Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How Do You Like Them Apples?

Many years ago, in a junk shop near Cowan TN, I came upon a curious item--a small slab of semi-finished hardwood partially wrapped in brittle Kraft paper on which was written in purple Crayola: “From world’s most famous apple tree.”   This came to mind as I sat staring at the screen of my iMac looking for a blog topic only to find one staring me in the face in the form of the familiar Apple logo, which might be described as the image of a very common fruit in a state of semi-depredation.  In smaller print on the Kraft paper was a claim that it housed a piece of wood from the apple tree at Appomattox near which R. E. Lee awaited the arrival of U. S. Grant to negotiate the surrender of the Army of Virginia.  For some reason I resisted a unique opportunity to purchase this valuable relic, which might have secured my family fortune.  Later, by mere chance, I learned that however shaky the purple provenance of the sacred Confederate relic might have been, there actually had been some such tree. Maybe Chaucer’s Pardoner really did have a fragment of the sail from Saint Peter’s fishing skiff.

A few weeks ago there was a headline in the business section of the newspaper to this effect: “Apple: Solution or Problem?”  I suddenly realized that the considerable degree of ambiguity with which our digital cultures are being assessed everywhere in the press these days pretty well typifies the history of most metaphorical mythic apples in western culture, of which, Lord knows, there are plenty, and General Lee’s a mere also-ran.  Think of the “laryngeal prominence”—alias the Adam’s apple—so prominent in most males, including your bloguiste.  Does that refer merely to an anatomical site, a cartilage protrusion that is simply a feature of human males (adam in Hebrew) or is it rather specifically and theologically related to the man “Adam” in the Hebrew Scriptures as interpreted by early Fathers of the Church.   Surely the latter.

The Augustinian, or Calvininist doctrine of total depravity, without which surely John Winthrop would never have gotten to Massachusetts Bay nor Lindbergh back to Le Bourget, begins with the fruit tree of the third chapter of Genesis.  The sacred author did not actually identify the species, but everybody knew it had to be an apple.  “Adam lay ibowndyn, bowndyn in a bond/Fowre thowsand winter thowt he not to long”--so goes one of our most ancient Christmas songs.  “And al was for an appil, an appil that he tok, / As clerkes fyndyn wretyn in here book”.

History recapitulates philology.  The bad apple which has spoiled so many good ones was confirmed by a certain play on words in the Latin tongue.  Malum is the neuter form of the adjective for “injurious,” “bad” or “wicked.”  Mālum with a long vowel is the apple, fruit or tree.  As a verb mālo means “I choose” or “I prefer”.  Since the scriptural episode concerning the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” involves an evil choice of devastating consequence (“the Fruit of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast brought Death into the World, and all our woe” in Milton’s words), one can easily see how theology and philology joined forces.  It’s a challenge to make the “Turn of the Screw” even creepier than Henry James left it, but Benjamin Britten pulled it off in his operatic version by inventing a Latin lesson for the child Miles consisting of four haunting repetitions of the homophone "malo".

Of course the bad apple of Judaeo-Christian tradition has its parallel and probable antecedents in gentile mythology.  Like many Greek myths the tale of the Hesperides has come down in a confusing cascade of versions, but the main lines are clear.  The Hesperides, daughters of the golden sunset, are three beautiful sisters who look after Hera’s “garden in the West,” a glorious plantation strikingly similar to Dante’s Earthly Paradise in its geographical placement and general vibe.  In particular these girls guard the tree that bears the golden apples—the trouble being that they do not guard it well.  Zeus threw a big party to celebrate the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, but he did not include on the guest list Eris, goddess of Discord.  Understandable, perhaps, but fatal: it is always better, as LBJ knew, to have the camel inside the tent.  Eris got her hands on one of the golden apples and, tossing it like a grenade into the wedding feast, set off a ferocious rivalry among Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite as to which of them was most beautiful and therefore most deserving of the prize of the golden fruit.

This led to the mythological episode generally known as the Judgment of Paris—Paris being the shepherd lad plucked from obscurity to judge the beauty contest.  The contestants did their best to bribe the judge.  Hera offered him great political power.  Athena promised him wisdom.  Aphrodite offered him the world’s most beautiful woman.  It is difficult to explain this myth to modern undergraduates, most of whom are--beneath veneers of realism, feminism, progressivism, or vegetarianism—hardcore romantics.  They are inclined to think that Paris’s choice of Aphrodite (Venus), generally regarded as disastrous by the western cultural tradition, is a vindication of the unchanging majesty of the human heart.  The good news was that Paris got Helen.  The bad news, apparently at first overlooked in the small print on the back page, was that Helen’s friends and relations back home, who got very steamed up about all this, had a thousand warships at their disposal.  Thus, all for a golden apple, came the end of a great civilization.  It didn’t require much of a reach to “Christianize” this myth.  Note the serpent curled around the tree in the Burne-Jones.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Road to Xanadu

I have arrived at a surprising and surprisingly unanticipated stage of intellectual life that might be summarized in the following terms.  I can read any book I want to read but there is none I must feel obliged to read.  That is a wonderfully liberating feeling.  At the same time I am acutely aware that though the element of choice is theoretically absolute and the options nearly infinite, in actual, practical reality I face a narrowing and constriction.  There is only a certain amount more I’ll ever be able to read, and that decreases daily.  I suddenly feel obliged to make my reading count, so to speak.  I am surprising myself with some of my choices.  I am especially surprised to find myself revisiting with enthusiasm a scholarly book already a half century old when I first encountered it in graduate school: The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination (1927) by John Livingston Lowes.

As the eighteenth century came to its end S. T. Coleridge, still not yet thirty years of age, wrote what are probably his three most famous poems—“The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” the most famous of them all, and two extraordinary unfinished fragments, “Kubla Khan” and “Christabel.”  Anyone reading these pieces will immediately be struck by their technical brilliance, their boldness of imagery, and, quite frankly, their weirdness.  There are certain poets whose works fairly scream out a question: “Where did he come up with this wonderful stuff?”  Milton is one such poet; and the student of Paradise Lost knows the answer.  The poet immersed himself in years of intense post-graduate study to prepare for his epic labor, for he subscribed to the ancient belief that the writer’s first task was knowing something to write about.  Coleridge was among the most intellectually brilliant of all English poets and, so far as one can judge, he read as close to everything that had come off European presses since the Age of the Incunable as it was possible for an Enlightenment intellectual to read: science, philosophy, political economy, history, philology, theology, the vast new literature of travel and discovery.  The “Ancient Mariner” is on the surface a very bizarre story deployed at length in the form of a sing-song ballad; but it is absolutely brimming with arresting images of closely observed marine life and lore.  A reader simply knows intuitively that there is not a word in the poem that Coleridge had not pondered and fussed over, as when he describes the strange undulations of water snakes as differentially observed in the sea beneath the moonlight or within the huge, dark shadow cast by the ship itself: “blue, glossy green, and velvet black, / They coiled and swam; and every track / Was a flash of golden fire.”

Had landlocked Coleridge ever seen such a sight?  Had anyone?  Had the poet simply made it up, as poets are supposed to do?  Blue, and glossy green, and golden fire?  Snakes?  For a variety of good reasons Lowes was convinced that although Coleridge had never himself actually seen such things, his poetic imagination was being directed by his mind-boggling reading among authors who did claim to have done so: “travel writers” first among them, but also Enlightenment scientists of every stripe, navigators, marine biologists, zoologists, geographers, astronomers, botanists, theoreticians of optics, the surveyors of universal moral and mythical systems, biblical exegetes, naval architects—you name it, Coleridge had read it, mostly, it seems, by the time he was twenty-five years old.

Lowes was sixty when he published The Road to Xanadu, in which he tried to reconstruct the voracious reading that Coleridge had completed before 1800 and on which he drew—partly with scholarly intention, partly in inspired artistic intuition—in writing his extraordinary early poems.  “Kubla Khan” is a dope-fuelled fragment of less than sixty lines.  The Road to Xanadu is a plump book of 180,000 words plus about 150 dense pages of footnotes, many of them lapidary monuments to an awesome erudition.   And of course Lowes was doing nothing so crude as rummaging around for “sources”.  He had taken upon himself the far more subtle task of trying to retrace a powerful thinker’s “ways of the imagination.”

John Livingston Lowes (1867-1945)

Lots of aging professors of my generation are unhappy with the direction “advanced” literary study has taken in our colleges and universities.  You don’t need to hear me rehearse my tiresome complaints about the jargon, the tedious politicization, the obeisance to dubious theoretical models, the narrowness, the rampant aesthetic relativism, the indifference toward or even contempt of cultural traditions.  Dismiss this, if you choose, as the grousing of the superannuated.  But I will say one thing that is a simple objective fact.  While today many English professors may be “brilliant,” there are precious few who are truly erudite in the way my own graduate teachers were erudite.  These men (and one woman) were already the superstars of a second and third generation of great American literary scholars.  The true golden dawn, typified by Lowes and others on the graduate faculties at Harvard or Johns Hopkins, was about 1900-1920.  These giants were all multilingual polymaths.  Many, like Lowes himself, had had at least some of their training in Germany, the true nursery of the modern research university.  And, my God, did they ever know a lot!  

When, like Lowes, they were also confident writers whose prose was as daring, allusive, and challenging as that of Thomas Brown or a Walter Pater, they could produce works of literary scholarship barely distinguishable in aesthetic satisfaction from some of our most enduring masterpieces of imaginative fiction.  The Road to Xanadu is a trip, as the students used to say: a trip about a trip, to be more exact.  The cultivated American readership of the late Twenties recognized that fact.  The book was not exactly a New York Times “bestseller”, but the original runs were large enough that it’s still easy to snap up a copy on the second-hand market.  There are not many ninety-year-old learned tomes bristling with Latin and German footnotes of which you can—or for that matter would want to—say that.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Lignum vitae in medio paradisi

Last Saturday I got a very special gift.  Three of our beautiful granddaughters—the Fleming-Benite sisters, Sophia, Lulu, and Cora—made a special trip down from lower Manhattan.  They were accompanied by Sophia’s delightful boyfriend, Raymond.  Their mission was to bring cheer to their convalescent grandfather, and they did this in an ebullient fashion with various forms of highjinks and stimulating conversation.  It was actually Cora’s fourteenth birthday, and since I was temporarily unable to come to her, she came to me.  It’s not that a group of vital young New York women don’t have other options for an overcast Saturday, incidentally.  This was a gesture of pure, generous love that’s not for sale in any store.

Wherever today two or three young people are gathered together, there will you have also a sufficiency of smart phones, tools needed for tracking the scores of athletic contests in progress, for retrieving the menus of Chinese take-out restaurants, and for numerous other requirements of modern life.  Thus it was that there came leaking into our little idyll the electronic dribble of news—bad news, very bad news.  A madman in Pittsburgh had just shot to death a number of people gathered for worship in a house of prayer called the “Tree of Life”.  The number of victims was at that time still uncertain, and there was little information about the murderer beyond the fact that the police had captured him alive, though not before he had wounded some of them.  Before beginning the slaughter he was reported to have said “All Jews must die!”

All Jews must die.  It is theoretically possible, I suppose, to accept that statement as a philosophical summary of lugubrious truth, a recognition of the universality of human mortality.  “Golden lads and girls all must,” wrote Shakespeare, “As chimney-sweepers come to dust.”  But there isn’t very much theoretical or philosophical about the muzzle velocity of an assault rifle.  The man in Pittsburgh had meant what he said in the most hate-filled and homicidal sense.  He said it in a way that affronted the common humanity of mankind, the particular foul disgrace smeared on our nation being almost incidental.  His opinion was not one to be tolerated by anyone, anywhere, ever.  But it was particularly shocking to hear it in the context in which I heard it.  For one of the things about these golden girls of mine, this trio of lovely grandaughters, is that they happen to be our Jewish granddaughters.  So with an awful suddenness a grotesque if distant event reported from the other end of Pennsylvania seemed not so far away at all.  For the mystery of iniquity doth already work.

In the meantime the girls’ Dad, Zvi, was in Jerusalem where he had flown a few days earlier in order visit his parents—and in particular his father David, who is not mending well after a recent surgery.  So Zvi, who has a busy enough real life job as scholar and teacher, has been shuttling like a family Kissinger the roughly six thousand miles between ailing fathers.  When he is away, he usually sends me a cheering message now and then just for a chuckle.  That day’s message, which appeared either during or shortly after the slaughter, was in the form of a pair of photographs—easily worth a thousand words each—that have gone viral in Israel.  

 The murderer is supposed to have “explained” in a social media post that his more specific anti-Semitic rage was directed at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a charitable group that has tried to aid desperate Syrian refugees, for welcoming "invaders in that kill our people."  I have no idea what he means by “our people,” but in light of the horrible possibility he was talking about me, I allow myself the following remarks. 

I don’t know how many Christians have participated in a Passover seder or regularly share in an ordinary family Sabbath dinner, but whatever the number, it is not enough.  I say this from the perspective of a Christian seeking historical elucidation, of course, as well as of someone who likes a good meal.  The central Christian sacrament and unifying weekly religious rite is a symbolic meal of commemoration, one common name for which is “Communion”.  In our older churches its various ceremonies became settled only some centuries after the time of Jesus, but when they did so, they tended to become frozen in their particular historical moment.  Wearing very strange garments, the equivalent of the tuxedos worn by Roman aristocrats in the late Antique period, our priests preside over a solemn rite in which the elements of an actual communal meal are only symbolically and archaeologically apparent.  This ceremony must seem very weird indeed to anyone seeing it for the first time.  Jesus is credited with being its inventor, but as he was not a Christian but a Jew, he never saw anything like it.  You will see something Jesus was quite familiar with every Friday at our granddaughters' home.

All aspects of the Pittsburgh carnage are horrible, but one detail has an especially cruel irony.  That is the name of the synagogue: the Tree of Life.  That is a reference to one of the most famous trees in world literature: the lignum vitæ in medio Paradisi (Genesis 2:9).  I know a bit about it from the literary point of view because I have written about Bonaventure’s little masterpiece entitled Lignum vitæ.  As the ancient Hebrew image was continued in the Greek Scriptures we are told of this remarkable tree that “its leaves were for the healing of the nations.”  Nations.  Plural.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Equine and Bovine

William Ranney, Washington at the Battle of Princeton

Some months ago my friend John Raimo, a young historian and an indefatigable bookman, sent me an engaging new work by the German historian Ulrich Raulff: Farewell to the Horse.  This is one of those brilliant essays in the “new” history in which once fundamental aspects of material culture are studied as well from artistic and cultural angles that first surprise and then delight a reader.  Raulff’s subject is the “compact” between Western culture and the horse roughly in the period between Napoleon and the early decades of the twentieth century.  The horse was everywhere, and everywhere indispensable.  The horse provided nearly all transportation.  Dung-covered city streets were clogged with every kind of horse-drawn conveyance.  Work horses supplied agricultural labor and commercial haulage on a huge scale.  As for warfare, the French Imperial army perhaps traveled on its stomach, but the grub to feed it was hauled by horse, along with heavy artillery pieces and all the other engines of death.  World War I, which killed about seventeen million human beings, killed also about seven million horses.  And then, not quite instantly but with astonishing speed, the millennial compact vanished beneath the triumph of the internal combustion engine.  This huge, epochal change—still not complete at the time of my own birth—no longer even enters the contemporary American consciousness.  But he horse might return one day as we choke on petroleum fumes.

Even a vanished cultural symbiosis does leave its memories. Quite by chance, shortly after reading Raulff, I needed to dip into Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie (1595).  I had forgotten, if I ever noticed, that it begins with some “horse talk”.  Sidney and his friend Wotton, while at the imperial court of Maximilian II, determined to study the equestrian arts under the tutelage of the famous Italian stable master, Gian Carlo Pugliano.  Pugliano claimed that “no earthly thing bred such wonder to a Prince, as to be a good horseman.  Skill in government was but a Pedanteria, in comparison, then would he adde certain praises by telling what a peerless beast the horse was, the onely serviceable Courtier without flattery, the beast of most bewtie, faithfulnesse, courage, and such more, that if I had not been a peece of a Logician before I came to him, I think he would have perswaded me to have wished my self a horse.”  Of course Sidney was not the only major figure in English literature to be tempted toward extreme hippophilia.  Remember poor Gulliver when banished from the isle of the Houyhnhnms.

Then, too, I have also begun toying with notes for a new essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a fourteenth-century poem that examines the ambiguities of late medieval chivalry with great subtlety.  To talk about chivalry is to talk about horses—as the word for “knight” in most European languages makes clear: chevalier, caballero, cavaliere, cavaleiro, Ritter.  The most important thing about a chevalier?  C’est le cheval!  Amusing, yes, but also terrifying.  Imagine yourself among foot soldiers in the field being charged at full gallop by a one-ton equine killing machine in which the power of murderous human dexterity was united to steaming animal flesh.  We know from accounts of the Conquest of Mexico that the bravest of Indian warriors—themselves unflinching murderers—fled in terror from this previously unknown hybrid horror.  Memories of the aristocratic bond between steed and rider survived in the horsiness of the fox-hunting gentry of rural England, and its adolescent sentimentality is the stuff of such literary perennials as Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka.

I wonder whether we could not now persuade Raulff to write a sequel called Farewell to the Cow.  This suggestion, only half facetious, arises from, first, my own early life experience among herds of Herefords, but more directly from reading one of the chapters in Rysznard Kapuscinski’s amazing African memoirs, The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life—to which I shall shortly return.  Raulff’s book is fascinating about the iconography of the horse in its relation to political ideology and cultural myth.  Naturally he touches upon the history of the American West, especially as reflected in Hollywood “horse operas”.  Raulff has lots of things to say about cowboys, but he leaves unmentioned one of the most interesting things: they spend their lives in the saddle, but we call them cowboys, not horseboys.  Why is that?  I am a great believer in the history part of word history.  What do we see in the word cattle?  Well, we are invited to see chattels, moveable possessions, the fundamental material elements of primitive human wealth.  Likewise we are invited to see in the phrase “head of cattle” the Latin caput (head) the “capital” that gives its name to economic “capitalism”.

Getting back to Rysznard Kapuscinski (1932-2007): he was a brilliant Polish journalist who spent forty years, more or less, trampling throughout the African continent as its disparate nations were emerging from European colonialism to a mainly chaotic and often tragic independence in the later twentieth century.  His Shadow of the Sun (1998) is unlike any other “travel” book I have read.  He went all over Africa, and in a couple of dozen shortish chapters he displays a magnificent humanistic sympathy for a dizzying diversity of individual Africans and the extraordinary physical and cultural conditions in which they live.  Most of the essays in the book could be fairly described as “impressionistic,” but one alone aspires to objective history.  It is called “A Lecture on Rwanda,” and it brought me as close as I am ever likely to come to “understanding” the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s—an orgy of “ethnic cleansing” in which at least half a million men women and children were hacked, bludgeoned, stabbed, crushed, and incinerated to death by their neighbors and fellow Rwandans.  The old colonial powers hardly helped; but Kapuscinski persuades me that the genocide was, eventually, mainly about cows.

 zebu cow

The historical scene Kapuscinski invokes was not unlike that of Anglo-Norman England.  You had in medieval Rwanda a tribal society in which a small aristocratic group (Tutsis) lorded it over a large population of agricultural serfs (Hutus).   Both were part of the Banyarwanda nation, speaking the same language.  But the Tutsis were cattlemen, the Hutus dirt farmers.  “The greatest, and really sole wealth [of the Tutsis] was cattle: the zebu cows, a breed characterized by long, beautiful, swordlike horns.  These cows were never killed—they were sacred, immutable.”  The Tutsi king’s personal herd was enormous.  The great annual ceremony was a parade of cows.  “A million of them would pass before the monarch.  This lasted hours.  The animals raised clouds of dust that hung over the kingdom for a long time.”  Open ground squandered on cattle grazing could not be tilled for crops, and the Tutsi demands for expanding grazing grounds was insatiable.  Free range cattle are a most inefficient means of delivering dietary protein.  Free range cattle raised for symbolic wealth accumulation demonstrate “savage capitalism” in embryo.  By the mid-twentieth century there was a huge population in Rwanda trying to live on far too little land.  By then the ancient zebu herds might be more racial memory than reality, but they were a very powerful memory.

“That is how the Rwandan drama is engendered,” writes Kapuscinski, “the tragedy of the Banyarwanda nation, born of an almost Israeli-Palestinian inability to reconcile the interests of two social groups laying claim to the same scrap of land, too small and confined to accommodate them both.  Within this drama is spawned the temptation, at first weak and vague, but with the passing of years ever more clear and insistent, of the Endlosung—a final solution.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2018


Yesterday, finally, after more than a fortnight of hard time, my family was able to spring me from the hospital.  Purity and simplicity of desire are perhaps rather rare but I longed to be home “as the hart panteth after the water brooks”.  The old verb may be apt in light of my (I hope temporarily) iffy pulmonary function, but even more so in the intensity of its modest objects: to be home among my books, with my long view of the sloping garden, and the aroma of a good soup from the kitchen.

            Contemporary medicine, of which I have been enjoying the most profligate and privileged applications, deserves to be called “awesome”—if there is any force left in an adjective so abused by trivial misuse.  One day I might try to write about my experience of it.  But as any of you generous enough to stick with me today will soon see, I am heading in a “political” direction; and I shall make in passing only a “political” point on this topic.  It is this: the undoubted excellence of American medicine, and especially the remarkable level of care available in the large teaching hospitals, would disappear like a whiff of smoke were it not for significant levels of recent high-skill immigration, especially from sub-continental and East Asia.

            Relief from the occasional angst and more frequent tedium of medical confinement came in two forms, television and books.  I made daily recourse to both.
The cable offerings were limited.  I may be one of few Americans who had never before experienced a full daily dose of either Fox News or MSNBC.  But I just had a crash course, and it was an appalling experience.  I will not say six of one and half a dozen of the other.  Fox News is essentially a low-brow propaganda outlet pure and simple.  MSNBC, slightly less vacuous and somewhat more intellectually serious, is a step up but still pretty close to the bottom of the staircase of serious journalism.  Both shocked me with their vulgarity.  I am referring here to the networks’ tediously repeating day-long morning and afternoon panels of talking heads.  Some of their prime-time “stars”—such as Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow--are highly intelligent partisan polemicists of considerable forensic agility.  They provide something of the experience of an Oxford Union debate, which is to say of engaging sophism that can be quite impressive in its power to confirm the rectitude of one’s pre-existing political biases.  MSNBC has the further ethical advantage of being able to expose and lambast presidential prevarications, while Fox must ignore or rationalize them.  But don’t confuse any of this with principled journalism.  Robert Hutchins once remarked of the two most popular “news” organs of my youth that “America has two great news magazines—Time magazine, for people who can’t think, and Life magazine, for people who can’t read.”  Such, roughly was my “discovery” of MSNBC and Fox.

            Fortunately, there was plenty to think about in the books I read.  I read five books by Jean-Francois Revel (1924-2006), a magnificent journalist and one of the great public intellectuals of post-War France.  He was probably best known in this country for his rather amazing book Without Marx or Jesus.  Like the great Raymond Aron (1905-1983), author of The Opium of the Intellectuals, Revel was a champion of “liberalism” in its European sense—a political philosophy based in individual ethical agency and in political and economic liberty.  (This is roughly what is known in the English political vocabulary as “classical conservatism.”)  Unless you have experienced French socialist groupthink in its massive, stolid immobility—as I was forced to do with relation to Arthur Koestler in The Anti-Communist Manifestos—you can have no conception of the sheer intellectual courage of these two men.

            The institution of academic tenure in American universities was intended to protect unpopular or transgressive thinkers from the persecution of political yahoos.  Its effect, on the other hand, has been to institutionalize a leftist conformism that aspires to absolute monopoly and a “multicultural diversity” as diverse as any two pieces of Velveeta cheese.  Since the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the triumph of savage capitalism in the People’s Republic of China, actual “real world” Marxists are pretty thin on the ground.  But universities, whether European or American, rarely aspire to quotidian reality.  I hope our humanities departments are not all destined to become the rag and bone shops in which the great achievements over long centuries of human intellect, art, and science are endlessly stretched upon the rack of “race, class, and gender,” with occasional further oppressive hierarchies still waiting to be fully exposed.  Against all this, in its full frontal Gallic form, Revel battled valiantly for long decades.

            Without Marx or Jesus was published in 1970.  Its opening sentences are these: “The revolution of the twentieth century will take place in the United States.  It is only there that it can happen.  And it has already begun.  Whether or not that revolution spreads to the rest of the world depends on whether or not it succeeds first in America.”  The one advantage of being fifty years late in reading the book, as I was, is that I could avoid the suspense.  The revolution did not succeed.  We blew it all on a big “tax break”, and the world reverted to the old tribalist busy-work.  “It is clear,” says Revel, “that the nation-state henceforth can serve only to polarize the most regressive tendencies of people and their rulers, and that it favors the selection of rulers from among the most aggressive, cynical, and unscrupulous sort of men—that is to say, from among those least capable of understanding the world as it is today and of ameliorating its condition.”  Sad.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The River and the Ocean

I think that it is somewhere in Freud’s correspondence that he writes about the “oceanic feeling”, a vague but comforting perception of unity with the universe in which the sense of individual identity, while not quite obliterated, succumbs to an all-encompassing vastness. I believe he theorized that it was a fetal memory of the security of the amniotic pool, but it is frequently experienced in end-of-life scenarios as well. Someone once described it as the religious experience of the non-religious. But why not as well the non-religious feeling of the religious? That is how I am feeling it, only for me it is as much about the river as about the ocean. Coleridge’s greatest poem, or rather maybe his best-known poem, the fragmentary vision called “Xanadu,” begins with a description of the building site chosen by the Great Khan for his fabulous “pleasure dome,” a landscape through which “Alph, the sacred river ran / Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea.” The river cascades, “And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean ;/ And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far/Ancestral voices prophesying war!"  “Sunless” and “lifeless” are hardly upbeat images.

For me the river—with its energy, its vitality, its ceaseless Heraclitean movement--is to be preferred, but I am not in a situation where preference is the decisive factor. This is not an autobiographical blog, but I probably need to be a little less oblique in addressing a kind readership, not all of whom can be familiar with the obsolete medieval Latin of the universities. I refer to “Aegrotat”, which turns out not to have been universally comprehensible. The blunter truth is that I am in the midst of an already extended stay in hospital, to which I was admitted on an emergency basis for a condition arising as one of the dreaded “side effects” of chemotherapy. Having brought under control the presenting problem, they returned last night to the therapy, and that doubtless is why my midnight mind returned to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” one of the great hop head poems in our tongue. As he started writing the poet was powerfully animated by the ingestion of opium, but he was inopportunely interrupted by “a person from Porlock” knocking on his front door. Nobody knows who exactly this unfortunate visitor was, but he has a lot to answer for. He stayed for a full hour, by which time the poet’s buzz was gone, and with it his pizzaz. Hence the fragmentary nature of “Kubla Khan”. 

 The future of “Gladlylerne” naturally depends upon the uncertain future of the writer of “Gladlyteche.” But modern medicine is truly miraculous, and there is at least some hope that I might return to topics of wider interest than my hallucinatory dreams—such topics as those raised by my readings in the Library of America’s Civil War volumes, which have been reflected in a few earlier posts. There is some concrete evidence here. Yesterday my old friend Sean Wilentz visited me, bearing in hand a precious gift. This was a copy—signed and with a flattering inscription-- of his most recent book: No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding (Harvard University Press, 2018). I rarely finish reading a book within a day of receiving it, but then again I am rarely confined to a bed. This book is not a page-turner. It requires too much thought and too much attention to its copious detail for that. Nor am I a professional American historian--among whose ranks Wilentz is eminent--qualified to identify with precision every point of the book’s originality and the finesse of its revisionism. But like a lot of gloomy Americans I have long believed that the Founders, adopting a transactional attitude half way between mere expediency and sheer hypocrisy, abandoned our precious founding documents to the censorship of slaveholders. Wilentz shows how far that is from being true, beginning with his incremental exegesis of the phrase “property in man” as an apparent euphemism for chattel slavery. Words matter. They mattered in 1790. And words that recognized the existence of a nearly universal social reality were by no means words that could long approve, propagate, or eventually protect slavery. Guided by Wilentz’s careful tutelage a reader of the papers of the Constitutional Congress may with Kubla Khan very well “hear from far/Ancestral voices prophesying war!” 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018