Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Writing: Invention or Exclusion?

 Georges Perec

Is it possible for you to write some complete, coherent sentences without using the first letter of our writing system?  The response to the question is “yes”, though the sentences might end up looking very odd, contorted, or contrived.  For the shunned letter is indeed the second most frequently used in English writing—only its fellow-vowel E being more often employed.  Hence, few extended prolusions of prose could omit it.

The gimmick in the paragraph above is that it contains not a single A.  That feature makes it a lipogram—from the Greek λείπω, leave out—a literary bagatelle in which a writer voluntarily submits to some more or less absurd compositional constraint, such as avoiding the letter A, in order to demonstrate…exactly what? 

There is a very long history to this sort of thing.  A deservedly obscure Greek poet named Tryphiodorus is supposed to have written his own versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, each in twenty-four books corresponding to the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet.  In serial fashion each book scrupulously avoided its appropriate letter: no alphas in book one, no omegas in book twenty-four, and so forth in between.  The great Lope de Vega, who could write a play in the time most people require for a shopping list, wrote five novels in order to omit from each one of the principal vowels (a, e, i, o, u); he did not consider y a worthy challenge, despite the fact it is the Spanish word for “and”.  It is alleged that in 1816 a strange drama entitled “Pièce sans A” had a very brief run upon the Paris stage.  The opening (and only) night of the “Play without an A” got off to a bad start when the lead flubbed its initial line.  The curtain rose to discover a man greeting another on stage.  Ah, monsieur!” cried the first.  Vous voilà.”  The audience howled with laughter, but with the help of the prompter the actor recovered and started again: “Eh, monsieur, vous voici.”

These and numerous other examples are provided by the estimable William S. Walsh in his inestimable Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (1893).  Mr. Walsh had no high opinion of lipograms, which he regarded as forms of “literary trifling” and “useless tours de force.”  He thought that Tryphiodorus belonged to “those early centuries of our era during which the world, or the greater part of it, seems to have been in a state of blue mould for want of work.”

In fact the lipogram thrives on post-modernity, and I believe its mouldiest days are still ahead.  Perhaps the greatest of modern lipogrammatologists was Georges Perec (1936-1982), the tragically short-lived author of the indisputably brilliant Life: A User’s Manual, a book from which not much was left out.  But as a prominent member of an avant-garde literary conspiracy (in rough translation the “Atelier of Potential Literature”), Perec was all about pushing envelopes, shattering parchment ceilings, jumping the barracuda, and leaping the lipogram.  His masterpiece in this field was the full-length novel La Disparition (The Disappearance [1969]), a book in which the letter E never appears except insofar as its manifest absence invisibly ministers to major themes of lack, loss, and mysterious disappearance and is an important plot-theme.  In 1994 Gilbert Adair (1944-2011), a brilliant Brit, published his English translation of this book, eless, as A Void. I became aware of it from reading an eless review by my old friend and one-time Princeton colleague, the late Paul Gray, then the book editor at Time magazine.

Intelligible language may be the distinctive feature of the human species and its principal advantage among all other animals.  It is difficult to imagine effective human community without effective speech.  What of written language?  For most of recorded history a large majority of humanity was illiterate, and large swaths still are today.  Now most advanced countries enjoy high literacy rates—one of the features that make them “advanced”.  With negligible exception the educational systems of the world silently subscribe to this view.  Human civilization in its entirely depends upon archived thought and information.  How is it then that although the vast majority of humanity does a fair amount of talking each day, only a small minority ever does even a little writing?

            It is the view of many that the hardest thing about writing is thinking up something to write about.  I used to think that too.  The old word for this was “invention,” which in Latin had really meant “finding” or “discovering” as in the “Invention of the Cross”.  The famous orator Cicero thought that “invention”, the discovery of convincing arguments, was the first job of rhetoric.  My own thinking about this has evolved.

            Thinking up things to write about is a piece of cake.  The trick is in figuring out what to leave out in writing about them.  Say that Shakespeare wants to write about his terrific girlfriend, a subject for which the potential material is infinite.  How does he discipline the presentation?  Well he limits himself to fourteen lines of iambic pentameter distributed in three quatrains with a concluding couplet, with a rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, gg.  That makes him leave an awful lot out, to be sure, but also forces him to make what he puts in really counts.  If literary trifling and useless tours de force can add some variety to a writer’s workout, I’m all for them.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Groping: A Brief Literary History

"Adam catched Eve by the Furbelow"
traditional English folk catch

Can a medievalist possibly have a special take on the latest from Donald Trump?  After all, the locker room must be a comparatively recent architectural development.  The Greek palestra was something altogether different, and “palestra talk” was probably mainly devoted to speculation concerning the ordering of the cardinal virtues or the metempsychosis of material individuality and stuff like that.  Nevertheless since there is a literary history of almost everything, there must be a literary history of sexual groping.  It’s a hard assignment, but somebody has to undertake it.

            One might be tempted to suggest that Mr. Trump is a Rabelasian figure. But though he achieves the requisiteness grossness, he lacks the cordiality of Grandgousier, the savoir-faire of Pantagruel, and the erudition of Gargantua.  As painful as it is for me to admit it, he is much more a Chaucerian character:
                        A Donald was there in that compagnyë
                        Whose speech was aldermost of harlotryë.
                        He wolde restore the greatness of the lande,
                        With bluster, insult, and a gropynge hande.
That’s not really Chaucer, of course, but the following is.  In the transcendentally brilliant “Miller’s Tale” there are two characters who have perfected Trumpian techniques.  The first is the Oxford student “hende” (clever) Nicholas who seizes the opportunity of his aged landlord’s temporary absence to make the following move on Alisoun, his winsome young landlady:
                        As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte;
                        And prively he caught hire by the queynte,
                        And seyde, “Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
                        For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille.”
The repeated word queynte is obviously a quibble.  In the first line it is an adjective meaning something like “inventive”.  In the second it is a vulgar noun, still in common use in a slightly different form, for the female private part—thus justifying a pun on “prively”—that throughout history has also been denoted by the linguistically challenged with a select menagerie of small, furry animals, including rabbits, squirrels, beavers, and pussy-cats.  It is important to realize that Chaucer is being satirical, and that the object of his satire is hende Nicholas, whose actual subtlety approximates that of a battering ram or of the Black Death.  Chaucer also knows that nobody in history has ever actually died (spilled) from sexual continence, frustrating though it may be, and that Nicholas’s hyperbolic concerns on that score could be resolved with a small hair-shirt or perhaps even just a cold bath.

            Quite apart from the hapless old husband, Nicholas has a competitor.  A second character is chasing the same young wife, and that is the dandy Absalon—like the biblical character from whom he takes his name, a pretty boy with long blond hair.  His ambitions to “score” are somewhat more modest than are those of Nicholas:
                        To Alison now wol I tellen al
                        My love-longing, for yet I shal nat mysse
                        That at the leeste wey I shal hir kisse.
                        Som maner confort shal I have, parfay.
                        My mouth hath icched al this longe day;
                        That is a signe of kissing atte leeste.

Now one of the more remarkable passages on the recently published “Trump tape” involves oral hygiene.  Mr. Trump is just about to get off a bus to be greeted by a young woman he has never before in his life met but who has already been sufficiently ogled from the bus window by Trump’s pandering sidekick, Mr. Bush, to have been declared officially “hot as shit!”  Now you or I might find some ambiguity or even restraint in enthusiasm in the phrase “hot as shit!” but it only sends Mr. Trump to his travelling medicine chest.   “I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her,” he tells Bush.  “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss.”

Returning to the fourteenth century we find the fop Absolom preparing for his hot date in a manner somewhat similar.
…hym arraieth gay, at point-devys.  [all dolled up]
But first he cheweth greyn and lycorys,
To smellen sweete, er he hadde kembed his heer.
Under his tongue a trewe-love he beer,
For therby wende he to ben gracious. 
Gracious (pronounced grahs-i-OUS) preparing to rhyme in the next line with the word house (pronounced as it still is in Tidewater Virginia) is a marvelously ambivalent adjective that can refer either to a deep moral virtue or a flimsy and superficial affectation of “class”.  The “greyn” mentioned is cardamom seed, or “organic” Tic-Tacs. 

Should there still be anyone in the world who has not read the “Miller’s Tale,” it is too delightful by far to have me ruin it with a plot summary.  It is a beautifully plotted gem in which the high comedy begins where the dirty jokes end, yet so transparently moralistic as to be called “Chaucer’s Measure for Measure.”  Suffice it to say that the bad guys get exactly what they deserve--and in a way that may have vindicated Billy Bush's odd index of female pulchritude.  Oh that life might imitate art!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Cultural Appropriation

            So-called “political correctness” on our college campuses—the shaping or censorship of thought, expression and deportment to conform to certain cultural dogmas of a mandarin intellectual caste—is rapidly moving from being merely annoying if occasionally amusing to seriously threatening and dangerous.  You have all heard or read about various absurd instances (the prosecution of festive sombrero-wearers at Bowdoin, the banishing of the noun “American” at the University of New Hampshire, etc.)  More serious is the growing list of invited speakers who have been disinvited or shouted down when they stood at the lectern.

            A teacher of medieval literature might be secretly jealous of those whose message is important enough to protest and to censor.  I have certainly put a few people to sleep, but in forty years of lecturing on many subjects I experienced only one indignant public protest, when in a tangential sentence I expressed my opinion that there was literary evidence of probable editorial intervention in the narrative of the gospels as they have come down to us.  A man leapt up, noisily, and huffed out of the lecture hall.  I almost felt I had finally made it.

            The most obviously politically incorrect people tend to be on the one hand business executives, politicians, and officials (governmental or non-governmental) deemed reactionary, and on the other social scientists and public intellectuals deemed conservative.  But artists and imaginative writers are more and more frequently being called to task.

            The idea that all serious cultural analysis is necessarily based in the three circumstances of race, gender, and class is what has authorized the politically correct strait-jacket.  That is, race, gender, and class are the only things really worth talking about.  When applied to works of art this triad often leads the commentator away from imagination and empathy, precious qualities of much great art, to dull sociology and dubious economic theory.

            The thought crime du jour for the politically correct is “cultural appropriation”.  I think I understand what this phrase means—beyond the admonition that Bowdoin boys better not wear sombreros unless they also carry Mexican passports.  When applied to writers, the phrase “cultural appropriation” means the spiritual and artistic effort to imagine and depict with conviction characters and situations very different from oneself and one’s own.  There are genuine problems involved.  I first became aware of them acutely in the late 1960s with the controversy over William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner—a fiction deployed in the imagined voice of the leader of a Virginia slave rebellion of the 1830s.  There were those who took the view that no white writer had the ethical right to do that.  That seemed to me nonsense then, and seems nonsense now.

            In the current moment of rampant identity politics and maximal racialization of almost everything, it is hardly surprising that the issue has again become current.  It has been much in the news this past week because of a controversial keynote address delivered by the American novelist Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers' Conference.  Its title was “I Hope the Concept of Cultural Appropriation Is a Passing Fad.”   She followed this in the Times with an account (“Will the Left Survive the Millennials?”) of the experience of delivering the talk, which featured a high profile walk-out by an ethnically indignant fellow writer.  I have not read Ms. Shriver’s fiction, but if it is as good as her polemical essays I had better get to it quick.

            Writers are well advised actually to know something about what they write about; and they should be judged by whether they do so well or badly.  But if everyone claims an artistic monopoly on large swaths of cultural experience, the result will be a literature of solipsism.  Great books are not paeans to parochialism but claims upon universal aspects of the human spirit.  Humanists used to quote with approval a maxim of the Roman playwright Terrence: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.  “I am a man, and I regard nothing of humanity as alien to me.”  Maybe men can say something about women, and vice versa; maybe blacks can say something about whites.  It is even possible that a spinster like Jane Austen might write a small shelf of immortal books all about marriage.

            There is a good deal of historical evidence concerning the dismal effects of political correctness on literary creation.  Many intellectuals of a hundred years ago truly believed that the Russian Revolution would usher in an era of literary liberation and creativity such as the world had never seen.  The aristocratic epic of Tolstoy, the puerile mysticism of Dostoyevsky—all this would shrivel into oblivion before the humane powers of Socialist Realism.  By 1934 Max Eastman, an early American Communist, an expert in Russian literature, and one-time editor of The Masses, published a book, Artists in Uniform: a Study of Literature and Bureaucratism, in which he examined the state of letters in Stalin’s Russia.  That state was dismal, but also terrifying as it presented an image of a literary culture toward which the tendencies of many left-wing intellectuals in the West at that time seemed to be drawn.  It may be time for an Eastman revival.

            As for the term “cultural appropriation”, it seems to me a largely meaningless redundancy like “power politics” or “food nutrition”.  Culture is largely appropriation, and the process of appropriation has become ever more rapid and robust with the dramatic developments in transportation and communication characteristic of modernity.  Cultural appropriation is one of the chief indices of American dynamism in our cuisine, our dress, our religious and secular rituals, and in the fashionable ideas that dominate the humanities departments of our colleges and universities.  And I challenge any writer of English to try to write a few intelligible paragraphs free of what the historians of language call "loan" words.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


I am back at work--sort of.  In truth I am actually having a little trouble bidding farewell to my “vacation” mentality.  For one thing we have been enjoying a string of beautiful Indian Summer days, warm and sunny mornings and afternoon, but with the evenings crisp enough to require a serious blanket on the bed.  This is definitely outdoor weather, and Lord knows there’s plenty of stuff needing attention around the place, the garden having crossed over the jungle line in our absence.  There is also a moderate sized stack of general interest books that I have either begun or set aside to begin.   None of them has explicit relevance to medieval asceticism, the general subject of the little book of my own that I want to finish off before the end of the year, but all of them have attractive powers for a weak-willed scholar seeking plausible distraction.

I did no writing on this book while I was in Europe, though I thought a certain amount about it, and made one concrete investment in it.  While we were visiting Poitiers our hosts drove us out to Ligugé Abbey, a still vital Benedictine community where the best traditions of monastic chant are still well preserved.  Ligugé was founded in the mid-fourth century by Martin of Tours on land donated by bishop Hilary of Poitiers, both of them today major saints in the Roman calendar.  The abbey has an extensive tourist shop attached to it, and there I found and bought a long desired copy of a certain French scholarly edition of the spiritual masterpiece written by the Greek monk John Climacus in the seventh century.  This is among the texts I propose to deal with in the aforementioned new book.

Many books bring fame to their authors; this one actually gave its author the name by which history knows him.  John Climacus means “Ladder John” or “John the Ladderer” or somesuch after the title of his book The Ladder (kλιμαξ in Greek), the most famous of many medieval works in which spiritual growth is treated as a process of ascending gradation.

 From a Sinai manuscript of John Climacus (12th century)

One of the great engines of the “symbolism” in medieval and Renaissance art—the greatest indeed—is the text of the Bible allegorically interpreted.  As the famous Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven” puts it, “…you know words sometimes have two meanings.”  As far as the early Christian readers of the Scriptures were concerned, they almost always did.  The ancient Christian ascetics, solitary cave-dwellers and hermits atop stone pillars--believed that their (to us) strange mode of life was actually a continuation of the history of the ancient prophets of the desert.  Hence they thought they walked in the footsteps of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha.  One of the earliest of the Old Testament “monks” they admired was Jacob.  This is perhaps surprising given the fact that the patriarch Jacob was not merely married but had two wives, and that he was a fraudster.  Jacob was, however, “a plain man who dwelt in tents” (Gen 25:27).  Together with two mysterious biographical episodes, simple tent-dwelling was enough to transform Jacob into an ascetic prototype.  The first episode (Genesis 32) was his cryptic all-nighter wrestling match with a “man” who, though unable to defeat him, “touched the sinew of [Jacob’s] thigh and forthwith it shrank.”  The second meaning here, according to the Fathers, was a kind of spiritual emasculation or moral cleansing that prepared Jacob for his sacred vocation and name change to “Israel”.  Though a patriarch, he was metaphorically a eunuch for the kingdom of God’s sake.  The second was Jacob’s strange dream on the road from Beer-sheba to Haran (Genesis 28), perhaps induced by using a stone for a pillow.  “And he saw in his sleep a ladder standing upon the earth and the top thereof touching heaven, the angels also of God ascending and descending by it…”
Bath Abbey: the front 
The early monks imagined that in their dedication to prayer and austerity they were participating in a recreated “angelic life”.  They regarded such an existence not as socially retrograde, but as revolutionary.  Their asceticism was a program—though usually one of more than twelve steps.  The Ladder of Spiritual Perfection of John Climacus has thirty rungs—one for each year in the “preparatory” or pre-ministerial life of Jesus Christ.  I have not been able to identify the first ascetic interpretation of Jacob’s ladder.  In the seventh century John Climacus was already dealing with a well-worn trope, but he gave to it its most famous and influential literary expression.   It has left many beautiful artistic traces.  Illustrated manuscripts of John’s Greek text are among the most impressive surviving examples of Byzantine book-painting; and no one who has studied the façade of Bath Abbey will fail to appreciate the book’s continuing importance in the West in the late medieval period.  The Byzantine illustrators frequently imagine demons trying to pull the climbers off the ladder.  These figures were the personifications (demonizations?) of those forces that would keep the scholar from taking even the first step toward the achievement of his ostensible goal.

Saturday, September 24, 2016


The westbound transatlantic flight is, comparatively speaking—and we all know that most of our judgments are comparative ones—a piece of cake.  We left London at noon and landed in Newark just before three—a flight of about eight hours.  United now offers, for a modest increment in fare, what they call “Economy Plus”—the “plus” being about two extra inches that for me determine the difference between Inquisitorial torture and mere nagging discomfort.  This left me if not exactly band-box fresh at least compos mentis and capable of reflecting with satisfaction on both the unique pleasures of a homecoming and the memories of so many beautiful sights and uplifting encounters of the previous three weeks.  Three weeks, but six great places, and in all of them meetings with old friends, in most instances friends of more than half a century.  Here’s a brief run-down.

Salernes: the town square on market day

            Our first stop, Salernes, a typical Provençal village a bit inland from the Côte d’Azur, must be in the Var (though I am not absolutely sure).  One of our oldest Oxford friends, Andrew Seth, has a fine old house there.  This was not our first visit, but for several reasons it was the mellowest.  We were among three couples, guests of our widowed host, all of us “seniors”, making up a delightful house party composed in equal parts of binge reading and seemingly endless conversations prosecuted over long, exquisite outdoor dinners that began in the dusk and devolved long into the night.

 28, avenue de Suffren

            Then a TGV (high-speed train) whisked us to Paris and “our” apartment and more very old friends (among Joan’s oldest, indeed), more dining, more lunching, more hassling with our French telephones, the usual rush of temporarily forgotten familiarities of sight, sound, and smell.  Tourism in Paris is down, according to the press, though you couldn’t prove it by me.  But a conspicuous feature of the streets is the large presence of heavily armed security officers.  A big chunk of our Paris stay was actually spent in the countryside near Poitiers, where we again visited Joan’s cousin Gavin and his wife Val, who, after various physical and metaphysical wanderings, have ended up with advanced theological degrees and in a gorgeous rural place called Brux.  More splendid trains that really work rendered toing and froing from Paris not merely possible but easy.

 Notre-Dame of Poitiers

            From Paris we flew to Edinburgh.  It was something of a cattle-car flight but too short to be really unpleasant, especially as in less than an hour after touchdown we found ourselves ensconced in the lovely village of Whitekirk, home of our next hostess, Margaret Richards, another cousin and indeed the sister of Gavin.  Just then she was basking in the glow of the receipt of a lifetime achievement award from the Scottish Society of Architects.  Her own digs, a spectacularly converted set of stables approximately forty yards from the village’s medieval church, probably could have merited the award on its own.  In St. Mary’s church I attended in the morning my first ever Kirk of Scotland Communion and in the evening my first ever performance of Schoenberg’s string sextet “Verklärte Nacht,” a haunting piece from the composer’s early Romantic period, before he went all strange and atonal.

St. Mary's, Whitekirk (East Lothian)

            A leisurely train journey that began in Dunbar and for many lovely miles hugged the coast eventually brought us, after a couple of transfers, to Norwich and our friends Michael and Heather Nicholas who now live in the attractive riverfront village of Reedham.  From Reedham we sallied forth over the next couple of days for beautiful excursions through the Norfolk countryside and to Norwich itself: pub lunches in sunny gardens, the cell of Saint Julian, tea in the cathedral refectory before Evensong amid its chancel choirstalls.  The decoration of the Julian chapel was beautifully spare, a significant feature being a small silver dish filled with plump hazelnuts—a detail that will be meaningful to readers of the saint’s famous book and no doubt mysterious to all others.

The Yare at Reedham

           Thence to London, where we “overnighted” (see next paragraph”) before moving on for three days to Joan’s brother and sister-in-law in their gorgeous village, Wye, a few short miles from Canterbury.  Our stay there was mainly slow-paced.  On two of the trains we had been on there had been two different girls sitting directly across the aisle from me reading something called The Girl on the Train.  I interpreted that as a sign, so I spent the better part of a day reading it myself, though I did have several hours on my own in Canterbury as well.

            The trip to Wye was bracketed by two nights in London—at a fleabag hotel (fortunately flealess in fact) near King’s Cross.  This arrangement allowed us to see and take meals with yet three more dear friends.  We came down from Scotland on Friday.  On Saturday, before moving on to Kent in the late afternoon, we had a wonderful long visit with Margaret Davies, one of our fellow English “readers” at university nearly sixty years ago, who came down from Oxford specially to see us.  And on Tuesday night, before an early start for Heathrow the next morning, we had a mellow evening meal with John and Fiona Smith, who came in to join us from their house in Barnes.  The area behind King’s Cross/St. Pancras has been considerably upgraded since I was last there and is now a kind of London Dumbo full of wine bars, theaters, and hip restaurants.  One of them I am prepared to recommend with enthusiasm: the Greek Larder, on York Place.

            So there you have it: twenty-one days, seven major venues, thirteen beloved old friends, and all treated utterly inadequately in nine hundred and sixty-one words that serve at least to reanimate the blog.

   King's Cross development (including "Greek Larder")        

Monday, August 29, 2016

Blogger Cops Out


            For nearly eight years I have religiously published an essay each week--without the slightest justification in religion or anything else.  You may have wondered how anybody could have so little better to do.  I myself have certainly pondered in that direction.  But now I am about to set off on a European trip devoted as exclusively to hedonism as is safe for the octogenarian constitution.  I am not of the generation for whom schlepping laptops about is second nature, and all our phones are as dumb as I am.  The Internet Café hardly exists anymore, and you can perhaps imagine the clientele of the few remaining specimens.

            Hence I am unilaterally declaring September “Blogger Cop Out” month.  Since I shall have a great deal of work facing me when I return—and therefore will need as many excuses as possible to avoid it—I shall probably gladly resume then.  Best wishes to all my friends in the “Back to School” world.  One of the purest pleasures of retirement is taking off for the Côte d’Azur just as so many associates, colleagues, children, and grandchildren are facing a new semester.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

American Personality Types

I am an admirer of David Brooks, one of the regular opinion writers for the New York Times.  He used to be the token “conservative” on that paper’s editorial page, but he is so disgusted with Donald Trump that he appears to have abandoned partisan representation and political advocacy altogether to become a one-man Greek chorus of generalized lamentation.  Though I frequently agree with Brooks, it is not actually his opinions that attract me.  I find there are more ideas per square column inch in one of his essays than in any other part of the paper.  Very often these are other people’s ideas—always scrupulously credited—gathered from his impressive weekly reading.  Many years ago a cynical senior colleague, anticipating my tenure review, gave me what he considered sound advice.  There are two kinds of professors, he said: those who read books and those who write books.  Neither the advice, nor the bizarre intellectual aberration in which it was based, escaped me.

            One of Brooks’s recent columns is entitled “Is Our Country as Good as Our Athletes Are? In it he confronts a widely shared and often articulated sense of “American malaise” with the outstanding success of America’s athletes in the Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro.  That our country faces repeated humiliations, that we are in economic decline, that we “don’t win anymore” are propositions central to Donald Trump’s campaign.  “Yet when you watch the Olympics, we don’t seem like some sad-sack country in terminal decline,” wrote Brooks.  “If anything, the coverage gets a little boring because we are always winning!  And the winners have such amazingly American stories and personality types (Biles, Ledecky, and, yes, Lochte).”

            Brooks’s essay was published, I believe, on August 19, by which time we knew, or could have known, some of the precise details of the  “amazingly American” personality type Ryan Lochte, the famous swimmer, exhibits.  After partying all night Lochte and some of his team-mates were returning to their billets in the Olympic Village when their cabbie stopped at a gas station to refuel.  The passengers took advantage of the pit stop to visit the toilet.  One or more of them exercised, noisily, the drunken frat-boy privilege of vandalizing bathrooms, breaking furnishings, and peeing on the results.  The armed security guards at the gas station detained the incontinent revelers.  There was the matter of reparations. Much of the episode was captured on closed-circuit television.

           The account of the gas-station stop given by Lochte—perhaps one should say accounts in recognition of the considerable narrative evolution—was that he and his mates had been robbed at gunpoint by criminals dressed in police uniforms.  The gunmen had relieved the swimmers of their wallets.  This was a bald-faced lie apparently invented by Lochte but, sad to say, supported by at least some of his team-mates.  It was also a gross, injurious insult to the Brazilian hosts of the games.  That American Olympians are world-class athletes is implicit in their having been chosen from large numbers of talented competitors to represent our country.  That they should also be world-class jerks and liars is a matter of individual ethical choice deeply shameful to any, should they still exist, so old-fashioned as to think there might be more to sportsmanship than winning.

            What about the politicians who propose to be our leaders?  Are they more the political equivalents of a Simone Biles or of a Ryan Lochte?  Donald Trump is such a fabulist that one hardly knows where to begin.  He got to know Vladimir Putin “very well,” though he later had to allow he had never actually met him.  He was an apparently unique eye-witness to the festival reaction of large numbers of Muslims in Jersey City as the Twin Towers crashed to the earth.  One of Mr. Lochte’s claims was that although one of the robber-cops put a gun to his head, he refused to “comply”.   Thus did he refute Wayne La Pierre.  The real answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with an--attitude.  So far as I know Mr. Trump has not sought to exemplify his personal courage with reports of his indifference to bad guys with guns, but it is surely only a matter of time.

            However, his adversary Hillary Clinton has stolen a march on him here.  By now her famous account of her dramatic arrival at Tuzla Airport in Bosnia has gained canonical status in the World Anthology of Greatest Fibs.  “I remember landing under sniper fire,” she said.  “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”  The ceremonial arrivals of famous visitors tend to attract even more elaborate video coverage than the bathrooms of Brazilian convenience stores.  What greeted Mrs. Clinton upon her arrival was a fawning welcoming committee including the obligatory schoolgirl with a bouquet of flowers.   Hillary Clinton might appropriately hang her head down, though not out of fear of sniper fire.

           Mr. Lochte eventually pleaded guilty to “over exaggeration,” but that was to misunderestimate the gravity of his offense.  He embarrassed our entire nation.  But we must get back to David Brooks’s implied question.  Are those who present themselves for presidential leadership as good as the athletes who present themselves as our representatives in sport?  One has to give the nod to the athletes.  Only some of them are liars.