Wednesday, July 19, 2017
Prince Fred on the Geological Survey Map
I just returned from a short trip to New York City. I had an appointment late on Monday afternoon, and had taken advantage of circumstances to plan an overnight with Rich, Katie and young Ruby in Red Hook. It had been a while since I was there. Rich, my eldest, is a man of various profitable skills, among them expertise as a sound-recording engineer. Still, I was taken by surprise when he asked me whether I would be willing to spend a while recording my reminiscences of some family experiences of his earliest years.
What he wanted me to talk about specifically was “Prince Fred,” also known as “Prince Fred’s Knob”. This is the place name for a small, conical mountain in Marion County, Arkansas, now a part of the wilderness above the Buffalo National River. I can trace this name back only to the 1890s. From a long-defunct title deed for the forty-acre plot of land I owned for some years in the 1960s and 1970s I can see that it was part of a larger parcel recognized in 1892 as a valid mining claim by the Prince Fred Placer Mining Corporation—an enterprise of which I have been able to find no other record whatsoever. I know that there were some active lead and zinc mines in the Ozarks in earlier times, but Prince Fred cannot have been one of them. There was some modest evidence on the property of an ancient feint at excavation, including perhaps a single dynamite blast, but to label the results a mine would be to allow the imagination to run riot.
No, for us Prince Fred was simply a wild, remote, beautiful and challenging place where over a period of several summers Joan and I, I together with two small children and a shifting crew of undergraduate friends, pitted ourselves against the elements in the ostensible effort to erect a log house. As parents we have long been convinced that the adventurousness, the practical competence, and the wanderlust of our two elder children flow directly from this early experience. They think so too.
miles of green
In my own childhood years I had always vaguely hoped that I might own a piece of my own land in “my” mountains, but it was only when I was married with children and a professor of medieval literature at an institution twelve hundred miles away—that is to say, when the hope became entirely impractical and quixotic—that I acted upon it. My beloved aunt Louise, who at that time was working for the Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home, Arkansas, knew of my land-lust. One day a man walked into the newspaper office with a “for sale” ad: forty wilderness acres, two thousand dollars, in a virtually inaccessible part of the neighboring county—Marion. That was the first and only time in my life that I enjoyed the shady advantage of insider trader’s information.
Prince Fred was perhaps six miles from our old home farm, from which its top was clearly visible, but to get even near it by motor vehicle you had to drive for probably thirty. It is in the high ground above the river-front that briefly in the 1990s became nationally famous in the Whitewater Land Development Deal featuring among others Bill and Hillary Clinton. The Ozarks are, from the geological point of view, very ancient. Geologists conjecture that in eons past they might have been the size of today’s Rockies, worn down like old boot heels over millennia of mysterious abrasion. Sometimes from a distance the hills present an aspect of strange regular verticality like a pencil point—the shape favored by Al Capp in the old “Li'l Abner” comics and in other hillbilly cartoons. My aunt pointed it out to me from the road to our house—a misty green pyramid in a vastness of misty green. I could snap up a good chunk of the far side of it for the pittance of my life’s savings. Today I marvel that my younger self was capable of such an act of brilliant improvidence.
In yesterday’s interview we didn’t get all that far into the story. The moment I began thinking about it, details came flooding back, but along with many uncertainties of dates and narrative sequences, anecdotes, and personalities. These will need sorting out. The interview will have to be continued and so also, perhaps, the narrative in this blog. But I can tell you the ending in advance. Sometimes our government does good things. In the early Seventies the Buffalo was declared a “national river”—our nation’s first. The valley side along its confluence with the White River became wilderness parkland. The Government began a process of forced purchase of all private lands within the proposed park. I stalled for a while but didn’t even think about seriously resisting. They were compensating at a rate of a hundred dollars an acre. That means I doubled my money—almost as good as the Whitewater investors would do—and still ended up co-owner (along with three hundred million fellow citizens, of course) of one of the most gorgeous tracts of land God ever made.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Around the Fourth of July the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, one of the respected polling outfits, conducted a brief inquiry into the American public’s knowledge of their national origins. The inquisition was not particularly probing. The pollsters asked the following question: “From what country did the United States declare its independence?” A quarter of the people randomly polled did not know the answer to that question. Among this group most declared they had no clue; but others suggested Russia, Afghanistan, Mexico, China, and Japan.
Many Americans seem to sense that there is a crisis in our democracy, though most of us don’t seem to know what it is or what to do about it. One person who claims to know is President Trump. He thinks the problem is “voter fraud,” which is why in May he established a “Commission on Election Integrity” to look into voting irregularities.
There were roughly a hundred and thirty-seven million votes cast in the recent presidential election. Roughly sixty-six million went to Ms. Clinton and sixty-three million to Mr. Trump, though the geographical distribution of the votes was such that Mr. Trump won handily among the constitutionally mandated electors. About a hundred and eight million eligible voters—approaching half the national total—cast no vote. According to Mr. Trump, about three million of Ms. Clinton’s votes—by no coincidence whatsoever her margin of plurality in the popular vote--were fraudulent, cast by people ineligible to vote or who voted more than once or both. While there is no official position on this question taken by the Democratic Party, there is an obvious consensus among Democratic politicians that the “voting crisis” is of a very different sort. The real scandal is one of “voter suppression”. The claim is that Republicans, especially at the level of state and local government where the actual mechanics of the election process are established, have systematically sought to limit electoral participation by likely Democratic voters, especially members of racial minorities.
The half-baked Commission on Election Integrity is a waste of time and money, and it is quite predictably foundering in a legal quagmire. The absurd premise upon which it was founded—massive fraudulent voting in the millions—was bound to foster further absurdities along the way. Transparent partisanship is a Washington norm, but even so….At the same time I am unable to embrace without cavil the theory of a conspiracy of voter suppression touted by many of my liberal brethren. Voting is indeed a general right of citizens, but that does not mean it is free of all responsibility. Is it really a “burden” to register to vote? More so, say, than purchasing something through Amazon on the Internet? Would the requirement that a voter be able to verify identity be no better than a poll tax? I cannot check out a book at the library or use my senior discount on New Jersey Transit—never mind get on an airplane—without official identification. Recently I was asked for two forms of identification to get into a doctor’s office. The “Motor-Voter” laws (to which I do not object) are based on the assumption that we can make democracy more vibrant and participatory by linking it legally and thematically with something of real social importance: owning or driving a car.
To return to the true crisis of American democracy is to return to the Marist Poll. Intellectual snobbery is not the least noxious form of snobbery, and it is all too easy for comparative enlightenment to mock flamboyant ignorance; but I am not comfortable entrusting the fate of the land to people who think the battle of Gettysburg was fought in Viet Nam. There are other polls. At the height of the second Iraq war, half of Americans of voting age could not find Iraq on a map. If you think the Fourth of July celebrates our independence from Spain, you are unlikely to have studied the Declaration or the Constitution very deeply and may be unaware of how warily the Founders viewed the direct democracy of the crowd. The whole national enterprise was based on the assumption of a reasonably literate electorate and representative government constrained by explicit divisions of power and limitations in its exercise.
The elderly hover between an optimism born of hope and a pessimism tutored by experience. Benjamin Franklin was exactly my age—and here the parallel ends--when he gave his final address to the Constitutional Convention. He was far from believing that the document he had helped hammer out was a “miracle in Philadelphia.” It was more along the lines of “the best we can do under the circumstances”. What circumstances? “When you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom,” he said, “you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.” That’s a pretty good description of the “democratic” process, though democracy was not a word much in use in Franklin’s day. The speech I cited above is pretty well attested. There is a related and possibly apocryphal anecdote. One of a group of citizens, curious about what was going on in the Convention, is supposed to have asked Franklin what sort of government the conclave was going to propose. “A republic,” was his supposed reply, “if you can keep it.” It is most unlikely that in offering this somber reply Franklin was worrying about the British army—and quite certain that he was not worrying about the armies of Afghanistan, Mexico, or Viet Nam. He was thinking of an electorate moved by prejudice, passion, errors, faction, and selfishness. And that was way back then.
Wednesday, July 5, 2017
New Jersey, where much to my surprise I have now been living for more than half a century, has certain obvious disadvantages. It is crowded. The cost of living is very high. The tax burden—property, sales, and income—is crushing. But there are compensations insufficiently appreciated by the state’s detractors. One of the chief of these is that we have very colorful politicians. New Jersey is true blue, so that the national politicians (senators and governors) are usually Democrats, though we occasionally allow exceptions for politicians whose first or last name is Christie. We are in something of a fallow period on the senatorial front at the moment. Neither one of our two senators is under indictment, and one of them is not even under threat of indictment.
The Governor’s mansion is where the action tends to be. The hero of this essay is our current governor, Chris Christie, but one needs to know a little about the tradition. Among notable recent governors was Jim McGreevy, who got into hot water when he appointed his Israeli lover as his homeland security advisor. Circumstances surrounding this appointment, in turn, led the governor to make a dramatic revelation that he was a “gay American”. The first half of this phrase caught his wife and daughter by surprise, and the second part confused his many supporters who had voted for him thinking he was an “Irish Catholic”. Upon resigning the governorship, he continued in his upwardly mobile, linear career by becoming an Episcopal seminarian.
Chris Christie is remarkable, in the first place, for being a Republican. In his taurine manners he is a faint type, shadow, or adumbration of our incumbent president, in relation to whom he was an also-ran. I had very high hopes when he first took office, as one of his initial acts was to tell the New Jersey teachers’ unions right where the hog ate the cabbages; but it has all been downhill since. As you probably already know, Christie set something of a political speed record (sixty to zero-point-three in about twelve seconds) at the time of the Bridgegate Scandal in September 2013, when in a moment of unusually petty petulance directed at the mayor of Fort Lee his henchpersons closed down a couple of lanes of the George Washington Bridge, causing the Mother of All Traffic Jams. He tried to recover by running for president. He fell on his face, but not before doing one good deed: putting the quietus on the candidacy of Li’l Marco Rubio. He then tried to attach himself to the winning candidate, Mr. Trump, only to face a long series of incremental humiliations that might be said to continue until this day.
He was more or less quietly living out the last days of his governorship when, a few days ago, Shoregate struck. (What they call the beach in California they call the shore in these parts.) The Governor (Republican) and the State Legislature (Democratic) have been locked in what the papers call a “fiscal battle,” the upshot of which was a partial shutdown of state government. This situation, which has inconvenienced New Jersey’s citizens quite differentially, has caught the imagination of the Fourth Estate. You know of course about the Main Stream Media and their sinister doppelgänger the Lame Stream Media. But you may be unaware, as I must admit I myself was until only yesterday, of the Jet Stream Media. On a beautiful, clear, summer’s day an enterprising journalist from the Newark Star-Ledger took to the air in a small plane and, on a hunch and a prayer, took a joy ride following the New Jersey coast line in a southernly direction. About sixty miles south of Newark and New York, on a thin barrier island, is one of our state’s greatest treasures: Island Beach State Park, several miles of fabulous swimming beach along a nature preserve. Now state parks are obviously state property, serviced and maintained by state employees. Should it ever happen, God forbid, that the entire state government should shut down over, say, a budget dispute, state parks would be part of the shutdown. The parks would be closed. Those were the actual conditions on the day that the journalist undertook his flight. He was curious to see what an empty mid-summer beach might look like from the sky. He was also aware of a fact to me as yet unknown: among the gubernatorial perks is a shore cottage right in Island Beach Park.
Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Not long ago I had the good fortune of a leisurely medical consultation with an eminent academic physician, a department head at a major medical school in New York. When I say “leisurely” I do not mean to imply that it was unprofessional or inefficient—far from it. But I realized that I had come to expect that what a “doctor’s appointment” amounted to was a perfunctory exchange of words with a person seated at a computer, briefly and laboriously typing something onto a screen from which his eyes seldom strayed. This man looked at me, listened to me, talked to me as though he presumed I was no longer in the third grade. Hence our conversation did occasionally move off the topic of the mortal frame and its discontents. Very briefly it even grazed the subject of current politics. The supposed health care “replacement” bill (at that point still invisible) was in the news, and he allowed himself the expression of a general sense of dissatisfaction and apprehension. But even this was hedged with diffidence. “I can’t really follow politics,” he said. “I simply don’t have the time.”
It was then that I realized that quite by accident he had accurately diagnosed my most serious problem, which has nothing to do with electro-physiology. I do follow politics because I have fancied that, since I retired, I do have the time. The premise being a fallacy, the action based upon it is a particularly time-consuming form of folly. By “following politics” I mean this. I regularly read the New York Times with tolerable thoroughness. We seldom miss the NPR “News Hour”, and though we continue to grieve the loss of Gwen Ifill, we applaud its journalists and their uniquely intelligent presentations. On Fridays we take in Gwen’s old program “Washington Week”. Most days I survey the offerings of the website “Real Clear Politics,” which aggregates the most widely read current political columns from many perspectives, and includes a large swath of the right-wing press that I would never otherwise see. I often take the time to read through the “Comments” threads of news stories and op-eds, for in them I find revealed, with a clarity nowhere else apparent, the Great Divide running through the center of our population. There are video clips of journalistic debates, shouting matches, and foul-mouthed rants by political comedians galore.
In theory this investment of time and energy was supposed to leave me informed, or woke, to use the Anglo-Saxon equivalent recently certified by the Oxford lexicographers. In fact, it has left me depressed, or downed, to use an Anglo-Saxon equivalent I hope might soon join it. I have several friends and acquaintances who tell me that they actually no longer read or watch much news for the sake of their mental health. I no longer think they are kidding. Like most intelligent Americans I have been wedded to the idea of an “informed electorate;” but sadly it may be time for a divorce. There are practical limits to the willingness to suspend disbelief.
In the ancient monastic literature, in which I have read a certain amount, there is a story concerning a hermit who had been dwelling solo in a cave for twenty years or so. A small merchant caravan, having lost its way in the desert, stumbled upon his lair. Submitting to the law of hospitality the ancient ascetic chatted up the head merchant in a monosyllabic sort of way. “Who,” the monk asked the trader, “who now sits upon the Imperial throne?” The merchant uttered a name the troglodyte had never heard before. “Ah,” said the monk, “thank you,” politely excusing himself and turning back to his reading. What he was reading is not explicitly mentioned, but it was not the “Huffington Post”. He obviously considered that the political information he had gleaned in this brief interchange made him sufficiently woke for the next decade or two.
Despite this fantasy we set out last night as scheduled for our “Six Every Six” dinner, aka the “Trumpian” dinner. We are one of three couples, six very old friends, who are meeting for dinner every six weeks in each other’s homes to assess latest developments, replay favorite moments, and makes predictions. The predictions are actually written down on a piece of paper, then produced at the next dinner to embarrass us with their inaccuracy. The dinners seem to be “evolving”. Last night’s was as delicious as ever, and the eventual consternation as complete. But we prefaced moving in to the table with unhurried drinks and nibbles as we sat outside on the greensward in the lingering, soft summer’s light, as birds flitted about a feeder and we chatted about the normal things of Normal Times.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Not too long ago I found myself alone in a doctor’s office. A nurse had taken my vital signs and gravely recorded them, first on a chart and then in a computer file. She then left with the unconvincing promise that the doctor himself would be in “very shortly,” shutting the door behind her. I always find this an awkward moment, though I am usually prepared for it by having a book in a grocery store carrying-bag. But for some reason I was on this occasion bereft of that resource. I had nothing to do but sit there surrounded by a vaguely oppressive feeling of scrubbed white cleanliness over-illuminated by fluorescent lighting.
There is nothing that makes one feel more self conscious about what one is doing than having nothing to do. For while it was unlikely that the doctor would actually appear “very shortly,” that was at least a possibility I couldn’t discount. I didn’t want the guy to burst through the door and find me scratching my itchy scalp, let alone picking my nose. So I began to study my environment. It turned out there was more of it than I had first taken in. One wall was covered, and I do mean covered, with fancily printed and nicely framed documents attesting to the doctor’s academic qualifications and professional achievements. Along one wall was a shelf, on which rested a row of document-like plaques attesting that this man had been recognized among America’s Best Doctors in the years 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2015. I strained to remember whether I had been treated by him in 2014 and, if so, whether I had found the service adequate.
Immediately I began worrying. There are of course statutory worries one has in a doctor’s office. They are legitimate and indeed expected. Is it going to hurt? Is she going to make me give up bratwurst? Could it be, God forbid, cancer? My worries, however, were not in this authorized genre. Of a sudden I realized that although I have no fewer than four strenuously earned college degrees, I have no framed diplomas and absolutely no idea where the unframed ones could possibly be. It goes without saying that I have no Top Professor plaques or even documentary proof that I rank among the Outstanding Retirees of Mercer County—which I certainly do, even if I say so myself. I do have a passport and a driver’s license. Somewhere there is even my original Social Security card. From a file called “Vital Documents” I can produce evidence that I was born, baptized, confirmed, and married. I can demonstrate that I an enrolled in Medicare—both parts A and B. I have a CVS discount card. But I have no proof, none at all, that I am educated; that is worrying.
Call me eccentric, but I usually find that medical worry can be somewhat assuaged by etymology. Hyperplasia sounds really bad until you see that it’s mainly plastic. So I started thinking about the word diploma. It’s one of those words that wandered from Greek to Latin, a journey that explains the rarely encountered and pedantic plural form diplomata, as in “I can’t lay my hands on a single one of my diplomata.” The actual meaning of the term is “[a written document] folded in two.” The term diploma is therefore similar in origin to the Latin terms used by printers, and until fairly recently in common general use, to denote the different sizes of printed sheets: folio, quarto, octavo, meaning respectively folded once, twice, or thrice, and yielding a finished product of four, eight, or sixteen printed pages. For long centuries the principal writing material used for important documents was parchment (vellum), and that is why a college diploma is still sometimes called a “sheepskin”. The single-sheet unfolded and framed documents hanging in medical offices are in technical printing terms broadsides (posters).
People can be certified for authority in fields other than medicine, of course. Among the most important of early diploma-bearers, or diplomats, were those certified representatives of political power authorized to conduct business as surrogates of the monarch. What such people did, or were supposed to do, was early recognized as the important craft, skill, or art that we call diplomacy. This is a considerable evolution from a folded piece of paper, but language will have its revenge, and there will always be a whiff of doubleness wherever diplomats gather. On the whole, however, and certainly on the surface, diplomats must try to be sensitive, courteous, amiable, and as non-committal as possible while trying to wrest concessions and commitments from others. They should be pleasant of speech and masters of cliché and elegant circumlocution. Under no circumstances should they employ the word spade to denote a hand-held digging tool. They should, in short, be diplomatic.
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Many years ago, more than forty, I had a bizarre and frightening experience that remains vivid in my memory. I was at that point, probably the mid-Seventies, a still youngish scholar of the sort ambiguously described as “promising”, and I took any opportunity offered me to participate in the larger discussion among medieval scholars in America and, when possible, abroad. That meant that I was frequently a guest speaker at institutions other than my own, and that I frequented and spoke at many scholarly conferences on various topics in Medieval Studies. In those years, the State University of New York at Binghamton had a very active Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CEMERS), and I several times participated in their annual conferences. The first of these I remember was devoted to the topic of “Courtly Love”. I was amused to find myself housed in a rather shabby motel in a place called Vestal—you know, as in Vestal Virgins.
A few years later there was a Chaucer conference. Entrepreneurial professors in the sciences, also known as STEM-winders, practically trip over the bundles of money people are eager to give them for research. We humanists have to make do. One of the ways the CEMERS folks were trying to make do for this particular conference was by finding free accommodation for speakers, thus considerably reducing the conference budget. A friend of mine on the Binghamton faculty wrote with the following proposal. His daughter had an apartment in town. If another of the invited speakers and I were willing, the daughter would return to the family hearth for a couple of nights and let me and this fellow use her digs as a free hotel. The proposed roommate was a friend who taught at the University of Illinois, and would be driving from Urbana. We were given elaborate instructions as to how to find the apartment, and to retrieve its key hidden beneath the statutory loose brick. I got there rather late, but first. In fact I was the only one who got there at all. I later learned that my Illinois friend had become lost in the maze of Interstate exits and, winding up in the parking lot of a Howard Johnson’s, had just gone with the flow.
As for me, I went to bed, and slept fine until about two-thirty or three, when I was wakened by a ringing telephone. I waited for the call to go to a message machine, but there was no message machine. I then waited for the ringing to stop, but it simply did not stop. After what I judged was a full five minutes of ringing, though it might have only been two, I made the giant mistake of answering the phone. “Hello,” I said.
Immediately I heard an enraged male voice, almost certainly chemically amplified, screaming at me. “Donna! I want to talk to Donna. Put that bitch on the line!...” etc., etc. I then made my next mistake. I stayed on the line and tried to explain. “Donna is not here,” I explained. “She, er, loaned me her apartment. I’m just sleeping here.” That didn’t sound convincing even to me. “Oh, yeah?” said the menacing voice, “you expect me to effing believe that, you effer? Give her the phone! I’m gonna kick her ass.” Unfortunately, I persisted. Remember, I was in a highly disorienting situation. I was in a strange place. It was the middle of the night. My interlocutor seemed to be from a social group with which I had had only literary experience. So I said the following stupid thing: “Look, this is a simple mistake. I am a speaker. I…”
Now the return voice took on a sudden spurious coherence. “Oh,” it said, “a speaker. Well, it just so happens that I am a speaker, too. In fact, I am speaking to you right now, and what I want to speak about it the thirty-eight that is in the glove compartment of my truck. So shall we have speaks?” “What I mean…” I started, but got nowhere. “Look,” said the voice, “I think I’ll just drive over now. I know where that little place is…” Finally I slammed the phone down, then picked it up immediately. I put a pillow over the receiver to try to silence the rapid bleepbleepbleep off-the-hook sound. Then I spent about three hours of sleepless, silent terror peeking out of the Venetian blinds imagining the approach of headlights on the dark, wet street.
Day dawned, I drove on to the conference site, drank coffee, attended several interesting talks, gave a talk of my own. At the end of the day there was a social hour. I am a medievalist, but before that a father. If there was an armed madman out there looking to kick my daughter’s ass, I’d want to know about it. Overcoming my embarrassment, I approached my friend, whom I shall call George. “George," I said, “This is rather embarrassing, but I need to tell you about…about a scary phone call. Some guy called for Donna, and…”
“Donna?” he said, puzzled. “Who’s Donna?”
Wednesday, June 7, 2017
In the avalanche of journalistic opprobrium that greeted the President’s visit to NATO and his subsequent announcement of American withdrawal from the Paris Accords, one barb had a special sting for me. Somebody said that the President seemed determined to make America a world leader of a rank “about like Portugal’s.” Hold that thought.
Well, the Princeton Reunions, which are quite the covfefe, took place this past weekend, and we attended some of the more age-appropriate and intellectually respectable parts. These were very respectable indeed, featuring well conducted expert panel discussions on such topics as “A Book That Changed Your Life,” “Reflections on Class and Race,” and “Changing the Climate of Climate Change.” We also took in a terrific lecture on “Shakespeare’s Style,” and participated in the seminar of the forty-second reunion of Bob Hollander’s famous Dante course. As usual I saw hundreds of old students--in that fleeting, wholly unsatisfactory fashion of the four-second conversation.
What with one thing and another, I hadn’t been on campus much of late, and I took the opportunity to go by my old departmental office, where occasional bits of mail still show up. To my great surprise—and momentary consternation, given the logistical problem presented—I found there a hefty box of books. These were the “author’s copies” of my latest scholarly publication (Luís de Camões: the Poet as Scriptural Exegete) sent to me by my publisher in England. I had not been expecting them. I thought the publication date was in July or August.
When I retired a decade ago I wanted to continue reading and writing, but I also wanted to challenge myself with some projects outside my habitual beat. I have now published three such books, the latest and most conventionally scholarly of which involved the challenge of dealing with the Portuguese language in an archaic and highly classicizing form roughly analogous to the English of the Faerie Queene. It is the shortest book I ever wrote. It took me the longest time to write. It is also an allegory of the crisis in academic publishing; at fifty cents per printed page, it is roughly fifteen times the price of my first book (1969).
We don’t know all that much about Luís de Camões, who died in 1580, aged about fifty-five, except that he ticked most of the right boxes for the Renaissance Man contest: scholar, soldier, lover, adventurer, Portuguese patriot. Above all he was a very great poet, author of what I think is the finest of the secular Renaissance epics, the Lusíadas (Lusiads in English) as well as a large body of lyric poetry. He has a small number of fine religious poems. My book is an analysis of the most famous of these, an extraordinary poetic commentary on the psalm Super flumina (“By the Waters of Babylon”). It is quite the equal of Milton’s “Lycidas” in my opinion, though practically nobody, even among professional scholars of Renaissance literature, has ever heard of it. That is because it is written in Portuguese—which brings me back to the thought I trust you have been holding for the last four paragraphs.
Tiny Portugal was a most unlikely world “leader”. Its land mass is about the size of Indiana. In the year of Camões’s birth its population was approximately 1.25 million. In the earlier Middle Ages the Portuguese had been overwhelmed by African aggressors. In the later Middle Ages they were under constant threat from Castilian aggressors. The subject of the Lusiads is the voyage of Vasco da Gama to India (1497-1499). Within the period of about a century a tiny, marginal, thinly populated Iberian country had established a vast maritime empire in Africa, on the Asian mainland, and in the Malay Archipelago. It “owned” that half of South America we today call Brazil. This was an epic achievement that deserved an epic poet. As a “world leader” little Portugal was doing quite well for itself.
But history is all about change, and there is waning as well as waxing. “I saw that all the torments are caused by mutability, and mutability by the years,” wrote Camões in his poem; “when I saw how many deceptions time works on our hopes.” The political pillar of Camões’s world was Empire. Its spiritual pillar was the militant and intolerant Catholicism that several centuries of the Iberian experience of Islamic occupation had created. Both crumbled before the advance of modernity, leaving as memorials in widely disparate parts of the world some great buildings, some great art, and the Portuguese language with its linguistic and literary artifacts. Too many of the contemporary European intellectuals who inhabit literature faculties are disposed to excoriate history as opposed to trying to understand it. For them all history must be the reflecting pool of Narcissus. It is no wonder that great writers of the past who resist being remade in the postmodern image are having a particularly rough ride these days; but it is a pity, and a loss. To conclude that America is destined for a world leadership role “about like Portugal’s” seems premature; but should that day arrive I hope there will still be those who keep alive the memory of our great old writers.
façade of the Bom Jesus church, Goa (1605)