Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Golden Oldies

Each week I receive a certain amount of email concerning my blog posts.  The messages are mainly encouraging, but I am sometimes surprised by the source mentioned, as it is not always my blog’s web page.  Several in recent weeks refer to encountering an essay on “Senior Correspondent”, a site that appears to anthologize  on-line journalistic gerontology for the pleasure and instruction of our fellow-seniors.  I know of this site at least by name.  Twice I rashly promised to write something for them and twice I ignominiously forgot to do so—at which point the editors sensibly decided that a purloined essay was probably just as good as a commissioned one, and maybe even better, in that it was actual rather than unconvincingly potential.

            From the pirating of my essays I take absolutely no offense—far from it.  The truth is the Lord’s, as Augustine says, and as for the Internet, it’s as free as the air we breathe or the water from a mountain spring.  That I am a senior is valuably documented by my reduced-fare MetroCard.  That I am a correspondent is perhaps slightly less certain, but still plausible.  That I am communicating with other seniors is the subject of this essay.

            Just yesterday I taught the fifth of six seminars in a Chaucer course I am teaching at the Evergreen Forum, one of several “adult schools” in our town.  The phenomenon of “continuing education,” an important one nationally, is related to a number of demographic trends.  People are living longer and healthier lives.  The number of college-educated retirees is quite large in absolute terms, and steadily increasing.  Many retired people, anticipating perhaps decades of mentally active life, have made such opportunities as tend to be found especially in the environs of college towns an important factor in their choice of retirement location.

            Seniors are delightfully tolerant and forgiving as students—which is perhaps a way of saying they have pretty low expectations.  They also tend to be smart and cultured and to have heard of such historical events as World War II.  And the curriculum on offer from the Evergreen Forum is pretty relaxed too.  Among my competitors are courses with such titles as “Devils, Demons and the Supernatural in Opera,”  “What to Eat?  Do Not Worry,” and “Curiouser and Curiouser: 150 Years of Alice”—all of which I’d like to take myself.  Still, the idea of teaching an introductory Chaucer course on the Middle English text of the “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales seemed a bit eccentric to me even as I was proposing it.  The question is not really whether you can spend six weeks on 850 lines of poetry, but whether such an activity can in any sense constitute an “introduction” to Chaucer.

            The answer, I have been delighted to discover, is in the affirmative.  I have a full load of thirty students, and at least half of them already had read some Chaucer.  As recently as half a century ago Chaucer featured in high school English courses, and several of my students still hold in their memories, after all those years, some or even most of the first immortal sentence, florid and nearly endless (128 words), with which the poem begins: Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote…New students of Chaucer often think, mistakenly, that the hardest part is the language, but it takes no more than half an hour to correct that misapprehension, and to bring them to an understanding that a “modern version” of Chaucer’s text is not merely not the same thing as Chaucer, but something inevitably feebler and less interesting.

            One can have a great experience for the first time only once, and it is really rather thrilling to see a septuagenarian first reading, and then really “getting” some of the great lines in the Prologue for the first time.  Take, for example, Chaucer on gold.   What Milton would later call “the precious bane” appears seven times in the Prologue and crucially controls the descriptions of six of the pilgrims.  The spiritual failures of the Prioress and the Monk, two professional ascetics with high station but without vocation, are signaled by the inappropriate gold ornaments that are a part of their accoutrements.  From the Prioress’s string of beads, rather in the manner of a modern girl’s “charm” bracelet is appended “a brooch of gold full sheene [bright]”, while the Monk fastens the chin-strap of his cowl in a somewhat extra-ecclesial fashion.  “He had of gold ywroght a ful curious pyn.”  To the Clerk of Oxenford (the original glad learner and glad teacher, incidentally) he offers the following couplet:
                        But al be that he was a philosophre,
                        Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre—
an idea dependent upon a “groaner” of a quibble then available on the word philosopher, meaning both an aspirant to wisdom and a money-grubbing alchemist!   The concluding couplet of the description of the medical doctor—the medical profession (Little Pharma, perhaps?) was often taxed with the charge of cupidity in the fourteenth century—is less kindly:
                        For gold in phisik is a cordial,
                        Therefore he loved gold in special.
Here we see both the medicinal and the linguistic roots of my old grandmother’s “elderberry cordial”.  Do you think the Doctor’s love of gold was really based in its value as a heart medicine?  Finally, there is the Good Parson’s characteristically simple statement of an aspiration met by far too few of his colleagues in this poem—that of clerical holiness.  In the middle of the seventeenth century Milton would famously say of the corrupt English clergy that “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.”  Chaucer had anticipated him with his version of a biblical aphorism:…if gold ruste, what shal iren do?  Then he tells it like it is.
                        For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste,
                        No wonder is a lewed man to ruste;
                        And shame it is, if a preest take keep,
                        A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.

The Clerk of Aberystwyth: the late Roger Roberts took his degree at the age of 82

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Starnina's "Thebaid" in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence

I am not a reincarnationist, nor a subscriber to Nietzsche’s theory of the “eternal return”, but I have not failed to note a certain circularity in my life, as I had reason to ponder last week, when I spent three days at Notre Dame University at the meeting of the Medieval Academy of America.  It was the ninetieth annual meeting of this venerable institution, and while I have not been to all ninety, I must say that I do not recall another at which I found the intellectual fare more to my liking.

            I used to be quite active in academy events and governance, and a regular participant in the annual meetings, which have no fixed venue but move around among many centers of medieval studies in this country and Canada.  In retirement, however, my attendance has been intermittent.  Paris has a certain pull, and of course life does move on.  The early years of the Soviet regime saw the emergence of the sociological category known as “former people”.  These were the aristocrats, ecclesiastics, and bourgeois professionals of the ancien régime who, lacking the will, means, or opportunity to flee and dispossessed of material possession and social station, now just sort of hung about like some collective ghost of Banquo.  I wasn’t exactly spectral, but I did feel more than a little “former” as I bobbed about on the surface of a sea of youthful energy and ambition.

            My first significant publication, in 1966, was a long essay on the Old English poem usually called the “Dream of the Rood”.  The poet's stunning conceit is that the personified Cross appears to the dreamer and relates to him, from the perspective of the Cross, the story of the Crucifixion.  The poet claims to relate a vision hwæt mē gemætte to midre nihte, syðþan reordberend reste wunedon--“that I encountered in the middle of the night, after folks [literally, voice-bearers] had gone to their beds.”  The poem is a product of the rich monastic culture of Anglo-Saxon England and—if I am right—is actually an exposition of a specifically monastic theology.  One of the papers I heard at Notre Dame cited this essay with the archaeological respect one might muster in invoking Gibbon or, maybe, Herodotus.  It would have startled the young scholar to learn I was extant, let alone sitting before her very podium.

Opening Lines of the "Dream of the Rood" in the Vercelli Book

            I had the very satisfying experience of being able to listen to talks by several of my own former students, and it was one them that took me unexpectedly in the direction of sleepless monks again.  Scott Bruce, a historian at the University of Colorado, whom I had first met long years past when he was a student in a graduate seminar on asceticism, read an interesting paper entitled “Nocte surgamus: Sleep, Stars, and the Navigation of the Night Office in Medieval Monasticism.”  The Latin phrase means “Let us rise in the night”.

Sleeper cell: stone mattresses for a hard night's night

            The monastic names for the “night office” of prayers and praises, which was performed around midnight, varied somewhat, often being called the vigil or vigils.   How did monks manage to get up in the middle of the night, night after night, to perform this duty so vigilantly?  There were several strands to Professor Bruce’s paper, but one of the most interesting had to do with the history of human sleep generally.  For there assuredly is such a history, and it has recently found its historian.*  The monks probably had less difficulty than we might imagine, because like most other people they “naturally” awoke in the middle of the night.

Much of the extraordinarily rapid change that separates us from the world of our ancestors is of course technological, and of recent advent.  One of the most revolutionary novelties—electric lighting—is not yet a century and a half old.  It is so new, in fact, that was lacking in my earliest years in rural Arkansas.  When it got dark, you went to bed—just like the chickens.

To “go to bed with the chickens”—meaning with the arrival of dark—was to habituate oneself to patterns of night sleep that shifted somewhat with the seasons, even with geographical latitude, but that on the whole were markedly longer than ours.  We know from many written records throughout Europe and early America that people generally experienced a night’s sleep in two installments.  A “first sleep” (this was their name for it) was heavy and dream-filled.  It lasted from three to five hours.  It was a balm for the physical exhaustion of heavy labor that most people in the Old World experienced.

The sleeper then awoke for a period of an hour or two.  He or she might visit the latrine or use the chamber pot.  It was the common hour for married couples to make love.  Many people seem simply to have lain quietly in idle reverie, wool-gathering, prayer, or contemplation in a kind of hypnagogic suspension quite different from anxious insomnia.  Members of religious communities rose to perform the liturgical office.  After an indeterminate period, they drifted into sleep again.  The hard edge of exhaustion having been blunted, the “second sleep” was less deep than the first, perhaps a kind of intermittent drowse such as I myself know very well.  It ended when the night ended with the light of dawn.  Then it was that “voice-bearers” arose from their beds.  The monk moved on to the morning office, and the peasant to the field.

*A. Roger Ekirch, “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles,” American Historical Review, 106 (2001): 343-386.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


The Magdalen: walking baths and portable oceans

            Richard Crashaw, a Roman Catholic spiritual writer of the first half of the seventeenth century, is not my favorite religious poet.  The nature of his learned “metaphysical” wit, when employed in the development of Italianate Counter Reformation piety, produces what I have always thought of as a rather cloying “south of the border” effect.  This is probably a personal prejudice, which I might be able to make a little more tolerable by saying that I am generally troubled by excesses of the Baroque in the visual arts as well.  But one of Crashaw’s poems (“Saint Mary Magdalene, or the Weeper”) has stuck with me.  The tears of the ceaselessly weeping Magdalen are melted crystal, falling stars, pearls, medicinal lozenges and a dozen other things.  Wherever Christ walks through Galilee, he is followed by the Weeper with her “two faithful fountains/ two walking Baths, two weeping motions/ portable and compendious oceans.”

            I had reason to recall all this recently when I heard a recording of the remarkable Costa Rican-Mexican singer Chavela Vargas singing a version of a popular traditional song called “La llorona” (“The Weeper”).   The distinctive bittersweet timbre of Vargas’s voice, combined with the clarity of articulation, could make “Jingle Bells” sound spooky, and “La llorona” is grim enough to begin with.   The Spanish word llorona means “weeping woman” (Sp. llorar from Lat. plorare).  The denotative range seems pretty broad.  At the one end llorona can be a trivial cry-baby, at the other the Weeper, Mary Magdalen.  But the Llorona of this song is the central figure of a myth or folk tale apparently widespread in Central America and the American Southwest.   Like much folk literature and balladry, a basic story or situation exists in many variants.*  A beautiful woman of humble station is seduced by an aristocrat.  After she had born his child (or children), he abandons her for a more suitable high-born mate.  The abandoned mistress becomes deranged and murders her children, often beside or in a river, before taking her own life.  She is then doomed forever to weep, an apparition shrouded in white, as she searches the earth for her dead children.  To encounter this llorona at the midnight hour, or to hear her lamentation, is a frightening experience and a terrible augury of impending disaster.


            There are versions of the llorona myth both in Spanish and in indigenous Amerindian languages.  But the amazing Aarne-Thompson Motif Index of Folk Literature—which is exactly what it sounds like, a vast catalogue of narrative themes—suggests that the “original” Weeper, possibly historical, was a late medieval German woman.  The rapid mutation of obscure historical event into myth and narrative incoherence is a general feature of folk music.  We may recall that the historical germs of so many of the traditional ballads in our own tongue, most of which had their origins in the Border Country of northern England and southern Scotland, were barely discernible to the musicologists who lovingly searched them out in the Appalachian backwoods a hundred and fifty years ago.

            The mind recoils before the concept of parental infanticide, but it is shockingly common.  “Indeed,” writes Kirtley, “amidst the endemic violence of contemporary Western culture reports of distressed individuals destroying their families and then themselves scarcely make the front page of a large city’s newspaper, owing to their monotonous frequency.”   But you probably recall two memorable episodes that did make it there, perhaps because the murderers did not then kill themselves.  The first involved a psychotic depressive in Texas, who drowned her five children seriatim in a bathtub in an hour, and a South Carolina mother who, as her lover didn’t want to be saddled with kids, strapped two infants she had created with an estranged husband into a car, submerged it in a lake, and then raised a false cry of kidnapping.

Delacroix's Medea (Palais des Beaux Arts, Lille)

            If you seek the true essence of human tragedy, the first place you may want to look is folklore, but the classical drama is hardly less opulent in domestic gore.  In the ancient texts a mother’s murder of her children can be revenge against their father.  Think of Jason and Medea.  There is hardly a grander, more heroic theme than that of the voyage of the Argonauts.  But great heroes can also be great cads, and when Jason jilts Medea she slaughters the children they have together created.  Niobe does not perform the slaughter of her own large brood, but it is her culpable pride that effects it.  She actually becomes an architectural “weeper”, the marble font of an ever-flowing stream.  In Ovid the infanticidal revenge that Procne takes on her husband Tereus, the rapist of her sister Philomela, is more violent and grotesque yet.  I withhold the exact details from this family blog , even though they come from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the most high-brow masterpieces of Augustan literature.

David's "Slaughter of the Niobids" (Dallas Museum of Art)

            In Ovid Procne is transformed into a swallow, and Philomela into a nightingale.  In the western poetic tradition Philomel is herself a kind of llorona, a singer of great sweetness, but of no less sadness.  On this topic Crashaw wrote one of his other most notable poems, “Musicks Duell”.  The theme, an eternal one, is the commerce between Nature and Art.  An expert lutanist seated on the greensward near the Tiber hears a nightingale singing in a nearby wood, and he challenges her to a musical duel.  The contestants battle mightily, but at length the power of many strings overcomes the exhausted voice of the single frail bird, Philomela.  “She failes, and failing grieves, and grieving dyes.”   In the version of “La Llorona” rendered by Chavela Vargas the doomed singer signals the strange and paradoxical nature of her allure—a deadly desirability—in an arresting TexMex gastronomic image: “Yo soy como el chile verde, picante pero sobroso.”  I am like the green chile pepper, stinging but delicious.  I might describe that as contemporary Baroque.

*I find most of this in Bacil F. Kirtley, “‘La Llorona’ and Related Themes” in Western Folklore 19 (1960): 155-168

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Idols of the Mind

 You shall not make unto yourself any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  Exodus 20:4.

            I have always been grateful for this second of the Commandments.  It offers me some much-needed hope.  When I stand on the final day before that awful Judge and He starts running through the list of undeniable indictments—sassing my mother, brawling with my brother, coveting my neighbor’s ass (multiple counts), and others worse—I will not be left entirely without an answer.  For though I have been a miserable sinner sure enough, I have never made a graven image, not one.

            To be truthful, this rare virtuous abstention has more to do with my artistic liabilities than with any principle of moral theology.  When I think of the Nasty Guys of history I am much more likely to bring to mind such conventional villains as Vlad the Impaler or Felix Dzerzhinsky than Praxiteles or Michaelangelo.

Bamyan: not with a whimper but a bang

            The first time I paid much attention to the Taliban, at a time when the term was still new to me, was when in 2001some zealots in Afghanistan blew up two ancient sculpted Buddhas of colossal proportion in the boondocks of the Bamyan Valley.   I could scarcely believe it; but since then, I have almost become accustomed to this kind of thing.  Almost.  This past week many of us were sickened to see reports, accompanied by photos or videos, of the purposeful destruction of ancient statuary in an archaeological museum taken over by ISIS militants.  Important members of our government still seem reluctant to concede a religious motive to ISIS—the vassals of the Caliph, in their view, simply want to be “extreme”—but it is difficult to identify anything coherent except religious motivation here.   And in fact religious iconoclasm has been a serious theme in all three of the big religions coming out of the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

            The Hebrew Scriptures are full of it.  Take, for example, King Asa of Judah (I Kings 15) who “did what was right in the sight of the Lord….and got rid of all the idols his ancestors had made.”  This righteous monarch “even deprived his own grandmother Maacah  of her rank as queen mother because she had an obscene object made for the worship of Asherah: Asa cut it down and burned it in the gorge of the Kidron.”  One way of avoiding idolatrous images to to eschew images altogether.  Jewish temples both in history and the contemporary world are practically void of pictorial images of living beings.  As for the Christians, the history of their pious vandalism is breathtaking.   Happily, serious Christian iconoclasm seems to appear on the scene only every eight centuries.  It is fortunate for the history of medieval Christian art that the views of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, who conducted a great war against images in the first half of the eight century, did not at that time long prevail.  But they showed up again with a vengeance in the sixteenth century Reformation, when Protestant zealots in Britain, the Low Countries and elsewhere set out to demonstrate the purity of their religion amid mountains of shattered stained glass, the rubble of smashed statues, and the ashes of incinerated paintings, decorations, and miscellaneous rags of popery.  John Lathrop Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic, a classic of nineteenth-century American historiography and still a great read, is on the whole an exhilarating chapter in the chronicle of human freedom.  Yet the heroic historian is practically in tears as he describes the trashing of the churches of Bruges in 1578.  “The riot was so furious that it seemed, says a chronicler, as if the inhabitants had gone raving mad.”

             Most of us like to think that we are no longer living in the mental world of the sixteenth century.  We can hope that by the time the twenty-fourth century dawns yet cooler heads will prevail, but who knows?  We have pretty much soured on George Bush’s war in Iraq, but I remember vividly the enthusiasm with which the nation greeted an episode from the earliest days of the collapse of the Iraqi defenses in Baghdad.  There was in a public square an undistinguished cast metal statue of Saddam.  Angry people attacked this monument and pulled it down.  The tape recording this event was played over and over again on American television, often with triumphalist news commentary.

            What exactly were Americans cheering?  It cannot have been an endorsement of second-commandment fundamentalism.  Even for the overwhelmingly Muslim Iraqi mob, for whom a koranic sanction might have afforded an augmented satisfaction in the act, the toppling of the statue must have been primarily an act of political symbolism (the destruction of Saddam Hussein and his regime) rather than of religious enthusiasm (the destruction of an image).

            But of course it is entirely around the relationship between the image and the thing represented by the image that the ecumenical history of iconoclasm turns.  Christian theologians pretty well resolved the question, eventually, by agreeing on a distinction between two ancient terms for reverence or worship—latria and dulia.  Latria is the worship due to God alone.  Dulia is a kind of secondary or contingent reverence properly directed toward the saints or sanctified things, including man-made images of them.  The special veneration of the Virgin Mary sometimes needed the special term Hyperdulia.  Try to imagine the art of the European Renaissance without the Madonna.

            The words icon and idol, which came into the Latin church vocabulary from the Greek, were once synonyms meaning a picture or an image.  Idol very soon took on the connotation of a particularly forbidden image and thus became lost to neutral usage.  Iconoclasm means breaking up pictures; idolatry means according latria to an image (idol).  That iconoclasm should become the redress for idolatry was perhaps inevitable, but its results have been, indeed continue to be, most unfortunate.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Times Memorial

It’s been a white world around here for the last couple of weeks.   To be sure, we haven’t had the huge snow dumps that have kept Boston in the news.  But repeated falls of an inch or two in a protracted period of freezing temperatures that allow no thawing at all has produced pretty dramatic results.  As in the old carol about Good King Wenceslas, “Snow had fallen, snow on snow.”  You can clear it, but the piles just grow higher.  The aging process is in one of its aspects an anthology of novel aches and pains; but the distinctive muscular discomforts that follow a session of serious snow shoveling are unchanging over the years and are almost comforting in their familiarity.

            On Saturday, as a brief warming respite allowed the falling snow to ease for an hour or two into what they delightedly call a “wintery mix”, I set out for the campus for the one hundred and first Princeton “Alumni Day” conclave.  Unlike the late spring class reunions, this mid-winter event is fairly serious in its cultural content, and the centennial character of this year’s meeting dignified it yet further.  There are limitations to the elegance achievable in gymnasium-floor dining; but the luncheon banquet for a thousand—quality cold salmon and exotic grains chased by an orange and black cupcake—achieved the maximal possibility.  Where I was sitting among the graying PhDs the chatter was brisk and sometimes challenging.

  Queen Noor (Woodrow Wilson awardee)
          There is a variety of engaging ancillary events, mainly in the form of panel discussions, but the principal business of the day is to honor some outstanding students—past and present.  There are two big alumni awards: the Woodrow Wilson Award (undergraduate alum) and the James Madison Medal (graduate alum).  The winner of this year’s Wilson Award was Queen Noor (née Lisa Halaby), a graduate of Princeton’s first coeducational class (1973).  She is the widow of the late King Hussein of Jordan.  Since his death in 1999 she has been prominent in a number of international humanitarian causes.  The winner of the James Madison Medal was Martin Eakes.   He is the founder of the Center for Community Self-Help in North Carolina, and has been a prominent advocate of approaches to banking and finance helpful to potential borrowers of slender means.  The place is crawling with geniuses around here, but only a select few, like Eakes, have diplomas of Certified Genius from the MacArthur Foundation.

Martin Eakes (James Madison medalist)
            Given the abundance of brilliance and success on display—and I lack the time even to mention the achievements of the dazzling prizewinners among current students—it may seem perverse of me to identify the memorial “Service of Remembrance” as the most moving moment of the gathering.  But it is my opinion that venerable institutions must justify their venerability by the quality of their own venerations.  The fine private colleges and universities of America, so often mischaracterized by the unknowledgeable and the unreflective as mere bastions of privilege, are in fact complex charitable institutions and powerful engines of desirable social change.  Cornell, Chicago, Stanford—Pomona, Grinnell, Swarthmore—these places and literally a hundred others have redistributed billions in the creation of cultural capital not merely useful to the nation but absolutely necessary for its ethical prosperity.  This didn’t happen by accident.  It is necessary to recognize how it did, and to honor those who did it.

            Winter was fairly pelting by the time I made it up to the chapel.  These days one frequently hears American collegiate Gothic deplored, even dismissed; but it gave us some of the nation’s most beautiful buildings.  The Princeton chapel is a kind of mini-Amiens—a stunning collaboration of a great architect (Ralph Adams Cram) and one of the art historical pioneers of modern iconographical scholarship, Albert M. Friend, who created the basic scheme of the windows.  It is the perfect setting for the Memorial Service, and especially for its most dramatic feature, the construction of a huge floral wreath. 

          The University memorializes its members who have died in the preceding year in the following dramatic way.  Nearly a hundred soberly dressed people, men and women of varying hue and age, each wearing or carrying a white carnation, representatives of the undergraduate classes, the Graduate School, the faculty and staff, form a solemn procession.  Moving in two columns down the long central aisle of the nave, the procession splits at the chancel steps.  Its members then mount the steps and affix their carnation to a large board, which gradually swells with its whiteness.  The view from the congregation is rather like that of a time-manipulated photograph of the opening of a rose.  Another analogy, more recondite but perhaps almost more apt, occurs: the celestial rose of the thirtieth canto of Dante’s Paradiso.

            The oldest undergraduate alumnus remembered was from the class of 1932, the youngest from 2017.  Of deceased graduate alumni there were about 150—grouped by academic department.  On the lists of old students I recognized too many names, most only vaguely, of course, but one or two more sharply.  When it came to the two pages devoted to faculty and staff, the experience vivified as I saw the names of several friends of forty years: Walt Litz, for long years among my closest; the brilliant mathematical economist Harold Kuhn; my Rhodes near contemporary at Oxford Dick Ullman, and others.  For each name in the memorial booklet—and my rough estimate is that there were about a thousand—there are those who will have felt, sharply, that bittersweet motion of the heart in which an affectionate admiration vies with the sadness of human mortality.  

 Princeton University Chapel: a Service of Remembrance

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Flickering Fact

J. M. W. Turner, by Cornelius Varley

            In my teenage years I read a couple of books by G. K. Chesterton, and they practically knocked me off my feet.  I of course had no idea what the man looked like, but on the basis of his cleverness and his Englishness I formed a very strong visual image: suave, svelte, elegant, dapper, clipped moustache—John Barrymore, Errol Flynn type.  Only much later did I see an actual photograph of Chesterton—rumpled, fleshy, messy, Falstaff type.  Though I recognized the absurdity of my response, I felt a strange sense of unease, disappointment, almost betrayal.  There is a potency in the visual image.

            About fifteen years ago—I remember the time only because the conversation came up in the context of the “Y2K” flap—a student told me that “everybody knew” that the CIA was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  The person who told me this was a very intelligent young man who was born probably about fifteen years after the event to which he referred.

            I was shocked—not that the CIA had killed Kennedy but that a potential honors graduate at Princeton would casually believe it had.  My remonstrance, if it disquieted him at all, did so only as a further demonstration of just how successful the conspiracy had been.  Thus alerted, I began to appreciate that many of his contemporaries held a similar view.  And some of them would cite as a source of their information a 1992 film by Oliver Stone, JFK.   I had seen this film and thought it junk from A to Izzard.  Others regarded it as visual history.

            Then last week a couple of experiences revived the issue in my mind.  I came upon a newspaper article by Jeffrey Zacks, a psychologist at Washington University, entitled “Why Movie Facts Prevail.”  I think it summarizes the argument of his recent book, which I’ll hope to read when it works its way through our library’s acquisitions process, with the enticing title of Flicker: Your Brain on Movies.  The gist of Zack’s research is this: cinematic images tend to trump other modes of cognition.  You can read a detailed history of the battle of Gettysburg, but the facts on the page can easily be conquered by a contradictory and fictitious cinematic version.  So for millions of Americans the CIA will remain the author of the Kennedy assassination.  The current hit film Selma is likely to command the historical view of Lyndon Johnson for the next generation.

            Pictorial images require little connection with empirical reality to be convincing.  I could have continued to imagine Chesterton however I pleased had I not encountered the inconvenience of an actual photograph of the man.  Of course most of the vast eons of history were innocent of the camera obscura.   Probably the most copiously depicted human being in history is Jesus.  Not merely is there no photograph of Jesus, there is not a single word of physical description of him in the gospels.  But everybody knows what Jesus looked like: white guy with big hair, mournful eyes, soupy expression and a slightly disheveled bathrobe.  That is the power of the popular pictorial image.

strangely familiar

            Well, Joan and I and our good friend of half a century, the artist Susan Hockaday, went off last week to see the current movie about J. M. W. Turner.  He may or may not be the greatest painter who ever lived, but he’s right up there as they say.  It seems only days ago—though I now realize it was a few months—that I was writing with enthusiasm about my visit to the huge Turner exhibition at the Tate Britain.  So we could not miss the Mike Leigh film, entitled simply Mister Turner.

            I recommend it for some excellent acting and, especially, for its many moments of superbly beautiful photography.  But I left the movie house grumpy.  What I will call the “historical” Turner was a complicated, difficult, and by no means entirely admirable fellow.  The less we actually know about historical figures, the greater the freedom of the biographer or the actor, and Timothy Spall, who impersonates Turner, exploits the useful lacunae very effectively in presenting us with an indefatigable and monomaniacal genius, selfish, socially gauche, inarticulate, and joyless and inefficient in his bovine sex life.  Someone should have told him that it works best with the pants off.

J. M. W. Turner, by Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall

            Well, OK.  Compared with what Tom Hulce did to Mozart in Amadeus, I have to give them a pass on Turner himself.  What left me more or less fuming was Joshua McGuire’s rendition of a minor character in the film, the young John Ruskin, who is presented as a simpering fop.  It is impossible that this callow child whose only known accomplishment seems to be his wife’s sexual frustration could ever have become the sagest of the Victorian Sages and the brilliant writer whose Modern Painters permanently and unassailably established Turner’s grandeur.  Who reads Ruskin any more?  In my experience, not even very many graduate students of literature.  But in 1976, when I was conducting a series of seminars on “Morris and Medievalism” at the William Morris Centre in London, I had to read deeply in his copious works.  I left the experience knowing that I had encountered a great mind and a great aesthetic sensibility.  It pains me to think that thousands who have never read a word of the man will go through life informed merely by “movie ‘facts’.”


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Level Playing Field

unlevel playing field

            A friend in Britain clipped and sent on to us a couple of related “American” pieces from The Economist of 1/24/15 (“An Hereditary Meritocracy” and the editorial “America’s New Aristocracy.) It is easy to satisfy his curiosity about our assessment of them.  They are excellent, and even more spot-on than most of that excellent journal’s coverage of the American scene.  The theme of “Aristocracy” is one that surely has troubled any sentient American who has at all meditated upon the degradation of the democratic dogma.  It is quite plausible that in the next presidential election of this country of three hundred and fifteen million, teeming with intelligence and talent, the contenders will be (1) the wife of a former president, and (2) the son of a former president and the brother of another.  But this pathetic evidence of our national imagination gap must await another occasion.  The “Hereditary Meritocracy” essay addresses inequality in terms I have rarely seen clarified in this country.

            Our empirical experience of human inequality is so overwhelming that we seek some tool of transcendental redress.  The old theology, which held that every human being was created in the image and likeness of God, bestowed upon human beings a radical equality that in theory trumped the actual social hierarchy.  But that was in theory.   The old favorite hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” includes a stanza frequently omitted from modern hymnals:
                        The rich man in his castle,
                        The poor man at his gate,
                        He made them, high or lowly,
                        And ordered their estate.

The theory probably always sounded more plausible to castle- than to gate-dwellers, as is suggested by the distich popular among John Ball’s revolutionaries in the fourteenth century: “When Adam delved, and Eva span—who was then the gentle-man?  By the eighteenth century American and French revolutionaries chucked the theory entirely.  They did not, of course, chuck equality itself--“All men are created equal”, liberté, egalité, and all that—but equality’s basis (human law and politics) was now only semi-transcendent. 

            Such is the context of the current discussions of economic “equality.”   So great are the disparities in income and wealth accumulation among American citizens that the question now arises as to whether in terms of practical effect the newer political theory of equality is any better than the older theological one.  I will not use the term middle class in this essay, because I no longer have much idea what it means, but I can nonetheless put the matter in personal and anecdotal terms.  If my only income were gained from working at a minimum-wage job, eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, I would earn just not quite enough to pay my property taxes on a house valued a little below the Zillow median for the town in which I live.  That is if I didn’t spend a penny of my earnings on anything else.

            Surely there are some issues here—beyond the exorbitance of my local taxes or the attractions of moving back to Arkansas.   One is the “level playing field”.  Conservatives like to say that our aim should be to maintain equality of opportunity rather than jigger about in the quixotic pursuit of equality of outcomes.  We should aim for a “level playing field”.  I have always found the idea of the “level playing field” a curious one, since if a football field is full of snags and furrows it is full of snags and furrows for both teams.  However I can use it, at least in a variant form: that of a finely planed and finished chessboard.  

 level playing field

            I prefer the chessboard to the football field.  In the future, it seems probable, jobs with sufficient remuneration to allow one to pay one’s taxes are more likely to require a supple intelligence than supple abs.  Nothing could be more level, regular, standard, uniform or—if you like—“equal opportunity” than a chessboard.  When two players face off against each other across it, they do so in “equality”.   There is no lobbyist on K Street who can arrange a special “economic incentive” or “targeted tax break” that will advantage white with three preliminary moves or black with a couple of extra rooks.

            But does this fact make any two players equal in terms of the outcome of their match?  To ask the question is to expose its absurdity.  The Economist’s cleverly entitled essay on “An hereditary meritocracy” has the following summary heading: “The children of the [American] rich and powerful are increasingly well suited to earning wealth and power themselves.  That’s a problem.” 

            With the aid of a few nifty charts and graphs of the kind at which it excels The Economist lays out some of the tautologies of social capital linking economic success with quality of education, especially early education, and the effectiveness and stability of family structures.   We may want to laugh out loud at the spectacle of the Upper West Side MBA couple sweating their toddler’s application to the “right” playgroup, but when it comes to chess, twenty years hence, that kid is likely to have the edge on her contemporary raised by an unmarried high-school dropout and a television set.