Robert Grudin's Home Page, updated 4/22/13
Announcing the Completion of a Seven-Part Series on Freedom:
The Habits of Light: Freedom and License in Liberal Society
Light has always symbolized knowledge and freedom. It was not surprising that when
French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi designed the Statue of Liberty, he portrayed his subject
holding a torch and called her “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Our modern idea of liberty was
born in a period that is itself known as the Enlightenment, and it was the product of minds that
saw awareness, knowledge, and creativity as the bases for free political institutions – institutions
that would in turn support the continuing life of ideas. As Kant put it, in an essay called “What is
“Dare to know! (Sapere aude). " Have the courage to use your own
understanding, is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”
Born of light and producing more, freedom is seen as the special treasure of a just and progressive
society. Accordingly, the interdependence of light and liberty suggests that students of politics
and culture should look at freedom on two distinct but interrelated levels: the macro level of free
nations, and the micro level of liberated thinking by individuals. Only such a dual study can show
how, if rightly administered, political liberty can be an ideal platform for free thought; but how, if
exploited for private gain, this same liberty can suppress enterprise and imagination. On such
latter occasions, the torch of freedom can singe us destructively, or exert its power to blind.
Even light’s more beneficial aspects can bewilder and confuse. Full sunlight can reveal to
us the visible universe with its thrilling continuities, or, if we take it for granted, paint the same
scene as a meaningless miscellany. Sometimes, with startling frankness, light can reveal ordinary
images – the glint off a window or the flash of headlights – thirty miles away. At other moments,
however, the passage of light is so subtle that we can notice a band of mild brightness, twice or
thrice reflected, on the floor without any idea of where it originated. So it is with our thought
and our freedom. Great acts of freedom can emerge from prison cells or disabled bodies, while
hordes of scribes, gifted with health, wealth and unencumbered scope, labor to create stylized
garbage. Scholars point to Plato’s worst scientific error as his theory that our eyes generate light.
But this theory, though flawed physiologically, was spot-on philosophically; for many of us can
traverse the Grand Canyon without considering anything except the next step in the trail. To
achieve true vision, we must not only use light but also project it onto the world around us.
The seven studies that follow are an exploration of these issues in distinct but
interconnected areas. I had not planned, at the outset, to produce a systematical theoretical
development. Had I done so, I probably would never have finished the job. In my opinion, which
I admit to be fanciful, system is ultimately self-damning, while theory is the intellectual equivalent
of ghost-hunting. Instead, each of these books took shape as a thing in itself, with the proviso
that, like everything else important to me, it would communicate with the others. The first in the
series, originally called “Freedom and Time” but later renamed Time and the Art of Living, is an
effort to achieve, through a large variety of meditations, a sense of liberty within my own
temporal context. The second, The Grace of Great Things, traces the creative act from its
inception to its finished form, with a central chapter on freedom. Of the two books that follow,
On Dialogue (subtitled “an essay in free thought”), champions dialogic thinking as a means of
liberating the mind from narrow perspectives, while American Vulgar decries the intellectual
paralysis of marketplace America and urged “the culture of consciousness” as an antidote.
Design and Truth, the fifth book in the series, considers the process of design as a classic act of
freedom; while the sixth, Thinking and Doing, considers the essential conversion of free thought
into productive action. The final volume, A Preface to Freedom, addresses the major issues
attendant on free institutions, with special emphasis on the conflicts that freedom, however ably
conceived, traditionally brings upon itself.
During the many years (1978-2014) taken to produce this series, I also published two
novels, each of which has noticeable thematic connections with one of the nonfiction works.
Book: a Novel (1992), reflects the concerns of The Grace of Great Things (1990); The Most
Amazing Thing (2001) is an allegorical expression of the social concerns that would be dwelt upon
in American Vulgar (2006). Though these fictional pieces may be seen as glosses on the
development of a philosophy of freedom, they are not included in the sequence of The Habits of
Both Thinking and Doing and A Preface to Freedom are available for consideration by publishers.
Advance praise for Boccacccio's Decameron and the Ciceronian Renaissance
by Michaela Paasche Grudin and Robert Grudin
"Based on an intimate familiarity with Cicero's works, no less than with Boccaccio's own, Grudin and Grudin's thorough-going study of the Decameron's literary debt to Cicero is a major contribution to our understanding of Boccaccio's masterpiece in particular and of his literary methodology in general. Indeed, the Grudins have provided the most thoughtful consideration of this important subject since Attilio Hortis. Without doubt, this volume is a valuable addition to the library of anyone interested in Boccaccio and early Renaissance humanism."--Michael Papio, associate professor of Italian, University of Massachusetts Amherst and President of the American Boccaccio Association
“In crisp, energetic, lucid, and humane prose, the Grudins tell a marvelous literary story of Petrarch’s and Boccaccio’s engagement with Cicero—the man and the texts. They then forge a comprehensive reading of the Decameron in light of previously neglected Ciceronian texts and fragments that laid the foundation for Boccaccio’s exploration of nature, governance, ethics, and virtue. Full of generous primary quotations, driven in its focus, and bold in its historical assertions, the Grudins' book contributes to our understanding not only of Humanism and Realism, but also of civics, culture, and Democracy itself.”--Michael Calabrese, professor of English, California State University, Los Angeles
Shakespeare's Back Room, my new ms.
Here's the brief description (published on my blog at Redroom.com) of my recently submitted ms. on Shakespeare. Notice that I'm not shy in describing the selling points of my own work. Agents like descriptions of this sort, because they save time and effort:
Shakespeare's Back Room: Tricks and Transgressions of Genius by Robert Grudin Shakespeare's Back Room is a major breakthrough in the understanding of Shakespearean drama and a memorable celebration of the living theater. Focusing on aspects of Shakespeare's style that have been seen by most readers as strokes of pure genius, Grudin reveals the motives and methods that make them so compelling. Grudin's discoveries, including his brilliant treatment of "audience abuse," combine magisterial learning with a style so clear and graceful that it may seem as though you, he and Shakespeare are conversing in real time. Viewing the Shakespearean text from a uniquely intimate perspective, he offers new interpretations of Hamlet, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2), Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, revealing the subtle engines of enchantment that power each play. A long-recognized Shakespeare scholar, Grudin concludes by revealing how the Bard himself considered his own unique blend of high and low styles -- of psychological depth and cunning trickery. Although Grudin's insights will be of interest to academic readers, he has presented them in a lucid, almost-spoken style that will appeal to fans of Shakespeare everywhere, and that will easily lend itself to translation into other languages. Here, for example, is the opening to Ch. 3:
To embark on a project of narrative, be it a play or a short story or a novel, is to enter a kind of mental city. This metropolis is vivid and universal, both in its population and its geography. Its population includes the full range of human ages and sexes and ethnic types that animate our actual world: the family members, the tradesmen, the professionals, students and teachers, labor and management, and the rest of what one might expect to meet on a walk through a city or town. But this population can also include, as though as a sort of Central Casting, the classic array of character types, the usual suspects of fiction: the growing child, the care giver, the young lover, the soldier, the malcontent, the fat cat, the psychopath, the outsider – in short the full complement of evolved individuals who make life unstable and interesting. The geography of this mental city is equally intimate and familiar. Its streets and squares, its bridges and byways, comprise the panorama of human experience: love, lust, longing, greed, fear, hatred, compassion and the full range of emotion, crisscrossed by parallels of memory, consciousness, oblivion and surprise. We pause by a window to hear a lover proclaiming his devotion to a young lady. At the next corner a messenger announces his news to a group of startled listeners. Across the way a tradesman extols the worth of his product, while two young wags poke fun at him in whispers. A portly mother sails by, lecturing her less-than-attentive daughter about the do’s and don’ts of life, while behind them the grandfather follows slowly, mumbling about the evils of the times. Familiar feelings, familiar forms of expression. The Greeks called them topoi, the Romans loci. Both words mean “place”, and indeed they are places in the republic of letters and the communal mind. Entry to this city is not without its fee. For writers, the price of admission can be years of study and practice. And once you’re actually downtown, the burden of proof is on you. The rank and file of writers are like shoppers, bagging an item here and there and carting them home to botch together into tales or plays. William Shakespeare, however, was more like a marauder – indeed, an Alexander the Great. He took the City of Letters by storm, laid it waste and rebuilt it again. Robert Grudin's many publications on the Renaissance include Mighty Opposites: Shakespeare and Renaissance Contrariety, Boccaccio's Decameron and the Ciceronian Renaissance and the Encyclopedia Britannica article, "Humanism." Himself a kind of Renaissance man, he has also published a five-book sequence on liberty and two novels, including the much-acclaimed Book and the nationally-honored The Most Amazing Thing. His hundreds of publications and public appearances have made him a staple of the Internet literati, while the breadth of his interests has established him as a visible presence in the current literature of several academic fields.
Grudin's speaking venues include Harvard University, the University of Massachusetts, the Parsons School, and UC, Berkeley; he has also spoken at the Herman Miller Corp., Microsoft Research, Google Headquarters (NY), the Lilly Foundation and the Fetzer Foundation. He has been the recipient of major honors, including a Fulbright scholarship, a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, and two grants from the NEH. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon.
Michaela Paasche Grudin and I have co-authored Boccaccio's Decameron and the Ciceronian Renaissance, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan. Our book has something to say, not only about Boccaccio's masterpiece, but also about the origins of modern thought. The book is due to appear on June 19, 2012,, with launch parties planned in New York, DC, and Berkeley. Please contact me at email@example.com for details.
I have revised my Britannica article, "Humanism," to reflect the dramatic influence of the Florentine, Brunetto Latini (1320-94), on the rise of Renaissance Humanism.
My latest book, Design and Truth, came out in paperback in April, 2011.
My current book-length project, Shakespeare's Back Room: the Tricks and Transgressions of Genius, is complete and will be represented by Writers House, New York.
For Robert Grudin's latest internet offerings, go to
DESIGN AND TRUTH, by Robert Grudin. Yale UniversityPress, 2010
Featured Title, Barnes & Noble
Global Spotlight, International Herald Tribune
At a time when ethics and integrity are increasingly important in design, Mr. Grudin's perspective is particularly interesting because he writes, not as a designer, but as a philosopher whose chief concerns are liberty and determinism. Seeing design in the widest possible sense, he regards it as being as important to literature, politics, music and philosophy as to hatching yet another iPhone app or chair. To him, design is — or should be — joyous, inclusive and empowering, "an erotic pragmatism" which is "fundamental to the survival of our humanity."
Alice Rawsthorn, New York Times/International Herald Tribune, April 25, 2010
A must-read book.
It is these qualities that make Design And Truth a very good book; ... It proves that the Golden Age of science and philosophic writing may not have yet crested. Get it, read it, and indulge the times.
-Dan Schneider, Blogcritics.org
Robert Grudin, a former English professor at our own University of Oregon, uses this method in his entertaining new book, Design and Truth. He takes us on a roundabout journey in the form of a loosely choreographed cultural dance, seeking out the hidden influences of “design” in our lives, from the mechanical and specific (a TV remote) to the political and general (social liberty in human society). Between these extremes he pirouettes around the history and impact of bad design (St. Peter’s, the Edsel), tragic design (the World Trade Center towers), functional design (the Norton Dominator), forward-thinking design (Mannerist art, the Palazzo Te) and reveals the power and potential of corporate design (good and bad). Along the road, we visit Hitler, Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, and William Blake among others, each one employing design to either dig their way into dark holes of malevolence or construct lasting edifices of joy and well-being. It’s anything but a boring journey, and everyone will emerge at the end with more insight than when they went in, which is about all one can ask of any experience.
--J M Cava, Arcade
Photo Suki Hill
Photo of Howard Rower on Grudin's Norton by Author
DESIGN AND TRUTH: EXCERPTS:
"Because our designs convey solid meaning, and because they interface between us and the world, they must tell us the truth about the world and tell the world the truth about us. A well-designed hoe speaks the truth to the ground that it breaks and, conversely, tells us the truth about the ground. Something similar can be said about any product of invention, be it mechanical, like a car, or intellectual, like a speech. Good design enables honest and effective engagement with the world. Conversely, poor design is almost always symptomatic of a fraudulent and exploitative strategy of production. Accordingly design, our greatest friend, can also be our worst enemy. Science and technology, those potent and proud designs, have hugely expanded the human presence on earth but have, in the bargain, grossly distorted the balance of nature."
Perhaps this is the best lesson we can learn from Deux Chevaux, Norton and Edsel. Good design tells the truth. What it packages and advertises is what it unequivocally delivers. My Norton motorcycle told the truth with its solid feel and graceful lines; it delivered the truth when it saved me from serious injury that summer night in Paris. The Norton proved without question that its design was not just about pleasure and power and beauty but also about the well-being of its driver... From Galsworthy and Chandler we may infer that good design speaks to us, not just of particulars, but of more general truths as well. Design arbitrates, almost completely, our interface with life. Our clothes, tools, dwellings and conveyances are products of design; our language itself is a conspicuously designed technology. Good design ensures that this interface is effective and personal and complete. In John Heskett’s words, a well-designed artifact is an extension of our senses. Good design allows for an honest dialogue with the world at large. Good design tells us that, though the world at large may be challenging and dangerous, there are solid means of engaging it. And beyond this, good design speaks to us of the quality and joy of the engagement. -Chapter 2
In so doing [Minoru]Yamasaki ran into the ground a form of architectural rhetoric that had long saved the skyscraper from ignominy. The skyscraper, tall, slim and handsome, had taken on a quasi-heroic role as an attempt to negotiate between us as individuals and an ever-increasing impingement of machine, masonry and masses of people. The skyscraper invited us to rise above the otherwise crushing power of mass interactions. In this way the skyscraper became part of a rhetoric of socialization. There is no question that Cass Gilbert's neo-gothic Woolworth Building (1913), or Raymond Hood’s art deco RCA Building (1933), or the van der Rohe-Johnson high-modern Seagram Building (1958) is artful enough to soften the impact of the corporate world on the individual. The problem lies only in the extent to which, as onlookers and participants, we can suspend our disbelief. Yamasaki simply built too big. He exceeded the endurable ratio of mass to character. Without meaning to, he drew the rhetorical curtain away, laying bare, behind the blandishments of masonry, the operations of faceless power. America can accept power as a fact of life but refuses, from time to time, to defer to power automatically. This distaste for power would seem to explain, if only in part, the widespread criticism of the Twin Towers as an architectural statement. -Chapter 4
Dust-choked computers. Top-heavy fridges. Quirky interiors. These instances all suggest that when a producer loses sight of rational use or insists on a narrow priority, bad things happen to design. Call this Edsel’s Law. A more positive way of stating this law is that good design imposes its own priorities, and that these are primary and unalienable. What are these priorities? A product of good design
Is in accord with nature and human nature
Is in harmony with its immediate environment
Conveys a sense of beauty
Gives pleasure to use
Is not unreasonably expensive
Offers no unnecessary difficulties or dangers
Allows its user to perform optimally in engaging reality
Can be delivered, installed and repaired conveniently
No other priorities should be considered until all of these have been met, and priorities that threaten these are probably bad priorities in the first place. -Chapter 5
The comparison of Churchill to Hitler [as painters] is highly suggestive. Hitler’s landscape is a testament to control: the control of architecture over nature, of walls over human beings, of vertical over horizontal and (perhaps) of the teachers who had taught him not to deviate from linear accuracy. Churchill’s landscape is a nuanced expression of joy, the statement of one who, at ease with society and at home with art, can indulge himself in a testament to nature. Could it be completely coincidental that such an artist should also be the most prominent defender of liberty in the 20th century?
There is also a sharp contrast in attitudes towards power. Hitler’s ‘landscape’ is a testament to men’s power over nature and over each other. Churchill’s landscape bespeaks the lively power of nature and the potential harmony between natural and man-made forms.As with artistic form, so with artistic temperament. For Churchill, painting was a delightful escape from work. But Hitler’s art could not escape the prison that was Hitler’s mind. -Chapter 6
I had a dog who once, for one brief shining moment, became a member of the design community. A Samoyed pup named Max, bred near the main stem of the Willamette River, southeast of Eugene, Oregon. A frolicsome puff of white fur who at the time was all of four months old. Weekday mornings during that fall of 1973, my wife and I would trek off to work, locking Max in the back yard that we had just fenced with cedar. Because we knew that he’d get bored, we left him a few old toys to play with – colorful little items including a rubber duck and three painted building blocks. One sunny afternoon we returned home to an amazing sight. Max had scraped out a yard-long opening under the cedar fence, pushed his toys out through the opening until the toys were visible from the sidewalk, and arranged them, equidistant from each other, like items in a shop window, in an apparent effort to attract playmates. The scene was topped off by Max’s snout, thrust out as far as possible through the opening into the midst of his own toy arrangement, its black tip glistening with excitement.
I ’ve seen dogs who were trained to perform much more impressive tricks, but nobody had trained Max to take up advertising and display. His genius came and went with puppydom. In later years he was content to be a sedate fatherly companion, or soft comfy pillow, for little boys.
It is quite possible that childhood plays a similar role in human psychology: that as children we feel less uncomfortable about reinventing our private worlds. -Chapter 7
In 1524 the reading public of Rome was variously outraged, stunned and delighted by the worst scandal in the then-brief history of printed art. Poet Pietro Aretino and artist Giulio Romano had teamed up with engraver Marc Antonio Raimondi to produce I Modi (“The Ways [of doing it]), a graphic catalogue of sexual positions, with each image accompanied by a naughty sonnet. I Modi became simultaneously a bestseller and a rare book, for the Vatican was destroying every copy it could get its hands on. Raimondi was duly clapped in jail. Aretino tried to shift the blame onto Giulio, who developed a sudden yen for points remote. Before year’s end he had moved to Mantua and entered the service of Marquis (later Duke) Federico Gonzaga, that city’s lord. Federico was not appalled by Giulio’s scandal. In fact, the Marquis would exploit precisely those liberties of genius that had gotten Giulio into hot water in the first place. -Chapter 9
accompanying illustrations depict some of the topics and people discussed in the current project. They include Donato Bramante's plan for St. Peter's Cathedral (above), the Palazzo Te near Mantua, the Sala dei Giganti in the Palazzo Te, Berruguete's portrait of Federico and
Robert Grudin has published in various fields--philosophy (Time and the Art of Living, The Grace of Great Things, On Dialogue), fiction (Book, a novel), and scholarship (Mighty Opposites). His second novel, The Most Amazing Thing, was a finalist for the Franklin Award in fiction. He travels widely as a speaker and consultant. firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2015 Robert Grudin