Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Old Latin Mafia

            It is the occupation of scholars to read widely among books and essays read by very few other people in the preparation of their own studies destined to be read by even fewer.  This is not a cynical remark, let alone a bitter one.  But it is salubrious to have something like a sound assessment of the cosmic importance of what one is doing.  I embraced such a life with enthusiasm, and I continue to pursue it even now, ten years into retirement, at my own rather leisurely pace and according to my self-indulgent timetable.  Earlier this month I sent off the completed manuscript of a book about my favorite sixteenth-century Portuguese poet, leaving me free to move on with my work on monastic Latin poetry of the post-Carolingian period.  Keep your eyes on the list of best-sellers.

            Of course I do make a gesture at keeping up with more “relevant” matters.  I read stuff in the New Yorker, and sometimes in the New York Review of Books.  I am a faithful devourer of the daily Times, and most days I read an anthology of contentious current political commentary on  But the truth is that my chances of finding something of really sustaining value in these venues is not particularly high.  The odds that I will find something captivating in any random run of old scholarly journals are better by a ratio of about eight to one.  In the course of my current work I just re-discovered such a gem, an essay by Walter Ong entitled “Latin Language Study as a Renaissance Puberty Rite.”*  I last read it forty years ago.

            Walter Ong (+2003) was an American Jesuit professor expert in the history of rhetorical theory and practice, particularly in the European Renaissance, and most particularly of all in the works of Petrus Ramus, a great scholar murdered in the infamous Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August, 1572.  In his essay on the study of Latin, Ong took an anthropological approach—quite an unusual move for a literary scholar at that time.  For more than a thousand years the chief business of primary education in Europe was to teach young boys to read, write, and speak Latin with such proficiency that, as slightly older boys, they could pursue higher education in that language.  The task was herculean, and the methods employed draconian.

            The process of achieving Latin proficiency was a combination of brutal hazing ordeal, practical training, initiation rite, and bonding experience.  It was vaguely like Marine boot camp on Parris Island, only several years longer in duration.  The male youth of some Amerindian tribes were required to dangle unflinching for long periods from flesh-hooks piercing their breasts before being admitted to the hunt.  Today we are told, certain gangs of criminal youths require their candidates for admission to commit a murder.  Such was the general vibe among Latin-learners.  When they emerged proficient they were members of a select guild, an “in” group.  The ability to toss off a Latin bon mot made you one of the chaps.  In the 1840s a British military commander in India, Charles James Napier, is alleged to have informed his superiors of his successful pacification of the region of Sind with a one-word message: “Peccavi.”** You had to be one of the chaps to get it, but then they were all chaps, the battle of Waterloo having been won, after all, on the playing fields of Eton.

            One incidental point made by Ong is the necessary connection between the teaching of Latin and corporal punishment: reading and writing and ‘rithmetic, taught to the tune of a hickory stick, indeed.  Part of the standard iconography of the medieval and Renaissance classroom is the master’s rod of correction or whip made of twigs.   Ælfric of Eynsham, an English abbot and schoolmaster at the end of the tenth century, wrote a little Latin primer in the form of a dialogue between master and pupil.  About the first question the master asks is “Are you willing to be beaten in order to learn Latin?”  The answer—admittedly only qualified in its enthusiasm—is yes.  “It is better to be beaten than not to know Latin.”

            This sort of thing went on pretty well for the next millennium.  A certain scene in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I first read as a freshman in college, is seared into my memory.  The presentation of the book’s protagonist, named Stephen Daedalus, is largely autobiographical, and many details obviously recall the author’s own experience of Irish Catholic education at the end of the nineteenth century.  The reason I remember one particular scene so vividly is that its principal victim, a school-chum of Stephen’s, is named Fleming.  The scene is a classroom.   Fleming is already being punished for poor work by being forced to kneel in the middle of the classroom when the Prefect of Studies, a kind of Jesuit Inspector-General, arrives impromptu.

The door opened quietly and closed. A quick whisper ran through the class: the prefect of studies. There was an instant of dead silence and then the loud crack of a pandybat on the last desk. Stephen's heart leapt up in fear.
—Any boys want flogging here, Father Arnall? cried the prefect of studies. Any lazy idle loafers that want flogging in this class?
He came to the middle of the class and saw Fleming on his knees.
—Hoho! he cried. Who is this boy? Why is he on his knees? What is your name, boy?
—Fleming, sir.
—Hoho, Fleming! An idler of course. I can see it in your eye. Why is he on his knees, Father Arnall?
—He wrote a bad Latin theme, Father Arnall said, and he missed all the questions in grammar.
—Of course he did! cried the prefect of studies, of course he did! A born idler! I can see it in the corner of his eye.
He banged his pandybat down on the desk and cried:
—Up, Fleming! Up, my boy!
Fleming stood up slowly.
—Hold out! cried the prefect of studies.
Fleming held out his hand. The pandybat came down on it with a loud smacking sound: one, two, three, four, five, six.
—Other hand!
The pandybat came down again in six loud quick smacks.
—Kneel down! cried the prefect of studies.
Fleming knelt down, squeezing his hands under his armpits, his face contorted with pain; but Stephen knew how hard his hands were because Fleming was always rubbing rosin into them. But perhaps he was in great pain for the noise of the pandybat was terrible. Stephen's heart was beating and fluttering.
—At your work, all of you! shouted the prefect of studies. We want no lazy idle loafers here, lazy idle little schemers. At your work, I tell you. Father Dolan will be in to see you every day. Father Dolan will be in tomorrow.

Then Stephen gets similar treatment.  At the time I knew precious little Latin.  Also, I didn’t have the slightest idea what a pandybat was, though the context suggested I was better off left in ignorance.

*Studies in Philology, volume 56 (1959): 103-124.
**Peccavi means “I have sinned”.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Solace by Anecdote

For those who love their country, a group that I believe includes the majority of my compatriots, we have fallen upon hard times.  The naively patriotic celebration of the Fourth of July characteristic of my years in elementary school is a thing of the barely memorable past; but most of us nonetheless have a benign awareness of a holiday that arrives with the really hot weather and legitimates if it doesn’t actually require firing up the backyard grill.  This year, however, the associations most likely to stay in the mind are those of racial tension, racial violence, and an endless outpouring of hasty opinion, ludicrously referred to as a “conversation”, that coheres only in the utter certainty of each contributor concerning the correctness of the views expressed.

Is the nation doomed to endless racial discord?  If your perspective is that of hour-to-hour, day-to-day, week-to-week, it might well seem so.  But education, and education’s important enabler, advancing age, might suggest something more hopeful.  Among the more politically incorrect attitudes one can express on an American college campus is that in the long run things have improved dramatically and are continuing to improve even now.  The thing is, which are you going to believe: “studies” by politically partisan sociologists or your own lying eyes?  If you elect to go with your own eyes you are of course going to be dependent on the “anecdotal” evidence of your personal experience, a social-scientific no-no.  Even so, as Galileo once remarked, anecdotally, eppur si muove.  My anecdote will concern my fiftieth high school reunion, which took place quite a while ago, in 2004.

            My years of public primary and secondary education were disrupted by my father’s peripatetic work, which took him for relatively short stays over wide swaths of the South and West.  In my junior year (1952-3) the family relocated, briefly, to a small oil refinery town in East Texas.  That is where I graduated from high school, though my family had already moved on again, and I was boarded with friends.  This town had a sizable black minority, with which I had practically no contact whatsoever.  The schools were racially segregated, and the black high school, separate and palpably unequal, was out of mind as well as out of sight.  Otherwise the place was pretty much like the “Anarene” of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, though a bit larger.  I hated it, and I loved it.

I graduated in the late spring of 1954.  The date that the Supreme Court ruled in the case of “Brown vs Board of Education” was May 17, 1954, three days before my eighteenth birthday.  The issue was hotly debated among my peers, and the decision approved of by but a few.  I went off to college in Tennessee, an act already culturally transgressive.  Within months I had fallen out of correspondence with my two or three closest high-school companions, people I would have thought would remain bosom friends for life, and who under less remorseless geographical circumstances almost certainly would have.  Every “now” has its “fierce urgency,” and never more so than in the years of youth, so crowded with novelty, challenge, and opportunity, and so bereft of steadying perspective.  One thing led to another.  I went abroad for further study.  I married a foreigner.  I began a family and a career “in the East”—like Jay Gatsby!  I never returned to Texas, except much later, to give lectures in urban academic settings.  But the long reach of the Class of ’54 Planning Committee tracked me down, and I had no hesitation in signing up for the Fiftieth Reunion.  I flew to Dallas and rented a car.

I had a ball, but I want to keep the focus on the racial theme.  The town had probably doubled in size.  There was a big new high school.  I could not even find my old house or church.  I remembered many, perhaps even most of the classmates who showed up; and I was forced to contemplate the unequal ways in which age ravages men and women.  There were a couple of professionally impressive classmates.  One had been the head of the Texas Wildlife Commission.  Another was married to the former lieutenant governor of the state!  But we were as lily-white a group as we had been when we stumbled across the stage in 1954, only maybe now calla lily gray.

Public secondary education in Texas is, generally speaking, an extension of the football team.  Naturally the reunion was built around the Homecoming game, and attendance at it was naturally de rigueur.  The Reunion Class had special seating, and we were repeatedly mentioned by the announcer on the loudspeaker.  I personally was singled out as “the only Rhodes Scholar to come out of Titus County”.  The stands went wild.  I’d be being disingenuous if I denied being tickled pink.

But I want to tell you about what was happening on the field.  What was happening on the field was the home team’s largely black backfield running, passing, and punting to the enthusiastic applause of a seriously interracial crowd.  Then there was the half-time “show”: a really challenged wind section and about three dozen high-stepping majorettes in satin and sequins, though mainly leg.  I could not fail to note that many of them seemed to be Latinas.  I don’t remember much of a Hispanic population in this place fifty years ago.  That seemed to have changed.  Fifty years earlier the ne plus ultra of social success and “popularity” for high-school males was prowess on the gridiron.  For high school females it was being in the cheerleaders’ peep show.  I saw no evidence that that had changed, but a lot else had.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


It is the natural tendency of the elderly to remember events long distant in time, and their prerogative to remember them with approval and affection.  The discussion surrounding the “Brexit” vote in Britain has been remarkable not merely for its copiousness and its volubility, but in the peculiar fact that so much of it has been turned over to the losers’ unflattering comments on the intelligence, good faith, and moral probity of the winners.  Most of the articles I see are of the genre “Voters fail to elect Smith”.  But since it was Jones who actually won, it might be good to hear a little more about Jones from Jones’s point of view.  I was surprised and alarmed by the Brexit vote myself; but it strikes me as absurd to conclude that more than half of the British voting public, and way more than half the villagers of the English countryside, are racists, xenophobes, Islamaphobes, phobophobes, etc.  Sometimes the dogs just don’t like the dog food on offer.

The blessings of membership in the European Union may not seem omnipotent to those with long memories.  In 1962, newly married, we set off for the libraries of Europe, where I hoped to examine as many manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose as possible before settling down somewhere to write a doctoral dissertation about them.  Our original thought was to find a place in Spain—at that time still pretty primitive, and certainly inexpensive.  But to shorten the story we found ourselves at the Syndicat d’initiative (Tourist Office) in Avignon.  We asked if they knew of any rural hideouts in which we might hide out, cheap.  The lady handed us a mimeographed list of places available under a brand-new scheme dreamed up by the French government with the intention of helping a depressed agricultural economy--called The “Gîtes ruraux de France” (country hideouts).   On this list was one rental property in a tiny village with a wonderfully romantic name: Beaumes-de-Venise, four miles north of Carpentras, fifteen miles northeast of Avignon, midway betwixt two famous wine places, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas.

We went there.  The whole village was made out of stone indistinguishable in color from the mountain on which it rested.  We found the family with the gîte—we were their first clients—a couple of clean, well-lighted rooms in one of the ancient ruins.  Thus began an idyll of several months during which we roamed through orchards and hillsides sweet with the odor of wild thyme, Joan mastered Provençal cookery, I produced a dissertation, and we began the production of our first child.  Beaumes-de-Venise was a pretty dusty and threadbare place.  Our ancient Citroën Deux Chevaux fit right in.  At least a quarter of the old village residences were abandoned and boarded up.  Mangy ownerless cats wandered at will through the hillside ruins and caterwauled in the night.  An imperfect sewer system last renovated about 1670 made its presence known when the breeze shifted. The place still had a town-crier!  “Le poissonier de Carpentras sera sur la place vers les onze heures” in a booming voice.  The fish-monger from Carpentras will be on the town square about eleven o’clock!  When the guy realized Joan was English he insisted on getting some smoked haddock from somewhere or another, at a shocking price of course.  The Euro was still forty years away.  The currency was the recently instituted “new franc”, though everybody still talked, confusingly, in “old francs.”  Since the revalued NF replaced 100 OF, the numbers got very big very quickly, giving the air of a Monopoly game to the most mundane commercial exchanges.  It was a bit of heaven on earth.  You only realize how hokey books like A Year in Provence or Under the Tuscan Sun are when you have actually spent some time in Provence or the Tuscan sun.

We were hooked on Provence and happily returned as soon as possible, but for reasons I lack the leisure to explain we did not actually visit Beaumes-de-Venise again for about forty years.  When we did, we found the place was utterly transformed.  The Age of De Gaulle was done, that of the European Union vibrant.  The dust was gone.  The cats were gone.  The whiff of the drains was gone.  There were no more ruins.  They had all been bought up and tarted up by rich Belgians, Danes, and Germans whose flashy BMWs and serious Volvos clogged the charming old pedestrian lanes, now newly paved.   You could probably buy our old gîte—provided you had three quarters of a million euros, that is—at the spanking new realty place.  The general air was that of a movie set or theme park.  The village’s own fine wine is a muscatel, which in “our” day was advertised by a single home-made billboard that belonged in a Folk Art Museum.  Now there was a large and thriving Vinicole Cooperative that does a land-office business.  Englishmen drive up in Bentleys and leave with a few cases of Côtes-du-Rhone for their country cellars.  You can get a bottle of Beaumes-de-Venise muscat in any decent sized grocery store in Paris.

What sane person could fault such progress or fail to praise its attendant prosperity?  What, exactly, is so very attractive about stray cats and whiffy drains?  Is one lamenting the vanished dusty cobblestones or one’s own vanished youth?  We parked our car and strolled about a bit.  We spent an hour or so on one of our once favorite walks outside the village proper amid the ruined old terraces.  Here the vineyards had been abandoned along with all traces of active agriculture.  Here and there were fig trees heavy with unpicked fruit.   No sheep walked here any more.  Did anyone?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Bligh Bond and the Brexit

Bligh Bond
A funny thing happened to me as I sat down to write my contribution for the rapidly expanding Brexit Anthology of Sore Losers.  His name is Frederick Bligh Bond (1864-1945).  Bond was a prominent English architect of the Edwardian period.  Among his collateral forebears was Captain Bligh of Bounty fame, whose amazing feat of seamanship had continued to thrill the youth of Britain long into the Victorian period; and he usually called himself simply Bligh Bond.  I first encountered Blight Bond many years ago when I consulted his book on old English rood screens, written in collaboration with another notable character named Bede Camm.  That was probably forty years ago, and I had forgotten all about him when—in connection with the book I have just completed—I consulted another of his collaborative works: Studies in the Apostolic Gnosis (1919).  This is a quite brilliant and quite mad book; but it is certainly a must-read for anyone interested in the number thirty-seven, which I happened to be at the time.

Glastonbury: the old...

Now you may be aware of the fact that the Brexit vote took place on the Thursday of the week of the Glastonbury Festival.  Glastonbury is an ancient ecclesiastical site in the far west of England.  The Festival is a sort of annual Woodstock, somewhat moderated and cultivated to meet appropriate British specs.  Its origins go back a century.  Its popular music dimension, now prominent, dates from about 1970.  The Festival is a magnet for contemporary British youth.  Pundits soon began noting that while Dionysian British youth were busy making music and love rather than money or war, they were not voting in the referendum in which their dour, uptight Apollonian elders were dooming them to a return of the Fifties and, possibly, the inconvenience of visas for the beaches of Ibiza.  Hence the forced marriage of Glastonbury and Brexit in the tortured journalistic mind.

...and the new

Part of the hokum surrounding Glastonbury is its imaginary connection with ancient Druidical rites and prelapsarian ecological mysticism, now joyously revived between rock band sets.  As I discovered, Mr. Bond bears some responsibility for this.  As a medievalist I was quite aware of its less sexy but actual ancient Christian associations, and I was even vaguely aware that what had put the place back on the map were dramatic archaeological operations in the early part of the twentieth century.  I was unaware, however, that the director of the excavations was Bligh Bond, and even less aware of the extraordinary scientific principles by which Bond was guided.

Bond was the son of the head of Marlborough School, by whom he was privately and no doubt strenuously educated.  Throughout his early adult life he combined public professional success as an architect with a private quest for religious mysticism which, by the end of the century, led to his immersion in Spiritualism.  This interests me, perhaps because one of my first publications, based on a graduate student seminar paper, concerned Browning’s dramatic monologue “Mr. Sludge the Medium,” for which I had to do considerable research into Victorian Spiritualism.  Bond combined his eccentric version of Anglo-Catholic practice with table-rapping spiritualism in a way that could cause alarm among two groups.  The particular mode of spiritual discourse through which he came to communicate with the Other World was “automatic writing”, a system by which the departed were supposed to hold converse with the living through the mediation of a specially gifted amanuensis.

At Glastonbury, which in legend had been the site of a pilgrimage made by Joseph of Arimathea, were the remains of an important Benedictine abbey that had been especially rich booty in Henry VIII’s campaign of ecclesiastic spoliation.  The site had then been used as a quarry for centuries.  The challenges to the archeologists, who in 1907 set out under Bond’s direction to study the site, were enormous.  One great puzzle was the location of an important chapel (the “Edgar Chapel”) that was clearly referenced in ancient documents, but now utterly vanished.  The chapel had been finished shortly before the Dissolution by Abbot Whiting, who had been martyred as well as dispossessed.

Where should they start to dig?  Architectural parallels suggested the likely spot, but Bond was doubtful and turned to the Spirit World.  Through the good services of a trusted medium-scribe, a former naval officer named John Allen, sixteenth-century monks began a vigorous correspondence with Bond in early Modern English and Church Latin.  The spirit papers included an actual hand-drawn architectural plan, with the surprising location of the obliterated chapel clearly marked. This invaluable document was signed “Gulielmus Monachus” (roughly, Bill the Monk).  Bond dug.  He found the missing chapel.  The rest is history: the discipline of Supernatural Archaeology was born.

from out of the blue, a blue print

Believers believed, skeptics were skeptical.  The former included the great neo-Gothic architect Ralph Adams Cram, creator of the Princeton University Chapel among other magnificent piles.  The latter included the Anglican theological authorities in charge of the Glastonbury dig, who eventually fired Bond out of embarrassment.

It seems to have been the Great War, which seared the sensibilities of so many among the European elites, that pushed Bond over the top, if you will forgive the license.  One of his books, The Hill of Vision, is a collection of automatic writing from members of the “Company of Avalon” and other sage otherworldlings with advice as how to avoid any repetition of the great catastrophe.  In the late Twenties Bond went to America where he became for a time the educational director for the American Society for Psychical Research.  He was ordained a priest, then in short order consecrated a bishop, in the Old Catholic Church.  Mired in multiple controversies, he returned to Britain, retired into obscurity in North Wales, and left an unpublished dossier of spirit-communications from his ancestor Captain Bligh.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Doing Horace One Better

            Among a thousand unforgettable images in the Divine Comedy is one in the nineteenth canto of the Inferno in which the pilgrim Dante likens himself in simile to a mendicant confessor at the execution of a murderer.  “I stood, like the friar who is confessing a treacherous assassin that, after being fixed, recalls him and thus delays the death.”  There is a ghastly glimpse of social history behind these lines.  The punishment for hired assassins in medieval Florence was to be asphyxiated, and in horrible fashion.  The condemned man was stoutly affixed to a post and placed head-first in a hole to about his waist.  The executioners then filled the hole with loose earth.  The criminal has made his confession and received his absolution.  But to hold death at bay even for but an instant, he “remembers” an unmentioned sin, and calls the friar back.

            The prospect of annihilation is a powerful stimulus to the narrative imagination.  A great work of world literature, one that most readers will know and love, exemplifies the point.  I mean the Arabian Nights, also known as the Thousand Nights and One Night, an ancient compilation and a treasure house of great old stories like “Sinbad the Sailor”.  The rather gruesome premise of this collection is that a pathologically jealous eastern potentate each night takes a virgin for a bride.  In the morning, in order to give her no opportunity to betray him, he has her executed.  Eventually they run out of virgins—all too easily done, even in conservative circles--but a particularly clever young woman, Scheherazade, daughter of the vizier, volunteers.  In bed, she tells her new husband an intriguing story—but breaks off before its denouement.  The potentate decides to allow her a second night to complete the tale.  This she does, but immediately begins, but only begins, another.  Once more the fascinated husband grants her an “extra” night—and so it goes for 1001 nights, by which time he is permanently hooked or booked.

Ferdinand Keller : Scheherazade and the Sultan  (1880)

            From neither from the sexual nor the existential point of view are my circumstances so dramatic as those of Scheherazade, but they are not without a certain parallelism.  I am finally, within a very few weeks, having to submit the copy for a long “finished” book.  I think it’s a good book, and certainly one I have worked hard on, but I realize I have been doing almost everything in my power—such as writing two other books in the meantime—to avoid letting it go. 

I had a good college friend—now many years dead, alas—with whom I used to discuss possible life plans.  He had an excellent one, though it went unfulfilled.  Step one was to marry a very rich woman.  Step two was to get a bathrobe and a pipe.  He could shuffle around the house endlessly in the bathrobe.  If asked what he did, exactly, the answer would be “I am writing a novel”.  An occasional puff on the pipe would seal the plausibility of the vocation claimed.  “You see,” he said, “to be a writer you don’t actually have to publish anything.  All you have to do is be writing something.”

I do have a permanently unfinished novel, but it hardly counts among the half dozen or so unfinished scholarly books.  The thing is that writing leads to more writing, while finishing something leads to a void, awkward questions, snarky reviews.  I also note, thanks to the little device provided by Google, that this is the 364th weekly essay on “Gladly Learn, Gladly Teche”.  Since there are seven days in a week, and fifty-two weeks in a year—well, even I can do the math in my head.  I am just about to complete seven years of weekly blogging.  And I also recall that my very first essay, in addition to being way too long, was in part devoted to Luis de Camões and to the book that I even then had been working on (off and on) for the first three years of my retirement.  So that makes a full decade of purposeful delay, meaning that I have surpassed the famous advice of Horace in his “Art of Poetry” that you should wait nine years (…nonumque prematur in annum…) before releasing your manuscript from the desk drawer in which it has been moldering.  But I have achieved this through honest sloth without recourse to the active nocturnal sabotage practiced by Penelope.

  "Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night" by Dora Wheeler (1856–1940)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Finding a Good Book


              My blog essays vary considerably in their lack of ambition, but mainly readers get a snapshot of my Tuesday mind around lunchtime when I realize with a start that it is Tuesday around lunchtime.  This week was an exception.  I had a really serious topic—what I’ll call in short hand the Stanford rape case—and I was mulling over some issues in my head for a couple of days.  Then the Orlando massacre occurred, an event so horrible as to silence more modest revulsions, yet one concerning which I have nothing conceivably useful to say. 

Furthermore there came into my mind from the ether the advice of the Apostle: “whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report… think on these things.”  A scholar’s life is like all others in most respects.  Its girders are family and friends, its secondary framing the other human relationships connected to them and to one’s professional duties and habits.  How lucky I have been in all these regards.  One particularly marvelous aspect of the scholarly life is that you actually get paid for reading books.  It occurs to me that at least a few readers who read just for the love of truth, beauty, enlightenment or amusement might be interested in some professional advice.

“Of making many books there is no end,” wrote the biblical sage at a time when there were many millions fewer of them than there are today—before adding sagely “and much study wearies the body.”  A time will arrive in your life, if it has not already arrived, when you will realize with a pang that there is no possible way that you will be able to read all the books you will want to read, need to read, would be better for reading.  So many books, so little time.

One classic mistake sometimes made by even sophisticated readers is an overemphasis on the contemporary.  You probably ought to do no more than a tenth of your reading from among titles taken from the current book reviews.  You would never limit your appreciation of music to works composed in the last twelve months or your enjoyment of painting to canvases finished in the last two weeks.  There is nothing wrong with reading to “keep up”—that is, from a desire to be able to participate intelligently in a larger cultural conversation—but the conversation you really want to be interested in covers centuries and continents.  It is a conversation—like all the best aspects of culture—that brings the living into colloquy with the dead.  Remember Milton’s wonderful observation in Areopagitica: “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

You can find your quarry by trial and error in a leisurely walk through the stacks of any reasonably well stocked public library, but I have found it helpful to call upon the aid of others who have thought longer and more systematically than I.  Among my books there are three to which I make recourse on a pretty regular basis.

The first of these is now called An English Library: a Bookman’s Guide, by F. Seymour Smith.  The first edition, dated 1943, which I picked up back in the Fifties, was one of those funny old wartime British books that seemed to be printed on crumbling toilet paper.  The edition I now use—there may well be a more recent one—dates from 1963.  Its new introduction begins: “An English Library, like wartime willow-herb, grew on a bomb site.”  It is double the size of the original effort, but still true to the old subtitle: “An Annotated List of Classics and Standard Books”.  If you were to read half of them, you’d be reading at a very high standard indeed.

The second reference work is a much more recent addition.  I became addicted to it only during my fairly recent residence in Paris.  The second-hand book trade in France is miserable.  The old joke about boarding house fare—“the food is absolute poison, and such small quantities”—seems vaguely relevant.  There is not really a lot on offer, and the prices will strike an American as shockingly high.  But at the Saturday market in Georges Brassens Park in the Fifteenth I was willing to pay 10€ for La Bibliothèque idéale, which is one of the “Encyclopédies d’aujourd’hui” of the Livres de poche series.  Its subject matter, cunningly distributed over a thousand pages, is French-language books (including many translations) that a couple of Parisian intellectuals consider your best intellectual diet.  They have forty-nine categories, and in each of them they list and characterize what they take to be the ten most important, the twenty-five most important, and the forty-nine most important titles.  Notice that they leave you a whole category to make up for yourself, and within each category you get to choose one additional title.  Robbespierrean democracy.

Finally, I use an American book—Steven Gilbar’s Good Books: A Book Lover’s Companion (Ticknor and Fields, 1982).  This is another huge and promiscuous catalogue, organized by interesting and often enough eccentric category, that eschews the obviously highbrow.  A nice feature of this book from my point of view is that it has a foreword by Clifton Fadiman—a name that will be familiar to you only if you are getting on in years.  He was one of the great public literary intellectuals of the Fifties, and the host of a popular quiz program.  He features tangentially in my Anti-Communist Manifestos.  We also just happen to have two elegant modernist Danish wood and leather beds that once belonged to him in our crawlspace, though I shudder to imagine their current condition.  I’ll reserve the account of how Clifton Fadiman’s beds got into my crawlspace for the next time I am desperate for a blog topic.  The next time you are desperate for some good bibliographical advice you can turn to any of the three books mentioned.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Gilded Cages

a ransomer arrives at the sponging-house (Vanity Fair, vol. 2, cap. xviii)

A fabulously wealthy Middle Eastern gold merchant, Reza Zarrab, has been indicted for criminal trial in New York.  But he does not fancy the idea of awaiting his court date in such accommodations as are usually provided by the criminal justice system.  He would prefer a luxury apartment to Riker’s Island, and would propose to pay for it himself, relieving the taxpayer of any financial liability.  He also offers to put up a huge bail bond and even finance special police guards to guarantee his appearance in court.  He will gladly wear a GPS tracking device.  He actually represents a class of wealthy defendants.  I read about this in the Times, and as usual, or at least often, the numerous readers’ comments in the on-line edition were as engaging as the article itself.  Most comments rejected Mr. Zarrab’s proposal for a privately financed gilded cage with scorn or indignation.  The recurrent adjective was unfair.  My own initial reaction was along these lines—until I thought about it for a moment.

The guarantee to a “speedy” trial has become a dead letter, but the presumption of innocence need not follow it.  There are two plausible justifications for pre-trial detention.  A guilty person might run away, thus frustrating justice.  There is also the possibility that such a person might commit further mischief, such as the destruction of evidence or suborning of potential witnesses.  Neither justification can be convincingly invoked in this instance.  Punishment is not an acceptable justification for pre-trial detention, since it obviously assumes guilt.  But Times readers want to punish Mr. Zarrab for being obnoxiously rich and having resources others lack.  Is this a matter of “fairness”?  Some people get to go to Yale, others to Dade County Community College, and most to no place at all.  I’m willing to part with an extra hundred bucks for six inches of supplementary legroom on a United flight.  Is it unfair that somebody else can regularly afford First Class?  The morality of the one-percent solution to pretrial detention would seem to me to be an honestly open question.

Our penology is uncertain of its goals.  Punishment?  Reformation?  Protections of Society?  For the most part the prisons of earlier centuries much more frankly had to do with money.  Serious malefactors could be chastised with horrible corporal punishments or dispatched by hanging, decapitation, compression, suffocation, incineration, breaking upon the wheel, and a variety of more imaginative ordeals.  This sort of thing expanded the population of potters fields, not of prisons.  Punishment was public because it was generally believed that seeing bad people put to death fostered a socially useful shock and awe in the spectators and fostered their moral improvement.  A famous instance in the British navy in 1757, the execution of Admiral Byng by firing squad, is wickedly remembered in Voltaire’s Candide, where the naive hero points out that "in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others."

Incarceration was a different matter, having to do with money.  In the Middle Ages the purpose of taking prisoners was to collect the ransom somebody was willing to pay for them.  You might call it military kidnapping.  Noble prisoners lived pretty well, and the tradition of luxury imprisonment—more or less what Mr. Zarrab is now petitioning for—continued into the eighteenth century.   For the most part eighteenth-century prisons were organized on the principle of Pay to Stay.  The pauper in rags, chained to an iron ring in some vast stone cellar, is much beloved by Hollywood; but from the economic point such a scenario wasn’t a paying proposition.  Prison employees were expected to  live off the tips of their affluent charges.  The Cardinal de Rohan, held in the Bastille under the most ignominious of circumstances, was nonetheless able to throw a sumptuous dinner party for seventy-five friends in his prison pad.  The idea of Debtors’ Prison, which seems so strange to the modern sensibility, was actually a kind of logical extension of medieval ransom in the age of Adam Smith. 

In England there was a delightful institution called the sponging-house.  The sponging-house, which took its colorful name from the manner in which water can be squeezed out of a sponge, was a kind of private debtors’ prison.  Few wastrels were really so broke that they couldn’t come up with some cash under extreme duress.  A private creditor at the end of his patience, with the help of the bailiffs, could have you carted off to the sponging-house for squeezing.   Sin gives birth to death.  You had to pay for your own keep, at fancy hotel prices, while being squeezed.  The sponging-house continued to operate well into the nineteenth century.  In London several such enterprises were operated by Jews, a fact that contributed to the anti-Semitic money-grubbing literary stereotype in Dickens and others.  There are several memorable descriptions of the sponging-house in our literature.  My own favorite is Mr. Moss’s establishment in Cursitor Street, off Chancery Lane, in Vanity Fair.  To it Rawdon Crawley is from time to time dragged.  From it he escapes to his domestic hearth only to discover his wicked wife Becky in a highly compromising situation with the wicked Lord Steyne.  I don't know what has become of Mr. Zarrab's petition, but in general plus ça change...