Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Backwoods Ingenuity

I don’t watch much television per se, not enough certainly to justify my monthly cable bill; but I do catch up with certain things streaming on Netflix: programs about honey badgers, how to build an ancient Egyptian chariot, that sort of thing.  A couple of weeks ago I chanced upon something called “Hillbilly Blood,” a Discovery Channel series featuring the doings of a couple of highly resourceful fellows who live off the grid and off the land in the boondocks of western North Carolina, practicing what might be called Extreme Self-Reliance--in convenient, hour-long episodes.  They know every plant, medicinal or noxious, in the Appalachian forest, and they gladly consume insect protein that would make city-dwellers gag.  They do stuff like making hunting bows out of old truck springs and arrows out of short lengths of rebar.

Spencer and Eugene messing about

            The program’s premise is of course pretty hokey, and the two protagonists, who are very attractive and plausible fellows, now and again jump the shark.  In one episode, short of cash as usual, they go into the woods, build an ingenious makeshift placer sluice and a water-powered pump, and start washing creek gravel in search of emeralds and rubies.  Quite soon they find a stone worth eight grand.  That might encourage you or me to continue; but they immediately decamp to go back home to their routine subsistence activities and a few chews on shards of venison jerky.

            But on the whole I found “Hillbilly Blood” terrific, a sort of televised version of the old Foxfire books, or perhaps a dramatization of Eric Sloane’s Little Book of Early American Know-How.  Its main message—the independence of mountain folk as evidenced in their competence, skill, and invention—resonates with the experience of my Ozark boyhood.  I knew lots of guys like Eugene and Spencer, beginning with my father and his two brothers, my uncles John and Wayne.  They built the house in which we lived, beginning not with milled lumber but with cedar trees felled by crosscut saw, raised much of the food we ate, and seldom saw a day pass without fixing some antique machine with spit and baling wire.
another of Sloane's captivating books

            My father was a great man, and one of the finest I have ever known.  Unlike the television “hillbillies” he had no principled aversion to remunerated work, and during the decade following the War he dragged me and my siblings to work sites through most of the southwestern states, including three different places in California alone.  But we were always returning to Arkansas for greater and shorter periods, and wherever we were he seemed to try to live, however impractically, as though he were still in some deep woods.  And he always had one essential quality which is not particularly showcased on “Hillbilly Blood” but was characteristic of many of the country people I knew as a child.  I’ll call it spirituality.

            My Dad reported the following story.  There was in a remote corner of our farm a long-abandoned homestead of which the most obvious relic was a large and unusually deep root cellar.  We were seldom there, but in it my uncles stored some fencing materials used for occasional repairs needed in that sector.  One day, when my father was there alone, he rather purposelessly stepped down the narrow stairwell into the murk of this dim place.  A loud rattle made known to him that he had just walked very near to, or perhaps even over, a snake which, looking back now toward the back-lighted steps, on which it was curled, he could see was very large, malignly aroused, and positioned between him and his only route of egress.  By inexplicable fortuity there was lying on the dirt floor of the dugout cellar, barely visible, a cleft stick with a small, even fork at its end.  With this he was able ingeniously to pinion the snake’s hissing head against one of the stone steps, holding it fixed, with its long tail flailing wildly, while he stomped it to death with the heel of his heavy work boots.  All in a day’s work.

            It was not this episode itself, which was less dramatic than many in his life, that impressed me as a child, so much as the humble and matter-of-fact mode of its telling.  He told it as a story against himself, as an indictment of a culpable carelessness.  When asked by my brother what he did when he saw the snake, he answered thus: “I looked around for the stick.”  He did not say “a stick” but “the stick”, and the drift was very clear to me even at the age of ten.  In a situation of considerable danger, there was no question in his mind but that Providence would provide a solution.  All he had to do was use his wits and find it.  He then quoted some lines of poetry that, I much later learned, were from the third verse of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.  That is pretty hard-core!  Who knows the third verse of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”?

“I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
 ‘As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal’;
Let the hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel!”

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

From the Holy Mountain


         I recently signed a contract with the Oxford University Press to compile a little book to be called A Cabinet of Medieval Curiosities--one of a number of such “cabinets” already published or in the course of preparation.  I’ll be grateful for any curiosities suggested by my readers.  The medieval genre of sacred biography (i.e., saints’ lives) is a rich acre, and I have begun rummaging around in the two classic English language collections of the Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler and by Sabine Baring-Gould.  I am in search of a certain Celtic holy man whose name I have forgotten.  Beheaded by his pagan tormentors beside a watercourse, he showed his contempt for the whole proceedings by then swimming across the stream with his head in his teeth.

            Miracles, often extravagant and preferably in profusion, were a requirement of medieval saints’ lives.  Indeed the practice developed of separating them off in a special sub-volume called Miracula so as to allow the straight biography to flow more smoothly.  Modern biographers might find a useful hint here.  Most of the ones I’ve read recently could be improved by segregating about a third of their materials in a subsidiary volume of Sexualia.

            Of course if you are looking for real curiosities, the periods of the alleged Renaissance or of the Enlightenment are the places to do it.  Hagiography comprised a significant portion of the ecclesiastical literature of the Middle Ages.  It is not to be supposed that the new scholarly spirit enabled by the printing press would neglect it entirely, and it soon attracted the same energetic and exacting philology that had produced numerous impressive editions of classical texts and Erasmus’s groundbreaking edition of the Greek New Testament.  The great scholarly experts in saints’ lives were a group of Jesuits in the Low Countries who had taken scholarly hagiography as their special vocation.  They continue to this very day and are generally called the Bollandists after one of the prominent early scholars, John Bolland (1596-1665), though the chief protagonist of the episode I am about to relate was Daniel Papebroch (1628-1714).

The amazing fruit of the Bollandists’ labors is called the Acta Sanctorum, the vast scholarly library of saints’ lives searched out from the monastic and secular libraries of Europe, a collection indispensable for the scholar of medieval history, literature, and folk lore.  The monastic historian David Knowles, in his endlessly engaging and informative lectures on Great Historical Enterprises, reports an episode of seventeenth-century ecclesiastical warfare concerning the Acta that, though deadly serious to its contemporary combatants, must strike most modern readers as whimsical.

 Some volumes of the Acta Sanctorum: Heavy Scholarship

Few works would seem less likely candidates for ecclesiastical censure than the Bollandists’ huge volumes of erudite piety.  Their dangers are perhaps real enough—it might prove fatal to attempt to read one in bed.  Avoirdupois, however, is not primarily a spiritual peril.   Yet for two decades of the seventeenth century several recently published volumes of the Acta lay beneath the condemnation of the Spanish Inquisition, and the Bollandists’ whole enterprise languished while Daniel Papebroch conducted tedious and dubious battle for his brothers’ vindication in ecclesiastical courts in Rome and elsewhere. 

Papebroch’s crime was to have cast doubt, in the editorial apparatus to the life of Saint Albert of Jerusalem (Alberto Avogardo, 1149-1214, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem beginning in 1204) upon the origin myth of the Carmelite Order.  The Carmelites, often called the White Friars, were one of the four new orders of mendicant friars to win papal approval—along with the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Augustinians—in the early thirteenth century.  The actual date of papal authorization was 1224, but the Patriarch of Jerusalem had some years earlier confirmed their rule within his jurisdiction.  But the White Friars themselves claimed that the Order had been in continuous existence on Mount Carmel since the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who were in fact the first Carmelites.  It is probable that for many of the early friars the idea of the historical connection with Elijah was as authoritative as the words of the rule itself.  The idea that a Christian religious order should antedate Christ by a millennium or so seemed to present no problem for the Carmelites.

The Medieval Carmelite Family with Their Protectrice, the Blessed Virgin

Certainly the legendary origin of Carmel was already widespread in the general religious culture of the late Middle Ages, where it was by no means always swallowed whole.   Chaucer refers to the myth—with obviously satiric intent—in the “Summoner’s Tale”.*  But in Spain, where the Order was very strong—Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were two famous sixteen-century Spanish Carmelites—and where the inquisitorial spirit was alive and kicking, one doubted it at one’s peril.  If you think your Division of Motor Vehicles is a malign and intractable bureaucracy, you are doubtless right.  Now imagine such an entity with the power to burn you at the stake and you have something of the tenor of dealing with a consistory court in the Archdiocese of Toledo.

That’s what poor Father Papebroch was up against.  This sort of thing shouldn’t happen even to a Jesuit!  As Knowles suggests, such a curious episode in the history of scholarship would deserve a more thorough study than a blog entry.  It’s a little hard to imagine, though, a scholarly journal sufficiently specialized to be interested.

*"But syn Elye was, or Elise      [Elijah…Elisha]

Han freres been -- that fynde I of record – "  ("Summoner's Tale,"  2116-17)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Report from the Old Country

            We arrived in Newark from London in late afternoon on Monday, temporarily wilted from the rigors of the cattle car aspect of the Friendly Skies, but more fundamentally refreshed and renewed by a visit to Britain that included about as much variety as was feasible for a visit of less than two weeks.  For starters, our trip coincided with a certain amount of British political excitement.  We arrived on the very day of the Scottish referendum, and awoke next day to the news of its result.  Both the Labour and Conservative party conferences took place during our brief stay.  We conducted some business and indulged in much pleasure, participated in an excellent scholarly gathering, and had good visits with family and old friends, spending quality time both in the country and in the city, where we had a day binging on museums and a night at the theater.

            Joan and I met in Oxford in the late fifties, and we naturally have many fond memories of the place, to which we have returned as frequently as possible.  In recent years we have been rather taken with the conference entitled “Meeting Minds” sponsored each September by the increasingly sophisticated (i. e., Americanized) Oxford University Alumni Office.  “Meeting Minds,” which showcases many of the University’s most able scholars and lecturers, is a kind of Elderhostel on pep pills.  This year we were actually able to rent a room reasonably in my old college, which like many others is realizing the financial potential of its hospitality.   Our comfortable lodgings, while radically upgraded since my undergraduate days, still had the uniquely Oxonian whiff of antiquity about them.  Each of the several lectures and panels we heard—beginning with a Dominican friar’s unusual explication of Dante’s Purgatorio—was of excellent quality, but as it is one duty of an essayist to propose credible unifying themes, I might suggest the indeterminacy of history.  We are in the midst of the serial centenary observation of the events of the First World War, still often called in Britain the “Great War”.  Not surprisingly, the Great War was a recurrent subject in the “Meeting Minds” program, and one memorable lecture was by Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian historian who is the Warden of St. Anthony’s College, and recently the author of The War That Ended Peace: the Road to 1914.  Many of the best lecture titles are questions.  Her question concerning the outbreak of war was the soul of wit: “Choice or Accident?”
the beginning of a very bad trip

            She answered the question only as a throwaway at the end: probably an accident.  If the Archduke Ferdinand’s driver had not made a wrong turn, there probably would have been no battle of the Somme.  The Materialist View of history struggles with the Great Man View—with so much wiggle room in history’s interstices as to guarantee a succession of tenured slots in perpetuity.

            Before leaving Oxford for Joan’s brother’s home in Wye in Kent, we had lunch with John and Frances Walsh, one of two surviving Oxford couples with whom we have enjoyed the continuing friendship of half a century.  Regular readers already know that in rural Kent I had to declare electronic defeat, but there were compensations.  I had a morning rambling about the chalky hillsides above Wye, and half a day on my own in nearby Canterbury—a treat that no Chaucerian is likely to squander in an Internet café.  

            A good friend’s fine apartment in Westminster, of which we enjoyed the use, is a short walk from the Houses of Parliament and practically no walk at all from the Tate (Britain), where the spectacular current show features the late paintings of Turner, overwhelming in their number and their chromatic daring.  The painter largely turned away from oil and canvas in his later years to work, with increasing daring and experimentation, in water colors.  Among the outstanding water colors in the show is the “Blue Rigi”—the Rigi being a mountain behind Lake Lucerne—which became famous as one of several British masterpieces “saved for the nation” from the philistine vicissitudes of the auction house by popular subscription through the Art Fund—a kind of Oxfam for British Art.

The "Blue Rigi" (J. M. W. Turner, 1842)

            I thought that Turner, too, related to Professor MacMillan’s suggestions of historical indeterminacy—that what undoubtedly happened might not have happened, or could very well have happened differently, or does indeed “happen” in different ways once forcefully imagined.  Turner saw things in a way doubtless unique to himself, though if one once vicariously views them through his eyes, the vision seems inexorable and definitive.  I was surprised to realize that a large number of his paintings are at least in theory narrative—historical, mythological, or literary.  The final three paintings—and a stunning trio they make—took as their subject matter the parting of Dido and Æneas from the fourth book of Virgil’s Æneid.

            Getting to the Tate five minutes before it opened, thus guaranteeing that we would be part of the day’s initial and relatively sparse cohort of picture-peepers, was something of a coup—though not the literal coup de théatre that was to follow.  My brilliant spouse, refuting naysayers on two sides of the Atlantic, had secured a pair of tickets to the Saturday night performance of the stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Bring Up the Bodies at the Aldwych.  This was a feat deemed impossible by the Common Wisdom.
Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell

            As you probably know, Mantel has completed the first two of a projected trilogy of historical novels centered on the ambiguous career of Thomas Cromwell, the powerful lieutenant to King Henry VIII in the third and fourth decades of the sixteenth century.  The first two—the first being Wolf Hall—made literary history by winning successive Man Booker (best novel) prizes in 2009 and 2012.   They have been turned into stage plays by the Royal Shakespeare Society.   An artist in search of historical ambiguity, controversy, or indeterminacy could hardly find a richer field than the interplay of hot pants and ecclesiastical politics of the Henrician period.  I have made no deep study of that time, but years ago I did work my way through the four thick volumes of James Gairdner’s Lollardy and the Reformation in England (1908-1913) and still have them on my shelves.  My rather blunt mental creation of Cromwell drawn from Gairdner’s copious documents is very different from that conjured up by Hilary Mantel and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and much less interesting.  But of course on my own I would never see Turner’s colors in my reading of Virgil either.  It is the peculiar gift of the artists—painters, writers, actors--to give serious meaning to such often vacuous phrases as in light of or from the point of view of.  “The English Reformation: Choice or Accident?”

            Little did I realize as we moved enthralled from the crowded theater to the yet more crowded streets of the Theater District, practically seething with exuberant, youthful life, that we were not yet quite through with the Tudors.  The next morning, Sunday, we asked the doorman to direct us to the nearest church.  He sent us in the direction of St. Margaret’s, check by jowl with Westminster Abbey.  The Abbey itself has long since become a tourist phenomenon rather than a functioning house of worship.  The truth is I had my silent reservations about Saint Margaret’s itself.  I had passed by its beautiful exterior many times on the bus, but I knew nothing of it as a parish save that it was the frequent venue of posh weddings among the titled and the entitled.  What we found was a beautifully conducted choral Eucharist, a sizeable and variegated congregation drawn from many lands, and a sixteenth-century architectural gem.  Among its beautiful decorations one is prominent: the large, exquisite east window donated by King Henry and his wife Catherine of Aragon!  It's a real shame that marriage didn't last.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bloguiste in abeyance...

...temporarily stranded in pre~electronic community in the Kent hinterland.  But like the Sabbath, blogging was made for man, and not the other way around.  So we'll continue from America next week.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Matila Ghyka

 Matila Ghyka (1881-1965) in full military/diplomatic rig

            Individual lives, like all of history, have a tendency to divide themselves up into discernible periods; and in life as in history it is the transitional moment that is most difficult to define.  When did the Jurassic give way to the Cretaceous, or the Medieval to the Early Modern?   I’m feeling indefinite and micro-transitional myself.  I have finished a book project, and before I really settle into a couple of others there will be a brief trip to England, beginning later today, to take in the annual “Oxford Thinking” conference and to visit family and friends. 

            My recently completed project involved the study of some erudite Renaissance poets who use complex mathematical schemes in the construction of their poems.  Believing that the divine Creator had laid out the universe in perfect, intelligible harmonies, Christian poets, no less than painters, sculptors, and architects, often sought to imitate or echo in their own works what they sometimes called “divine proportion”.  One very common device exploits the so-called “Golden Section” (division in extreme and mean ratio) or plays with its arithmetical expression in the irrational “Golden Number,” Φ (1.6180339887….)

            The weeds grow thick around the topic of Pythagorean number mysticism, and a poor literary scholar can easily get lost in them.  Just as I was about to drown in the choppy waves of Robert Herz-Fischer’s A Mathematical History of Division in Extreme and Mean Ratio I chanced upon a life raft in the form of an older, delightfully “humanistic” book dealing with the information I needed by somebody with the unlikely name of Matila Ghyka.*   

            I used it with profit and made a mental note that, when some unfettered leisure should arrive, I ought to find out who Matila Ghyka might be (or as it turned out, might have been).  My transitional otium has allowed me to do so.  What I found was that Matila Ghyka, who died in 1965, was a polyglot Aromanian aristocrat.  Or he was a French naval officer.  Or he was a Romanian diplomat.   Or a vagabond world-traveler.   Also a mathematician, a philologist, and an American college professor.  Most of all he was an exciting odd-ball thinker and an engaging writer. 

            One gets the impression that by the turn of the twentieth century Transylvania and Moldavia (Ghyka’s native haunt) had changed little since the time of Count Dracula except that its upper crust, to a degree even greater than the Russian aristocracy, had immersed itself in French language and culture.  Ghyka, who had been educated almost indefinitely in French Catholic schools, naturally wrote in French, but in a French beyond my pay grade.

            I was delighted to learn that he had written an autobiography, more delighted still to learn that there was an abridged version in English wonderfully entitled The World Mine Oyster (1961).   The writing is excellent.  The author has translated his own French into his own English.  There was yet better news.  This book has a substantial introductory essay by a favorite author, Patrick Leigh Fermor, prince of modern “travel writers”.  It turns out that Ghyka and Fermor were old friends, having around 1934 shared the exotic hospitality of the Princess Marie Cantacuzène at her estate at Tetzcani in Moldavia.

            But then Ghyka was friends with numerous writers, including two of the giants of modern French literature, Marcel Proust and Paul Valéry.  Who knew?  Not I, for sure.  But if you read Ghyka—another of whose books available in English is The Geometry of Art and Life—it becomes obvious why artists so deeply concerned with rhythm and structure would find him congenial.  Valéry is a rare example of a “creative writer” with a powerful philosophical mind.  Of Ghyka’s demonstration of the aesthetic ubiquity of Φ, Valéry wrote thus: “I maintain—and I have made it a precept of my personal aesthetic—that there exist, in the order of the spirit, powers of passion and of  ‘sentiment’ as strong—even if more rare—as those in the order of the ‘heart.’”  If I understand this aright (by no means certain), here was a modern artist subscribing to some twentieth-century version of sacramental hierarchy or of the Great Chain of Being.

            But leave all that aside.  Quite apart from any abstruse aesthetic theories, The World Mine Oyster is a simply fascinating autobiography rich in exotic information and strange adventures.  Much of it has to do with a world long vanished, as viewed by a certain kind of cultivated European sensibility that has as good as vanished.  And the introductory essay by Patrick Leigh Fermor is pure gold.  There is currently issuing from the press what is already a stream and will soon be a flood of books marking the somber sequence of Great War centennials.  How extraordinary it seemed to me amidst all this to stumble upon these old reflections from the Balkan hinterland where the whole mess began.  The World Mine Oyster is not too easy to find.  But any educated and curious “general reader”—the sort of person for whom this blog’s essays are intended, plausibly or not—will be rewarded by seeking it out, even should the effort involve enlisting the services of Interlibrary Loan.

*Le nombre d’or (Paris, 1931, new ed. 1959)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Member of the Wedding

            There is much to worry about these days, so that occasions for unalloyed rejoicing are to be fully indulged.  I just returned from one in Birmingham, Alabama, and despite the torturous circumstances of the returning flights, I’m stoked with optimism about our country’s human capital.  I was last in Birmingham in the late 1950s.  I seem to remember a rather dull and shabby small southern city, though it had not yet fully achieved the infamy soon enough to be bestowed upon it by its racist police chief.  What I find now is a biggish metropolis with biggish buildings, and lots of “multis”—multi-lane highways, mutiplex theatres, multi-million dollar suburbs, and a multi-cultural population moving if not at a gallop at least at a canter.

            I was in Birmingham to attend the wedding of my friend and one-time student Sanjiv Bajaj (Princeton, ’02) and his gorgeous bride Snehal Desai.   Sanjiv has been the head of the ultrasound section of the radiology department at a New York teaching hospital.  (Incidentally, somebody needs to get the word to Garrison Keillor that many of the nation’s top doctors were English majors.)    He will now pursue his burgeoning career in his hometown of Birmingham in proximity to his close-knit family of origin.

            The venue for the wedding was exquisite--the Birmingham Botanical Gardens--and the weather, in refutation of Mr. Google, bright and sunny, very.  For this special occasion, the benign, elephant-headed Ganesh, atop a small column, greeted guests as they entered the area of the reflecting pool.  All the principals in the wedding were spectacular in their apparel, though some of the guests were merely magnificent. 

            There were many parts to the wedding, but I was able to follow pretty well with the help of an enlightening printed program.   So far as I was concerned, the real action started with the baraat, or ceremonial arrival of the bridegroom on a walkway some seventy yards or so from the reflecting pool enclosure, where the ceremony and feasting were to take place.  Amid a throng dancing to an insistent drumbeat, his face masked by a veil of pearl-beaded threads, the groom began his slow ceremonial progress toward the distant bride.  Both of Sanjiv’s highly cultivated parents are physicians, but they sure know how to boogie.  (His mother told me that ceremonial purity would have demanded that the groom have a horse.  Unfortunately the only horse in the state of Alabama specially trained to the loud drumming had recently expired.)

            Driving in a strange city, I had given myself lots of time, and arrived rather early.   So I entered the gardens and sat down to read a bit on a bench near an imposing sycamore tree.  Soon I was joined by an amiable elder, out for his daily constitutional, who engaged me in conversation.  It turned out that we were exactly the same age and fellow Episcopalians—which is the sort of thing that seems vaguely portentous when strangers are talking on park benches.  He told me that the tall sycamore was a “moon tree”—that is, that it sprang from one of the seeds taken by Stuart Roosa into space on the Apollo 14 Mission to the Moon in 1971.  It later seemed rather poetic to me that the groom’s dancing procession should start in its shade.

            This was my first Indian wedding, and I cannot avoid the kind of comparisons that are the necessary recourse of the unsophisticated.  The liturgies of all the Christian sacraments, certainly including matrimony, reflect the old Roman legal mind.  In this connection a student of comparative religion must notice both striking similarities and significant differences.  In this Hindu ceremony the contractual theme was obvious, but it was only one element of a rich spiritual allegory that honored those material and domestic realities that actually define married life.   There was a good deal of emblematic feeding and eating.  The bride’s mother greeted her new son-in-law by washing his feet.  The father-in-law crowned him with sindoor, rice, and flower petals.  The showering of flower petals, indeed, was extravagant, and by the end the floor was a floral carpet.

            Amidst the impressive solemnity there were delightful playful moments.  For instance, at one point the bride and groom must “lasso” each other with flower garlands.   As though to impede this process, their family members make them more difficult targets by raising them high on their shoulders.  One feature that struck me is what I will call the reverent nonchalance of most of the numerous guests.  The actual nuptial ceremony, as distinct from its marvelous ritual preparations, took more than an hour.  Joined by several friends, the close family members, all of whom played important ceremonial roles, gathered in a square around the havan, the relatively small space in which the wedding couple sat enthroned and in which the priest presided.  The large majority of the guests were scattered about under the tents or around the reflecting pool.  They chatted happily but quietly.  Some were snacking and sipping tea or ice-water, from time to time directing their attention to what I will call “center stage”.   There was something of the vibe of an Eastern Orthodox Eucharist.  Everybody recognizes that something transcendental is going on, but the level of active participation is to some degree optional.  At the moments of ceremonial emphasis, of course, the entire crowd joined in the applause and communal blessing.

            The overwhelming feelings communicated by this event are not hard to summarize.  The first is the power of love, so beautifully expressed in many parts of the ceremony.  A second is the solemnity of the marital state, the awesomeness of which is not however compromised by frequent interventions of the ludicrous.  A third is the affirmation of the indispensable social context of human marriage.  Sanjiv and Snehal come together in all their unique individuality, but powerfully inspired and supported by ancient tradition and cohesive community.  This is a context that aligns the achievement of individual fulfillment with the broader social good, and it is something our country desperately needs.  My warmest best wishes to this delightful couple, and my warmest thanks to their generous parents, the founders of the feast.

This post was made possible by photographs supplied by my fellow guests Ben and Amy Markham, college contemporaries of the groom.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Rogue Scholars (II)

 Crime, and...

In theory the most democratic land on earth should be the “Republic of Letters,” as the learned men of the eighteenth century metaphorically referred to the bourgeoning international class of scholars, intellectuals, and artists of that age.  In fact, the world of learning was long the province of wealth and social prestige.  To a greater extent than I am happy to acknowledge it still is.  I note a newspaper discussion in the last few days stimulated by an article entitled “Generation Later, Poor Still Rare at Elite Colleges”.  That could have been “Centuries Later”.

            The Rogue Scholar of today’s essay, Eugene Aram, was born in Ramsgill in the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1704, the son of a gardener.  His life ended on the Knavesmire gallows at York on August 6, 1759, when he was executed for capital murder.  On the basis of some scant boyhood schooling Aram somehow, by sheer force of the intellectual will, became an autodidact with a sharp focus on languages and language theory.  He earned a paltry living as an “usher” (assistant master and general dogsbody) in a school.  For long hours at night, by candle light, he taught himself the classical and sacred tongues. 

            He was a real-life Jude Fawley (the protagonist of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) in more ways than one.  In the country town of Knaresborough he married a local slattern with whom he shared little love but lots of sex and too many children.  Motivated by vulgar cupidity, he murdered a local cobbler, Clark; but the meaning of the sudden  disappearance of this fellow, whose corpse was never found, was not at first grasped, even when Aram abandoned his numerous family and took off for parts unknown.  This was in 1745.  In London, and later at King’s Lynn in Norfolk, Aram continued his obscure career as a teacher and his ever more ambitious philological researches, which were now obsessive.  The cold case of the vanishing shoemaker warmed up in 1758 with the accidental discovery of a skeleton (not Clark’s, as it turned out) just about when, again by accident, a citizen of Knaresborough passing through Lynn, a hundred miles away, was startled to run into Eugene Aram on the street.  It had taken more than a decade, but the jig was now up.

            Aram’s trial at the York Assizes is of apparent interest to historians of English law.  The defendant, acting as his own counsel, made a brilliant speech, which has been preserved.  It proves (at the hypothetical level) that a man of such scholarly attainment was incapable of common greed, let alone base homicide.  Unfortunately, he did not refute the much less hypothetical testimony of a former confederate who ratted.  In an effort to avoid a public hanging, the philologist attempted suicide; but he was unsuccessful, and the hangman had the last word.

            Since he never occupied an academic position favorable to the publication of his scholarly findings, Aram’s philological speculations went entirely without public notice or discussion.  But surviving notes make it clear that he was in advance of the scholars of his age on at least two important questions.  He recognized, in the first place, that the relationship between Greek and Latin was a cognate one.  That is, the two languages were cousins rather than parent and child.  Secondly, although the theory of an hypothetical “Indo-European” language had not yet been formulated, he recognized that the marginal Celtic languages known in Britain were not exotic “outliers” but members of a large interrelated group that included English, the ancient classical languages, and the modern romance tongues.

            But the murderous etymologist lived on in song and story.  In eighteenth-century Britain lurid crimes and ghastly punishments were great engines of popular literature.  The “true crime” genre, still very popular, really got going then.  The “penny dreadful,” before the inflation of the nineteenth century, cost a mere farthing. Cheap broadsheets with crude but emphatic woodcuts depicted the violence.  Moralizing accounts of the criminal’s last words from the scaffold, occasionally brushing up against textual plausibility, edified the morbid spectators.  Above all, juicy crime was the stuff of the improvised song.  The gore of some of the Border ballads, in which so much of the old proletarian aesthetic is confusingly preserved, approaches parody:

And Withrington I needs must wail, as one in doleful dumps ;
For when his legs were smitten off, he fought upon his stumps.

The tradition of course was brought to America, where it took root and flourished.  Murder is an indispensable motif of our old folk music, which largely eschews bloodless crime.  You can hear a great recording of Mississippi John Hurt singing “Stagger Lee”, but you’ll probably not find an equivalent ballad devoted to “The Legend of Bernie Madoff”.

            Aram’s murder of Dan Clark was rich with potential, made for media.  He had bashed the man’s skull in, and then secreted the body in a riverside cave that had centuries earlier been the abode of a medieval hermit!  What could be more ghastly or more Gothick?  Of the dozens of poems, plays, and novels devoted to the celebrated crime of this rogue scholar, two have had considerable staying power.  Thomas Hood is a minor poet, but his art ballad “The Dream of Eugene Aram” shows that he could have been a contender.  I have never read Bulwer Lytton’ s novel Eugene Aram and can now safely say I never shall.  If writing this essay is not a sufficient stimulus to do so, I cannot imagine what would be.  Indeed I now regard my youthful perusal of The Last Days of Pompeii as an indiscretion.  But Bulwer Lytton commanded a very large audience in the Victorian era and has his readers still.