Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Reflections on New England Democracy

          I awoke this morning to learn that “New Hampshire has spoken.”  Fortunately, unlike most of the candidates themselves, New Hampshire spoke sotto voce, not nearly loud enough to disturb my slumbers.  Indeed to say that New Hampshire spoke is to indulge in the classical rhetorical figure of synecdoche—the one generally known as “the part for the whole”.   My rough-and-ready extrapolation from the newspaper charts is that approximately thirty-seven percent of New Hampshire spoke (sort of)—that is, thirty-seven in one hundred of a population about that of San Antonio. 

            Still, given the anemia of our national political participation, that is a not unimpressive number.  The victories of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were not merely decisive but crushing.  And to be clear, as scornful as I may sound, this essay is more of a confession than an indictment.  For I have followed all the primary events slavishly in the newspaper and on the PBS “News Hour”.  I have attended to most of the so-called debates on the Tube, and digested column yards of posterior analysis and exegesis.  My attention has been bi-partisan, though this year the Republican “debates” have been more interesting than the Democratic “debates” rather in the way that Paradise Lost is more interesting than Paradise Regained--simply because of the raw materials of the two poems.  Milton’s politics were intense but from our point of view perhaps somewhat incoherent.  Although he was a spokesman for a revolutionary regime, and even an apologist for regicide, the actual operations of his imagined divine government are autocratic in the extreme.  On the other hand democracy of a sort does characterize the political operations of the demonic world.  Milton invented the word Pandemonium—a place bringing together all the demons—as the name of the diabolical congress or parliament in which the fallen angels meet to cook up their plot.  It is the raucous character of their debate that accounts for the meaning of the word pandemonium in ordinary discourse. 

            In the shouting match of the last Republican forum the governor of my state, Chris Christie, seems perhaps to have pulled off a successful kamikaze attack on the S. S. Marco Rubio.  Rubio is not exactly dead in the water, but he is listing noticeably, at the bottom of the mediocres, and (humiliatingly) just below Jeb Bush, who is in the middle of the mediocres.  Does anyone still read Matthew Arnold these days?  I am thinking of Sohrab and Rustum, the oriental tale that reverses the archetype of Oedipus Rex.  In this one it is the father who unknowingly kills the son.  Mr. Christie himself is way out ahead of his fellow single-digit also-rans, but the world is rarely impressed by a sixth-place finish.  It worked for Dante Alighieri*, of course.  But I knew Dante Alighieri.  He was a friend of mine.   And, Mr. Christie, you are no Dante Alighieri.  Please return immediately to New Jersey, where we languish for want of executive direction.

            Tremendous amounts of money have already been spent on these preliminaries.  It is hardly worth saying that the money could have been put to better purposes, because that is true of so many of our expenditures, public and private alike.  But the figures are staggering.  In the Iowa contest Jeb Bush received 5200 votes, less than three percent of the total votes cast and about one tenth the number secured by the “winner”, Ted Cruz.  It is hard to assess precisely how much money the Bush people spent in achieving this result because “the Bush people” include both the candidate’s official campaign workers and the administrators of an opulent Political Action Committee technically independent of that campaign.  The published figures I have seen range from a low of $2800 per vote to a high of $5200. It is probably closer to the latter than the former, though either end of that spectrum would seem to me to deserve the exclamation point that is so ludicrous in its collocation with “Jeb”.  Whatever became of the frugal good old days of the ward bosses, when you could secure a vote for a bottle of whiskey or, at most, a Christmas turkey?

            There is little faith left in what is usually called the “conventional wisdom”.  How could there be?  Wisdom itself has become so unconventional.  But I am at last vaguely apprehending what people smarter than I have noticed for some time, and that is a fundamental congruence between what superficially seem like such starkly divergent candidacies as those of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  You cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs.  Unfortunately the hard part is not the egg-breaking but the omelet-making.

*See Inferno 4.102

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

In Canada

            On Monday we flew to Montreal, where our younger son and his wife are both university professors, and where our youngest and third from youngest grandchildren have both been growth-spurting like mad during the months since I last saw them.  It is necessary for grandparents to be indispensable, or at least that they be allowed plausibly to seem indispensable.   All our children, bless their hearts, cooperate with this need.  The rationalization for this particular trip is convincing enough.  Luke must be away for several days at a conference in California, so that there is a genuine role for the grandparental Helping Hand.  At the same time it is clear that introducing two more large and sometimes slow-moving people into such a busy scene has its social ambiguities.

            I don’t claim to know Montreal, but I like what I see when I come here.  In fact I have liked most of what I have experienced in Canada over the years, mainly limited though it has been to lecture engagements and academic conferences.  Canada is a very large country with a relatively small population, most of which lives in a narrow band near the American border.  So you have a very big ship making quite a chop for the not so big ship in its wake.  I have always been aware of the cultural anxiety that the situation induces in many Canadians, who insist upon a distinctive Canadian “identity” for which I see little support in actual historical experience, and label as “Canadian” cosmopolitan virtues shared by the international intellectual community.  While I was in graduate school, a professor at Toronto named Northrop Frye was unofficially crowned the reigning monarch of English language literary criticism.  Frye was indeed an impressive and stimulating critic of literature, and he could teach you to see things in texts you hadn't seen before, but I never was able to grasp the distinctively “Canadian” character of his insights about the Bible or William Blake often claimed by his compatriots.

            I don’t think that, for all the obnoxious forms of provincialism emanating from the United States, one would encounter a parallel attitude in America.  Once when I was chairman of the Princeton English Department I got a letter from my counterpart at the University of Toronto.  The preëminence of Toronto in Canadian higher education is very marked and has no parallel in the United States, where Yale vies with Chicago and Chicago with Stanford and so on.  In this way Canada is more like European countries than it is the United States.  Anyway this man wrote to tell me that his department was the beneficiary of some targeted largesse of the Ford Foundation.  They would now be able to accomplish their long desired hope of expanding their offerings in American Literature.  Did we have at the moment any outstanding Canadian graduate students in the field whom we would choose to nominate for faculty positions in Toronto?  Here we had American money eventually deriving from an icon of American capitalism in search of American-trained scholars expert in American literature.  But no Americans need apply!  It was the law.

            My limited experience in Canadian Academia is that this strain of cultural sensitivity is at times not far from a form of anti-Americanism.  I don’t want to make too much of a single unpleasant immigration officer at the airport.  Of course I could be being oversensitive myself, but we know that sometimes paranoids do have real enemies.  And arriving on the day of the Iowa caucuses might not be strategic.  I was not looking forward to having to defend the results of the Republican race, should I be stopped on the street and forced to deliver, since I had assumed the inevitability of a Trump victory.

            Donald Trump did not win the caucus, however.  Ted Cruz, a native of Calgary, Alberta, prevailed.   One of the charges American conservatives have often made against the current administration is that of constitutional impropriety.  Their criticism of the more liberal members of the Supreme Court is that the justices too often indulge in allegorical interpretations of the Constitution that mock the document’s clear, literal sense.  Well, the first section of the second article of our constitution reads thus: “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”  It may yet take some fancy literary criticism to resolve all this.

            I hope the Canadians recognize that indefinable kinship of Cruz and Frye.  I see it pretty clearly, but then I have more than trace elements of Canadianism myself.  Though raised in a sod house in the Nebraska Territory, my paternal grandmother, née Herrington, sprang from a family of colonial English Baptists who fled to Canada rather than bow their necks to the tyranny of the Jacobin putsch more commonly known as the American Revolution.  They went no further than Windsor, Ontario; but a miss is as good as a mile.  My grandfather Fleming, a jingoist of the old school,  cast scorn upon his wife’s loyalist forebears, but what can you expect from an Irishman and an anti-English bigot?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Blizzard of Sixteen

I try not to talk about the weather very much, but you may have heard that the central swath of the eastern United States has just experienced a major snowstorm: the Blizzard of Sixteen.  In various places such as in the stalled cars along the turnpikes in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, the problems were serious.  Here in Princeton we got only twenty-three inches, and the gale-force winds were only “occasional”.  Still it was a lot of storm.

I want to call it a “perfect storm”.  But that phrase has come to mean a collocation of various kinds of badness, whereas I mean something like the opposite.  For us, in our particular situation, it was about as good as a crippling storm could be.  It conveniently fell on a weekend when neither of us had travel obligations.  We both had contemplative tasks that invited a hunkering-down attitude.  The electrical power, which has several times in the past succumbed to lesser assault, remained unbroken.  We had no commissary shortages, and we were perhaps above all hearth-ready.

The Big Weather of recent years featured back-to-back hurricanes (one of them the infamous Sandy of 2012, preceded a couple of years earlier by a production more local, though hardly less violent) that flattened many trees on the common land south of our house.  The house itself narrowly escaped being mauled by a large collapsing linden.  There were a couple of upsides.  The first was that the far too large resident deer population, having lost a significant part of its forest cover, was for a time somewhat reduced—a development welcome to gardeners.  The second was that there was suddenly available to anyone with a chainsaw and a modicum of stamina an abundance of excellent firewood—oak, maple, locust.  Over a couple of summers I worked my way through several cubic yards of this windfall, creating two very large and carefully constructed piles of split firewood.  This has been seasoning under tarps and really would have been ready last winter, had there been any such event.  Just as I was concluding that this year some of it is needing to be burned before it decays, my excellent next-door neighbor virtually forced upon me half a truckload of split hardwood he had bought from a commercial dealer but decided would be more than he could use.

When last week the weather mavens turned hysterical concerning an impending blizzard, I chalked it up mainly to hype but figured that enough of a winter event might be on its way at least to allow us to have a fire or two.  So I hauled up a cord or so of my neighbor’s largesse, along with a goodly pile of kindling made from hardwood flooring scavenged from a dumpster a while back, and arranged all this conveniently along the backside of the house.  When I say “conveniently,” I mean that you didn’t even have to exit the house to get to it—just open a sliding window and reach out.  It was all under an overhang, but for safety’s sake, in an untypical moment of forethought, I covered it with a ratty gray tarpaulin.

Beginning about noon on Friday, with no snow actually falling but with all the other country signs shouting its imminent arrival, we started a generous fire in the hearth and kept it going during practically all our waking hours until Monday morning.  We sat around the fire for hours, with a stack of books and lap-tops at the ready.  We read aloud.  We played several spirited games of Boggle with the new set that appeared at Christmas.  We ate our evening meals against a background of flickering flame.  We talked.  Joan played the violin.  I wrote the final deathless paragraph of an essay I had been writing.  From time to time we would look up and out to gauge the progress of the increasingly silent snow.  Automated “emergency” phone calls from the police telling us to keep off the streets and mass emails from various institutions telling us that it would be useless to try go to the University or to church were unnecessary but tidy endorsements of decisions too obvious to have to make anyway.

On Sunday morning I woke up to a huge, cold moon eventually followed by bright, crisp sunshine.  Now we would have to pay for our winter idyll, as it would take at least half a day, working in sensible spurts punctuated by sensible, age-appropriate intermissions, to dig out the driveway and sidewalks.  I had positioned shovels, like the firewood, at the ready.  As I was somewhat grudgingly putting on my boots in preparation for battle I heard loudish mechanical sounds somewhere nearby, probably at a neighbor’s.  But when I put my head out it was Luis Chavez and his uncle.  The noise was that of a snow-blower, and it was blowing snow out of my driveway like crazy.  My intermittent relationship with Señor Chavez is not easily characterized.  It would need its own post, maybe its own blog.  Am I employer, employee, banker, friend, advisor, or “other”?  He keeps me guessing.  I hadn’t seen him in a while.  I supposed he was back in Guatemala, leaving me safe from the immigrant menace but snowbound and with little hope that Donald Trump would show up and dig me out.  He had a big smile.  So did I.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Thomas Sgovio

Some writers I have met think of the books they have written as their children, and even speak of them in such terms.  Given the effort a book takes to nourish, the high hopes with which it is launched into the world, not to mention the sober adjustments with which those hopes must eventually be aligned with reality, it is a plausible way of thinking.  I myself have a different paradigm: that of childhood friends, old schoolmates, or one-time neighbors from a far-away place you once lived long ago.  With a few of these people you may maintain a life-long relationship of sorts; but for the most part it’s out of sight, out of mind until now and then there is a chance crossing of paths in an airport that draws you up short.  Then what you say is “We must have lunch” while what you are thinking is “My God, do I look like that?”

A few years ago I published a book entitled The Anti-Communist Manifestos, for the composition of which I had to read widely in the political history of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.  Having gone on (or back) to other things, I don’t think much about those materials these days except when prodded by periodic public efforts emanating from our intellectual class to exonerate Julius Rosenberg or beatify Dalton Trumbo or undertake some such other annoying good work.  A few days ago I had such a strange encounter when by accident I stumbled across some of the Kolyma drawings of Thomas Sgovio on the Internet.

Perhaps not a household name?  Thomas Sgovio, an artist, was a first-generation Italian-American born in Buffalo in 1916.  He died in Arizona in 1997.  It was what happened in between that was so interesting.  Around 1900 his father Giuseppe emigrated to America from impoverished Apulia, settling in Buffalo.  Like his more famous fellow pugliese, Nicola Sacco, Giuseppe Sgovio was a political radical, a Communist agitator.  In the mid-30s, just as young Thomas was graduating from the arts high school in Buffalo, the government moved to deport the father.  The Sgovio family, like so many others in similar situations, opted for the Workers’ Paradise. Once in Russia, Thomas enrolled in the Art Institute, where he developed his skill for three years before running into the buzzsaw of the Yezhovschina (Stalin’s Great Purge).
The architects of Kolyma: Nikolai Yezhov and friend
Thomas Sgovio, like untold thousands of others, was shipped off to the goldfields of Kolyma in the remotest tundra and taiga of Siberia, where a para-universe of dozens of slave-labor camps became first the torture chamber and then the graveyard for millions.  The horror of the Jewish Holocaust has come to be typified in a single place name: Auschwitz.  That the name of Kolyma remains comparatively unknown is one testimony to the vestigial reluctance of some academic historians to see very much in common between Hitler and Stalin.


The experience of Kolyma beggars the imagination.  It began with enclosure in a cattle car for a month or more, the time needed to haul the convicts to Vladivostok on the Pacific.  Then the horrors began in earnest.   Grotesquely overcrowded slave ships hauled the prisoners for more than a thousand miles across the frigid Sea of Okhotsk to Magadan, the port nearest (but not very near) the camps.  The political prisoners were subjected throughout the voyage to constant abuse and/or neglect by their warders, and to the unceasing reign of terror exercised by desperate gangs of actual criminals.  I shall not try to describe what has been so well described by eye-witnesses.  Kolyma was often a death sentence, but the numbers involved were so large that there were survivors, some of whom wrote books.  I recommend two in particular: Elinor Lipper’s Eleven Years in Soviet Prison Camps and Eugenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind.  Both authors were intellectuals, well-educated European Communists, the one Swiss, the other Russian; and Ginzburg in particular is a fine writer.  You can find excellent historical treatment in Anne Applebaum’s Gulag and in Robert Conquest’s more focused Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps.
"Wood Detail"
Thomas Sgovio was not an intellectual.  His touching autobiography, Dear America! Why I Turned against Communism, brought out by an obscure publisher in 1979, is not well written.  It is hard to find, and in any event has become prohibitively expensive on the second-hand market.  I do not own it.  But it would draw tears from a stone.  Sgovio exited Kolyma only after the death of Stalin, though even then his ordeal was by no means over.  Even at that time the official position of all Western Communist parties, a position shared by many other leftist intellectuals, was that there was no system of forced labor in the Soviet Union, and that rumors to the contrary were vile lies and anti-Soviet propaganda.  It was only with the publication in the West of the first volume of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1973—nearly twenty years later!—that the truth came to be generally acknowledged, sometimes grudgingly.  So long had a purity of political belief been able to withstand the cataract of evidence that appeared in the wake of World War II.

Though not a great writer, Thomas Sgovio did leave another kind of memorial of his experience: a trove of paintings and drawings done from memory and now archived by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  The truth is that he was not a great visual artist either. After all, his only formal training had been in “Soviet Realism”.  But his work is not without its power.  Some of his pieces circulate in the art market and show up from time to time on eBay.  I wouldn’t want one on my living room wall, but they ought not be consigned to our cultural amnesia either.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Stately Home Hopping

 Glamis Castle

Among the high points of a recent cinematic rampage, during which I saw more first-run films in a fortnight than I am used to seeing within a three year period, Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth was conspicuous.  Filming Shakespeare is a tricky business.  Far too many directors try to compete with Shakespeare rather than to amplify him with the technical magic they command; but here I found a nearly perfect symbiosis of word and image, as well as superb acting in two of the hardest roles ever invented by genius to test talent.  The camera could present as powerfully as the Bard himself the harsh topography and even harsher built environment of that ancient Scotland of the poet’s imagination.  The Glamis Castle of the Fassbinder film is a dark and gloomy heap of Pharaonic ashlar set in a wilderness of moorland.  The film gives generous license to the imagination, but mine was drawn back only as far as the winter of 1959.

 Marion Cotillard, Michael Fassbender in cinematic Macbeth

            When I arrived in Oxford in the autumn of 1958, England was in the last stages of a postwar austerity that had lasted more than a decade.  There was still bomb damage to be seen in London.  Other vestiges of the war mentality included a popular pro-Americanism that seems amazing in retrospect.  There were several institutions, including a very active English Speaking Union, designed to keep fresh the spirit of “Hands Across the Water.”  One particular organization whose bounty I enjoyed was the Dominions Fellowship Trust.  This charitable organization was the interwar brainchild of two formidable grandes dames, Lady Frances Ryder and “Miss Macdonald of the Isles”, who though she operated out of a house in Cadogan Square in London, was a prominent member of the Clan Macdonald of Sleat from the Isle of Skye.  The original brief of the DFT was, I think, to extend hospitality to students from the Antipodes temporarily resident in British universities.

            During World War II the focus changed to Allied military officers, especially American and Canadian airmen in need of rest and relaxation between harrowing bombing missions.  The DFT coordinated a network of big houses in England, Scotland, and Ireland, whose civilian owners graciously offered hospitality to their Anglophone comrades in arms.  The war ended, but the Dominions Fellowship Trust continued.  The focus was once again foreign university students, and especially Rhodes Scholars.  There are very long vacations between Oxford terms.  I suppose the thinking was that the closest thing to a shell-shocked bombardier was an American undergraduate faced with a plateful of Spotted Dick.

            I was invited by Warden Williams of Rhodes House, who had been the general officer in charge of intelligence for Montgomery in his duels with Rommel in North Africa, to look into this scheme of stately home hopping.  I suggested that I’d like to make a specialty of Scotland.  This very much pleased Miss Macdonald of the Isles, who interviewed me personally, and sent me off for R and R at huge and frigid piles of stone belonging to her most trusted Trusters all over Caledonia.  My special friend and frequent hostess was Betty Sitwell of Lennel House of Coldstream, Berwickshire.   Betty was some kin to the famous and famously eccentric literary Sitwells.  We really hit it off, and there was always a table full of Evelyn Waugh characters talking about things I didn’t understand, laughing at jokes I didn’t get, and gossiping about people I had never heard of—all of which made me feel very important indeed.  I regret that as the years passed and I succumbed to Real Life, I lost all contact with Betty Sitwell.  The carelessness of youth is simply mind-boggling.  Much later I learned that Lennel House had in 1995 become a continuing care facility. I also enjoyed the hospitality of a wonderful house called Shewglie in the minor metropolis of Drumnadrochit, practically atop Loch Ness.

Lennel House, Coldstream

            But the anecdote around which this post is built began at a house I no longer remember very clearly, except that it was near Arbroath, on the Scottish east coast.   It was a rather Jamesian place with two permanent residents—an elderly, wealthy widow woman and her equally elderly servant woman.  One day my hostess asked me if I wouldn’t like to visit Glamis Castle, where the Queen spent a happy childhood.  Within seconds of hearing my affirmative response she was on the phone talking with her friend the Countess, at Glamis Castle.  That would be the Countess of Strathmore, who at that time was a delightful red-haired Irish woman who was, I was told by the gossipy servant, considerably younger than her husband the Earl, whom she had met when he was a hospital patient and she a nurse.  (Think of Tom, the Irish chauffeur at Downton Abbey).

            My stay at Arbroath fell in the winter vacation, when at that latitude darkness descends at about three in the afternoon, and our tour of the nooks and crannies of Glamis required the use of several “torches” (flashlights).  The inchoate, rapidly changing shadows contributed significantly to the creep factor as the red-headed Countess, who was in great shape, raced us, puffing, through turrets and stairwells and dungeons.  Now in coarse historical fact most of these buildings at Glamis dated from the seventeenth century.  Furthermore the historical Macbeth had nothing to do with Glamis Castle any more than he had much to do with most of the stuff in Shakespeare.  As usual, Shakespeare was getting his material from Holinshead, who was a stern moralist rather than an even vaguely accurate historian.  Still, I was prepared to see the ghost of Banquo at the top of every breathless flight, and perhaps even Macbeth himself muttering “…I know I am the thane of Glamis; but how of Cawdor?...”

Lady Frances Ryder, founder of the Dominions Fellowship Trust (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Literary Mastication

One thing leads to another.  I had the occasion in my last post to mention the ancient grammarian Macrobius in his capacity as “dream expert”.  Having piqued my own curiosity, I was led, later in the week, to take from its shelf the first volume of his Saturnalia, a volume I last touched probably twenty years ago when I was binding it.  I didn’t get all that far with it before wandering off into this week’s effort.

A point very much in Macrobius’s favor, so far as I am concerned, is that he dedicated both of his surviving books to his son Eustachius.  The preface to the Saturnalia begins with the statement that of all natural affections none is stronger than the love of a parent for a child.  For this reason, he continues, there is no greater satisfaction or distress to be found than that of the success or failure in educating one’s offspring.  I thought: how true!  I myself have had the satisfaction of dedicating a book to each of my children.

He then offers a number of similes for the literary endeavor he proposes.  The Saturnalia is a huge compendium or anthology of history, folklore, legend, and theology having to do with the major winter festival of the Roman Saturnalia, sometimes described as the “pagan Christmas”.  It is a kind of omnium gatherum of a book, and Macrobius searches for the right images to stress its synthetic character.  Like a bee that flits about among many different flowers but distills their sweetness into the unity of the honey comb, the author has gone from book to book in search of what he needs.  He is like the expert maker of perfumes who mixes a variety of desirable aromas to create a unique perfume singular in its pleasing odor.  But to me his most striking image is of alimentary digestion.  The different foods that we eat are transformed within the stomach to a single nourishment of the blood.  Idem in his quibus aluntur ingenia praestemus.  “Let us apply these things to the means by which the mental powers are nourished”.

You are what you eat.  But everyone who aspires to a greater than vegetable life—meaning, I presume, everyone—must surely be aware that you are no less what you absorb culturally, what you read, what you watch, and what you listen to.  That’s why I try to kid myself that when I take time out to read a “true crime” or watch a bad free Neflix movie I am indulging myself with an aberrant  “mind candy”, far different from my normal, sterner mental diet of steel cut oats or a liver casserole as full of iron as the utensil in which it comes from the oven.
First poem in the English language

The “digestion” of literary texts has in our old culture a particular association with the text of the Bible.  Jesus, sorely hungered at the end of a long and unbroken fast, is tempted by the devil to use his extraordinary powers to break his fast by turning the stones of the desert into loaves of bread; but Jesus rebukes him thus: “Scripture says that ‘Man cannot live on bread alone; he lives on every word that God utters’.”  It was for this reason that in the medieval monastic tradition the repetitious and meditative reading of Scripture known as the lectio divina was often described as rumination—literally, a chewing of the cud.  Our wonderful tradition of English poetry had its origin in such an instance of spiritual alimentation.  We know this from the lovely story of the poet Caedmon preserved for us by the Venerable Bede.  Caedmon was an illiterate cowherd in the coeducational monastery at Whitby presided over by the Abbess Hilda (614–680).  One night at a beer party with his fellow boors he was embarrassed by his inability to take his turn with the harp and compose an extemporaneous song.  He retired to his bovine billet in confusion.  But an angel there appeared to him and ordered him to sing something, and he complied: Nu sculon herian heofonrices weard...“Now let us praise the guardian of the heavenly kingdom”, the short hymn that is the first known poem in the English language.  Angels don’t commission all that much poetry, and word got around.   Waiving his illiteracy, Hilda immediately nominated Caedmon to monkhood and appointed him as the first poet in residence in the history of Whitby Abbey.  One of the brothers would read him something from the Bible; he would think for a while about what he had heard; then he would turn it into Old English alliterative verse.
the ruins of Whitby Abbey

Bede’s beautiful account deserves quoting at length: “And Caedmon was able to learn all that he heard, and, keeping it all in mind, just as a clean animal chewing cud, turned it into the sweetest song. And his songs and his poems were so beautiful to hear, that his teachers themselves wrote and learned at his mouth. He sang first about the creation of the world and about the origin of mankind and all of the history of Genesis--that is the first book of Moses--and afterwards about the exodus of the Israeli people from the land of Egypt and their entry into the promised land; and about many other stories of the holy writ of the books of the canon...”  If the Bible bothers you, you can begin your spiritual mastication on something a little easier—King Lear, perhaps, or Conrad’s Lord Jim.  Winnie the Pooh is also excellent.  One must creep before one walks.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015


 King Croesus of Lydia, faulty interpreter

               I had a vivid and disturbing dream last night.  It was of the kind I call “episodic”, as it was punctuated by a brief period of urological wakefulness, put on pause, so to speak, until I should fall back asleep. This is a not uncommon experience for me, and the pattern is invariable.  During the wakeful “intermission” the dream’s details seem to me so vivid, so important, so clearly delineated in all their minute variety that I shall surely remember them clearly in the morning.  Then morning comes and—nothing, or so close to nothing as to make little difference.  Of this particular dream I retain only one feature beyond a general feeling of its menace: it had within it some important element of the tripartite.  I have a vague sense of three “bullet points”, three neutral graphic marks out of a typecase, but without the explication of intelligible language.

          Great poets have often compared the insubstantiality, no less than the brevity, of dreams with human mortality itself.   We are such stuff as dreams are made on” says Prospero in a speech justly famous; “and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”  This same thought finds a more explicitly Christian expression in a well-known hymn of Isaac Watts:
                         Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
                             Bears all its sons away;
                         They fly forgotten, as a dream
                             Dies at the opening day.

                   The subject of my doctoral dissertation was the huge thirteenth-century French poem called the Romance of the Rose, a poem that has a claim to be called the most popular work of secular poetry to be produced in the European Middle Ages.  It is a “dream vision”, that is a fiction pretending to be the account of the poet’s dream.  It was neither the first nor the last of its genre, but it was undoubtedly one of the most influential, and the circumstances of its composition made it also a literary critic’s dream.  It has two authors.  The first of them, Guillaume de Lorris, was probably working in the 1230s or 1240s—if he ever existed, that is.  For absolutely everything we “know” about him comes from a man named Jean de Meun, who continued and vastly enlarged Guillaume’s work “forty years” after he died, leaving his fragmentary vision unfinished.  Concerning Jean de Meun, a solidly historical figure who was in effect the writer in residence at the court of Phillip the Fair, we know a good deal.  He was for his day a major humanist scholar, the translator of several important Latin works.

                Guillaume himself was no slouch when it came to dream-lore, the problematical nature of which is summarized in the opening lines of his poem, beginning thus: “Some people say that in dreams there is nothing but fables and lies…”  The suspicion is underscored in the French by the power of rhyme.  The word for dreams is songes, that for lies, mensonges: two concepts similar to eye and ear and, by implication, in their essence.   This negative view of dreams, however, is not uncontested, and in the following lines Guillaume cites a learned Latin authority, Macrobius, the author of a book called a Commentary on [Cicero’s] “Dream of Scipio”, who maintains that dreams can be reliable conveyors of truth.  In fact the most important part of his widely read Commentary is a system of classification distinguishing between significant and insignificant dreams.

            Modern dream-lore—such as that in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and to a large extent also in Jung—is based in a modernist concept of the individual personality unknown in classical and medieval times.  That is, the old dream theory held that dreams communicated through a socially shared and objective vocabulary of images rather than by the operations of a unique personal psychology.  There is a pretty large “dream literature” in ancient Greek and Latin, typified by the popular Onirocriticon or Dream Interpretation of Artemidorus in the second century.  This is mainly a catalogue or dictionary of the meaning of various dream images—an eagle, an arrow, a snowfall, and so forth.

            Macrobius inherited and refined a substantial “scientific” tradition.  He admitted that many dreams were philosophically meaningless manifestations of gross passion, bad digestion, or other moral or physical disturbances.  But other dreams were literally or allegorically significant.  When the god Mercury appears in a dream of the hero Aeneas, instructing him that he must sail from Carthage forthwith, the command is to be taken as a literal oracle.  Far more interesting and difficult are symbolic or allegorical dreams, since the correct understanding of allegory requires not merely interpretation but morally sound interpretation.

            There is a famous literary dream in the Romance of the Rose that exemplifies the difficulty.  Jean de Meun—and following Jean, Geoffrey Chaucer—used it as an admonition to their readers.  The dream was one experienced by Croesus, King of Lydia.  He was a man of enormous wealth—hence the phrase “rich as Croesus”—but crucially lacking in hermeneutical self-knowledge.  He dreamed that the god Jupiter Pluvius bathed him and the god Phoebus Apollo dried him.  To be waited upon so intimately by such Olympians seemed to the king a positive portent of the most unequivocal sort.  But the explication of his daughter Phania, a more profound if unwelcome interpreter of the school of Cassandra, rather rained on his parade.   The meaning of the dream was as follows.  Croesus would be hanged upon a gibbet.  The rain would pelt down upon his dangling corpse.  Then the blazing sun would desiccate it.  Unfortunately it was Phania’s interpretation that proved true.  Perhaps I am fortunate that the only dreams I can remember are those I read about in old books.