Wednesday, January 18, 2017

John Muir






The final stage of our memorable trip of a few months ago began with catching a train bound for King’s Cross, London, at the coastal town of Dunbar in southeast Scotland.  We found ourselves with a spare hour or so to take in some of the sites.  I had not been there in more than fifty years and the chief mental association I had with the town, if I had one at all, was with the poet William Dunbar (1459?-1530?), a brilliant writer scarcely known today except among academic experts, who may have had connections with the place.  I now discovered that the town was the birthplace of John Muir (1838-1914), the great American naturalist, and as we say today, environmentalist, and that his old family house on the High Street, from which his father operated a feed store, was now the “John Muir Birthplace” Museum run by the East Lothian Council.

The house is an old up-and-down framed thing with steep and awkward stairways.  As is typical of so many houses in the old centers of British market towns the Muir house is built cheek by jowl to a roadway never intended for motor vehicles but long since overwhelmed by them.  Visiting it requires the exercise of the mind’s eye no less than that of the body’s.  We make something of a specialty of the museumized residences of long dead writers, some of which—those of Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Kipling being fairly recent and fresh in the memory—really can add an increment to the understanding of the written work.  The holdings of the Muir House are modest but imaginatively deployed.  It is not the Victoria and Albert, but as a place to wait for a train it was vastly superior to a station waiting room with uncomfortable benches and cracked cement floors.

In my experience a good museum visit is one that teaches you a little but whets your appetite to learn a lot more.  That hour in Dunbar was an excellent visit.  I knew a little bit about Muir, as most Americans must; and we are rather Low Church members of the Sierra Club (founded by Muir) among a few other “nature” organizations.  Years ago I had read some pages of My First Summer in the Sierra, but I had no idea how Muir had gotten from East Lothian to the West Coast of America or when he had done it.  Now I wanted to find out.  Fortunately there is a Library of America volume (John Muir, Nature Writings) designed especially with me in mind, that begins with his charming short autobiography: The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913).  Its opening sentence typifies the frankness of the man’s prose style even as it summarizes the plot of his most consequential life.  “When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything that is wild, and all my life I’ve been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures.”


Muir’s father Daniel, the grain dealer, was a grim and inflexible Puritan of the sort whose version of Christ’s love was mediated by rawhide whips and hardwood paddles, freely administered in recompense for his wicked son’s proclivities toward long country rambles.  In 1849, before John Muir had achieved his eleventh birthday, Daniel abruptly decided to emigrate to America and set off with his son in the family vanguard, with the mother and other children to follow when a property had been secured and readied.  Daniel’s first thought had been Canada, but influenced by the fake news of a proposed grand canal linking the Lakes and the Gulf Coast, he went instead to Marquette County in the middle of Wisconsin, where he acquired a beautiful eighty-acre lakeside plot.  There, John Muir later reflected, “I was set down in the midst of pure wildness where every object excited endless admiration and wonder.”   From the agricultural point of view what every object chiefly excited was brutal labor, sometimes for sixteen hours a day.  Does anyone still read Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth or Cather’s O, Pioneers?  Perhaps the titles alone are enough to provide some hint of “immigrant life” on the plains.

I chose today’s antiquarian subject in part to avoid more obvious political topics that must dominate every American’s mind this week.  But they have a way of intruding nonetheless.  The radio has been on in the background, with occasional snatches of the Senate hearings for Ms. DeVos, the nominee for Secretary of Education, and of prolusions upon them by various political commentators, educational experts, and union officials.  The horror!  The absolutely bipartisan horror!  What is it reasonable to ask of our public schools?  In America John Muir’s formal education, achieved in provincial Scottish schools of the 1840s, went into a ten-year hiatus when he was twelve.  But by that time he was a competent reader and writer of Standard English, and a fluent speaker of his native Northumberland dialect, sometimes called “Scots”.  He knew quite a lot of Latin and French.  His life’s work would incline toward practical technology and the natural sciences, but he had already inculcated a lifelong love for the beauty of language and literature—the plays of Shakespeare, the romantic narrative poems of Southey.  Long pages he had committed to memory.  He reports that he had the entire New Testament off by heart! 

His was not the profile of a Goody Two-Shoes, however.  Young Muir was as antinomian as any of his fellow reprobates, a schoolyard scrapper, a daredevil, risk-taker, and rule-breaker.  And if ever there was one who “followed his bliss,” it was he.  “With red-blooded playmates, wild as myself, I loved to wander in the fields to hear the birds sing, and along the seashore to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools among the rocks when the tide was low; and best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of the old Dunbar Castle when the sea and the sky, the waves and the clouds, were mingled together as one.”

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Presidential Farewell




As I write this I have not yet seen an estimate of the size of the television and radio audiences for President Obama’s Farewell Address, delivered last night in Chicago.  I hope that it was very large.  Apparently eighty million people viewed at least part of the first of the campaign “debates” between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, so that I suppose one might legitimately hope for something like a tenth of that.  Though it may not be saying much it is still worth saying that there was a great deal more of substance in the President’s speech.  One had the general impression of vast throngs from the twenty thousand enthusiasts in the live audience at the McCormick Place Convention Center, many of them young people who had waited in long lines in the freezing pre-dawn.

The event, beautifully staged as so many major political events must be these days, suffered from the cultural indeterminacy typical of a hybridity that conjoins the rock concert with the Roman forum.  The President’s speech was prefaced by a pop rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”  Now the “Star-Spangled Banner” is our national anthem.  That means, or should mean, that it is communal and corporate, not individual and expressive.  The first-person pronouns of its lyrics are first-person plural.  It is not an operatic aria.  It would be a solecism to have the massed voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir go off on Che gelida manina from La Bohème.  No less of a solecism is it to invite pop stars to indulge in tremolo riffs on “home of the braaaaaaaave.”  Of course that it merely my opinion, and I have no illusion that it will ever cut much ice with the impressarios of the National Football League who, along with the organizers of various self-promotion events in Hollywood, seem to have determined the forms of national secular liturgies.

Such grumpy old fudy-dudyism is, however, about the worst thing I have to say about the speech.  Its genre demanded certain things.  The speaker had to present a rosy view of the accomplishments of his two Administrations.  He had to express his gratitude to those who had elected and aided him while in office.  And he had to claim some unique significance for actions carried out under the specific circumstances of recent history.  But one can do those things more or less well, and I thought that all in all he did them very well, and in a fashion that exhibited articulateness, intelligence, forcefulness, amiability, civility, and that old-fashioned decency that is rapidly absenting itself from our brutal politics.

            President Obama’s farewell address had a definite theme: democracy, more particularly American democracy.  This is not an original theme—far from it.  It could be described indeed as the classic theme of American presidential oratory.   The theme is usually approached in terms of the novelty, the delicacy, the peculiarity, or the vulnerabily of an institution constantly to be tested.  Such suggestion is powerfully present in Washington’s own Farewell Address.  According to Lincoln at Gettysburg the enormous upheaval of the Civil War was a test of whether so unlikely a proposition as American democracy “could long endure”.  Franklin Roosevelt returned to it time and again.  President Obama was by no means blind to serious challenges to our American democratic consensus, but he was finally decisively optimistic.  His optimism is founded his assessment of the finest cohorts of American youth.  Having spent my own life working among such young people, I am happy to associate myself with his view.

There is a difference between a reflective optimist and a Pollyanna.  Our outgoing President inspired me to consult the first presidential farewell address—Washington’s, in 1796, to which I have already alluded.  There I find a good deal that is relevant to our own age of political bubbles, media wars, coastal elites, flyover country, and thirty-second attack ads.  “In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union,” said President Washington, “it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Renewed for the New Year




For the first time in some years now we found ourselves passably sentient, on our feet, glass in hand, ready to join in the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” as the chimes of midnight announced the birth of the New Year.  The setting was the grand ballroom of a grand hotel in Charleston.  It was the finale of a sumptuous meal and of the even greater intellectual and spiritual feast of wit and wisdom that was the Renaissance Weekend briefly anticipated in my essay three weeks ago.  We then went promptly to bed, facing as we did a fairly early return flight to Newark but a few hours later.  The experience of the Renaissance Weekend was for us a new one.  In trying to characterize the event I could not improve on the public description offered by its own elegant website, and I shall not try to do so.  I can say, however, that I left it—as so often I left certain ceremonial events during my long years of university teaching—inspired by the awesome human potential of our country, and especially of its youth.  There are all kinds of “bubbles” that I need to burst forth from, one of them being the bubble of pessimism.
 
Perhaps you will indulge me in a little bloggerly free association?  Four hundred years ago there appeared a remarkable book written in the German language but with a macaronic or bilingual title: Fama Fraternitatis dess löblichen Ordens des Rosenkreutzes.  This means, roughly, “A Divulgation of the Brotherhood of the Praiseworthy Order of the Rose-Cross,” the modest mission of which fraternity (also stated on the title page) was nothing less than “A Comprehensive and General Reformation of the Whole Wide World.”  It is often called the “Rosicrucian Manifesto.”  Though it pretended to be the announcement of an organization already founded, it was actually a kind of protreptic or pep-talk for learned men of good will who might be interested in seeking out like-minded peers.  The real message of the announcement was “If you build it, they will come.”  We have good reason to believe that, though published anonymously, its author was a Protestant theologian named Johann Valentin Andreae.  Carefully sidestepping the alluring tar-pit of occultism and weirdness that is the popular history of Rosicrucianism, one can see in this book an invitation to a cultural and moral elite to join in a grand ecumenical, international, and “multicultural” project of social amelioration of the kind imagined in fiction a few years later by Francis Bacon in his New Atlantis (1624) and pursued as reality in such learned academies as the British Royal Society or in some Masonic lodges of the Enlightenment.

Cosmopolitanism denies neither the reality nor the value of specific commitment to the tribe, the nation, the place, or even the cult.  It certainly does not quell firmly held views or spirited controversy.   It does, however, hold up a broader vision of human universality.  European intellectuals of the Eighteenth Century were distributed among a diversity of political states, of social organizations, and of religious and philosophical schools, yet they could find a broader unity in what they beautifully called the “Republic of Letters”.  The Republic of Letters was in our terms “virtual”—not a nation-state with geographical borders walled or unwalled, but a frame of mind and a set of shared aspirations.  The letters, to be sure, were real enough.  The Republic could not have come into being without the printing press, which, though not fundamentally changed in technological principal from the age of Gutenberg, was now vastly more present and productive.  The encyclopedic ambition to read all the important current literature on a subject was not yet absurdly pretentious.  Nor were the ramparts between “sciences” and “humanities” yet fearsome and forbidding.  Citizens of the Republic were the learned, or what the French called lettrés.  Letters in the more familiar sense of epistles or missives were no less important.   The Enlightenment was the great Age of Letter Writing.  Space on my bookshelves must be competed for, but I shall never “downsize” at the expense of the multi-volume collected letters of Madame de Sévigny, Voltaire, or Horace Walpole. 

Just recently there was much journalistic comment on the role of social media in the “Arab Spring”, as though this were some new phenomenon.  Have we forgotten the role of the correspondence societies in the French and American Revolutions?  Exchange of correspondence is a fine way to share and test ideas; but nothing matches face-to-face conversations and debates.  Citizens of the Republic of Letters lacked jet travel and the “frequent flyer” programs that encourage it.  The Renaissance Weekend, on the other hand, could exploit exactly those advantages.  And though I saw no powdered wigs or silken knee-breeches, our clunky flip-top phones were enough to keep Joan and me feeling sufficiently archaeological.  In the current American political and cultural moment, which is severely testing our unity, our civility, and what might be called our core social competence, a deep draught of rebirth was exactly what the New Year called for.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Boxing Day



Some old holidays were of such importance that one began marking them a day early, on the “eve” or “even”, as is still remember in the language in New Year’s Eve and Hallowe’en, on in Keats’s “Eve of Saint Agnes,” when “the owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold”.   The tendency to anticipate solemn or festive days was matched by a tendency to extend them.  Thus, for much of the English-speaking world the day after Christmas is still denominated “Boxing Day”.  My wonderful mother-in law, an English lady of the middle classes born in 1898 and departed from us now for many years, was old enough to remember and recall for her children the actual custom that gave “Boxing Day” its name. 

Her world, though very far removed from Downton Abbey, was nonetheless one in which domestic servants and accommodating tradespeople loomed large.  By “accommodating” I mean that they came to you with deliveries of groceries, baked goods, dairy products, ice, household services of many kinds.  It was an economic model in some ways being recreated by today’s Internet, only more direct, more personal, more immediately transactional.  On the day after Christmas it was customary for such people to knock at your kitchen door in the legitimate search of a little something, a gratuity in cash or kind.  The fellow who had been so faithful throughout long months in supplying you with cartloads of coal could expect to find on that day a little gift box for himself and his family.  Boxing Day was the day that such boxes were distributed.  This was all rather “feudal” from Marx’s point of view, but also “ideal”.

“Boxing Day” now means only “the day after Christmas” in England, and I note that the phrase has also to some degree found a home in American English.  This year, in an entirely new way, I well and truly had a Boxing Day experience.  It related less to ideal social relations than to single-stream recycling.  I have to say, first, that we had an absolutely marvelous Christmas holiday, as I hope was the experience of every reader of this blog.  We had a completely full house—all three children and their spouses, all six grandchildren, one attached boyfriend, fifteen in all.  And we have the photograph to prove it.  This blissful conjunction is unlikely to occur again soon, if ever.  I say this out of no valetudinarian pessimism but in simple recognition of the dizzying dynamism of the lives of the younger generations.  Our sumptuous midday feast picked is gastronomic path flawlessly through the cultural landscape of vegetarians, kosher-keepers, and Irish carnivores to its triumph of unity in its mountain of baked deserts.

Back to the boxing bit, however.  As a family we like to give lots of gifts.  The general rule is one “real” gift and several semi-facetious ones per recipient, with waived limits for really small people, of whom there were three.  What I mean by “semi-facetious” is this.  My eldest son and I exchanged identical cans of kippered herring, colorfully wrapped of course.  Gifts of the Magi.  The anchovies and the upscale tuna were separately packaged.

Some of our children, sensibly concluding that having their gifts shipped to Princeton in care of the APs was better than trying to bring them themselves in their various modes of conveyance from their various home bases, unleashed the awesome power of Amazon.com.  By the beginning of the last week before Christmas our vestibule was stacked high and wide with Amazon cartons with their distinctive slinky curved arrow signs and, often, their portentous blue “Prime” tape.  Then as their rightful owners arrived just before the holiday, there were competing orgies of repackaging the goods in what later appeared to be about 200 square yards of decorative wrapping paper.  Very shortly thereafter, in the rampage that passes for “gift exchange” around here, the paper was removed, often by unceremonious infantile hands.   The result approximated the aftermath of a ticker tape parade.

Our local recycling is done on a bi-weekly schedule, every other Monday.  For reasons irrelevant to this account we missed the pickup on December 12.  So there was already a detritus backlog as we came into Christmas week.  And because Christmas fell on a Sunday, the pickup that ordinarily would have been made on the Monday (26th), Boxing Day,  has been postponed until Saturday (31st), on which date we shall be in South Carolina.  The meaning of the misalignment of the stars is that the next recycling date for which we shall be personally in residence is January 9th.  There are certain favors I am prepared to ask of my neighbors, but rummaging through our garbage is not one of them.  So I have spent half a day compressing shards of Christmas wrapping into Amazon shipping boxes, and breaking down little boxes to cram into larger ones—the product of which labor to be stored tidily somewhere in the house until dawn on January  9th.   On this Boxing Day there is no room in the manger.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Long Overdue


Arthur Boycott, FRS (1877-1938)

Though difficult to define with precision, the “American dream”, which featured large in political discussions during the recent electoral campaigns, holds to the belief in the possibility of the steady, long-term, progressive improvement in the material circumstances of the American family.  I have perhaps more than once commented in these essays on the huge differences in the life led by my grandparents, all born in the nineteenth century,  and the lives of my grandchildren, mostly born in the twenty-first.  Without presuming to touch upon either the economic possibility or theological probity of infinitely expanding material prosperity, I have begun a list of things that were common in my youth and now are rare or non-existent. 

            It once was a very common experience for a child from a neighboring family to appear at the door, with basket, bowl, jar, or cup in hand, with a polite request from the neighbor-mother to “borrow” an egg, a stick of margarine, a cup of sugar or some other food staple.  Such items were invariably scrupulously returned (or, one hopes, replaced) with elaborate thanks.  I noted early that there was a kind of hierarchy in borrowing.  No child would ever appear in search of a twenty-dollar bill, or even seventy-five cents to buy a dozen eggs.  There were indeed private loans of money, but they were a rather solemn, adult-male sort of thing, always arranged outside of my sight and hearing.

            No doubt professional sociologists and anthropologists have studied this sort of thing.  Certain items are so culturally borrowable as to threaten any meaningful distinction between loan and theft.  Umbrellas seem to fall into this category.  But in my particular line of work it is the book that most readily comes to mind.

            A woman named Barbara Roston just returned to the Brooklyn Public Library a copy of Gone with the Wind that had been overdue since 1959.  At the time she checked it out, Ms. Roston was fifteen years old and a sales-girl, or sales pre-woman, at Macy’s Department Store.  She simply forgot about it for approximately seventy years.  Fortunately the book’s lack of a barcode presented the librarians with such knotty technical problems that they entirely forgave her the accumulated thousand-dollar fine.  There is quite a bit of sociological interest here.  Are there still fifteen-year-old Americans whose idea of a big time after a hard day’s work is to hunker down with 400,000-word novels without any pictures but with lots of three-syllable words?  I have my doubts.

            But even Ms. Roston’s liberal attitude toward book-borrowing seems somewhat constrained when contrasted with that of Professor Arthur Boycott, FRS (1877-1938).  Alice Gillett, the granddaughter of this once eminent British scientist, recently discovered among her inherited possessions a copy of The Microscope and Its Revelations (1856) by William B. Carpenter.  This book manifestly was the property of the library of the Hereford Cathedral School, where her grandfather had been a pupil between 1886 and 1894.  Hence it was overdue at the very least by 122 years.  Even worse, it appears that the book, though removed from the library, had perhaps never actually been checked out.  Ms. Gillett hastened to return it forthwith.  Given the facts that boffins are notoriously absent-minded, and that certain improvements in microscope technology since 1854 have rendered Carpenter’s volume somewhat less than indispensable, the British authorities, too. forgave Boycott’s estate the hefty fine of £7,446.
           
            Actually, it is very hard to keep track of one’s library books with zeal, especially if you have scores of them borrowed and at hand at any given moment, and especially if they are the kind of book that very few other people actually read, and fewer still have the will to recall.  After you have had a visiting book in your home office for a year or two, you develop a nearly unconscious attitude of surrogate ownership.  I feel morally certain that by about the year 1900 Professor Boycott assumed that he really did own The Microscope and Its Revelations.

            My personal record, which is probably about average for senior scholars in the humanities, is roughly a hundred to two.  That is, I have actually lost two library books.  During those same long years I have lost roughly a hundred of my own.  I could explain to you how losing the library’s two books was not my fault, how they cannot really be lost, how they are bound to arise intact at the Last Trump from some surprising corner to justify their borrower.  What I cannot explain is the vanished hundred of my own.  First you forget exactly what book you loaned to whom.  Then the who part disappears entirely from the mind, followed not too much later by the what part.  The books are simply gone with the wind.

When flesh fails one’s sole hope is spirit.  I have hanging above one of the door of my “study” a facsimile of a sign to be found in various of the old Spanish libraries.  It announces the special excommunication “reserved by His Holiness against any people who…swipe any book, whether parchment or paper.”  Who is to say it doesn’t work, that without it my losses would have been two hundred?  The Puritans who founded the great American academic libraries were hardly less severe.  There used to be a notice posted at our circulation desk that read:  “To err is human; to forgive is not library policy”.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Phyllis Billington (1927-2016)


One paradox of the Christmas season, a kind of social manifestation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, is that we are too busy doing it to do it, so to speak.  Four centuries past in one of the great poems of our English tongue, John Donne wrote thus in “Good Friday, 1613--Riding Westward”:

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this, 
The intelligence that moves, devotion is, 
And as the other Spheares, by being growne 
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne, 
And being by others hurried every day, 
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey: 
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit 
For their first mover, and are whirld by it. 

This is not an easy poem to understand, even if one can grasp with sympathy the situation of the speaker.  The day is Good Friday, the annual memorial of the Crucifixion of Christ in Jerusalem, a place in its geographical relation to southern England distantly eastward.  To this stupendous sacrificial event the speaker’s mind should naturally turn; he is, however, constrained by some unspecified business to be traveling westward.  His larger complaint is that “pleasure or businesse” (the appetite for gratification, the burdens of mundane necessity) generally supplant “devotion” as the animating forces of human life: matter over mind, flesh over spirit.


Phyllis and David Billington

            Three and a half months ago our dear friend Phyllis Billington, the wife of my eminent engineering colleague David Billington, died in Los Angeles.  Four of their children live on the West Coast.  It was a natural place for them to head when they left Princeton some years ago.  Their departure was for us a great personal loss.  What we call “aging” is often so gradual a process as to be imperceptible.  That is what makes its major moments of inflection so brutal and the news of old friends so dramatic.  One learns that someone has fallen and broken a hip, or “gotten a diagnosis;” they downsize from the large family house with which you associate them in mind and memory, they disappear to retirement homes near a daughter in Dubuque.  Too often they simply drop dead.  Still, we were lucky enough to have one good visit with our beloved friends when I gave a talk at Stanford a while ago.  They were living in Palo Alto then.

            On the twenty-eighth of December in the Princeton church where we were fellow parishioners for half a century there will be a memorial service for Phyllis organized with devotion and no small difficulty by the families of her many adult children, who recognized that their mother should be honored here in the community where she spent most of her long life.  All of them will have travelled considerable distances for the service.  But the Flemings will not be there.  We will be riding southward towards Charleston, South Carolina, to participate in the long-scheduled pleasurable business of a “Renaissance Weekend”. 

At least, “pleasurable business” is what I am anticipating.  Over many years we have repeatedly been invited to one of these annual events; over many years we have repeatedly almost gone.  This is the year it was, for us, chiseled in stone.  Since this is actually going to be my first experience, I don’t know exactly what to expect.  One old hand described it to me as “a poor man’s Davos”.  Another agreed in general—“except for the ‘poor man’s’ part.”  The Renaissance Weekend website itself is replete with elliptical enthusiasm: “More than a conference: Intellectual content punctuated by laughter, music, adventures and the power of personal stories. Passionate change-makers, of all ages.  More light than heat: Traditional adversaries disagree without being disagreeable.”

I don’t know how passionate a medievalist’s change-making is likely to prove, but it is clear from the materials with which I have been provided that we owe our invitation to the obscure Spheares of preaching, teaching, and blogging  that have for so long been spinning all about us.  Renaissance is French for “rebirth”—a concept in which I firmly believe in many senses, including (and especially) that old-fashioned one perhaps most immediately relevant to a dear friend recently departed from transitory to eternal life.  Augustine reminds us that all funerary and memorial rituals are of necessity palliatives for the living, not honors for the dead, now beyond such needs.  Thus will I excuse myself for my southward-riding, as I hope also our beautiful friend Phyllis would have done.  And how beautiful she was!  I think she was an actual beauty queen in her undergraduate years at Northwestern, and she was lovely still in advanced age.  But of course what we all knew was the spiritual beauty of her life as musician, wife, mother, neighbor, and for a privileged few of us a friend for decades.  Hers was a life in which the intelligence that moves was ever mindful of its naturall forme.


Portrait of the Artist: Death, be not proud...

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

All the News That's Fit to Fake




good news for the Pope 
The American people have been falling for fake news, and that’s a big story among the indignant purveyors of the other sort, whatever that may be—genuine news?  Just at the moment the genuine newsers are sore at the fake newsers, whom they find partly or mostly responsible for the electoral victory of Donald Trump.  This may strike you as an odd opinion, but puzzling events often attract puzzling explanations.  We have just been through a thoroughly democratic election.  Concerning the American electorate, Mencken still has the last word.  “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”  Mencken wrote a long time ago, before academic social scientists had come up with the useful euphemism “low information voters”.  His more pungent term was boobocracy.  One might lament that our national leadership is determined by people inclined to believe that Barak Obama is a Kenyan or that John McCain sired a black baby, but even silently to wish that "the great masses of the plain people" refrain from voting without first finding out what Aleppo is would be "voter suppression" by thought crime.

From my point of view the great scandal about fake news is that so many people seem scandalized by it.  Newspeople lie.  Presidents lie.  Presidential candidates lie through their teeth.   But philology does not lie, and what philology demonstrates is that reporting the news is so close to making things up that for all practical purposes the two are the same thing.  News is the English equivalent of the French nouvelles (or, since it is the Christmas season, Noëls).  The commonest English word meaning “extended prose fiction” is novel.  A slightly more specialized one is romance.  What the latter term meant was the vernacular language (the tongue of the “plain people”) as opposed to Latin.  European romance really got going in the twelfth century, the European novella (news flash) in the thirteenth.  Fake news.

Fake news is of course much older than that.  In the Æneid a hideous creature named Fama (usually translated “Rumor”) flaps about North Africa spreading the account of a love affair between Dido and Æneas.  Her news reports are designed to cause mischief, and they do.  Concerning Fama Virgil says something very revealing.  She isn’t just a liar.  Rather, her news reports promiscuously combine truth and falsehood.  That is a characteristic of much rumor as, for example, many of the legends exhibited by the African-American “grape vine”.  You didn’t realize that Aids was a genocidal plot?  It’s fantastic, but from a certain point of view cruelly plausible.

It hardly need be said that fake news has played a huge role in world history.  Consider for a moment the “Donation of Constantine”.  The Emperor Constantine gave away the Western half of the Roman Empire to the Pope!  It said so, clear as day, right there on a piece of parchment.  There were even pictures.  It took the best minds of Europe a few centuries to conclude that it ain’t necessarily so, but by then it hardly mattered.  More recently we had the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Zinoviev telegram.  The newscaster Dan Rather sank into disgrace over his obdurate credulity concerning a piece of fake news about George Bush’s career in the National Guard!  One unfortunate thing about human beings is that we have a tendency to believe what we want to believe.

Fake news is sometimes well-intentioned, and it can even perhaps have some beneficial effects.  When I was in high school back in the Cretaceous, sex, though on all our minds, was not a matter for public discussion.  It was definitely back-of-the-bleachers stuff; and we depended for our news mainly on second and third-hand reports possibly originating with the unseen elder brothers of our classmates.  One chilling item concerned venereal disease, a terrible affliction with but one medical treatment, namely “a shot in the balls with a square needle”.  That’s the kind of news designed to encourage perseverance in the straight and narrow.

There is, finally, a large body of fake news that is either unintentionally or intentionally delightful.  The former is represented by various tabloid papers one views chiefly from the checkout line in supermarkets.  One of my favorite headlines from this source is “Dead Mum Gives Birth to Child in Coffin!”  In our end is our beginning I suppose.  The latter is represented by the Onion, and on many college campuses, an annual “April Fool” edition of the student newspaper.  The problem is that in our current situation the gap between straight reporting and parody is razor thin.  But I still remember with the greatest pleasure a travel-documentary I saw on British television many years ago.  Its subject was the annual spaghetti harvest in the Tuscan countryside.


The spaghetti harvest in Santa Cristina in Salivolpe in an undated photograph from the 1950s.  Today, mechanization is threatening traditional folk ways and, according to some, the quality of the al dente.