Wednesday, November 22, 2017
I had already half decided on the topic of this week’s essay—the snappy title “Secular Donatism” had already sprung to mind—when Monday’s PBS “News Hour” definitively sealed the deal. It began with what looked like a large framed photograph of Charlie Rose, television interviewer par excellence, and the news that this eminent senior citizen had just been suspended from practically everything, down to and including his Cub Scout pack, on account of accusations of sexual harassment. The charges were numerous, specific, and sad. In this instance there was at least no suggestion of pedophilia. Most of his victims were, it is true, young enough to be his granddaughters. But a couple fell credibly in the daughter range, and that was a relief.
Our moral epidemic, which shows little sign of having yet peaked, has already propelled us to new heights of national hypocrisy and shamelessness and has created a truly surreal political casuistry. Is a right-wing judicial grope more or less appalling than the left-wing senatorial genital flash? Bird in hand, or two in bush? The Access Hollywood tape! Yes, but what about Bill Clinton? Don’t forget JFK. And how about Grover Cleveland while we’re at it.
Amidst all this there are a few engaging ponderables, mostly along the lines of hating sins while loving sinners. A recent offering in the Times’s “Editorial Notebook” by Clyde Haberman--entitled “He’s a Creep, but Wow, What an Artist!—raises an interesting philosophical question in a classical form. Do you have to be a good person in order to be a good writer, painter, musician, or whatever? A few purists, like Philip Sidney in the English Renaissance, thought that you did; but no one familiar with many biographies of modern artists is likely to agree.
When I first joined the Princeton faculty, two of my distinguished senior colleagues, Lawrence Thompson and Carlos Baker, were deep into the writing of the “authorized” biographies of two giants of twentieth-century American literature: Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. They had entered into their great enterprises flushed with enthusiasm and unalloyed admiration for their subjects. But they then discovered that these guys were such sons of bitches where women were concerned that they gagged, metaphysically speaking. The scholars carried on, of course, and produced prize-winning books. But duty is not the same thing as delight. In a small way I myself faced a similar unease in writing about Arthur Koestler. Koestler was in my opinion one of the most remarkable literary geniuses of the twentieth century and the author of perhaps the most politically consequential novel in all of our literature. He was also “a hell of a raper” as his friend Richard Crossman delicately put it.
Are you less admiring of the architectural boldness of the Guggenheim when you find out that Frank Lloyd Wright was an utter swine who abandoned his wife and children? Coming at things from the other end, must I research the sex life of Frederick Law Olmstead—a task likely to prove quite difficult, boring, and probably inconclusive—before I can fully enjoy a stroll in Central Park? At least I feel reasonably certain that authorial criminality doesn’t actually enhance artistic worth, as Norman Mailer seemed to believe. In 1981 he helped gain the release from prison of an eloquent felon named Jack Abbott, who rather spoiled the socio-literary triumph with a recidivist murder.
As a medievalist I have on the whole been protected from this sort of embarrassment. My awed admiration of Chartres Cathedral is not compromised by my worries about the politics of its architect, not that it had an architect. Much early literature is entirely anonymous. Was the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a “creep”? It seems unlikely, but no one would think to go there. Contemporary literary biography often seems to me nearly obsessed with sexual details that tell us as much about modern readers as modern writers. Earlier periods may seem woefully lacking in this regard, though I have to admit that my man Chaucer comes dangerously close to biographical modernity. There is among the poet’s life records a legal document in which a woman named Cecily Champaine attests to the fact that he did not rape her. I suppose that is better than one claiming that he did rape her, but it actually seems to me a rather near thing. It is somewhat reminiscence of the notation in the ship’s log that “the Captain was sober tonight.”
It appears that revelations of sexual misbehavior took Charlie Rose’s career from sixty to zero in less than a single day. Mr. Haberman, the author of the thoughtful essay on “creepy artists”, makes me pause in my evaluation of this extraordinary phenomenon. Is it not perhaps based in an essentializing view of human character? To embrace it is to deny what the wise have so long known: that the line between good and evil runs through every beating heart.
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
In organizing their scholarly shindigs, academics tend to favor the centenary—the so-many-hundredth anniversary of this or that. The last time I got caught up in centenaries was two years ago, when modern historians were much caught up with the implications of the Battle of Waterloo (1815) leaving us medievalists to the comparative obscurity of Magna Charta or the Fourth Lateran Council six hundred years earlier. As a scholar of Franciscanism, among other things, I naturally had to opt for the latter. But should you have no clue what I am talking about, indeed if you have never even heard of the Fourth Lateran Council, not to worry. It followed the Third Lateran Council and preceded the Fifth.
Now I am at it again—on a purely amateur basis. Just at the protracted moment we are in the midst of assessing the First World War, formerly known as the Great War (1914-1918) and, with a more particular focus, the “October Revolution” of 1917, which saw the birth of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Major war events of 1917 included sensational instances of continuing slaughter (as in the third battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele) and America’s belated entry into the hostilities. However, it is in retrospect pretty obvious that the most important events of 1917 were those taking place in Russia. For the first time in history ideological Socialism came to political power in concrete form that amazed, inspired, or terrified the world and largely dominated its attention for the next seven decades.
So I have been doing a bit of a refresher course on the Soviet phenomenon, a subject in which I perforce read fairly widely when I was writing The Anti-Communist Manifestos. A phenomenon that struck me during those years was the extraordinary reluctance of Western intellectuals of the Thirties and Forties—and to a certain extent even of today’s intellectuals—to recognize and acknowledge the profound political pathologies of the practiced Marxism of the last century. This began with the fantasy that the coup d’étât of October 1917 was a “proletarian revolution” rather than a criminal power-grab by a gang of conspirators, and a general denial that from its very origins Bolshevism imposed itself by terror, violence, and coercion. It included the utter rejection, expressed with a kind of theological outrage, of the obvious similarities between Hitlerian Nazism and Stalinist Communism, and a cultivated blindness to such world-class atrocities as the Ukrainian famine, the purges, and the growth of the gulag system.
For a non-specialist I had read pretty widely in English language Soviet history, but I somehow had missed the essential book. That would have to be Martin Malia’s The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 (1994). I recently completed a slow reading of this large, conceptually rich work, and have emerged with a feeling of having seen at last the Big Picture, or at least a much bigger one than I had ever before grasped. I already knew something of Malia and the general contours of his own anti-Communism. (He wrote the introduction to the English language version of The Black Book of Communism.) I was, however, unprepared for the elegance of the writing and the capaciousness of his thought—always a powerful combination.
It is not exactly a polemical book, but he does offer trenchant criticisms of the mainstream of Anglo-American academic “Sovietology”, especially as represented by two huge and hugely influential works—E. H. Carr’s Bolshevik Revolution and Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume dithyrambic biography of Leon Trotsky. Malia’s criticism of the major Sovietologists is that they constantly mistake a philosophical question (What is the “best” way to build Socialism?) for a historical question. If you begin from the a priori position that Socialism is highly desirable and should work, you must spend a great deal of time either in denial or in rationalizing explanations of “what went wrong”.
What “went wrong” was that Russia was too backward, or the peasants too stolid and obdurate, or that Lenin didn’t live long enough, or that Bukharin was marginalized, etc., etc. What really went wrong was that the vast “superstructure” of the Communist Party had no actual “base” over which to be super, and the unceasing attempt to create one necessitated ceaseless cruelty, coercion, and homicide on a staggering scale. Malia is particularly hard on Trotsky, the great if imaginary hero of a counterfactual Soviet history still alive and well in the Academy. He calls Deutscher’s three volumes of biography, which I remember several radical undergraduates of 1970 schlepping about in their bulging backpacks, a “Marxo-Miltonic trilogy”. But authorial stamina and indefatigability cannot in themselves command a reader’s assent. As Malia points out, Trotsky embraced no particular doctrines that would differentiate him on such issues as mass murder from his fellow Bolsheviks. They were all required as a matter of principle to follow out a sanguinary “logic of history” that directed the seventy-four years of the life of the USSR.
As we have found in our own recent national discussions, historical events rarely command a permanent interpretive consensus. The Chinese premier Chou En Lai, when supposedly asked about the effects of the French Revolution supposedly replied “Too soon to tell”. Truth may be the daughter of time, but she has many quarrelsome sisters. Scholars have another big chance coming up quite soon. 2024 will mark the centenary of the death of Lenin.
Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Have we reached a “tipping point” in terms of a general social acquiescence in sexual harassment? That is the question raised, and seemingly answered in the affirmative, by a lengthy article in yesterday’s newspaper. I hope so, but I pretty well exhausted such meager opinions as I have on the subject last week, and I was hoping to move on to something more uplifting, engaging, or erudite. Uplift, however, is in somewhat short supply these days. I know that I am not the only American patriot who finds himself more or less permanently down in the dumps as I survey the many tipping points we seem never to be able to reach.
The really big story in yesterday’s paper was about one of these unreached tipping points. A “crazed veteran” shot up a Sunday worship service in a Texas church, killing twenty-six people. Given its setting and circumstances one might call it a contemporary Slaughter of the Innocents. Among the many victims were young children and an unborn baby. In terms of the language of the President’s Inaugural Address, the apt political term might be “American carnage”. My appellation “crazed veteran” is intentional and allusive. I remember it from a headline in a 1949 article about the murder spree of Howard Unruh in Camden, N. J. This atrocity made a huge impression on the country at the time, and now seems to be regarded by criminologists as the initial episode of a new genre of American mass murder, of which there are too many recent examples to require further comment, in which mentally disturbed people trained in military combat, or simply using guns manufactured to pursue or simulate warfare, have committed mass murders. Unruh’s weaponry, which will now seem quaintly modest, consisted of a single German Luger pistol and thirty-three rounds of ammunition. The Texas gunman had a rapid-firing “military style” killing machine. Had he also had Unruh’s impressive kill ratio, he would easily have wiped out the entire congregation. The unjust and unhelpful stereotype of the “crazed veteran” returned in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The preferred term of art among journalists now seems to be “ticking time-bomb”.
I suspected this would be no turning point, but knew so for certain when our President opined from an Asian press conference that “We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries. But this isn’t a guns situation. I mean, we could go into it, but it’s a little bit soon to go into it. But, fortunately, somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, otherwise it would have been — as bad it was, it would have been much worse.” Like too many of our President’s pronouncements this one marshaled faulty syntax and factual error in the service of a hollow argument. If killing twenty-six people with a rapid-firing rifle isn’t a “guns situation” what does a “guns situation” look like? It is precisely our American “guns situation” that so often renders our American “mental health problems situation” grotesquely homicidal.
There is no way to eradicate gun violence in our country, but there are many ways in which it might be constrained. I offered my own suggestion on this blog some years ago. I suggested that the second amendment to the Constitution be repealed, conceding the near political impossibility of what I was suggesting. This would mean that gun legislation would have to be crafted by our duly established legislative bodies in the light of actual twenty-first century social realities. I think there would be absolutely no chance of prohibition, let alone of “confiscation”; but it might be impossible, too, to return to the maximalist status quo that has been allowed by fetish anachronism and an uncertain reading of an obscure gobbet of eighteenth-century prose.
But lacking any national consensus, or even the will to seek one sincerely, that is neither here nor there. We are left with the conventional thoughts and prayers of our political leaders. As it happens I am in favor both of thinking and of praying, but I find in my own life that both are rather hard work if taken seriously. I doubt that politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” have much linguistic precision. But the desire for linguistic precision may simply be pedantic here. Or is it? In the final act of this Texas massacre there appeared a “good guy with a gun”, Stephen Williford, who lived near the church and who wounded and pursued the bad guy with a gun, Devin Kelley, after Kelley had completed his slaughter. Williford’s actions demonstrate extraordinary bravery and initiative. The term “hero” is used so generously in contemporary journalism that I was surprised not to see it used of him in the first press reports I saw. What I saw instead was “Good Samaritan”. Out of respect to the slaughtered members of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, many of whom were probably Bible readers, I recommend going with “hero”. If you check out Luke 10 you will find a good guy with pity, a first-aid kit, and two pieces of silver—but no good guy with a gun.
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
We are sometimes a little late, but we eventually get around to things. Only a couple of days ago we watched another Netflix episode of “House of Cards”. It’s at a point in the story where President Frank Underwood, having recovered from being shot, is now threatened by serious competition from a charismatic Republican candidate named Will Conway. We find this series pretty gripping, but it had been a very long time since we last watched an episode, and maybe we slept through part of it or something, because we didn’t actually remember this Conway fellow or how he had gotten into the plot. But as his first impression in this episode was rather striking—he was having calisthenically challenging sexual intercourse with his wife on, so far as I could tell, the living room wall—we shall probably remember him now.
Anyway, the next morning’s paper brought the news that Kevin Spacey—he’s the actor who brilliantly plays the sinister President in “House of Cards”—had just been accused of having thrown himself upon a fourteen-year-old boy on a bed. A bed is not a wall, which is good, but this was in real life rather than in make-believe, which is bad. It was supposed to have happened about thirty years ago, and Mr. Spacey didn’t actually remember the episode, but he nonetheless wanted to apologize just in case that, you know, it had offended anybody or anything like that. This news report was not all that edifying in the long run, but there was one thing about it that made me happy. Well, “happy” is not exactly the right word; but it was at least satisfying to me that I knew who Kevin Spacey is.
You see the thing is for the last month, though it seems more like a decade, I have been reading about this man Harvey Weinstein. I know it’s my own cultural limitation, but I had never heard of Mr. Weinstein. I did not know that he was a Hollywood mogul, or even that Hollywood mogul was an actual trade or profession recognized by the Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau. I thought it was a figure of speech. It really makes one feel out of it never to have heard of the most famous man in America even at the moment he is transitioning to most infamous. I now learn that this guy was a huge mover and shaker, though how his daily exertions of satyriasis left him with the energy to move, let alone to shake, is beyond me. I had never heard of most of his female victims either, though I did a little better with the list of his unindicted male co-conspirators as they manfully if tardily twittered out their repentance for not having “spoken out” earlier. But Kevin Spacey: him I have heard of. It makes me feel more in the American mainstream.
Though there is nothing funny about this sexual harassment stuff, there is plenty that is ludicrous. While we are talking mainstream, come now before the court young women complaining of former President George Herbert Walker Bush, who likes to “cop a feel,” as he wittily puts it, during photo ops in which he finds himself in proximate situations with attractive females. One Internet neurologist I have seen suggests a possible connection between this behavior and frontal lobe disturbances associated with Parkinson’s, but the ex-President’s spokesman’s view is that he gooses girls “to try to put people at ease.” I do know that men and women are very different, but just speaking personally, I never have found this sort of treatment from my urologist all that relaxing.
Last night this patrician groper invaded my dreams. Though I really prefer it when I dream in Middle English, I don’t actually have the slightest control over it, and this dream was more Joycian, and specifically Molly Bloomian and sort of, like, all runtogether and stream of consciousness, so anyway Bush Forty-One but aged Ninety-Three rolls up to this babe in his wheelchair and he asks her can he take a selfie with her and she says fine go ahead and he asks her do you know who my favorite lyricist is which might seem a little random but she says it’s gotta be Cole Porter on account of his great song “Did You Evah?” which sort of throws him because she was supposed to say no who is your favorite lyricist and so he says how does that song go again and she starts singing Have you heard that Mimsie Starr …(what now?) She got pinched in the Astor bar And did you know that old George Bush…(what now?) He grabs young ladies by the tush--and by the way what’s your favorite Dickens novel and he says well it used to be David Coppafeel but now I think Dumboy and Son is even better and she says Well I nevah…
And then I awoke to a morning paper announcing that Kevin Spacey is so deep in Weinsteinian doodoo that Netflix is cancelling “House of Cards,” meaning I may never find out the story about this fellow Will Conway, in which case Weinstein is going to have to answer to me.
Wednesday, October 25, 2017
the fruit of the juglans nigra
According to a pleasant legend Isaac Newton sat musing beneath an apple tree when a falling piece of fruit bonked him on the head. So he decided to invent modern physical theory. It is stuff like this that has infused the word legend—which ought to mean simply something you read—with implications of fiction if not whopperism. The truth is that he was not sitting, nor did the apple hit him. But he did observe one falling, and it appeared to fall in an absolutely straight path from bough to turf. So he decided to invent modern physical theory.
on the tree
The Flemings are no less capable of observation than the Newtons, though perhaps somewhat less deductively brilliant. When I arrived at my son’s country place a couple of weeks ago I caught him black-handed removing the cortices of a basket of fallen wild walnuts which had first captured his attention by the considerable noise created when they fell upon the roof of a parked Volvo station-wagon. The black walnut (juglans nigra) is a fairly common tree in the northeastern United States, but he had not noticed that there was a rather tall one looming over what you might call his private parking lot. His discovery led him to no modification of modern physical theory, but it did suggest the possibility of a tasty walnut pie. I joined the project with enthusiasm. I had to leave the hunting part of my hunter-gatherer genes behind in Arkansas, but I still gather with the best of them. By the time I left for home we had liberated a few dozen walnut shells.
on the ground
Directly across the street from my house is a largish tract of University-owned land recently cleared of its old student housing units. It still has its paved roads and street lighting, but it is blocked off from vehicular traffic, and has consequently become my neighborhood’s own private park, with acres of greensward, fields of broadcast wild flowers, and plenty of mature trees. One of these, not a hundred yards from my front door, I knew to be a black walnut. Sure enough, when I sought it out, I found the ground beneath it thickly scattered with freshly fallen green walnut balls and blackened ones that had been on the ground for a while. As it happens, late September to mid-October is the perfect season for harvesting walnuts. I gathered up a barrow load full, and wheeled it to my back yard.
Removing the fibrous coverings from the hard shells that enclose the actual nutmeats is a laborious and rather messy business. The cortex has the consistency of a hard raw sweet potato, and it wants to cling ferociously to the inner shells. It emits a pungent limey smell and secretes a dark greenish sap that indelibly stains whatever it touches, especially that pale-toned Caucasian skin known for some reason as “white”. It turns such skin “black”. So I soon enough had black hands and a heap of walnuts of my own. My general theory of life is that if a little bit of something is a little bit of fun, a lot of it is probably a lot more fun. So I made an arboreal survey of the whole “park” and found three more specimens of juglans nigra, two of them magnificent in their fecundity. Always searching for plausible reasons to avoid real work, I spent the next two days in walnut processing.
When done with pre-industrial techniques it is a very labor-intensive business. Gathering large numbers of the green balls is a trial for the ancient back. I soon enough discovered that the really hard work could be done in a seated position. This involves stomping hard on the balls with a heavy boots, an attack that often frees the inner shell with a single blow and rarely crushes it. It also frees a certain amount of juicy splatter, of course. I eventually learned that if I wore paper-thin medical gloves within a pair of robust work gloves I might emerge less swarthy.
on my kitchen table
There is much art to be mastered, of course. The ideal nuts are big ones on which the cortex has begun to soften but is not yet blackened. And freeing the inner walnut shell is by no means the end of the process. You want to get rid of as much of the adhering inky gunk as possible. According to a YouTube tutorial prepared by some geezer in West Virginia the proper tool for this is a cement mixer. I don’t have one to hand at the moment, but I discovered that if you put a couple of hundred of nuts and a few sharp gravels into a few inches of water in a tight and sturdy wheelbarrow, then agitate it all like mad with a garden hoe for about twenty minutes, then wash down the results over a wire-mesh frame, then dry the shells for a few hours in full sun—well, you end up with the plausible results pictured above: about twelve hundred black walnuts ready to be seasoned for a few weeks before becoming Christmas dessert. Furthermore, if you cost out the time investment at the rate of the current minimum wage, it cannot be more than about $1.12 per walnut. Of course the fine work of cracking the shells and picking out the minute pieces of meat still lies ahead.
nut-gatherer suffering from pollex niger
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Michael Curschmann (1936-2017)
I am not big on trigger warnings, but since I am aware that what I have to say today is not particularly amusing or uplifting, I might as well tell you that in advance. In general I do my best to fulfill the affirmative role of a “senior citizen” that is assigned to my particular sociological subdivision. You see photographs of such people, gray to be sure but tanned and beaming, especially in advertisements for insurance policies and retirement communities. That is, I am “active”. I have “interests”. I am “engaged with the community”. The motion of the molecules is incessant. I frolic with my grandchildren. Yet my subject today is a disquieting aspect of the aging process—namely the proximity of old age to death. I do not refer merely to a heightened personal apprehension of my own mortality, though I am not so foolish or mendacious as to deny its relevance. Every person alive this morning will be one day closer to death tomorrow. But as you get old, you find that death’s intrusions become more frequent, more disturbing, and more cruel. Your childhood friends, your old classmates, colleagues and companions with whom you have spent decades of shared labor or shared aspiration—these people begin to disappear. At first it seems random and aberrant, and then you look at some membership list of something from 1950, or 60, or even 70—and you realize that some or many or even most of the people on it are now gone. You find yourself reading obituaries and—if you have even so little a public presence as I do—writing them. You observe and in some measure enter the sorrow of friends who have lost husbands or wives.
We got back from a stimulating trip to Michigan, reported on a couple weeks ago. That was late on a Wednesday. We anticipated the happy prospect of a brief visit from our dear friend Jim Magnuson. Jim arrived just before noon on Saturday at the train station, whence we collected him. We were still in the first couple of hours of animated, jovial debriefings at our house when the phone rang. On the other end of the line, calling from Delaware, was the daughter of another close friend, Michael Curschmann. She was distraught. She reported that her father had just died.
Michael lived in a house probably less than five hundred yards from my own, literally on the next street. In recent years he was a widower, and he lived alone. It was probably a sudden massive heart attack that killed him. When exactly the blow struck I don’t know. It may have been not very long after our plane was touching down at Newark Airport. After a couple of days, suspicious inactivity at his residence alarmed neighbors and led to the discovery of his body. You read about such things in newspapers.
Michael was a most distinguished scholar of medieval German literature. The praise of his professional accomplishment will rightly occupy the necrologies of the learned academies of which he was an ornament. I shall no doubt have some part in composing one or two of these, but his scholarly attainments have little to do with the sorrow we are now feeling. I might go so far as to say they are irrelevant to it. Michael and I were almost exactly of an age. We joined the Princeton faculty at almost the same time. We were friends for more than half a century and for at least the last three decades close friends.
Augustine, who is so expert in pointing out the obvious in its most unwelcome forms, somewhere says that all our obsequies and funerary rites, our tailored reminiscences and memorial meditations, while they may pretend to honor or to magnify the beloved dead, are in fact but palliatives, and often enough rather feeble ones at that, for the living. Few things are more complete than death, but it is precisely from that point of view that Michael’s death seems to me particularly wrong and objectionable. I went away for a few busy days and returned to something awful, sudden, immobile, and definitive. You want to regard it in some way as tentative or provisional. Absurdly you want to search about for something negotiable in it.
I may be among the last admirers of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” written in response to the sudden death of his intimate friend Hallam in 1833; but for all its Victorian embarrassments I do admire it. It took Tennyson fifteen years to finish the poem, and even then one of his principal themes was the impossibility of finding the right words for the task at hand. “I sometimes hold it half a sin to put in words the grief I feel,” he writes. “For words, like Nature, half reveal and half conceal the Soul within”.
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Monday last was Columbus Day. For me the sole practical implication of that fact was that there was no mail delivery, but I was aware of a cloud of metaphysical implications forming on the horizon. We had just enjoyed a rare visit from a dear friend from Austin TX, who reported that his city council had just voted to replace the holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I have also been reading the papers. I know that Mayor Di Blasio, whose father’s German name (Wilhelm) was of less political utility than his mother’s Italian one, had been musing aloud about the problem of Columbus Circle and its conspicuous statue of the Mediterranean mariner. He wants to cleanse the City of its fascist heritage, but perhaps for the moment he will be satisfied with such low-hanging fruit as the sidewalk plaque commemorating the ticker-tape parade that honored Marshall Petain in 1931. Then, more gradually perhaps, he could abolish Columbia University. The disposition of the District of Columbia, Columbus, Ohio, the Columbia River, the Knights of Columbus, “Way Down in Columbus Georgia”, etc. might be posptponable to the next administration.
threatened in Manhattan
I have been here once before, in 1992, when I was one of the curators of a major exhibition at the Library of Congress marking the Quincentenary of Columbus’s first voyage. In 1892 the Columbian Exposition had celebrated a number of the unlikely virtues of a medieval Genoese mystic: his Yankee fortitude, his Protestant work ethic, his indomitable will to succeed in business. Now we were supposed to find in him nought but blind luck, unquenchable greed, and an appetite for genocide. The verb discover and its kinfolk were to be banished. Columbus could not have “discovered” America, as America was never lost. People already lived there. Of course my whole life has been a series of great discoveries—such as girls, Shakespeare, and spaghetti alle vongole—that somebody else probably already knew about.
Neither the atrocities committed by some Europeans nor the valid indignation of some contemporary seekers after justice are to be dismissed or belittled, but historical truth is ill-served by ideological erasures and air-brushings. Karl Marx famously said that changing the world should take priority over merely understanding it. The first stanza of the “Internationale” contains the following aspiration: Du passé faisons table rase—“Let us make a blank slate of the past”—or more literally a tabula rasa, an erased wax tablet, the student’s notebook of ancient times. In the last century, in Poland, in Russia, in China, in Cambodia, and elsewhere, political regimes ostensibly committed to making the world a better place through principled erasure amassed hecatombs reckoned at about a hundred million human lives.
At the end of the eighteenth century the Indians of the northeast were not without grievances, but neither were the European refugees. Among the crimes imputed to King George in our Declaration of Independence is his attempt “to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” The etymological meaning of the word “savage” in English was “forest-dweller”; the evolved meaning grew out of observed experience. Even so, early (Anglo) American writers, following the lead of such French Romantics as Bernard de Saint-Pierre and Réné de Chateaubriand give us admiring and idealized pictures of Indians and Indian lore. I think of the novels of Fenimore Cooper or Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” a masterpiece condemned by the political correctness of people who have never read it.
a happy islander, according to Pliny
I do not know whether Bill Di Blasio has studied all of Columbus’s writings, but I have. I am especially interested in his “Book of Prophecies”, which holds interest for me in its reflections of medieval Franciscan millenarianism. Columbus was a sailor of amazing skill and daring, and he grasped a navigational principle, in retrospect obvious but at the time audaciously innovative. As an observer of phenomena unknown in Europe he is often disappointingly banal. Things are either “like we have in Castile” or “different from what we have in Castile”—the initial reaction of many tourists even in our jet age. As to the human inhabitants of his “India”, he looked for what he had been taught to look for by ancient geographers like Pliny and Strabo and medieval Munchausens like John of Mandeville. That is, he looked for giants, pygmies, monocular men, retrohumeral men, macropedes, and dog-headed men, also known as cannibals. We usually find what we are looking for, if we look hard enough.
We may fault Columbus for blinkered vision. Although he was among the earlier world travelers, he lacked a cosmopolitan view. In other words he is different from what we have in Castile, or perhaps Berkeley. But if cultural solipsism is to be deplored in the fifteenth century, one might pause before indulging it in the twenty-first. The past is very important, but it is actually hard--very hard--to grasp. We are prone to treat its events and personages as inkblots in our self-designed Rorschach tests, and then to believe that our inkblot is essential truth.
probably safe (for the moment) in Barcelona