Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Texting Women

Richard de Fournival, a learned French author of the fourteenth century, says in the preface to one of his works that there are two ways of teaching and learning, by word (parole) and by image (painture).  Certainly one of the most engaging aspects of many medieval books is the relationship between their words and their images.  Another way of thinking about the relationship is that of text and context--what goes "with the text".  My own doctoral dissertation studied that relationship in scores of manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose—a book read by practically everybody in the Middle Ages, and by practically nobody today.

I have been thinking about the marriage of parole and painture for a somewhat whimsical reason.  In the past couple of weeks as I return to a new and more intensive routine of research and writing, I have moved out of my home study and back into the library, where I still have an office.  There are gains and there are losses in this move.  I’ve had to give up the leisurely spousal sharing of coffee and newspaper, and the pleasing option of being able step away from my desk at will and out into the beautiful autumn landscape forty yards away.  On the other hand I am now surrounded by millions rather than mere hundreds of books, and since there is nothing else to do than read or write, I tend to get more accomplished.

Still one has to get up now and again for calls of nature or simply to move the molecules a bit.  Throughout the day I take five-minute mini-walks through the miles of open stacks in the Firestone Library, sometimes plucking from a shelf some random book that catches my eye.  Last week I found myself reading up in odd moments on the Klondike Gold Rush and the British naval action against the French fleet at Mers el Kebir in 1940.  Those are two different subjects in case you are groping for the elusive connection.

  ISTI MIRANT STELLAM : "These guys are looking at the star"

On Monday the book I picked up from some oversize shelves was more along my beaten path: the elaborate coffee table edition of the Bayeux Tapestry by David M. Wilson (New York: Knopf, 1985).  This book has very large color photographs of every inch of the tapestry, which is many inches (it is sixty eight meters long).  As you undoubtedly know the tapestry, which is named for the Norman town in which it has been preserved, is a huge eleventh-century embroidery that delineates in image and in word the background and history of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the triumph of the Norman Duke William, the death of the English King Harold.  I perhaps should say it provides a version of these events as determined by a Norman propagandist.  History is written by the victors, and in this instance the victors have needled the vanquished in a particularly brilliant way.

The glory of the tapestry is undoubtedly its pictorial wealth, particularly in the many scenes dealing with battle and seafaring.  The astronomical phenomenon now known as Halley’s Comet appeared in the skies of 1066, and it was of course later taken as the presage of some great disaster or triumph, depending upon the side of the Channel from which it had been viewed.  It is recorded in the tapestry.  But there is also a running written text.  The large majuscules of its simple sentences suggest the Dick and Jane genre—or in this instance the Ricardus et Joanna, as it is in very easy Latin.

It’s a Man’s World that the tapestry depicts, but it is to women that we are indebted for possessing it.  There is elegance in the union of pictorial and narrative meaning in this textile, for the word text, like textile, derives from the Latin word texere, to weave (past participle textus).  A story is a cloth of words.  We still talk about spinning a yarn, and there are other verbal memories of the connection.  We may lose the thread of some complicated story.  The literal meaning of clew (clue) is thread, a filament to be followed from confusion to resolution, as Theseus followed Ariadne’s thread out of the labyrinth, or as Sherlock Holmes follows it to the solution of the crime.

Weaving was women’s work, and there are many literary examples of female textual/textile cleverness.   A famous classical instance will readily come to mind: the ruse devised by Penelope, wife of Ulysses, long-absent and presumed dead by many, to keep her suitors at bay.  Penelope has no desire to remarry, but under pressure she promises to become available when she finishes weaving the elaborate tapestry on which she is engaged.  After hours, and out of sight of the slavering aspirants, however, she picks apart each day’s work, so that the project never advances.  Eventually her long-absent husband Ulysses returns and deals harshly with his would-be successors to the conjugal bed.

A second example, much gorier, is the legend of Philomela (the nightingale) from Ovid.  Philomela was brutally raped by King Tereus, the husband of her sister Procne.  He was supposed to be fetching her home by sea for a family reunion.  Attempting to cover up the crime, Tereus then has Philomela’s tongue ripped from her mouth so that she will not be able to report the crime to her sister.  However Philomela is able to convey the necessary information to Procne in a wordless text, an X-rated, historiated tapestry.  Procne wrought a revenge upon her husband too hideous to report in a family blog—and of course way beyond my own weaving skills.

Philomela's Loom of Doom : Sir Edward Burne-Jones

But the great weavers of the late Middle Ages, I take some pride in reporting, were the Flemings.  Most people’s favorite character in Chaucer is probably the Wife of Bath, than whom a more textual lady would be hard to find, as she is made up, quilt-like, of brilliantly recycled and recombined squares from the Bible, Ovid, and Jean de Meun.  One of the first things we learn about her is her textile prowess:
Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt   [talent]
She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt. 

Ypres and Ghent were two of the great wool centers of the Flemish heartland.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On the Death of David Greenglass

Ethel Rosenberg with her brother, David Greenglass, in better days

David Greenglass died last summer at the age of 92, but the sleuths from the New York Times found out about it only last week.  He had been living for the last half century in deep obscurity under a false name.  His actual name will mean little to most of my readers, but he will be remembered by future American historians at a level at least one above the footnote.  A footnote was the best I myself could do for him in The Anti-Communist Manifestos (p. 355n).
            David Greenglass was the younger brother of Ethel Rosenberg, who with her husband Julius was electrocuted at Sing Sing on June 19, 1953.  The Rosenbergs had been convicted of treasonous espionage for transmitting to Soviet agents stolen information containing “the secret of the atomic bomb.”  The source of the documents was actually Greenglass, a spy working as a machinist at the top secret atomic installation in Los Alamos, NM.  There was plenty of evidence to convict Julius Rosenberg.  But Greenglass and his wife Ruth sealed Ethel’s fate as well with testimony claiming that she played an active conspiratorial role by creating with a typewriter a fair copy of some of information supplied by her brother.  For their cooperation David was given a comparatively short prison sentence and Ruth escaped without doing time at all.

            All four were Communists, actual Communists, with a shared background in a fascinating, vanished world: that of the politically radical intellectual and working-class Jewish life of New York in the Thirties.  Many on the left regarded the Rosenbergs as innocent victims of Cold War hysteria and the Greenglasses as lying turncoats.  It was an article of faith among Western Communists that the Rosenbergs had been framed.  For most of them this was a sincere belief, not a cynical pose.  As the execution date neared there were protest demonstrations in several American cities.  In Europe, especially France and Italy, the protests were huge.
            What can we say now, with certainty, probability, or even plausible possibility?  Leaving aside the propriety of capital punishment, we can begin with the fact that there was no such thing as the secret of the atomic bomb, and it is at least uncertain that David’s crude sketch of the implosion lens was of practical use to the Russians.  Intention is something else.  Julius was certainly a Soviet agent and a spy.  So was David, a gung-ho American Communist of the most naïve sort, who dissimulated his way through an incompetent security screening, but then did his level best to convert his fellow workers at Los Alamos to the Soviet cause!  (The Keystone Cops dimension of our security services is a hallowed tradition).  Ethel was certainly an ideologically committed Stalinist and almost certainly an active conspirator in the spy ring; but it is likely that the government prosecutors went after her primarily in a futile attempt to secure a confession from her husband.  It is quite possible, as was his much later claim, that David’s direct testimony about her was perjured.  He may have sacrificed his sister to save his wife--if Ruth was the one who really sat at the typewriter.  It is possible, therefore, that Ethel was wrongly convicted—which is different from being innocent of the crime of which she was charged.
            The term “historical climate” is a rather vague one, but historical climates do exist, even if they can usually be described only in retrospect and then with only partial accuracy.  I had already entered my teenage years when first the Chambers-Hiss affair and then the Rosenberg trial devolved.  I had strong political interests, and I followed them avidly.  But they now seem nearly as distant and elusive as the ecclesiastical politics of Tudor England.  I say “ecclesiastical” with intent, for I have discovered that the historiography of the Cold War often reveals a kind of theological superstructure usually associated with faith communities.
            My book The Anti-Communist Manifestos (2009) had accidental beginnings.  I had taught and admired Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and I stumbled upon “Jan Valtin” and Out of the Night by the merest chance.  I began to see that there had been a genuine literary dimension to those Cold War Years which were the dawn of my personal political consciousness.  That was a perception likely to intrigue any literature professor, but I never would have written the book save for another encounter with the Zeitgeist of 1950.  In April of 2007 NYU hosted a one-day conference on the theme “Alger Hiss and History”.  I set off to this conference with the humility of a pupil rather than the confidence of a professor.
            The venue for the series of talks was the large auditorium of the Law School on Washington Square South.  This is a big room, and it was mostly full.  I began to get the drift of things when the keynote speaker turned out to be Victor Navasky, former editor of the Nation magazine, a journal that spent approximately half a century arguing Hiss’s innocence and demanding his vindication.  As the day wore on I came to realize that of the four hundred people in that room, three hundred and ninety of them were sincerely convinced of Hiss’s innocence!  To hold any other view was closer to political criminality than mere stupidity.  And like trees planted by the water, they would not be moved.
            I then knew that I had to write a book.  This not because I thought I had any new information or insight about Alger Hiss or Whittaker Chambers.  I was and am convinced of Hiss’s espionage and his perjury, but so by now was practically everybody else—aside, that is, from the demographic wildly overrepresented in the NYU Law School auditorium.  But I was now fascinated by the puzzling fact that a whole generation of western intellectuals—tens of thousands in Europe, but thousands here in America too—could have become true believers in the Soviet sham, and its full-throated supporters.  I never came up with a comprehensive explanation, though I had fun looking for one.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Backwoods Ingenuity

I don’t watch much television per se, not enough certainly to justify my monthly cable bill; but I do catch up with certain things streaming on Netflix: programs about honey badgers, how to build an ancient Egyptian chariot, that sort of thing.  A couple of weeks ago I chanced upon something called “Hillbilly Blood,” a Discovery Channel series featuring the doings of a couple of highly resourceful fellows who live off the grid and off the land in the boondocks of western North Carolina, practicing what might be called Extreme Self-Reliance--in convenient, hour-long episodes.  They know every plant, medicinal or noxious, in the Appalachian forest, and they gladly consume insect protein that would make city-dwellers gag.  They do stuff like making hunting bows out of old truck springs and arrows out of short lengths of rebar.

Spencer and Eugene messing about

            The program’s premise is of course pretty hokey, and the two protagonists, who are very attractive and plausible fellows, now and again jump the shark.  In one episode, short of cash as usual, they go into the woods, build an ingenious makeshift placer sluice and a water-powered pump, and start washing creek gravel in search of emeralds and rubies.  Quite soon they find a stone worth eight grand.  That might encourage you or me to continue; but they immediately decamp to go back home to their routine subsistence activities and a few chews on shards of venison jerky.

            But on the whole I found “Hillbilly Blood” terrific, a sort of televised version of the old Foxfire books, or perhaps a dramatization of Eric Sloane’s Little Book of Early American Know-How.  Its main message—the independence of mountain folk as evidenced in their competence, skill, and invention—resonates with the experience of my Ozark boyhood.  I knew lots of guys like Eugene and Spencer, beginning with my father and his two brothers, my uncles John and Wayne.  They built the house in which we lived, beginning not with milled lumber but with cedar trees felled by crosscut saw, raised much of the food we ate, and seldom saw a day pass without fixing some antique machine with spit and baling wire.
another of Sloane's captivating books

            My father was a great man, and one of the finest I have ever known.  Unlike the television “hillbillies” he had no principled aversion to remunerated work, and during the decade following the War he dragged me and my siblings to work sites through most of the southwestern states, including three different places in California alone.  But we were always returning to Arkansas for greater and shorter periods, and wherever we were he seemed to try to live, however impractically, as though he were still in some deep woods.  And he always had one essential quality which is not particularly showcased on “Hillbilly Blood” but was characteristic of many of the country people I knew as a child.  I’ll call it spirituality.

            My Dad reported the following story.  There was in a remote corner of our farm a long-abandoned homestead of which the most obvious relic was a large and unusually deep root cellar.  We were seldom there, but in it my uncles stored some fencing materials used for occasional repairs needed in that sector.  One day, when my father was there alone, he rather purposelessly stepped down the narrow stairwell into the murk of this dim place.  A loud rattle made known to him that he had just walked very near to, or perhaps even over, a snake which, looking back now toward the back-lighted steps, on which it was curled, he could see was very large, malignly aroused, and positioned between him and his only route of egress.  By inexplicable fortuity there was lying on the dirt floor of the dugout cellar, barely visible, a cleft stick with a small, even fork at its end.  With this he was able ingeniously to pinion the snake’s hissing head against one of the stone steps, holding it fixed, with its long tail flailing wildly, while he stomped it to death with the heel of his heavy work boots.  All in a day’s work.

            It was not this episode itself, which was less dramatic than many in his life, that impressed me as a child, so much as the humble and matter-of-fact mode of its telling.  He told it as a story against himself, as an indictment of a culpable carelessness.  When asked by my brother what he did when he saw the snake, he answered thus: “I looked around for the stick.”  He did not say “a stick” but “the stick”, and the drift was very clear to me even at the age of ten.  In a situation of considerable danger, there was no question in his mind but that Providence would provide a solution.  All he had to do was use his wits and find it.  He then quoted some lines of poetry that, I much later learned, were from the third verse of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.  That is pretty hard-core!  Who knows the third verse of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”?

“I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
 ‘As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal’;
Let the hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel!”

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

From the Holy Mountain


         I recently signed a contract with the Oxford University Press to compile a little book to be called A Cabinet of Medieval Curiosities--one of a number of such “cabinets” already published or in the course of preparation.  I’ll be grateful for any curiosities suggested by my readers.  The medieval genre of sacred biography (i.e., saints’ lives) is a rich acre, and I have begun rummaging around in the two classic English language collections of the Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler and by Sabine Baring-Gould.  I am in search of a certain Celtic holy man whose name I have forgotten.  Beheaded by his pagan tormentors beside a watercourse, he showed his contempt for the whole proceedings by then swimming across the stream with his head in his teeth.

            Miracles, often extravagant and preferably in profusion, were a requirement of medieval saints’ lives.  Indeed the practice developed of separating them off in a special sub-volume called Miracula so as to allow the straight biography to flow more smoothly.  Modern biographers might find a useful hint here.  Most of the ones I’ve read recently could be improved by segregating about a third of their materials in a subsidiary volume of Sexualia.

            Of course if you are looking for real curiosities, the periods of the alleged Renaissance or of the Enlightenment are the places to do it.  Hagiography comprised a significant portion of the ecclesiastical literature of the Middle Ages.  It is not to be supposed that the new scholarly spirit enabled by the printing press would neglect it entirely, and it soon attracted the same energetic and exacting philology that had produced numerous impressive editions of classical texts and Erasmus’s groundbreaking edition of the Greek New Testament.  The great scholarly experts in saints’ lives were a group of Jesuits in the Low Countries who had taken scholarly hagiography as their special vocation.  They continue to this very day and are generally called the Bollandists after one of the prominent early scholars, John Bolland (1596-1665), though the chief protagonist of the episode I am about to relate was Daniel Papebroch (1628-1714).

The amazing fruit of the Bollandists’ labors is called the Acta Sanctorum, the vast scholarly library of saints’ lives searched out from the monastic and secular libraries of Europe, a collection indispensable for the scholar of medieval history, literature, and folk lore.  The monastic historian David Knowles, in his endlessly engaging and informative lectures on Great Historical Enterprises, reports an episode of seventeenth-century ecclesiastical warfare concerning the Acta that, though deadly serious to its contemporary combatants, must strike most modern readers as whimsical.

 Some volumes of the Acta Sanctorum: Heavy Scholarship

Few works would seem less likely candidates for ecclesiastical censure than the Bollandists’ huge volumes of erudite piety.  Their dangers are perhaps real enough—it might prove fatal to attempt to read one in bed.  Avoirdupois, however, is not primarily a spiritual peril.   Yet for two decades of the seventeenth century several recently published volumes of the Acta lay beneath the condemnation of the Spanish Inquisition, and the Bollandists’ whole enterprise languished while Daniel Papebroch conducted tedious and dubious battle for his brothers’ vindication in ecclesiastical courts in Rome and elsewhere. 

Papebroch’s crime was to have cast doubt, in the editorial apparatus to the life of Saint Albert of Jerusalem (Alberto Avogardo, 1149-1214, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem beginning in 1204) upon the origin myth of the Carmelite Order.  The Carmelites, often called the White Friars, were one of the four new orders of mendicant friars to win papal approval—along with the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Augustinians—in the early thirteenth century.  The actual date of papal authorization was 1224, but the Patriarch of Jerusalem had some years earlier confirmed their rule within his jurisdiction.  But the White Friars themselves claimed that the Order had been in continuous existence on Mount Carmel since the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who were in fact the first Carmelites.  It is probable that for many of the early friars the idea of the historical connection with Elijah was as authoritative as the words of the rule itself.  The idea that a Christian religious order should antedate Christ by a millennium or so seemed to present no problem for the Carmelites.

The Medieval Carmelite Family with Their Protectrice, the Blessed Virgin

Certainly the legendary origin of Carmel was already widespread in the general religious culture of the late Middle Ages, where it was by no means always swallowed whole.   Chaucer refers to the myth—with obviously satiric intent—in the “Summoner’s Tale”.*  But in Spain, where the Order was very strong—Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were two famous sixteen-century Spanish Carmelites—and where the inquisitorial spirit was alive and kicking, one doubted it at one’s peril.  If you think your Division of Motor Vehicles is a malign and intractable bureaucracy, you are doubtless right.  Now imagine such an entity with the power to burn you at the stake and you have something of the tenor of dealing with a consistory court in the Archdiocese of Toledo.

That’s what poor Father Papebroch was up against.  This sort of thing shouldn’t happen even to a Jesuit!  As Knowles suggests, such a curious episode in the history of scholarship would deserve a more thorough study than a blog entry.  It’s a little hard to imagine, though, a scholarly journal sufficiently specialized to be interested.

*"But syn Elye was, or Elise      [Elijah…Elisha]

Han freres been -- that fynde I of record – "  ("Summoner's Tale,"  2116-17)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Report from the Old Country

            We arrived in Newark from London in late afternoon on Monday, temporarily wilted from the rigors of the cattle car aspect of the Friendly Skies, but more fundamentally refreshed and renewed by a visit to Britain that included about as much variety as was feasible for a visit of less than two weeks.  For starters, our trip coincided with a certain amount of British political excitement.  We arrived on the very day of the Scottish referendum, and awoke next day to the news of its result.  Both the Labour and Conservative party conferences took place during our brief stay.  We conducted some business and indulged in much pleasure, participated in an excellent scholarly gathering, and had good visits with family and old friends, spending quality time both in the country and in the city, where we had a day binging on museums and a night at the theater.

            Joan and I met in Oxford in the late fifties, and we naturally have many fond memories of the place, to which we have returned as frequently as possible.  In recent years we have been rather taken with the conference entitled “Meeting Minds” sponsored each September by the increasingly sophisticated (i. e., Americanized) Oxford University Alumni Office.  “Meeting Minds,” which showcases many of the University’s most able scholars and lecturers, is a kind of Elderhostel on pep pills.  This year we were actually able to rent a room reasonably in my old college, which like many others is realizing the financial potential of its hospitality.   Our comfortable lodgings, while radically upgraded since my undergraduate days, still had the uniquely Oxonian whiff of antiquity about them.  Each of the several lectures and panels we heard—beginning with a Dominican friar’s unusual explication of Dante’s Purgatorio—was of excellent quality, but as it is one duty of an essayist to propose credible unifying themes, I might suggest the indeterminacy of history.  We are in the midst of the serial centenary observation of the events of the First World War, still often called in Britain the “Great War”.  Not surprisingly, the Great War was a recurrent subject in the “Meeting Minds” program, and one memorable lecture was by Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian historian who is the Warden of St. Anthony’s College, and recently the author of The War That Ended Peace: the Road to 1914.  Many of the best lecture titles are questions.  Her question concerning the outbreak of war was the soul of wit: “Choice or Accident?”
the beginning of a very bad trip

            She answered the question only as a throwaway at the end: probably an accident.  If the Archduke Ferdinand’s driver had not made a wrong turn, there probably would have been no battle of the Somme.  The Materialist View of history struggles with the Great Man View—with so much wiggle room in history’s interstices as to guarantee a succession of tenured slots in perpetuity.

            Before leaving Oxford for Joan’s brother’s home in Wye in Kent, we had lunch with John and Frances Walsh, one of two surviving Oxford couples with whom we have enjoyed the continuing friendship of half a century.  Regular readers already know that in rural Kent I had to declare electronic defeat, but there were compensations.  I had a morning rambling about the chalky hillsides above Wye, and half a day on my own in nearby Canterbury—a treat that no Chaucerian is likely to squander in an Internet café.  

            A good friend’s fine apartment in Westminster, of which we enjoyed the use, is a short walk from the Houses of Parliament and practically no walk at all from the Tate (Britain), where the spectacular current show features the late paintings of Turner, overwhelming in their number and their chromatic daring.  The painter largely turned away from oil and canvas in his later years to work, with increasing daring and experimentation, in water colors.  Among the outstanding water colors in the show is the “Blue Rigi”—the Rigi being a mountain behind Lake Lucerne—which became famous as one of several British masterpieces “saved for the nation” from the philistine vicissitudes of the auction house by popular subscription through the Art Fund—a kind of Oxfam for British Art.

The "Blue Rigi" (J. M. W. Turner, 1842)

            I thought that Turner, too, related to Professor MacMillan’s suggestions of historical indeterminacy—that what undoubtedly happened might not have happened, or could very well have happened differently, or does indeed “happen” in different ways once forcefully imagined.  Turner saw things in a way doubtless unique to himself, though if one once vicariously views them through his eyes, the vision seems inexorable and definitive.  I was surprised to realize that a large number of his paintings are at least in theory narrative—historical, mythological, or literary.  The final three paintings—and a stunning trio they make—took as their subject matter the parting of Dido and Æneas from the fourth book of Virgil’s Æneid.

            Getting to the Tate five minutes before it opened, thus guaranteeing that we would be part of the day’s initial and relatively sparse cohort of picture-peepers, was something of a coup—though not the literal coup de théatre that was to follow.  My brilliant spouse, refuting naysayers on two sides of the Atlantic, had secured a pair of tickets to the Saturday night performance of the stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Bring Up the Bodies at the Aldwych.  This was a feat deemed impossible by the Common Wisdom.
Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell

            As you probably know, Mantel has completed the first two of a projected trilogy of historical novels centered on the ambiguous career of Thomas Cromwell, the powerful lieutenant to King Henry VIII in the third and fourth decades of the sixteenth century.  The first two—the first being Wolf Hall—made literary history by winning successive Man Booker (best novel) prizes in 2009 and 2012.   They have been turned into stage plays by the Royal Shakespeare Society.   An artist in search of historical ambiguity, controversy, or indeterminacy could hardly find a richer field than the interplay of hot pants and ecclesiastical politics of the Henrician period.  I have made no deep study of that time, but years ago I did work my way through the four thick volumes of James Gairdner’s Lollardy and the Reformation in England (1908-1913) and still have them on my shelves.  My rather blunt mental creation of Cromwell drawn from Gairdner’s copious documents is very different from that conjured up by Hilary Mantel and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and much less interesting.  But of course on my own I would never see Turner’s colors in my reading of Virgil either.  It is the peculiar gift of the artists—painters, writers, actors--to give serious meaning to such often vacuous phrases as in light of or from the point of view of.  “The English Reformation: Choice or Accident?”

            Little did I realize as we moved enthralled from the crowded theater to the yet more crowded streets of the Theater District, practically seething with exuberant, youthful life, that we were not yet quite through with the Tudors.  The next morning, Sunday, we asked the doorman to direct us to the nearest church.  He sent us in the direction of St. Margaret’s, check by jowl with Westminster Abbey.  The Abbey itself has long since become a tourist phenomenon rather than a functioning house of worship.  The truth is I had my silent reservations about Saint Margaret’s itself.  I had passed by its beautiful exterior many times on the bus, but I knew nothing of it as a parish save that it was the frequent venue of posh weddings among the titled and the entitled.  What we found was a beautifully conducted choral Eucharist, a sizeable and variegated congregation drawn from many lands, and a sixteenth-century architectural gem.  Among its beautiful decorations one is prominent: the large, exquisite east window donated by King Henry and his wife Catherine of Aragon!  It's a real shame that marriage didn't last.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bloguiste in abeyance...

...temporarily stranded in pre~electronic community in the Kent hinterland.  But like the Sabbath, blogging was made for man, and not the other way around.  So we'll continue from America next week.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Matila Ghyka

 Matila Ghyka (1881-1965) in full military/diplomatic rig

            Individual lives, like all of history, have a tendency to divide themselves up into discernible periods; and in life as in history it is the transitional moment that is most difficult to define.  When did the Jurassic give way to the Cretaceous, or the Medieval to the Early Modern?   I’m feeling indefinite and micro-transitional myself.  I have finished a book project, and before I really settle into a couple of others there will be a brief trip to England, beginning later today, to take in the annual “Oxford Thinking” conference and to visit family and friends. 

            My recently completed project involved the study of some erudite Renaissance poets who use complex mathematical schemes in the construction of their poems.  Believing that the divine Creator had laid out the universe in perfect, intelligible harmonies, Christian poets, no less than painters, sculptors, and architects, often sought to imitate or echo in their own works what they sometimes called “divine proportion”.  One very common device exploits the so-called “Golden Section” (division in extreme and mean ratio) or plays with its arithmetical expression in the irrational “Golden Number,” Φ (1.6180339887….)

            The weeds grow thick around the topic of Pythagorean number mysticism, and a poor literary scholar can easily get lost in them.  Just as I was about to drown in the choppy waves of Robert Herz-Fischer’s A Mathematical History of Division in Extreme and Mean Ratio I chanced upon a life raft in the form of an older, delightfully “humanistic” book dealing with the information I needed by somebody with the unlikely name of Matila Ghyka.*   

            I used it with profit and made a mental note that, when some unfettered leisure should arrive, I ought to find out who Matila Ghyka might be (or as it turned out, might have been).  My transitional otium has allowed me to do so.  What I found was that Matila Ghyka, who died in 1965, was a polyglot Aromanian aristocrat.  Or he was a French naval officer.  Or he was a Romanian diplomat.   Or a vagabond world-traveler.   Also a mathematician, a philologist, and an American college professor.  Most of all he was an exciting odd-ball thinker and an engaging writer. 

            One gets the impression that by the turn of the twentieth century Transylvania and Moldavia (Ghyka’s native haunt) had changed little since the time of Count Dracula except that its upper crust, to a degree even greater than the Russian aristocracy, had immersed itself in French language and culture.  Ghyka, who had been educated almost indefinitely in French Catholic schools, naturally wrote in French, but in a French beyond my pay grade.

            I was delighted to learn that he had written an autobiography, more delighted still to learn that there was an abridged version in English wonderfully entitled The World Mine Oyster (1961).   The writing is excellent.  The author has translated his own French into his own English.  There was yet better news.  This book has a substantial introductory essay by a favorite author, Patrick Leigh Fermor, prince of modern “travel writers”.  It turns out that Ghyka and Fermor were old friends, having around 1934 shared the exotic hospitality of the Princess Marie Cantacuzène at her estate at Tetzcani in Moldavia.

            But then Ghyka was friends with numerous writers, including two of the giants of modern French literature, Marcel Proust and Paul Valéry.  Who knew?  Not I, for sure.  But if you read Ghyka—another of whose books available in English is The Geometry of Art and Life—it becomes obvious why artists so deeply concerned with rhythm and structure would find him congenial.  Valéry is a rare example of a “creative writer” with a powerful philosophical mind.  Of Ghyka’s demonstration of the aesthetic ubiquity of Φ, Valéry wrote thus: “I maintain—and I have made it a precept of my personal aesthetic—that there exist, in the order of the spirit, powers of passion and of  ‘sentiment’ as strong—even if more rare—as those in the order of the ‘heart.’”  If I understand this aright (by no means certain), here was a modern artist subscribing to some twentieth-century version of sacramental hierarchy or of the Great Chain of Being.

            But leave all that aside.  Quite apart from any abstruse aesthetic theories, The World Mine Oyster is a simply fascinating autobiography rich in exotic information and strange adventures.  Much of it has to do with a world long vanished, as viewed by a certain kind of cultivated European sensibility that has as good as vanished.  And the introductory essay by Patrick Leigh Fermor is pure gold.  There is currently issuing from the press what is already a stream and will soon be a flood of books marking the somber sequence of Great War centennials.  How extraordinary it seemed to me amidst all this to stumble upon these old reflections from the Balkan hinterland where the whole mess began.  The World Mine Oyster is not too easy to find.  But any educated and curious “general reader”—the sort of person for whom this blog’s essays are intended, plausibly or not—will be rewarded by seeking it out, even should the effort involve enlisting the services of Interlibrary Loan.

*Le nombre d’or (Paris, 1931, new ed. 1959)