Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Times Memorial

It’s been a white world around here for the last couple of weeks.   To be sure, we haven’t had the huge snow dumps that have kept Boston in the news.  But repeated falls of an inch or two in a protracted period of freezing temperatures that allow no thawing at all has produced pretty dramatic results.  As in the old carol about Good King Wenceslas, “Snow had fallen, snow on snow.”  You can clear it, but the piles just grow higher.  The aging process is in one of its aspects an anthology of novel aches and pains; but the distinctive muscular discomforts that follow a session of serious snow shoveling are unchanging over the years and are almost comforting in their familiarity.

            On Saturday, as a brief warming respite allowed the falling snow to ease for an hour or two into what they delightedly call a “wintery mix”, I set out for the campus for the one hundred and first Princeton “Alumni Day” conclave.  Unlike the late spring class reunions, this mid-winter event is fairly serious in its cultural content, and the centennial character of this year’s meeting dignified it yet further.  There are limitations to the elegance achievable in gymnasium-floor dining; but the luncheon banquet for a thousand—quality cold salmon and exotic grains chased by an orange and black cupcake—achieved the maximal possibility.  Where I was sitting among the graying PhDs the chatter was brisk and sometimes challenging.

  Queen Noor (Woodrow Wilson awardee)
          There is a variety of engaging ancillary events, mainly in the form of panel discussions, but the principal business of the day is to honor some outstanding students—past and present.  There are two big alumni awards: the Woodrow Wilson Award (undergraduate alum) and the James Madison Medal (graduate alum).  The winner of this year’s Wilson Award was Queen Noor (née Lisa Halaby), a graduate of Princeton’s first coeducational class (1973).  She is the widow of the late King Hussein of Jordan.  Since his death in 1999 she has been prominent in a number of international humanitarian causes.  The winner of the James Madison Medal was Martin Eakes.   He is the founder of the Center for Community Self-Help in North Carolina, and has been a prominent advocate of approaches to banking and finance helpful to potential borrowers of slender means.  The place is crawling with geniuses around here, but only a select few, like Eakes, have diplomas of Certified Genius from the MacArthur Foundation.

Martin Eakes (James Madison medalist)
            Given the abundance of brilliance and success on display—and I lack the time even to mention the achievements of the dazzling prizewinners among current students—it may seem perverse of me to identify the memorial “Service of Remembrance” as the most moving moment of the gathering.  But it is my opinion that venerable institutions must justify their venerability by the quality of their own venerations.  The fine private colleges and universities of America, so often mischaracterized by the unknowledgeable and the unreflective as mere bastions of privilege, are in fact complex charitable institutions and powerful engines of desirable social change.  Cornell, Chicago, Stanford—Pomona, Grinnell, Swarthmore—these places and literally a hundred others have redistributed billions in the creation of cultural capital not merely useful to the nation but absolutely necessary for its ethical prosperity.  This didn’t happen by accident.  It is necessary to recognize how it did, and to honor those who did it.

            Winter was fairly pelting by the time I made it up to the chapel.  These days one frequently hears American collegiate Gothic deplored, even dismissed; but it gave us some of the nation’s most beautiful buildings.  The Princeton chapel is a kind of mini-Amiens—a stunning collaboration of a great architect (Ralph Adams Cram) and one of the art historical pioneers of modern iconographical scholarship, Albert M. Friend, who created the basic scheme of the windows.  It is the perfect setting for the Memorial Service, and especially for its most dramatic feature, the construction of a huge floral wreath. 

          The University memorializes its members who have died in the preceding year in the following dramatic way.  Nearly a hundred soberly dressed people, men and women of varying hue and age, each wearing or carrying a white carnation, representatives of the undergraduate classes, the Graduate School, the faculty and staff, form a solemn procession.  Moving in two columns down the long central aisle of the nave, the procession splits at the chancel steps.  Its members then mount the steps and affix their carnation to a large board, which gradually swells with its whiteness.  The view from the congregation is rather like that of a time-manipulated photograph of the opening of a rose.  Another analogy, more recondite but perhaps almost more apt, occurs: the celestial rose of the thirtieth canto of Dante’s Paradiso.

            The oldest undergraduate alumnus remembered was from the class of 1932, the youngest from 2017.  Of deceased graduate alumni there were about 150—grouped by academic department.  On the lists of old students I recognized too many names, most only vaguely, of course, but one or two more sharply.  When it came to the two pages devoted to faculty and staff, the experience vivified as I saw the names of several friends of forty years: Walt Litz, for long years among my closest; the brilliant mathematical economist Harold Kuhn; my Rhodes near contemporary at Oxford Dick Ullman, and others.  For each name in the memorial booklet—and my rough estimate is that there were about a thousand—there are those who will have felt, sharply, that bittersweet motion of the heart in which an affectionate admiration vies with the sadness of human mortality.  

 Princeton University Chapel: a Service of Remembrance

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Flickering Fact

J. M. W. Turner, by Cornelius Varley

            In my teenage years I read a couple of books by G. K. Chesterton, and they practically knocked me off my feet.  I of course had no idea what the man looked like, but on the basis of his cleverness and his Englishness I formed a very strong visual image: suave, svelte, elegant, dapper, clipped moustache—John Barrymore, Errol Flynn type.  Only much later did I see an actual photograph of Chesterton—rumpled, fleshy, messy, Falstaff type.  Though I recognized the absurdity of my response, I felt a strange sense of unease, disappointment, almost betrayal.  There is a potency in the visual image.

            About fifteen years ago—I remember the time only because the conversation came up in the context of the “Y2K” flap—a student told me that “everybody knew” that the CIA was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  The person who told me this was a very intelligent young man who was born probably about fifteen years after the event to which he referred.

            I was shocked—not that the CIA had killed Kennedy but that a potential honors graduate at Princeton would casually believe it had.  My remonstrance, if it disquieted him at all, did so only as a further demonstration of just how successful the conspiracy had been.  Thus alerted, I began to appreciate that many of his contemporaries held a similar view.  And some of them would cite as a source of their information a 1992 film by Oliver Stone, JFK.   I had seen this film and thought it junk from A to Izzard.  Others regarded it as visual history.

            Then last week a couple of experiences revived the issue in my mind.  I came upon a newspaper article by Jeffrey Zacks, a psychologist at Washington University, entitled “Why Movie Facts Prevail.”  I think it summarizes the argument of his recent book, which I’ll hope to read when it works its way through our library’s acquisitions process, with the enticing title of Flicker: Your Brain on Movies.  The gist of Zack’s research is this: cinematic images tend to trump other modes of cognition.  You can read a detailed history of the battle of Gettysburg, but the facts on the page can easily be conquered by a contradictory and fictitious cinematic version.  So for millions of Americans the CIA will remain the author of the Kennedy assassination.  The current hit film Selma is likely to command the historical view of Lyndon Johnson for the next generation.

            Pictorial images require little connection with empirical reality to be convincing.  I could have continued to imagine Chesterton however I pleased had I not encountered the inconvenience of an actual photograph of the man.  Of course most of the vast eons of history were innocent of the camera obscura.   Probably the most copiously depicted human being in history is Jesus.  Not merely is there no photograph of Jesus, there is not a single word of physical description of him in the gospels.  But everybody knows what Jesus looked like: white guy with big hair, mournful eyes, soupy expression and a slightly disheveled bathrobe.  That is the power of the popular pictorial image.

strangely familiar

            Well, Joan and I and our good friend of half a century, the artist Susan Hockaday, went off last week to see the current movie about J. M. W. Turner.  He may or may not be the greatest painter who ever lived, but he’s right up there as they say.  It seems only days ago—though I now realize it was a few months—that I was writing with enthusiasm about my visit to the huge Turner exhibition at the Tate Britain.  So we could not miss the Mike Leigh film, entitled simply Mister Turner.

            I recommend it for some excellent acting and, especially, for its many moments of superbly beautiful photography.  But I left the movie house grumpy.  What I will call the “historical” Turner was a complicated, difficult, and by no means entirely admirable fellow.  The less we actually know about historical figures, the greater the freedom of the biographer or the actor, and Timothy Spall, who impersonates Turner, exploits the useful lacunae very effectively in presenting us with an indefatigable and monomaniacal genius, selfish, socially gauche, inarticulate, and joyless and inefficient in his bovine sex life.  Someone should have told him that it works best with the pants off.

J. M. W. Turner, by Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall

            Well, OK.  Compared with what Tom Hulce did to Mozart in Amadeus, I have to give them a pass on Turner himself.  What left me more or less fuming was Joshua McGuire’s rendition of a minor character in the film, the young John Ruskin, who is presented as a simpering fop.  It is impossible that this callow child whose only known accomplishment seems to be his wife’s sexual frustration could ever have become the sagest of the Victorian Sages and the brilliant writer whose Modern Painters permanently and unassailably established Turner’s grandeur.  Who reads Ruskin any more?  In my experience, not even very many graduate students of literature.  But in 1976, when I was conducting a series of seminars on “Morris and Medievalism” at the William Morris Centre in London, I had to read deeply in his copious works.  I left the experience knowing that I had encountered a great mind and a great aesthetic sensibility.  It pains me to think that thousands who have never read a word of the man will go through life informed merely by “movie ‘facts’.”


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Level Playing Field

unlevel playing field

            A friend in Britain clipped and sent on to us a couple of related “American” pieces from The Economist of 1/24/15 (“An Hereditary Meritocracy” and the editorial “America’s New Aristocracy.) It is easy to satisfy his curiosity about our assessment of them.  They are excellent, and even more spot-on than most of that excellent journal’s coverage of the American scene.  The theme of “Aristocracy” is one that surely has troubled any sentient American who has at all meditated upon the degradation of the democratic dogma.  It is quite plausible that in the next presidential election of this country of three hundred and fifteen million, teeming with intelligence and talent, the contenders will be (1) the wife of a former president, and (2) the son of a former president and the brother of another.  But this pathetic evidence of our national imagination gap must await another occasion.  The “Hereditary Meritocracy” essay addresses inequality in terms I have rarely seen clarified in this country.

            Our empirical experience of human inequality is so overwhelming that we seek some tool of transcendental redress.  The old theology, which held that every human being was created in the image and likeness of God, bestowed upon human beings a radical equality that in theory trumped the actual social hierarchy.  But that was in theory.   The old favorite hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” includes a stanza frequently omitted from modern hymnals:
                        The rich man in his castle,
                        The poor man at his gate,
                        He made them, high or lowly,
                        And ordered their estate.

The theory probably always sounded more plausible to castle- than to gate-dwellers, as is suggested by the distich popular among John Ball’s revolutionaries in the fourteenth century: “When Adam delved, and Eva span—who was then the gentle-man?  By the eighteenth century American and French revolutionaries chucked the theory entirely.  They did not, of course, chuck equality itself--“All men are created equal”, liberté, egalité, and all that—but equality’s basis (human law and politics) was now only semi-transcendent. 

            Such is the context of the current discussions of economic “equality.”   So great are the disparities in income and wealth accumulation among American citizens that the question now arises as to whether in terms of practical effect the newer political theory of equality is any better than the older theological one.  I will not use the term middle class in this essay, because I no longer have much idea what it means, but I can nonetheless put the matter in personal and anecdotal terms.  If my only income were gained from working at a minimum-wage job, eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, I would earn just not quite enough to pay my property taxes on a house valued a little below the Zillow median for the town in which I live.  That is if I didn’t spend a penny of my earnings on anything else.

            Surely there are some issues here—beyond the exorbitance of my local taxes or the attractions of moving back to Arkansas.   One is the “level playing field”.  Conservatives like to say that our aim should be to maintain equality of opportunity rather than jigger about in the quixotic pursuit of equality of outcomes.  We should aim for a “level playing field”.  I have always found the idea of the “level playing field” a curious one, since if a football field is full of snags and furrows it is full of snags and furrows for both teams.  However I can use it, at least in a variant form: that of a finely planed and finished chessboard.  

 level playing field

            I prefer the chessboard to the football field.  In the future, it seems probable, jobs with sufficient remuneration to allow one to pay one’s taxes are more likely to require a supple intelligence than supple abs.  Nothing could be more level, regular, standard, uniform or—if you like—“equal opportunity” than a chessboard.  When two players face off against each other across it, they do so in “equality”.   There is no lobbyist on K Street who can arrange a special “economic incentive” or “targeted tax break” that will advantage white with three preliminary moves or black with a couple of extra rooks.

            But does this fact make any two players equal in terms of the outcome of their match?  To ask the question is to expose its absurdity.  The Economist’s cleverly entitled essay on “An hereditary meritocracy” has the following summary heading: “The children of the [American] rich and powerful are increasingly well suited to earning wealth and power themselves.  That’s a problem.” 

            With the aid of a few nifty charts and graphs of the kind at which it excels The Economist lays out some of the tautologies of social capital linking economic success with quality of education, especially early education, and the effectiveness and stability of family structures.   We may want to laugh out loud at the spectacle of the Upper West Side MBA couple sweating their toddler’s application to the “right” playgroup, but when it comes to chess, twenty years hence, that kid is likely to have the edge on her contemporary raised by an unmarried high-school dropout and a television set.   


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Body and Blood

            We had a great family weekend.  On Saturday evening we joined in celebrating the twelfth birthday of Granddaughter Number Two, Lulu Fleming-Benite, at the Bareburger eatery near the NYU library.  Thence we were whisked by Rich to his house in Red Hook.

Church of the Visitation of the BVM, Brooklyn

          The main event for Sunday was to be theatrical, but that would be after being taken out by Ruby (Granddaughter Number Four) for coffee and pastry.   There were still morning hours left.  There was an Episcopal church within walking distance (for a serious walker) in Carroll Gardens, but its service time was not until eleven.  I thought that might be a little tight, since our theater tickets were for two o’clock in Dumbo.  So I did what I sometimes do in such circumstances--sought out the nearest Christian congregation of whatever flavor I could find.  A few blocks away was huge, old Visitation R. C.--of near cathedral proportions.  It has a mass at ten, and thither I repaired.  Oh, and—relevant fact—the ten o’clock Eucharist is conducted in Spanish.
            There were probably two hundred people in the congregation, though scattered through the vast nave in a way that made it seem thin.  There might have been six or eight adult males in addition to me, but lots of children.  Things didn’t happen very fast.  What looked (and sounded) like a band of subway musicians tuned up languidly in the south transept.   Women, including one minimally ecclesiastical nun, wandered about the sanctuary, and in and out of a door beyond it.  At some point a priest in a chasuble, mic in hand, joined the peripatetics.  Eventually the service began—rhythmic chants of guitar-backed alleloo, with lots of clapping, hand-raising, arm-lifting, and the simulation of doves on the wing.

            Of the words of the liturgy I got about eighty percent—way more (I reasoned) than most Catholics in most places at most times would have—and virtually all the sermon.  The priest preached for over an hour.  (The norm in my own church is now eleven minutes.)  A certain amount of this was ceremonial and dialogic.  Every emphatic homiletic point was followed by the priest’s alleloo, to which the congregation supplied the wanting ya.  There were brief intermittent interrogations, as for example,
            (Preacher) Where do you send a demon?                        
            (Congregation) Away! [with arm gesture of throwing something away].
But the main line was very substantial and very clear.  The gospel on which he preached (Mark, chapter 1) includes an account of Jesus’s teaching in a synagogue, where he “taught with authority” and exorcised a demon from a man possessed.  Explaining that a synagogue is a Jewish house of worship, like a church, he then asked whether it was possible that evil could come into the Church.  Surprisingly loud shouts of ¡Claro que !  Yes, indeed, said the priest, and it has--which is why Pope Francis is having to cast out the demonios from the Vatican itself! 

            That didn’t sound to me much like opium for the masses, which had to be supplied by a charming ceremony for Candlemas (it was February 2nd) presumably brought from Estremadura to Jalisco five hundred years ago—in which several young women presented elaborate Jesus-dolls, some in baby-buggies, at the steps of the altar.  Most of these people probably lived in the nearby public housing projects. Among them were four mothers with real infants.   I had small doubt that the unseen Christ was really there too.

            I received.  It took a while, but the Roman Church has now caught up with the Reformers.  First, a vernacular liturgy; next Communion “in two kinds.”  There was theoretically a cup of wine for the laity as well as a wafer—theoretically because the cup was empty by the time I and most others got to it.  The young woman administering it showed us its emptiness with an ecclesiastical version of that slightly apologetic hand gesture usually translated as “Whatcha gonna do?”  What I am going to do is make another Visitation the next chance I get.

            The insufficiency of symbolic blood in the morning was more than compensated for in the afternoon, which found us at the theater of St. Anne’s Warehouse in Dumbo.  So many good things in my life have come my way by virtue of advantageous marital connections.  Jessica Richards, Joan’s first cousin once removed, is the Stage Manager of the National Theatre of Scotland.  Many months ago, in Edinburgh, she alerted us to a production of Let the Right One In that the NTS would be bringing to Brooklyn.  My wonderful Brooklyn daughter-in-law, Katie Dixon, organized tickets for us.

St. Anne's Theater brochure from the Internet

            I had not before heard of Let the Right One In and am still nonplussed as to the meaning of the title.  But Katie knew all about it having seen the movie made from the Swedish novel (by John Lindqvist, 2004) in which it originated.  It is no easy task to characterize Let the Right One In succinctly.  It is a Harlequin romance for deviants.  As social drama, it proposes a promising cure for schoolyard bullying.  Here is a vampire story in comparison with which Bram Stoker’s Dracula merely sucks.  Above all, it is probably the bloodiest piece of dramaturgy I have ever seen, and I have seen Titus Andronicus at the London Globe!  We had brief words with Jessica before the performance, and she said that she thought our seats in Row G ought to be “far enough back to avoid the splatter”.

            The themes of the play are actually serious ones, but the cleverness of its plot is of a sort that should not be spoiled by a reviewer.  If you should have a chance to see it—and the run will be extended, I think—by all means seize it.  It wouldn’t hurt to do a preliminary brush-up on your vampirology, though.  A couple of crucial points on which I was rusty caused me some initial confusion.  Vampires are potentially eternal.  They hunger, or rather thirst for nourishment, but do not suffer our ordinary mortal aging process.  The old stake through the heart will do them in, though, and so will a blaze of sunlight.  This means that they must be creatures of night and of the gloom, and avoid the light of day.  A vampire’s life is no bed of roses, and she needs a little help from her friends.

 Rebecca Benson in the role of Eli

             In this play she gets that help in a somewhat disturbing fashion that left me pensive.  But of course what I found myself most deeply pondering on the clackety train-ride home was the extraordinary conceit of the ingestion of blood.  How can it at once be at the center of the highest spiritual aspiration and the most hideous carnal terror?


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Capital Headlines

A couple of times a month when I have evening events in New York City I choose to cadge a bed at my daughter’s apartment rather than trying to return home late at night.  I can still get back to Princeton in the morning in time to be at the gym at its 6:30 opening if I catch a seriously early train out of Penn Station.  It departs at 4:51 and seems to have a pretty regular clientele well known to the conductors, judging from the level of somnolent bonhomie displayed on all sides.  The already sparse population of the cars as we leave New York is halved again by the time we are pulling out of Newark Airport.

            I cannot sleep on trains.  I have to be reading—but there is reading and then there is reading.  The book I had with me for the trip up was the Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa—a patristic text of considerable importance to my current project on the literary origins of Christian asceticism, but perhaps not exactly light fare.  The chances of engaging with it profitably in my pre-dawn daze were not good.  I long ago learned that the proper literary level for this milk train was one of the New York tabloids.  As the Post is a quarter cheaper than the Daily News, I went for the Post. 

            The best part of the Post, as also of some of the English tabloids of decades past, is the headlines, which often exhibit a power of poetic concision to rival that of an Emily Dickinson.  Nowadays at the cashier’s post in mercantile establishments the various Hollywood and television fan tabloids tend to monopolize the rack with a somewhat limited and long since hackneyed vocabulary of scandal—“Cheatin’ Hearts”, “Love Child,” “Pants Down,” etc.  Post headlines often still have crackle.

            There are certain headlines one encounters in one’s daily rounds—such as “Avis Important,” “Terms and Conditions,” “Statement of Limited Liability,” or “How to Get the Most Out of Your New Suk-o-Vac”—apparently designed to quench any desire to read any further.  The tabloid headline, when properly done, removes any need to read further.   In the good old days in the grocery stores any number of The News of the World alone could be counted on for two or three typographical outrages.  Two from my youth have stuck in my memory.  The first—“Dead Mom Gives Birth to Child in Coffin” practically made me gag right there in the check-out line, and for several years I thought it must surely be the gold standard of the journalistic grotesque.  A second actually induced me to buy a copy: “The Filth You Eat in Your Bread!” in at least forty-eight point type.  The suggestive powers of a sentence fragment are often irresistible.

            But these days the New York Post seems nearly alone in its noble mission.  Certainly I was richly reward by Wednesday’s edition.  There was a squib headed “Spouses, you post, you’re toast” devoted to the interesting sociological fact that in England Facebook postings are now cited “in a third of all divorce cases”.  More interesting still was the following meta-headline: “We’re ‘head’line news!”  On the off chance that you are not familiar with my curious use of the Greek prefix meta, I should explain that I take it from the gobbledygook of current literary critical theory.  The meta maximizes self-involvement.  Indeed the meta is to ideas what the “selfie” is to photography.  You have perhaps read a novel about a novelist who is writing a novel about a novelist who…etc. 

               Such is the genre of the Post story.  Its headline “We’re ‘head’line news!” actually introduces a celebration of another headline.  It’s a story from Down Under.  A young Australian journalist, whose name is Nick Buttery and whose physiognomy and attitude remind one slightly of Alfred E. Neuman, was forbidden by a security guard from entering the Parliament House in Canberra—roughly the equivalent of the American Capitol—on sartorial grounds.  According to the Post reporter, “The Department of Parliamentary Services said Parliament forbids offensive messages on clothing in the House.”

            What offensive message?  Mr. Buttery was at the time wearing a tee-shirt adorned with the classic Post headline:  “Headless Body in Topless Bar”—a headline that, according to several eminent scholars expert in the genre, may be the greatest tabloid headline known to man.  “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” nearly perfect in its syntactic balance and grotesque juxtaposition, displays the peculiar elegance of wit demonstrated in the titles of two memorable mid-nineteenth-century novels by Emily Eden: The Semi-Detached House and The Semi-Attached Couple.  These too are worthy underground classics, though incapable of generating a potential international incident.

            According to journalistic theory reporters are supposed to cover the story, not be the story.  Mr. Buttery’s own cover defeated that sound principle, however, and his story, if not quite viral, has proved to be at least amusingly contagious.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Egghead Linguistics


Before there was political correctness there was theological correctness.  Galileo, who thought that the earth orbited the sun was required by the Roman Inquisition to say that it didn’t.  So he said it didn’t, but muttered a second opinion under his breath,  Eppur si muove.   Perhaps he followed the famous Muslim philosopher, Averroës, who, trying to reconcile the Koranic tradition with Aristotle, sought mental wiggle room in the notion of the “double truth”.  Truths arrived at from theology and truths arrived at from philosophy, though apparently incompatible, could both be “true”.  For example, the world could be both eternal (Aristotle) and created in time (Scriptural tradition).  Christian Averroists got into big trouble in the thirteenth century.

            I was surprised to see in the Times on Monday an essay by Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party in France.  This was rather like discovering a previously unnoticed “Gospel of Moloch” tucked away among the unread apocryphal books.  The essay was arresting, and the numerous readers’ comments even more so.  My memory, once a steel trap, is now more like a broken, rusty hinge, so you must take my word for the footnote when I say that there is a polemical passage in Jerome, debating the opinion of the mighty Augustine, in which he boasts somewhat as follows: “I judge an opinion not by whose it is but by what it says.”  Readers’ comments on Ms. Le Pen’s essay were sharply and fairly evenly divided.  What struck me about them, however, was this.  Those who approved the essay tended to do so in terms of its specific ideas and the quality of its argumentation.  Those who disapproved rarely even mentioned its ideas, declaring instead its a priori illegitimacy on the basis of the identity of its author.  Some of the “antis” accused her of bad faith for not clearly displaying in the essay the “fascist”, “xenophobic”, and “far right” pathologies said to define her and her political party.  Some others criticized the Times for “legitimating” her hateful views.

            The title of Ms. Le Pen’s piece was “To Call This Threat by its Name” (“Bien nommer la menace”).  Following the generally sound rule that the first step in addressing a problem is correctly identifying what the problem is, she wants to call the slaughter at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo and the anti-semitic attack at the kosher grocery Islamist terrorism.  She thinks the French government has been perversely reluctant to utter the words “Islamic” or “Islamist” in this context, though in fact many French officials have been models of plain-spokenness compared with President Obama, various “spokespersons” of our State Department, and indeed numerous other thought-leaders here and abroad.  Our enemy, according to them, is not Islamic terrorism but “extremism”.

            The essential evil of extremism in American politics was definitively established as long ago as 1964 when Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for the presidency committed one of the century’s great oratorical gaffes.  “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he said to raucous applause as he accepted the nomination. “And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”  How this sentiment differed from that of Kennedy’s inaugural speech of 1961 would be difficult to say (“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the success of liberty”) except of course that it was expressed three years later.

            Were we not dealing with a clear and present danger horrible in its nature, the linguistic convolutions of a Howard Dean—as an example chosen among dozens--might be comical.  The self-proclaimed caliphate ISIS (i.e., “Islamic State”) necessarily claims Sharia law as its constitutional basis.  That is one feature of its intentionally Islamic character. According to Howard Dean, however, Islam has nothing to do with ISIS, and should not be mentioned in the same breath. Yet most countries are allowed to name themselves.  It is now rather gauche to call Zimbabwe “Rhodesia”.  The United States is currently conducting obscure and perhaps endless negotiations with “the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the name confirmed by 92% of Iranian voters in 1992.  Perhaps Mr. Dean will convey the news to Supreme Leader Khamenei that despite what the ayatollah may think, his governance has nothing to do with Islam!

            I grasp the good intentions behind this linguistic tomfoolery.  But one can avoid the “broad brush” without recourse to the airbrush.   Surely we should seek irenic and courteous relations with all peoples of the earth.  But if you cannot distinguish between the statements Some X is Y and All X is Y, you should probably not be a practicing dialectician.  What is the happy mean of which slaughtering cartoonists is the extreme?  I do not know, but I doubt that we are well served by Egghead Linguistics as found in Alice in Wonderland: “'When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less'.” 

Egghead Linguists

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sacred and Profane Murder

The famous allegorical painting at the head of this essay, one of the great treasures of the Borghese gallery in Rome, was made by Titian around 1514.  For at least the last three centuries it has been called “Sacred and Profane Love”.  That is probably an accurate title.  Titian is probably making an emblematic contrast between the two conceptions of love (amor) known in the old Christian ethical vocabulary as caritas and cupiditas.  According to the vastly influential opinion of Augustine in his City of God, these are the “two loves that build two cities,” the metaphorical versions of Jerusalem and Babylon, the City of God and the City of Man.  The ambiguities in the word “love”, when operating within the more limited and intimate sphere of individual human psychology, provide about half of the materials of Western literature.

            Getting back to Titian and his much-admired painting, I would make two points.  The first is that we are only pretty sure--not absolutely certain--that the subject is “Sacred and Profane Love.”  The second is that among the learned art historians who have written about “Sacred and Profane Love” there has been no general agreement as to which of Titian’s beautiful babes is which!  I want to stress that point.  Important scholars—men and women who have spent years and decades studying Renaissance art and iconography—dispute the most essential feature of this painting’s “meaning”.  Of course I know the answer, but if you think I am going to tell you for free, think again.  Such point as I would claim to make has to do with the uncertainty—or as the fancy critics call it, “indeterminacy”—of iconographic representation.           

            I would not idly contribute to the cataract of photons that have been poured out in the last week over the fanatical murders recently perpetrated at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris—were it not for one salient fact.  Unlike the large majority of American commentators I have read, I actually knew a little something about Charlie Hebdo before all this happened.  I have lived in Paris for periods of time.  Most weeks (“Hebdo” being short for hebdomadaire, “weekly”) I used to try to take a look at it.  Its sophomoric humor appealed to me—insofar as I could grasp it.  For in engaging a foreign language, satire is one of the very last cultural forms to float into comprehensibility.  This paper is full of slang, dirty talk, and above all obscure political and cultural allusions that must challenge many native speakers.  Its point of view is post-modern, urban, utterly secular, and flagrantly irreverent.  Notice that is calls itself a journal irresponsable!

            Since it scorns all pieties, it was scornful of the most hallowed ones, religious pieties.  But in my experience its principal targets were cultural and above all political pretension.  Oversimplifying wildly, I would say that the most glaring weakness of American politicians is limited intelligence.  In France they tend to be smarter, but also more pompous.  The pomposity of French politicians, indeed, seems almost to have been invented for the delectation of satirists of the sort who worked for Charlie Hebdo.  And of course both in history and in current radical Islamic thought the distinction between religion and politics is hardly a bright line.  Some of the implications may bemuse infidels.  Just today I learned of the fatwa of a Saudi cleric declaring the building of a snowman haram!  (It has been snowing of late along the Saudi-Jordanian frontier.)

            In an important passage in my own Scriptures (I Corinthians, cap. 10) Paul has some advice for the Christian minority living in a pagan culture.  All things are lawful, he says, but not all things are expedient.  Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.  How about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons? 

            It’s a judgment call, but there are times when making a point is the point.  The street on which I live, Hartley Avenue, is a relatively new extension of the older Faculty Road, which runs through the campus along the northwestern most banks of Lake Carnegie, linking at right angles two well traveled county roads.  Faculty Road, though now serving as a fairly major traffic artery, is technically private property, owned by the University.  For one day a year campus security officers close it off with barricades.  This action, which on that day is annoying and inconvenient for large numbers of motorists, cements the University’s point, its legal property rights, which for three hundred and sixty-four days of the year are effectively waived.

            In a pluralistic society cultural difference is inescapable, and if the difference is so great that there are some people willing to kill you for what you say, draw, or doodle, it may need a little thoughtful negotiation.  Expression incapable of inviting offense or contestation needs no legal protection.  On the other hand rights never exercised are utterly meaningless.  Take a look at the so-called “Stalin Constitution” of 1936 some time.  Charlie Hebdo thought the exercise of a fundamental civil right more important than the sensibilities of some fundamentalists.

            What remains of their editorial board apparently still does, to judge from the cover on today’s edition.  Titian’s example can teach us that the artist’s intention cannot always conquer the inherent ambiguity of pictorial forms, but in a preemptive exegetical interview the cartoonist himself said that his subject is the Prophet shedding a tear over the wicked folly of some self-proclaimed followers.  There may, alas, turn out to be other interpretations.

                                                                                                 Source: Libération