Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Master of None

Jack of All Trades, but...

From 1969 until 1972, then again for an eight-year period after the universal college system was instituted at Princeton, I served as the Master of Wilson College.  I poured my heart into a job to which I devoted a full quarter of my teaching career.   I therefore take it a little personally that virtually overnight, in response to complaints and a sit-in by undergraduates of the “Black Justice League,” the title of college “Master” was jettisoned in favor of college “Head”.  Furthermore, according to the local and national press, the Princeton administration will now seriously consider removing Wilson’s name from the College of which I was master as well as from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.  These actions are of course undertaken on the grounds of sensitivity, openness, “diversity,” and other comforting linguistic abstractions.  I propose to devote my next two essays to the two parts of the issue: the bowdlerization of academic titles today, Woodrow Wilson next week.

One of the ex-Masters, Michael Hecht of Forbes College, is quoted as saying the following: “Master is a very loaded word.  The word has this baggage associated with it, so let’s get rid of that baggage.”  I’m hoping that Head Hecht has been misquoted, but I more than half fear that he actually believes this codswallop.

ca. 1300

What is the “baggage” that makes master “a very loaded word”?  It is that in one of its tertiary meanings, long since obsolete, and as part of a compound phrase (slave master), it could denote the owner or supervisor of slaves.  It has no such connotation in current English.  Nouns become obsolete when the things they denote cease to exist.  It is possible you have seen a master sergeant or a quartermaster or a postmaster.  You may have sat across a board from a chess master, even a grand master.  You have perhaps sat at the feet of a Zen master.  But no living person has ever seen a slave master.  Slave masters have gone the way of the Master of the Temple and the Master of Ballantrae Hall.  You can conjure one up only by taxing your imagination.   If you live on a horse farm and you hear outside your window the sound of clip-clop, clip-clop, you do not think “Zebra!”—not if you’re sensible.

We do not live on a horse farm but on the campus of one of the world’s great universities.  Here, surely, if words matter, they matter enough to study and to use them with reasonable precision. What is the real load borne by the common English word master?  It came to our language by way of the French (maistre, maître) from the Latin (magister).  The idea behind the family of words is that of expert knowledge, training, or skill.  That is why in the lexical record the primary arena of the word family—master, masterpiece, mastery, magisterial, and a dozen more—has in all periods of English linguistic history been pedagogy and learning.  A master is a teacher.  In traditional industrial and artisanal structures an apprentice (meaning “learner”) learned from a master (meaning “teacher”).  What the apprentice learned was a mister (trade, skill, profession), a word now obsolete, though remembered in the medieval “mystery” plays once sponsored by professional trade guilds.  But of course our current word Mister (polite form of address, male) is actually the word master reflecting the reduced stress of its proclitic use.

 ca. 1870

Since the new Dean of the College is a Professor of English, she must know all this.  I presume she still chairs the Council of Heads, olim the Council of Masters.  At Commencement one of the tasks of her colleague the Dean of the Graduate School, the former Master of Butler College, will be to present to President Eisgruber a sizable cohort of candidates for the conferral of what heretofore has been known as the master’s degree.  Are they now to be heads’ degrees?  Heads or tails?  The one is no more, and no less preposterous than the other.  Shall we never again hear a visiting maestro conduct in Richardson Auditorium?  Will no visiting instrumental virtuoso ever again offer a master class?  Will we cease to boast of the Old Masters in the Princeton Art Museum?  Only a most determined (or predetermined) search for offense will find it in the words college master.  Must our beloved English language always be the first victim of political confusion?
ca. 1920

College professors are quite capable of finding complexities undetected by ordinary mortals, and of searching out previously unsuspected thought crimes.  I know, because I am one.  My first introduction to British academic life came from a fine novel about precisely that: C. P. Snow’s The Masters.  Of course there is also political mastery and artistic mastery.  The third and central volume of Robert Caro’s still unfinished biography of Lyndon Johnson is entitled Master of the Senate.  One of its subjects is Johnson’s role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  The Irish novelist Colm Toibin, a recent sojourner in Princeton, published a beautiful novel “about” Henry James entitled The Master.  James was in fact and most appropriately called “the Master” by his literary admirers and disciples.  Among James’s most remarkable stories—one I would recommend to any seeker after truth in art and life—is entitled “The Lesson of the Master.”  The lesson of the master, one most ironically delivered in this story, is that in the pursuit of a theoretical perfection you may lose it all.
ca. 2010

There was exactly as much racism in the “masters” of my last paragraphs as there was in the title “Master of Wilson College”: that is, precisely none.  So on factitious grounds Princeton University has now jettisoned a venerable title wholly appropriate to its mission of teaching and learning in favor of one appropriate to the organizational chart of a corporation.  Head!?  Talk about a word laden with baggage!  Some years ago some disgruntled ex-professors from the University of California, Santa Barbara, went into the bar business in Goleta. They called their establishment “The English Department”.  The doors on its toilets read “Departmental Heads”.

We do our students no service by turning the lexicon of the English language into a political Rorschach Test.  Nor should we be surprised when many intelligent people in what we call the Real World, reading about what goes on on our campuses, confuse the Academy with Alice’s Wonderland.

"’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’  ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that's all.’”

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


             I want to write about Paris because I must, but in order to keep things real and to avoid some of the sentimental excesses I am finding in the press, I begin with an anecdote.  In 1962, newly married, Joan and I set out from Paris into the provinces of France in search of certain medieval manuscripts in local municipal libraries. We had purchased an old Citroën Deux-Chevaux.  Its license plate, beginning with 75, identified it as Parisian.  Somewhere far from the city we stopped to buy something at the edge of the road.  Joan’s French is excellent, and it is Parisian French.  A local woman rudely cut in front of her at the stall where she had begun to shop, saying to the stall-keeper, “She can wait—they’re Parisians!”  When Joan told her she was in fact an Englishwoman and I an American with a second-hand car, both of them apologized profusely.  Obnoxious, pushy, selfish—such were the characteristics they were eager to attribute to Parisians en masse, and to counter with an uncharacteristic rudeness of their own.

A Deux-Chevaux of the belle epoque 

            I have lived and worked in Paris long enough to understand that woman’s point of view which, while not the truth, was not without some truth.  Paris can be pretty cold as well as pretty cool, and it is nothing like the little towns of my youth where strangers on the street smiled and said “Hi,” as others in passing pickups half raised a laconic hand in friendly greeting.  Still I struggle in vain to imagine a level of anomie or alienation or ghettoization or cultural indignation or in fact anything else that might be assuaged by spraying a sidewalk café with Kalashnikov fire or blowing oneself up at the gates of a football stadium.  I think attempted explanations, in fact, defy the powers of human imagination, despite the best efforts of the Op-Ed pages of the Times.

            In those pages this morning I find a letter from some woman berating me for lavishing upon the Paris slaughter an outpouring of concern not previously expressed over similar terrorist atrocities in Nigeria, Lebanon, and Yemen.  The truth is that there is such a thing as shock fatigue.  God’s heart is infinite.  He knows of every sparrow that falls.  My own experience is constrained by a demeaning but inescapable finitude.  I know some things, a paltry few.  Paris I do know, at least as a man with a pail full of sea-water knows the ocean, and that is enough to know the horror of this moment.  Every American, indeed every Westerner of however modest cultural attainment, knows Paris well enough to know the horror.

            It’s the place young Americans fought and died to protect in one war, then fought and died to liberate in a second war.  Long before that it was the place that sent us, in the eighteenth century, military aid without which there well might never have been a United States of America.  Above all it’s the place that approximately from the twelfth century has been sending to the whole world, at least to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, great books, great art, great ideas.  Oh--and great wine.  That one requires palates to taste.  So there is something peculiarly atrocious about the Paris slaughter, as the Allahuakbarists surely perceived.  Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo.  Je ne suis pas parisien.  Je suis américain, moi.  Nonetheless I am a brother in pain, and I do express my outrage and my condolences with the rest of the sentient world.

            I learned of the slaughter while I was in Philadelphia at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 “for the promotion of useful knowledge.” In fact I was being formally inducted into that august society.  They obviously made either an exception or a typographic error in my case.  Not too many life experiences can accurately be described as “awesome”, but writing my signature in a book containing the earlier autographs of Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson has to be for me one of the few. The obvious models for the APS were the royal societies of the great European powers.  Franklin and Jefferson in particular had close life-long ties to French intellectual life.

 The American Cathedral in Paris in the good old days

            From our Paris apartment at the very edge of the Fifteenth Arrondissement on the Avenue Suffren we used of a Sunday morning to walk to church at the American Cathedral.  As we would cross the Champ de Mars near the Eiffel Tower, the gypsy con-artists would already be trying their tiresome “lost ring” ploy on a few early birds among the Chinese tourist.  We walked down the little Rue du Général Camou past the American Library until the street ends in the Avenue Rapp.  Then we would turn left, walk along Rapp and cross the river by the Pont d’Alma.  Just on the right bank at the Place d’Alma is the striking monument, with an eternal flame, marking the place where Princess Diana died.  We then continued up the de luxe Avenue Georges V past the vast Chinese embassy to our church.

            That’s quite a lot of international complication in one short Paris walk, but for me the quirky highpoint was something uniquely, inescapably, and perhaps insanely French.  It is the art nouveau decorative portal of an apartment house at 29, Avenue Rapp.  We passed it going and coming, and I hope to once again, despite all the powers of darkness.

29, Avenue Rapp

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Campus Unrest

As I write this I am reading the latest reports of “unrest” on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia, where the articulated discontents of black students, powerfully amplified by threats of a strike by most of the players on the school’s crypto-professional football team, have forced the resignation of two top administrators, the president of the university system and the chancellor of the system’s main or “flagship” campus.  Most commentary I have seen relates this crisis to the highly publicized events surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson on August 9, 2014.

 This is a subject that engages both my personal interest and my professional experience, but it is far too complex and sensitive to wade into armed only with the information I get from the curiously vague and imprecise reporting thus far in the New York Times.  Historical perspective, however, is seldom inappropriate.  As “campus unrest” goes, this episode looks more like Tom Wolfe’s mau-mauing of flack-catchers than the Defenestration of Prague.  The Tianamen Square Massacre of 1989 was an off-campus event, but one largely driven by protesting students.  The despotic Chinese regime has never been truthful about the casualties, but the dead certainly numbered in the hundreds and possibly in the thousands.  More recently in neighboring Mexico, under circumstances unlikely ever to be truthfully described, more than forty students, mainly political radicals, were murdered and their bodies incinerated.  I began my teaching career at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where, shortly after I had departed, anti-war protesters blew up a building and killed a research scientist who was pulling an all-nighter on a conductivity experiment.

Students very often think that they know more than their professors, and not infrequently they are right.  Nowhere is the Oedipal drama so compelling as in the seminar room.  Peter Abelard, a superstar of the twelfth-century academy really got his start with a public challenge to his old professor William of Champeaux.  As for “campus unrest”, it has been endemic in universities from the very start. 

I actually happened to be living in France during the Parisian student “revolution” of 1968.  It was plenty dramatic, but it seems rather tame when compared with the student riots of 1229, which extended over a two-year period, saw numerous fatalities, and triggered a significant reorganization of academic life.  Modern student protest is often obscurely grounded in political theory.  The canonical casus belli in the medieval academy was a dispute over a bar bill.  Such was the case in Paris in 1229.   The axis of tension in those days tended to be the “university” on the one hand, and the local citizens on the other—that is, town-gown conflict.

The “gown” part of this is important in that the special attire identified students as clerks (cf. clerics) or votaries of clergy—i.e.,  knowledge, learning.  University students were thus a “protected class” who enjoyed benefit of clergy—i.e., exemption from secular legal jurisdiction.  (Special academic or ecclesiastical courts dealt with naughty students.)  I think I mentioned in a recent post the so-called “neck verse” from the Miserere, the fifty-first psalm.  If you could read this psalm competently in Latin, with sufficiently holy tones, you might literally save your neck from the gallows.

The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, and all that

A signal event in the history of my own university of Oxford began on February 10, 1355, and is usually known as the “Saint Scholastica Day Riot”.  It began as usual with a drunken dispute over a bar bill.  At first the “town”, in the form of a burly hostel-keeper, seemed to have won.  But the students returned to the tavern in force the next day, and all hell broke loose.  As usual, there were several fatalities.  The probably unjust outcome was a further extension of academic privilege.  In my time as a student in the late ‘Fifties there were still two distinct police jurisdictions, one town, one gown.  The university police officer, the proctor, actually wore his gown.  He was accompanied by (usually) two heavies in bowler hats.  They were the bulldogs, who provided the necessary muscle for the proctor, who after all might well be a frail septuagenarian expert on Euripides.

contemporary bulldogs at their ease

I had but one run-in with the proctors, on Guy Fawkes’s night, 1958.  I was resident in Jesus College, a college with a significantly Welsh and Welsh-speaking student body.  The joke was that if you stepped into the front quad of Jesus and shouted out “Jones”, you would get a response from every other room.  It happened that one of my good friends was (and is) a certain John Smith.  A group of us decided to avoid the puerilities of Guy Fawkes hooliganism by going to the cinema.  We had just stepped out of the college into Ship Street when we were challenged by a proctor.  He wanted to know what we were up to.  “The cinema, eh?...and what are your names?”  “John Smith,” said my first friend.  “Tom Jones,” said the second.  No more evidence of premeditated malfeasance was needed, and I never got to tell them my name.  The menacing bulldogs quick-marched us back to the gate of the college and warned us not to set foot in the town again that night.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Notre Dame

The Saint Joseph River, which flows laconically for a couple of hundred miles in a generally western direction through parts of southern Michigan and northern Indiana into Lake Michigan, cannot be counted among the great watercourses of our land, but in my present circumstances it looms large.  For I am writing this from a snug apartment on the campus of Notre Dame University, where I am very much enjoying a week’s sojourn as a visiting lecturer at the Medieval Institute.  The lectures I am giving, unlike the one that was the subject of last week’s post, are not impromptu.  I have been thinking about them for quite some time, and the opportunity to discuss some of their ideas with knowledgeable and interested experts is exhilarating.

            But it is the river that is on my mind just at this moment.  Our amazing country is composed of a hundred, or maybe a thousand micro-geographies that all the power of a homogenizing and standardizing commercial culture cannot efface.  I suppose everybody knows that Notre Dame is in South Bend, but it never occurred to me, at least, to inquire: the south bend of what?   It’s the south bend of the Saint Joseph River, which is mainly in Michigan but loops a few miles in a southern mini-meander into northern Indiana.  Of course the political border between Michigan and Indiana, laid out nearly two hundred years ago at forty-one degrees, forty-six minutes north, is culturally meaningless.  Around here they speak of “Michiana”, an area with a population upwards of a million souls, centered in South Bend and including the old industrial towns along the river, now ravaged by the unsettling forces unleashed by an insufficiently premeditated buy-in to economic “globalization”.

            One of my medievalist hosts, Sarah Baechle, took me with her on Saturday to the South Bend Farmers’ Market, even this late in the season overflowing with the bounty of delicious agricultural produce.   Especially tempting was the sumptuous fruit on offer from the orchards of southern Michigan, which enjoys the blessings of a much vaunted “micro-climate” that produces the sweetest apples on earth.

            The outsider gets the impression that Notre Dame University is the house that Knut Rockne built and Father Theodore Hesburgh rehabbed and gentrified. Many months ago, when we were negotiating the scheduling of the Conway Lectures, three lectures to be distributed over a roughly ten-day period, I was struck by one feature of the discussion.  Though I was offered a good deal of calendrical flexibility, it was important that the week-end punctuating my stay be one on which the Notre Dame football team was scheduled for an away game.  For a mad moment I entertained the fantasy that this stipulation suggested that I would be lecturing on a Saturday and they didn’t want my prolusions on medieval asceticism to be cutting into the perhaps sizable income generated by the Athletic Department. 
            But…no.  Not in fact.  People don’t lecture on Saturdays here any more than they do anywhere else.  The point is that on football Saturdays the only thing that happens on (and immediately around) the Notre Dame campus is the football game and its penumbra of ancillary festal, commercial, and fund-raising activities.  Unless you are really into it, which only a couple hundred thousand or so of the locals are, you want to be somewhere else.  At least so I am told by credible witnesses.  I am also told that a good number of the residents in the immediate area of the campus make a small fortune on football weekends by renting out their houses on AirBnB.  The nearest supermarket I’ve found is about a mile away through a tidy, modest neighborhood where some houses advertise back yard parking for twenty dollars and an apartment house is called the “Stadium Club Apartments”.  Every second townsperson sports some kind of distinctive “Fighting Irish” apparel or license plates.  Even on the campus, which boasts an art gallery well worth the visit, the most visible piece of public art is a huge exterior mural-mosaic high on the tower structure of the Hesburgh Library.  Its official title is “The Word of Life”, by the artist Millard Sheets, but for reasons that will be obvious at least to my American readers, it is more commonly known as “Touchdown Jesus”.

            The local athletic culture has trickle-down benefits even for the likes of me.  My hosts very kindly arranged for me to have guest privileges at the swimming pool, one of several athletic facilities that bear the name “Rolfs”.  I don’t know who Mr. Rolfs was, but he certainly contributed magnificently to the corpore sano side of the rich college experience on this campus, just as the fabulous library of the Medieval Institute has been ministering to the mens sana.  Olympic pools terrify me if I am forced to do the long lanes; but at least for “Recreational Hours” you can do the short ones here.  When I apologetically explained to the welcoming pool manager my normal speed is one mile per hour, he simply smiled and said “Slow and steady takes the prize.”

mens sana in corpore sano

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Augustinian Fantasy Fulfilled

When I was a kid there were certain ads in the popular press and on matchbooks that fed my fantasies and, no doubt, the fantasies of thousands of others.  After all, that is what the advertising industry of the 1950s was all about, and largely still is.  The common theme of the ads was the nearly miraculous power of certain goods or services, purchasable by postal money order and deliverable to you no matter how remote your rural route, to transform sows' ears into silk purses.  The remarkable metamorphosis, at least as marvelous as two thirds of those in Ovid, would be swiftly accomplished—“in only a few short months,” “in only fifteen minutes a day”, that sort of thing.

My pathetic musical abilities, which exist in strictly inverse proportion to my admiration for good music, were a source of pain to me.  I accordingly was much taken by an ad hawking a certain method of mastering the piano.  “They laughed when I sat down at the piano,” it said, “but when I started to play…”  Oh, the satisfaction to be gleaned from that dot, dot, dot.  I dreamed of electrifying that audience of sniggering smart young know-it-alls by galloping through the Paderewski Minuet in G.  I had read somewhere that Chopin and Liszt had developed the following party trick.  The two would sit side by side on the piano bench and Chopin (or Liszt) would begin playing some extremely difficult, fast piece.  Lackeys would then bring in a screen that would shield them from the gaze of the audience.  After five more minutes of uninterrupted music played at a frantic pace, the attendants would remove the screen to reveal—mirabile dictu—that it was Liszt (or Chopin), anyway the other one, who was now pounding the ivories.  Nobody in the audience was able to identify the musical bar at which the switch had been made.  Wild applause!  And that is the sort of thing that I would be able to do “in only a few short months” and for negligible financial outlay.

Of course the plan did require access to a piano, and as I didn’t know anybody who had one, this turned out to be a cost-free fantasy.  Not so with the Charles Atlas body-building regime, in which I invested an amount I cannot remember, but way more than I could afford.  “Charles Atlas” was a Muscle Beach type, who boasted “the world’s most perfectly developed” body.  He specialized in turning nerds like me into lean, mean, fantasy-machines.  The objects of his tuition were pale, emaciated guys sometimes called “Skinny Mac” and sometimes the “Ninety-Eight Pound Weakling.”   A hulking bully picked on this  poor fellow, often by kicking sand in his face at the beach, until he filled out the matchbook and sent it.  The sexual element in the come-on was approximately as subtle as the hydrogen bomb.  Just imagine the look on the bully’s face after the WHAM!...

Eventually I made a virtue of necessity by becoming a professional nerd, otherwise known as a college professor.  The fantasies of amazing my friends and relatives with unsuspected super-powers receded, then went entirely dormant; but it turns out that they were still there.  On Sunday morning last my wife and I attended an early Eucharist, at eight o’clock.  Between that service and the larger one at 10:15 the church often has an educational forum, beginning a little after nine.  Recently, these programs, organized by a very able priest who is also a seminary professor, have been excellent.  This particular Sunday was to see the inauguration of a new five-week series on major Christian theologians, to wit, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Richard Hooker, and Friedrich Schleiermacher.  Kicking it off, with a presentation on Augustine of Hippo, would be a certain professor of historical theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary.

We took our places on our folding chairs just before nine.  Slowly the room filled up.  They had to put out more chairs.  The crowd was not quite up to the standard of a Grateful Dead concert, but there were way more people than I might have expected for Original Sin—which as I think of it would be a great name for most rock bands of my acquaintance.  But I was aware of disquiet among the Authorities at the back of the room, a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing, serious sotto voce exchanges.  The Augustinian professor was a no-show!  She had confused the time!  You know, καιρος, Χρόνος and all that.

The flustered organizer stepped to the podium and explained the situation.  The hungry sheep looked up but were not fed.  The organizer was prepared to make a few impromptu remarks.  “I am not an expert on Augustine...” he began.  But leaping to my feet, I cut him off: “I am!”  And I strode to the podium and delivered a fifty-three minute lecture on Augustine of Hippo.  “Saint Augustine,” I began, “was born in 430 and died in 354.”  Things could only get better after that, and did they ever.  WHAM!  POW!, res and signa, caritas and cupiditas, frui and uti, the freedom of the will, literary artifice in the eighth book of the Confessions, you name it.  Then I stepped back into the telephone book in search of my Clark Kent costume.  Thank God it had not been Schleiermacher Sunday!

 Aurelius Augustinus, leading a Sunday forum

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lady Alice and the Then and There

When I was young it was common to hear or read about two broad classes of people: introverts and extroverts.  My family and most of my peers seemed to suggest that I myself was an introvert.  I absorbed the impression that that was not particularly good, and might even be bad.  But I got a reprieve from one of the first memorable serious books I read in my teens.  It was a widely read work of sociology by David Riesman: The Lonely Crowd.  This book, as I remember, recast the introvert and the extrovert in a new jargon more fitting for the book’s larger social vision: the “inner-directed” and the “other-directed”.  More importantly, to my mind, it added a third category: tradition-directed.

The tradition-directed type was, perhaps not surprising, the most traditional.  Riesman attached it to earlier historical periods, such as the Middle Ages, in which religion was powerful and marked by recurrent ritual, and in which industrial and agricultural life operated according to long established customs and routines.   To the tradition-directed the conservative structures of society, especially the family, were all important.

Being “tradition-directed” seemed a whole lot better to me than being an “introvert”, and I was willing to sign on the dotted line with one slight verbal adjustment.  I thought even then, and certainly think now, that the better term would be “history-directed”.  For by the age of ten I had discovered history.  The graph of human experience has a horizontal axis and a vertical one.  The horizontal axis stretches wide to embrace all of contemporary human life in its extraordinary anthropological diversity.  I think of the vertical axis as the historical one, reaching as far back into the human past as can be knowable, pointing as best it can in the direction of the unknown human future.

In my part of the world, as in so many parts still, the landscape was denominated by the vanished dead—Appleford’s Mill, Miller’s Fork, the Thompson Forty.   Nobody living really knew who Appleford, Miller, or Thompson were.  And there were the dead without names, in the small, wild and overgrown country cemeteries and, at least as I imagined them, lying beneath the artificial tumuli of the Indian mounds built upon the Ozark meadows a hundred years or for all I knew a thousand years before I arrived, but still vital to my experience.

One index of our current national crisis of confidence comes in a form of the statement that the next generation of Americans will be the first to enjoy a level of material life less comfortable than that of their parents.  Really?  I suspect that some will, and some will not.  When I compare the material circumstances of my grandparents with those of my grandchildren, the incline of “upward social mobility” is vertiginous.  But there were people in the fourteenth century who must have felt the same way.

Consider my favorite centennial, Geoffrey Chaucer.  (He died in the year 1400).  Chaucer came from a fairly modest background, but he got a lucky break by being admitted to the service of one of England’s greatest families.  His own conspicuous abilities—only one of which was being one of the world’s finest poets—won recognition in high places and greatly improved his offspring’s prospects.  I started out on a tick-infested mountaintop, but I have a granddaughter with an honors degree from a leading university and a high-flying job in social media.  But Chaucer, who started off as an upscale intern, had a granddaughter who became a duchess!  
Lady Alice in life...
Alice de la Pole, eventually Duchess of Suffolk, was born in 1404, the daughter of Thomas Chaucer, the poet’s son.  She died in 1475.  By then she was a Lady of the Order of the Garter, a club considerably more exclusive than Skull and Bones—and you can see why I mention that particular bastion of super-selectivity.  Upward social mobility, whether in the fifteen or the twenty-first century, fits into a groove along the horizontal axis.  But how different are things when we look at the vertical axis, that of the historical change that ever accompanies historical continuity.  A big step in Alice’s march to social splendor was the first of her three marriages, which took place when she was eleven years old. (The Wife of Bath was married five times, even with a slightly later start—the age of twelve.)  It was very common in aristocratic circles for women to be married before the onset of menstruation.  It was all about the money.

...and death

Alice’s last and surviving husband had built for her a funerary monument that is one of the most remarkable in England.  It is in St. Mary’s Church, in the lovely Oxfordshire village of Ewelme.  The burial place is of a fairly rare type sometimes called the “cadaver tomb.”  We see the Duchess in beautifully carved stone from two points of view.  Atop the catafalque she lies finely clad, wearing her prestigious decoration.  Behind a stone grill beneath she lies as a hideous and decaying corpse—food for worms.  There was a popular medieval story called “The Three Living and the Three Dead,” cognate in spirit to the pictorial narrative of the “Dance of Death”.  Three hideous corpses or skeletons appear in terrible confrontation before three rich fellows full of carefree life.  “As you are now, I once was,” says a voice from the bones.  “As I am now, you must soon be.”  Some attitudes to the here and now in the fourteenth and the twenty-first centuries might not be all that different.  Attitudes concerning the hereafter—that’s a different matter.       

Wednesday, October 14, 2015



                                             A pillar of society in a society of pillars

Much of my scholarly research over the years has concerned the relationship between monastic thought and practice and general artistic and cultural developments in medieval Europe.  Just recently I have been engaged in preparing some lectures on the theme of “Asceticism and Literature in the Middle Ages” to be delivered at Notre Dame University within the next month. 

Some of the points I intend to make in my lectures so far, though I shall do my best to dignify them with an earnest rhetoric, do not exactly rise to the level of rocket science.  If a society first creates a highly distinctive tribe, separates it with artifice from the much larger populations surrounding it, and finally gives it an effective monopoly on the skills of literacy, it is not particularly surprising that the tribe will have a considerable impact on the development of that society’s literature.  The “tribe” to which I am referring, of course, are the Christian ascetics—monks and nuns, hermits, consecrated virgins, friars, brothers and sisters in an astonishing variety of formal or informal religious “orders.”

I personally have great difficulty in understanding how the ascetic mind became paramount in nascent Christianity.  Jesus said that all of Torah could be boiled down to two propositions: love God, love your neighbor.  These were called the “Two Great Commandments”.  The “contempt for the world” (contemptus mundi, a formula favored by the ascetics for the better part of two millennia) might be a valuable tool in achieving a single-minded focus on the First Commandment, but it seems to me absolutely antithetical to fulfilling the Second.  How do you love your neighbor by guaranteeing that you have as few neighbors as possible, and of that few only like-minded world-haters like yourself?

Saint Anthony of the Desert, usually called the first monk, sought incremental sanctification through incremental isolation.  He withdrew first to the edge of the village, then deeper and deeper into the wilderness to less and less welcoming shelters, to hollows in the rocks and the abandoned lairs of wild animals.  All the famous early monks lived in artificial prisons of one kind or another.  The stylite saints, the circus freaks of the monastic movement, spent their lives atop stone pillars.

It is difficult for the modern mind—and such mind as I have is necessarily modern—to grasp the phenomenon with mental neutrality, let alone with sympathy.  The anti-ascetic bias among historians in the Enlightenment tradition actually antedates Gibbon, though it is perhaps most brilliantly exemplified by him.  The thirty-seventh chapter of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire must surely be among the most brilliant monuments of erudite scurrility in our language.  In it Gibbon delineated two coordinated cultural disasters that fell upon the classical world—the rise of monasticism and the conversion to Christianity of the northern barbarian tribes. 

More focused is the opinion of one of my favorite nineteenth-century historians, William Edward Hartpole Lecky, author of the ever-fascinating History of European Morals.  Unlike Gibbon Lecky was not a bigot, and he generally avoids rhetorical polemic.  Nonetheless he wrote as follows of Anthony and his eremitical imitators: “There is, perhaps, no phase in the moral history of mankind, of a deeper or more painful interest than this ascetic epidemic.  A hideous, sordid, and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, passing his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of the nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates and Cato.  For about two centuries, the hideous maceration of the body was regarded as the highest proof of excellence.”  

William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838-1903)

What Lecky does not say, but what I must try to take account of, is that we would not know the writings of Plato and Cicero, and we would know precious little of the lives of Socrates and Cato, were it not for the Christian monks whose legendary founder inspires Lecky’s indignation.  Of course the “hideous, sordid, and emaciated maniac” to whom he alludes is no other than Saint Anthony the Great.  For the perhaps paradoxical truth is that practically everything we know about the Ancient World that comes from documentary sources was copied, preserved, and transmitted in the religious houses of Europe.  I have seen a thirteenth-century manuscript of Ovid’s Remedia Amoris to which the monastic scribe appended a prayer of thanksgiving to the Virgin Mary for her aid in helping him complete his task.

Twenty years ago the popular historian Thomas Cahill made a notable success with a book entitled How the Irish Saved Civilization.  The claims of the book, like its title, were perhaps a little hyperbolic, but its gist is undeniable.  It’s rather amazing just how much emaciated maniacs could achieve when they set their minds to it.