Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Jam Session

 1. Find a bush

I try to convince myself that the explanation lies in a rural childhood, with all its harvesting and milking and hunting and fishing and fruit pie church socials, but in my heart I know it is deeper than that.  Only a buried atavism, the repressed memories of the chronic semi-starvation that characterized some ancient ancestral community of the later Stone Age, can account for my unbounded enthusiasm for Nature’s Bounty in the form of freebie food.

            I love to gather anything edible growing in the wild.  My healthy habit of eating lots of salad perhaps had its origins in my mother’s fondness for tender dandelion leaves.  In the old days, when we sometimes vacationed in Maine, I loved clamming, gathering mussels, and of course foraging for blueberries—with or without Sal. 

            In France these days you run across references to a generation of “Sixty-Eighters”—aging hippies and one-time political radicals, most of whom now seem to be retired civil servants—who broke a lot of plate glass and put up a lot of cool graffiti in 1968.  Pouvoir à l’imagination!  Well, in 1968 we were living with two young children in the country in the south of France, where I was ostensibly writing a book with the help of the resources of the Musée Calvet in Avignon.  The Revolution came, and everything stopped.  There was no gas, no bus to put the gas into, and no library for the bus to take me to anyway.  It was the grève of grèves, the Mother of All Strikes. Under these circumstances I became an expert in gathering and preparing gastronomic snails—with raw materials easily found around the trunks of the great plane trees that lined the now empty roads.  The process is complex, also slightly disgusting, but I went into it on an industrial scale, earning the local nickname of “Grandi, le Roi des Escargots”.  Edible snails are a phenomenon rather than a food, and with careful preparation (lots of butter, garlic, and breadcrumbs), they can really taste great—sort of like butter, garlic, and breadcrumbs.  A few years ago, with friends in Michigan, I gathered ramps (alium tricoccum) with gusto.  I’d describe a ramp as the vegetable version of a snail.  Cook up a mess with bacon and blue cheese, and it tastes like bacon and blue cheese, delicious.

 2.  Find the berries on the bush

            Leaving your garden to tend itself during a crucial month of early summer growth is hardly exemplary horticulture, and I am paying for my frolic in Paris.  The price—somewhat stringy tomato vines—is not excessive.  That the tomatoes were growing at all is testimony to what must have been quite a lot of rainfall, and there will be some Ramapos to contest with the groundhogs.  But the rain—if it indeed fell—did something different and more marvelous.  It seems to have created, for the first time in a decade, a really terrific crop of wild raspberries.

 3.  Put picked berries in a pot

            Once you get beyond the abundant road-kill, suburban New Jersey might not seem like the hottest bet for Found Food.  It regularly gets an eight out of ten for fungi, however, and this year I would have to rate the raspberries at least a nine.  They are almost everywhere in abandoned or poorly tended fields, including those of the Gray Farm, where I live, and on much of the abundant undeveloped land belonging to the University.  There is a non-pecuniary price to be paid, since they thrive in conditions hospitable as well to poison ivy.

   4.  Heat and mash the berries
           The sexual extravagance of the raspberry is alarming.  A small bush can easily produce a hundred berries, each berry some dozens of seeds.  The berries fall to the ground, get washed away through gullies, are carried off and ingested by birds or college professors.  It’s a wonder the raspberry has not taken over the world.

   5.  Stir in lots of sugar and boil like mad        

           During the past week I did some fairly serious berry-picking.  At first I stuck to patches an easy walk from my house—such as twenty yards--but then, in more ambitious mode, I got in the truck and drove a few blocks to the real jungle, where I did battle with serious brambles.  Joan made a scrumptious yoghurt-based raspberry fool, but that only whetted the appetite.  Over the past three days I made and bottled two sizable batches of raspberry jam.  The berries are so sweet this year that I risked using a recipe that calls for no additional pectin—simply mashed berries and obscene amounts of sugar.  The result is a jam that is slightly runnier than most, but absolutely sensational for the clarity of the fruity, raspberry taste.  The chompiness of the seeds gives you the illusion of serious protein--and a reminder to floss.  The season is approaching its end, but I’m hoping to be able to do one more batch with the girls, who will be arriving home from Europe within a few days.

  6.  Admire some of the results


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Trivial Pursuits?

Others mistrust and say, "But time escapes:  Live now or never!"
He said, "What's time? Leave Now for dogs and apes! Man has Forever."
Back to his book then: deeper drooped his head: Calculus racked him:
Leaden before, his eyes grew dross of lead: Tussis attacked him.
                        from “The Grammarian’s Funeral,” by Robert Browning

On many days, when we get back from the gym about eight o’clock, Joan and I share a most pleasant quarter of an hour over the breakfast table reading aloud to each other from the Times.  Our material usually comes from the Op-Ed pages, and often enough from the letters to the editor.  On Monday four letters, headed “How to Teach Reading and Writing”, responded to an earlier article (which we had not read) entitled “The Fallacy of ‘Balanced Literacy’,” by Alexander Nazaryan. 

            I had never before encountered the phrase “balanced literacy,” and I have found no very precise explanation of its meaning.   I take it that what is being “balanced” is some formal instruction by a teacher and a variety of more free-form activities undertaken by individual learners.   I will not condemn what I know so little about.  It is easy for a college professor to pontificate about what is going on in our schools, and I know, as I have said several times on this blog, the fundamental problem in our contemporary classrooms is not necessarily in the classroom.  A schoolteacher not supported adequately by a student’s home environment, has   little hope of success.   Still I do think that elementary teachers need to teach rather than to “facilitate”, especially as I know from long experience that the skills of literacy are among the things that actually can be taught.  Sharing with young people my ideas about the meaning of the whale in Moby Dick may or may not prove useful to them; but if I can teach a student to read I know I have done something.  Reading and writing really are special.

There are many ways of differentiating human life from the rest of the animal kingdom, but surely the most fundamental and obvious is the very rich development of human language, which in spoken forms makes possible social transactions of considerable complexity, and in its written forms has allowed us to make a vast storehouse of the practical and theoretical knowledge achieved or posited by our human ancestors.  Our Western educational practices, for all their variety and trendiness, are still mostly related to a few classical ideas about two thousand years old.  They are designed to teach, and then to exploit, the fundamental skills of literacy—the uses of language.

The language in which our educational theories developed was Latin.  A place where three roads (tres viae) met was in Latin called a trivium; so this was the term used by medieval school teachers to denote the three fundamental “language arts” leading to learning: grammar, rhetoric, and logic.   Grammar explained the structure of language and the rules governing its use.  Rhetoric was the science of writing and speaking effectively.  Logic was the art of probable argument.  What was “trivial” to the old Romans was not what was unimportant but what was commonplace.   Anybody claiming to know anything had to command the trivium before doing anything else.  That is why “grammar school” was once the universal term for “elementary school”.

Ms. Grammatica: Not an Easy Grader

            Latin has long since been effaced by the modern European vernaculars, but a contemporary command of grammar remains indispensable, in my view, for an educated person of the twenty-first century.  Americans, whose national language is English, for now and for the foreseeable future the greatest of world languages, have a particular privilege, but also a cultural responsibility.            If that is too ethereal or too pompous a claim, just consider the advantages of being reasonably well spoken in trying to get a job today. 

            From the historical point of view widespread literacy is a novelty.  The vast majority of men and women who have ever lived, including hundreds of millions today, have done so entirely without any formal training in their native tongue.  But just because it is perhaps possible to subsist on a diet of roots and berries does not render such a diet ideal.  It strikes me as bizarre that some “educationists” should congratulate themselves on having removed grammar from grammar school.  Some of them seem honestly to believe that an innocence of knowledge of the parts of speech, the construction of a functional sentence or paragraph, the effective uses of the marks of punctuation, the norms of correct pronunciation and spelling, leave the young mind free and unfettered to pursue “independent” and “critical” thought.

            The English language, especially American English, is a vital, robust, and dynamic tongue.  There is not the slightest danger of its being emasculated or pollarded by dry-as-dust grammarians.  But in general people are comparatively good or less good at using complex systems in direct proportion to the degree to which they understand their structures.  English grammar is the detailed description of the complex (and fascinating) system called the English language.  And just as childhood is the ideal time to learn a second language, it is the ideal time to master the grammar of a first language.
Anyone who has known young children in a domestic situation must recognize their love of, and capacity for, expertise, detail, distinction, and classification.   Certainly the manufacturers of baseball cards, Barbie dolls, and Pokemon figures recognize it, to their considerable material profit.  Surely you have met an eight-year-old who knows more about dinosaurs than Warren Buffett knows about the stock market.  I don’t actually remember all that much, specifically, about my early schooldays, but I do remember how I loved diagramming sentences.  Do American children even diagram sentences any more?  You want to do some real critical thinking?  Diagram the sentences of the “Gettysburg Address”.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Many of my weekly essays arise from the confluence of fortuitous circumstances.  Three and a half have come together this week.  They are (1) the celebration of the national holiday on July 4; (2) the political ruckus triggered among the punditocracy by the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Burwell vs Hobby Lobby Stores; and (3) the publication of Our Declaration by Danielle Allen of the Institute for Advanced Study.  The half circumstance—the catalyst that supervised the interaction of the three came from a brief sermon I heard on Sunday at All Saints’ Church in Princeton.

            What I was taught in school is that our country had been founded by Europeans who came to North America in search of “a better life.”   That statement was, I think, unexceptional and true; and as a child I didn’t think too deeply about it, not even to the extent of asking myself “better than what”?  Throughout the nineteenth century there was a fairly constant flow of European immigration to this country, at times a mighty river.  The earlier European immigrants to North America were roughly divided between religious refugees and economic adventurers, but it is not always easy to distinguish between the two.   The migrants’ motivations were generally related to complex local conditions in which religious profession and economic possibility were inextricably mixed.  If you look at such groups as Huguenot artisans, Eastern European Jewry, or the Irish peasantry you can see some of the different formulas in which religious and economic oppression could be blended.

            One of the incidental pleasures of teaching at a distinguished institution is that you inevitably meet distinguished students.  Around 1990 one of the student leaders of Wilson College, of which I was then the Master, was a young woman named Danielle Allen.   She went on to become eminent as a classical scholar, a political theorist, a leading advocate for humanistic study, and now a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study.  A few days ago on the “PBS New Hour” I watched Jeffrey Brown interview Danielle Allen concerning her new book about the Declaration of Independence.  Ms. Allen was exhorting her fellow citizens to “claim ownership” of the document, to recognize it as ours, and exploit its “empowering” potential.  I immediately took her advice by re-reading the document.  What a masterpiece!

            I may be one of few people in the country who had never heard of the Hobby Lobby stores before the last two weeks, but like everybody else I’ve heard plenty recently.  Depending upon your pundit the Supreme Court’s decision is either a great blow for limited government or an invitation to theocracy.  I do not always agree with the Court’s closely divided decisions, but the very fact of them does not scandalize me.  Were the meaning of the Constitution as “clear” or “obvious” as pundits insist, there would be no need for it.

            As the Fourth of July is a religious holiday in the calendar of the Episcopal Church, it is not surprising that it should be the subject of a priest’s sermon.  What was surprising, at least to me, was her principal ancillary text: The Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Most Americans who have children or who were ever children themselves know her series of books about her pioneer childhood.  I myself had actually written a little about Laura’s remarkable daughter Rose in The Anti-Communist Manifestos.   In Little Town Laura Wilder describes her experience, at about the age of fifteen in 1881, of the civic celebration of the Fourth in the brand-new hamlet of De Smet, Dakota Territory, which included the reading of the Declaration.  Laura and Carrie knew the Declaration by heart, of course…”  Think about that sentence for a minute as you ponder the present state of American public education.  My own school-marm grandmother had made memorizing the Declaration a requirement for admission to the high school in Salida, Colorado.

            Swelling with patriotism young Laura Ingalls reports the following meditation on the Declaration of Independence:  “She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth.  Americans are free.  That means they have to obey their own consciences.  No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself…Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought.  This is what it means to be free.  It means, you have to be good.  ‘Our fathers’ God, author of liberty—’ The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty.  Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.”

            That is what religious liberty meant to one particularly intelligent and sensitive American girl in 1881.  There are, of course other points of view.  If you lived and worked in an academic setting a hundred years later you might have a different perspective.  The first thought concerning religious liberty that many of today’s intellectual elites would seem to have is one of self-congratulation upon having liberated themselves from religion, closely followed by a second—a bemused or impatient realization that some other people haven’t.

            But both as a citizen and a literature professor I myself have to credit that young girl of 1881 with a very accurate understanding of an historical document written according to the canons of classical eighteenth-century rhetorical doctrine.  No part of the Declaration can be more important than its emphatic conclusion in which the entire project of independence is justified by religious principle: “…appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions…  with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

            I don’t much care whether or not our coins bear the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST.”  But I wonder whether those clamoring for its removal on the grounds of a strange and novel interpretation of a phrase in the First Amendment (“establishment of religion”) will be consistent enough to argue for the bowdlerization of the Declaration of Independence as well.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Blur of Travel

I believe that it was the Prussian military theoretician Clausewitz who introduced the idea of “the fog of war,” a really fine phrase that denotes the uncertainties, confusions, and marked limitations of vision that characterize most soldiers’ experience of war, especially on the battlefield itself.  When we speak of a person’s “viewpoint” or “point of view” we are acknowledging that the reliability of what one sees depends in large measure on the physical location from which one sees it.  Paintings of the great battles of the Napoleonic era generally show the general officers viewing the action from some fairly distant elevation.  I think the only time anybody uses the old word fray is in saying that somebody is above it.

            I count myself very fortunate indeed that I have never had to experience warfare.  Hence my conception of war’s fog comes mostly from books or imagination, and to some degree from drawing analogies from participation in crowded events at athletic venues or political marches.   In such circumstances one may be theoretically aware of some larger context to be taken on faith, since what one is actually experiencing, sometimes a little scarily, is lots of people bumping into each other and asking each other what is going on—as though it were rational to assume that somebody knew. 

            For many years I was the Chief Marshal of Princeton University.  Each year at Commencement I led a procession of upwards of two thousand people—graduates, faculty, administrators, trustees, and so forth—around and into an open-air arena crammed with some thousands more of spectators.  The composition of the line of march was really quite complicated, and the timing, while not quite split-second, was a serious consideration.  Most academic ceremonies are borderline Monty Python burlesque to begin with, and the potential for serious disaster was always with me.  It was sort of like directing a production of Aida with a blindfold on.  You hoped that the heavy clumping you heard was the elephants, but you couldn’t be sure.  Or, shifting operas, I was like Orpheus marching out of hell.  I couldn’t look back.  My recurrent nightmare was that one sunny morning I would pompously march through the arena—just me, Mr. Elgar, and a few thousand bemused onlookers—without realizing that nobody was following me.

            As close as I have come to the fog of war is the blur of travel.  That is close enough.  On Monday morning I was washing down a delicious, marmeladed croissant with café au lait in our apartment in Paris.  I would be lying if I said I was totally carefree, as I always experience some slight travel jitters, even without the uncertainty of a threatened strike of the air traffic controllers at Charles de Gaulle Airport.  But still, I was living the life.  Twelve hours later we were eating again, this time south Indian take-out with Luke, Melanie, John Henry, and Hazel in their house in Montreal.  Hazel didn’t quite finish her utthappam, but then she’s only six weeks old.

            I used to think that exhaustion could be measured according to an objective constant, but it turns out that the older you get the more exhausting exhaustion is.  Nonetheless by three-thirty in the Canadian morning my now Parisian biological clock had me wide-eyed (though still exhausted, of course) and fumbling in the darkness over my computer, trying to work on an article due at the end of the week.  Twelve hours after that my little Air Canada flight was touching down at Newark where, the pilot announced with an unseemly cheeriness, “the temperature is thirty-five degrees Celsius”.  He was, of course, lying through his teeth.  It was ninety-five degrees Farenheit.

            I already knew that my ordeal was by no means over.  The “Air Train” connection at Newark Airport is temporarily shut down for major maintenance.  The drill was to schlep a very heavy bag to a bus stop curbside, there to find a shuttle to take me to Newark train station, there to schlep the said heavy bag up to the platforms, then to hoist it up into a train…I had steeled myself, but God interceded in the form of Mr. Aziz.  It was Mr. Aziz who pointed out to me the workings of the divine hand in this affair.  Mr. Aziz is a large, bald, muscular private taxi entrepreneur who lives in Jackson, New Jersey, well to my south.  Certain semi-surreptitious gestures of his led me to wonder whether his activities were all duly certified by the dull certifiers.  Who knows?  He had been casting his metaphorical net around the baggage claim area for hours but without success, all the while incurring a thirty-three dollar parking bill.  It is Ramadan.  He was hungry.  He was tired.  He wanted to get to Jackson and his family for his evening breakfast.  He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

            I still woke up at three-thirty, but this time to air-conditioned comfort.  The darkness outside sparkled with a thousand fireflies.  It’s sexual, you know.  “Baby, won’t you light my fire?”  That’s what they are saying in lantern semaphore.    I felt a little less blurry.  I thought I could even manage to put up a blog post so long as it didn’t have to have a point.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


 Nicolas Fouquet (1615-1680), on a good day

 Most people spend much of their lives working, yet fewer things are more difficult than explaining to others in an accurate, detailed way what it is that one actually does.  I myself would claim that it has been an eventful week had I not learned over the years that a scholar’s sense of an “event” is not always shared by the world at large.  What I have been doing is this: I have spent most of my waking hours sitting in the new and improved library of the Fondation Gulbenkian making minor textual revisions and filling out incomplete footnotes in a manuscript in progress.  Such labor is utterly exhausting, yet deeply satisfying, though I would not begin to be able to explain how and why to people who have never experienced it themselves.

            The point of all this is that the arrival of the weekend was welcome, and it brought with it more conventional excitements, some more pleasant than others.  Half of my Saturday and all of Joan’s was spent trying to get her to her rustic string quartet week somewhere—and I still don’t know exactly where—in the vicinity of Culoz, near the Swiss border.  The railway strike that we had dodged on our trip to Poitiers finally caught up with her in the form of mind-numbing French bureaucracy, solemnly delivered misinformation, multiple cancelled trains, an insufficiency of cell phones and of people to answer them, and so forth.  But by the evening she got there, and she declares it a “paradise”.  All the participants have their own denominated quarters.  She is in the Bach suite, which is highly appropriate.

 Guillaume Bourgeois and friend, on an excellent day; photo, Alice Bourgeois

            Sunday was considerably better.  I went to an early eucharist to be sure that I would be on time to be picked up by my friend Guillaume Bourgeois, who had proposed a picnic.  One of the writers I dealt with in The Anti-Communist Manifestos was Richard Krebs (nom de plume, Jan Valtin).  Not many people know about Krebs, but one who does is Guillaume, who is an historian at the University of Poitiers and an expert on such topics as the early history of the French Communist Party and Cold War espionage.  A friendship developed, and from that a proposal for collaboration: we want to organize a small international “Jan Valtin Colloquium,” and the ostensible purpose of our picnic was to do some preliminary planning.  He brought his daughter Alice, a recent graduate who is now working in publishing.  She has been working on translations of Virginia Woolf.

not much, but he called it home

            We drove to Vaux-le-Vicomte, some distance to the southeast, the stateliest of stately homes.  (Eat your heart out, “Downton Abbey”!)  It was an absolutely beautiful day, and half the Isle de France was there, though the gardens are so enormous that you would never notice.  Vaux-le-Vicomte is said to be the finest of the seventeenth-century chateaux in France. Certainly I have never seen anything that would gainsay the claim.  It was built in the 1650s for Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finances for Louis XIV, but if you’re thinking Timothy Geithner, you’re not even close.  In addition to being richer than God, Fouquet was a scholar, a musician, an amateur of the arts, and the patron of important writers.  La Fontaine was a close friend and frequent house guest.

            Fouquet engaged an art historical Dream Team to do the work.  The project began with the brute labor of flattening a few hills so as to create an absolutely flat surface necessary for the desired view of the long gardens.  In the actual building Louis Le Vau was the principal architect, and Charles le Brun supervised all the decorative artwork.  The landscape architect was André Le Nôtre,  who aimed to make the job his masterpiece.  The chateau survived the Revolution, but naturally practically nothing of the original fabulous gardens remains except the general plan.  Stately homes are expensive things, and Vaux (still in private hands) is a tourist business with some striking photographs on its website.

            Of course building a pile like Vaux was hardly a move designed to keep its owner below the radar of the envious and the ambitious.  In particular, it is not always a good idea to be richer, smarter, wittier, better-looking, more competent and above all better-housed than your monarch if your monarch should happen to be Louis XIV.  If the revocation of the Edict of Nantes is not sufficient evidence for you to form an opinion of the intelligence and morality of the Sun-King, you may want to consider also his treatment of Fouquet.  The king, who had long distrusted Fouquet’s own huge ambition, cooperated with other powerful conspirators in destroying him.  In a trial that was otherwise fair and above-board he was arraigned for gross malfeasance on trumped-up charges and convicted by coerced judges on the basis of perjured evidence.  He spent the last nineteen years of his life in prison, where he died in 1680.  Apparently fouquet was a local dialect word for “squirrel”, explaining the prominence of that notoriously unferocious animal on the family coat of arms.  You can actually buy a squirrel-pad for your computer in the Vaux gift shop!  Poor Fouquet—the unkindest cut of all.  His is a sad tale that leaves us pondering the vanity of human wishes, as well as wondering, of course, whether the odd phrase “trumped-up” is ever followed up by anything but “charges”.

Fouquet's other pad

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Cousins' Reunion

The abbey of Saint-Savin sur Gartemps

            We arrived in Paris on the morning of Friday the thirteenth in the midst of a transportation strike, but were caught up immediately in such a swirl of activities as to leave no moment free to fret about any possible inauspiciousness of date.  Within forty-eight hours we had caught up with our oldest French friends, partied with a number of my international medievalist friends, and seen miscellaneous friends at the American Cathedral, our local parish home.  We are nicely re-established in “our” apartment on the Avenue Suffren—it is a mere technicality that it actually belongs to our daughter—and I have reconnoitered a few favorite haunts, including the large second-hand book market in Georges Brassens Park.  But then Paris was put on hold while we made a two-day trip to Poitiers to see Joan’s favorite cousin from childhood days, Gavin Brown.   The two had not seen each other in half a century.

            I was not actually too keen about going.  I have a lot of work to do here, and not a lot of time to do it.  Furthermore, long-lost relatives have sometimes been lost for a good reason.  I tend to associate myself with a light-hearted maxim of my father’s: Of all my wife’s relations, I like myself the best.  I was in for a delightful surprise.

            Cousin Gavin and his wife Valerie are ex-pat Brits who for the last twenty-five years have been living in a deep rural commune of Poitou called Brux, about twenty miles south of Poitiers.  There they have transformed a large, eccentric old farmhouse and its extensive grounds into a Bower of Bliss of luxuriant climbing roses, bird song, and wild strawberries.

            Valerie is a former television writer who has also published several novels.  After a lengthy hiatus during which she was occupied with other demands, and especially the protracted care of an ailing mother that involved much commuting between France and the north of England, she has now returned to her writing with renewed purpose.   Gavin obviously has had an interesting life, but during our short visit I learned little of the lengthy period between his excellent education (Saint Paul’s School and Cambridge) and his rather astonishing (to me) current situation.  He is a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and divides his time between maintaining his rustic acres, a serious job in itself, and marrying and burying people.  The Catholic clerical shortage evident even in America is acute here in France.

            He is also tasked, in his own humorous phrase, with “the mission to the English”.  I could get no agreed-upon number for the British expatriates living in various parts of the countryside of central and southern France, but it is very large.  Mostly these are retired people, many of whom, like the Browns themselves, began with a summer retreat that became a year-round abode.  There are many villages and hamlets in the Poitou that are now majority Anglophone!  The phenomenon has been called, not always with entire good humor, a “second Hundred Years’ War,” referring of course to the devastating English invasions of the fourteenth century.

            Anyone who has travelled much in rural France must be at least vaguely aware of the situation, but our trip to Poitiers gave me an entirely new perspective on it.  It is not what French people have in mind when they speak of the “immigration problem”.  One could plausibly argue, indeed, that the Brits are saving the French countryside.  The exodus from the agrarian to the (sub)urban has been particularly dramatic in France.  Not too surprisingly, perhaps, most young French couples prefer to live in a new, nicely stuccoed cinderblock “villa” with plumb surfaces and square corners than in picturesque converted cow barns with plumbing from the age of Louis XV.  Mostly they don’t like to have to drive fifteen miles to a grocery store.  Mostly they like to live somewhere with plausible possibilities of gainful employment.

Animal House: Noah's Ark at Saint-Sevin

            We were with the Browns for scarcely twenty-four hours, travelling around the edges of a railway strike.  Even so, we had a few hours of quality medievalism.  Gavin had an obligation to meet with an English couple who were planning to be married in the fabulous abbey church of Saint-Savin, and we were able to spend an hour examining the building and its wall paintings, which are among the oldest and best preserved in all of France, where the unpleasantness of the Wars of Religion and the Revolution tended to wreak havoc with such art.  The narrative sequence of the ceiling (roughly the history of Salvation from the Creation to the Exodus and the march toward Canaan) is absolutely extraordinary.

 Notre-Dame la Grande, Poitiers

            We then had an hour or two in Poitiers before our Paris train.  This allowed us time for a rather breathless progress through the city, which preserves a good deal of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century domestic architecture in addition to the more famous medieval churches that were our main goal: the great church of Saint Hilary (the town’s most famous local boy made good), the Cathedral, and Notre Dame la Grande, a Romanesque jewel-box.  We even got seats on the train, despite the crowding caused by the strike. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Here's Hazel


           The simple and pleasant purpose of this brief post is to introduce my readers to the future in the most attractive form of Hazel Elizabeth Fleming, my newest granddaughter.  Yesterday we flew to Montreal, where Hazel lives with her mother and father and brother.  The journey seemed to have an allegorical dimension, moving from an almost fetid over-ripeness to a revivifying freshness.  Technically, we are still in spring, but it was one of those hot and saturated mornings that suggest the New Jersey state motto (The Garden State) ought, to accord with federal “Truth in Advertising” laws, be known as the Jungle State.   Here in Canada we found a perfect early summer day, its air soft but also fresh and dry, with every green leaf bright and articulate.  In school I was made to memorize some lines of Lowell—a poet from whom I probably could quote no others—and they now came to mind. “And what is so rare as a day in June?   Then if ever come perfect days…”  That was the feeling as, by mid-afternoon, we were all sitting on the stoop of our son’s house chatting and watching the neighborhood children play, as Hazel snoozed in her little carry-crib.

            Snoozing is young Hazel’s principal occupation at the moment.  Eating is a fairly distant second.  Of fussing and crying there is very little.  Augustine took the view that the doctrine of Original Sin was empirically demonstrable in the naked self-centeredness of infants.  If only he had had the chance to meet Hazel Fleming, the whole history of the Pelagian controversy might have been different.  Surely she merits the adoring attention, stopping only short of babyolatry, of all those surrounding her?  Or nearly all.  Her brother John Henry (æt 2) reserves the right to evidence occasional ambiguity toward the new and minute person whose arrival has inevitably caused such a major revision of his Weltanschaung.  But on the whole his chivalric instincts prevail, and he often joins his elders in the prevailing reverential fascination.

            Here she is, flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone, yet distanced from me by a vast, intriguing alterity.  Hazel is 195 pounds lighter that I, and four and a half feet shorter.  She is seventy-eight years and three days younger.  I lay my hand next to hers to find hers the size of two joints of my little finger.  Was my crinkled old skin, tanned and spotted with purple blotches, ever so smooth, rosy, creamy as hers?  I myself can barely credit the world into which I was born.  How astonishing would it be to her?  How more astonishing yet will be the world in which she will find herself when she is my age?  All newborns are, or should be, children of promise.  Hazel’s promise practically glows from her crib.  She sets out in life endowed with the priceless capital of a splendid mother and a spendid father.  May this beautiful child, who brings joy to all who look upon her, who has already improved our needy world simply by coming into it, thrive, growing in grace day by day.