I say it emanated in some way from that place. Obviously this may be a completely constructed view of where I got to from having served in an academic capacity years ago. Certainly, feeling discombobulated, moving around, living in different countries and different continents, contributed to the work I’m able, if I’m able, to do at the library. I bring people from all walks of life. Yesterday we had Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men. The night before we did an event on Bitcoin, which I still don’t understand. Earlier on I interviewed David Blaine, the great magician. The same week I spoke to RuPaul. Before that it was Jay-Z and Mike Tyson, and President Clinton and John Hope Franklin, and Norman Mailer and Christopher Hitchens, and etcetera etcetera etcetera.

What you do when you listen, pay attention, and leave a silence with all these people is what you said earlier—you’re trying to find the story people have to tell, but what is the value of a story in the world we live in today when there is such an emphasis on quantitative data and metrics? Why listen? Why hear people’s stories?

We’re the story-telling animal. Without stories, we can’t make sense of reality. You can have as much data as you want. If you want really good data, just read the Manhattan phone book and you’ll get plenty of it. It won’t amount to anything unless you can weave a story.

I love the notion that in English, when you speak about something that has happened in the past, you talk about remembering. The word is so powerful, isn’t it? It’s putting back the members together. When we tell a story, we in fact weave together our life. The basic quality or what defines human beings, is that we tell stories and also possibly—I’ve heard it said, but I’m not sure that it’s true and I imagine that it might not be completely true—but we’re also a laughing animal. Humor is incredibly important.

When I elicit a story on stage, I also hope that something unexpected will happen. You know, there’s this English psychoanalyst I much admire, who I finally ended up doing a Paris Review interview with—the first psychoanalyst ever to be featured in the pages of the Paris Review in 60 years of their history, which is sort of mind-boggling that they never had had a psychoanalyst. Adam Phillips. He said that when we speak to each other, things fall out of our pockets. Now, I don’t know what your pockets look like, but mine are very messy.

A question well-asked can elicit a whole pattern of thought. Of course it isn’t only in the literary world that this matters. One of the most distinguishingly disappointing aspects of medicine today and doctors is that they don’t take the time to listen to what their patients have to say. They spend perhaps more time looking at the computer screen to see what the malady might be instead of asking the patient what he or she feels. I think that’s a huge shortcoming. It’s another way of answering the implication of your earlier question. I think it’s very important to pay attention and give time. I think studies have been made—since we’re talking about quantitative measurements—that doctors who spend upwards of two more minutes with their patients do better. It’s interesting, no?

It’s very interesting. I can believe it. One of my sisters is a doctor, and I wish sometimes she would spend two more minutes listening.

You think she needs to listen a little bit more?

I think she needs to listen a bit more. We all need to listen quite a bit more.

Here you’re speaking not so much as a brother—or also as a brother?

Hm

Because I think we always in our family, we always want from our direct family that they listen more to us. If only they did–

If only–

My father is nearly deaf. He’s 97 as I mentioned earlier. He always says that one of the reasons for his longevity is that he is deaf. He hasn’t had to hear what we all have to say, and especially what, might I say, what I have to say. He has found a blessing, and not even in disguise! You know, that’s another side of it.

I’ve interviewed a few doctors, one for the Soros Fellows when you have your gathering in October in New York. We had Siddhartha Mukherjee, he’s written on the humanistic aspects of medicine that have been depleted for all kinds of reasons, economic and others. And of course another person who speaks about it brilliantly is a man named Atul Gawande, who I’ve also interviewed.

If you’re interested, might I recommend you give your sister a gift of a poet who has written beautifully about this. She could both read his poetry and also his essays. I spoke with him a year ago.  He teaches at Harvard, as does Atul Gawande. His name is Rafael Campos. He speaks about this necessity we have of going back to looking at our patients.

I think my father’s close to only regret in the world is to have not finished, because of the war, not being able to finish his medical studies in Vienna. But he took from it—he did only two years because the war broke out and he went to Haiti—he took from it the ability to diagnose his children when we had illnesses. He knew what we had. He looked at us and he touched us. And if you think of it, when you say that something moves you, you say I’m touched.

The tactile inebriation we have removed ourselves from is dangerous. We spend too much time in front of our screens and not enough time with other people. And there we go full circle, don’t we, back to storytelling, back to you asking me, I saying. But I’m saying too much here, obviously you’re not talking enough, but I understand the situation.

Well, in interviews, like you said, it’s more about listening than about talking–

It is.

I have one concluding question–

Please, and I’ll answer with five concluding remarks, go ahead. I’m just teasing, but I’m glad you’re laughing.

You probably had a sense of what this interview might have been like in your own head, and had answers ready to give to questions I never asked. Is there anything you want to talk about with regards to the Fellowship? Is there anything you want the community of alumni to know about you or what you hope to bring to the Fellowship?

I think first of all the Fellowship is such an extraordinarily enlightened idea that has lasted now nearly two decades. It’s an extraordinary gift to invest in someone quite that young and permit many of the Fellows to follow their bliss, to pursue their course of study without too much worry of the financial burden it might place on them. I think that is extraordinary.

To my mind what one of the aspects I always seek when I interview someone for this Fellowship is, how capacious are their interests? I think it’s very important to be focused, but, as I said earlier, I think there is a true relationship between having interests and being interesting. I’m always reminded of one of the quotations—as you’ve probably been able to notice, I walk around with a lot of quotations in my head. I don’t know how to do otherwise. But, Napoleon said of one of his generals, “he knew everything and nothing else.” I think it’s really important to develop our interests and to expose yourself to many, many different influences and to step outside your areas of specialization.

I don’t know what you do—are you in South Asian studies, is that right?

Yes, that’s right. I’m doing a PhD in history—a kind of a fiction writer who happens to be doing a PhD in history.

But what are you studying in history? I know I’m not supposed to ask you questions, but it happens nearly each and every time.

I study indenture amongst Indians from 1838 to 1920. To put context around that, after slavery ended, the British Empire still wanted people to work their sugar plantations for very cheap. So these Indians from India were sent to places like Trinidad, British Guyana, South Africa, and Fiji to work plantations on five-year contracts that they couldn’t break. I look at the population in Trinidad and Fiji.

How interesting. As I often say, I approach my subjects with the euphoria of ignorance, which is a sentence that comes to me directly from what I think to be one of the greatest living historians today. I wonder if you’ve ever heard of him or read him. If not, I can only tell you that pleasure awaits you, in my view at least. It’s a historian named Carlo Ginzburg.

Oh, of course, Carlo Ginzburg.

And Carlo is a dear friend, someone I’ve interviewed on a couple of occasions. Once he said he approaches his subjects with a euphoria of ignorance. It begins that way. And then of course it ends up with a thousand books for an eight-page essay. It always seemed to me so interesting.

Let me think a little bit more about your question, what might have I wished to answer that you didn’t ask me.

I think it’s important that knowledge of this Fellowship reaches communities that may not know about its existence and the possibilities it offers. That I think is very important and something that I think the board is eager to see happen, and I’m just a very recent acquisition of the board. Where were you when you got the Fellowship, at what school?

Columbia.

You were at Columbia. Columbia is fairly well represented. And Harvard is incredibly well represented. And Stanford is incredibly well represented. You know this. But there are schools where I think there is not knowledge that this Fellowship is as great as a Rhodes Fellowship. It’s as great as some of the other more known Fellowships, but it hasn’t yet reached that level of notoriety that other Fellowships have. That’s something I think I’m eager to see happen.

One of my goals is to support Craig Harwood, our new director, in his efforts, as well as the people trying to get greater press recognition for the incredible work the Fellows do.

This year, the surgeon general is a former PD Soros Fellow. Did you know that?

Yes.

These are reasons for rejoicing!

Interview by Nishant Batsha (2013 Fellow), PhD candidate at Columbia University.