Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Architectural ambition and technical innovation characterize the winery of Bai Gorri, where we had a three-and-a-half hour "tasting lunch."
Having completed the first three full days of our pilgrimage, I have far more to relate than would fit into a single essay, or indeed several essays, not that I am entertaining any serious ambitions in that direction. The brief report is most positive. Our random companionship of thirty pilgrims is cheerful and cohesive, the kind of students any teacher is blessed to have—and certainly the kind who justify both the glad learning and the glad teaching ostensibly characteristic of this blog. The weather, though for one moment approaching the brink of catastrophe has been tolerable to excellent. Unlike medieval pilgrims we are enjoying motorized support that allows us to see all manner of wonders and still cover the required distance. One might describe our rather modest walks along the Camino as “scenes from a pilgrimage.” Our rather minimal hiking, while enough to task my soles and calves, can hardly make a dent in what appears to be a mandatory daily intake of seven thousand calories, more or less.
Almost everything has been new to me. I was last in the Basque country in 1959, and then only briefly. I was young and Francisco Franco not only alive but considerably younger than I am now. It was, in short, a different world, and though Navarre’s antiquities and its dramatic landscape are unchanged, the general “vibe” was so radically different as to make it feel a different country as well. It was a few years before the serious phase of the Iberian revolution in tourism. There were at that time comparatively few automobiles in Spain--paradoxically that fact made for pretty good hitchhiking—and the whole country seemed coated in dust and impecuniousness. Now, by contrast, amidst a universally recognized economic crisis and a twenty-four percent unemployment rate, it seems pretty prosperous. Any American has to be impressed by its bright and shiny infrastructure of roads and bridges. Of course the only economic “sectors” with which we have had much first hand experience—tourism and the wine trade—are doubtless anomalies in the larger picture.
We started out in Pamplona. It is a very interesting place, of course, but I found myself rather annoyed by the young English-speaking guide who seemed to think that all we would want to hear about was the running of the bulls and role played by Ernest Hemingway in transforming an obscure local Spanish tradition into an international phenomenon. My late senior colleague Carlos Baker, who wrote the “official” biography of Hemingway, was both a mentor and a friend to me; and I know how seriously tedious he found Hemingway’s tauromachic machismo. John (the aforementioned Anglophone cicerone) was a font of surprising statistics. Would you believe, for instance, that “only sixteen” runners have been gored or trampled to death in the running of the bulls since the publication of The Sun Also Rises in 1923? Or that the town fathers have erected a bronze monument for them worthy of war heroes? But one statistic was enough to explain all the enthusiasm. Last year, during the eight-day festival of San Fermin in July, the merchants, hoteliers, restauranteurs, and (especially) bar-keepers of Pamplona grossed a cool seventy million euros. No wonder that there are statues to Hemingway all over the town.
We did zip down to Roncevalles, just to be able to say that we were truly beginning at the beginning of the Camino in Spain. But our progress is of course westerly, and we have seen many beautiful things, all of them new to me. They include the hauntingly beautiful and rather mysterious octagonal church of Eunate, the splendid medieval bridge that gives its name to the town of Puente la Reina, the extraordinary cloister of the church of San Pedro in Estella and the yet more remarkable church of San Miguel in that same town. Its location fully vindicates the well-known opening sentence of Henry Adams’s Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres, “The archangel loved heights.”
Puente la Reina
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Only five words into the NYT article about it, I decided not to address Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The article begins “Ending two years of speculation…” If the Times editors really think that Hillary’s presidential ambitions were speculative, they probably don’t know what speculation is. So here’s some real speculation.
I have never actually been in Hoboken (as opposed to around, through or over it) to cruise along the scenic Frank Sinatra Drive. I do frequently travel by train to and fro the City, however, and I do on occasion pick up and read abandoned north Jersey newspapers left on the seats. So over the past decade I have acquired a journeyman’s knowledge of Hudson County politics. I know, for example, that Hoboken has an admirable reforming Mayor, Dawn Zimmer, who almost beat the crook who preceded her and whom she did replace when he was indicted for bribery and thrown in the hoosegow. I also know that around 2009 there was a major scandal in the Hoboken Parking Authority when $600,000 went missing—that is, 2,400,000 quarters! The local felon du jour for that caper was somebody named John Corea—some papers preferred the spelling Correa—who had been colluding with some Toms River associates of "mob boss Nicodemo 'Little Nicky' Scarfo."
With junk like this monopolizing the few remaining storage cells of my brain, you can see why I struggle with my scholarship. But struggle I do, and as I was consulting a learned tome from my library shelves the other day out from its pages fell someone’s ancient bookmark in the form of an elegantly printed “at home” card, probably from the turn of the twentieth century: “Mrs. E. H. A. Correa / Second Thursdays / 920 Bloomfield Street / Hoboken NJ.” You know what that means. You’ve read some Edith Wharton. Mrs. Correa was “at home” to visitors on the second Thursday of every month. Drop in for a cup of tea. What a wonderful whiff of a vanished civility! And how very far away from “Little Nicky.”
Not that I’m leaping to conclusions about the name Cor(r)ea, which is unfamiliar to me. I don’t even know whether to pronounce it like the Asian country or like that Richard Cory who “was a gentleman from soul to crown.” But a few moments Binging away yields some interesting facts. For instance one learns from the indispensable International Insurance Encyclopedia that Emanuel H. A. Correa, born in New York in 1855, was by the dawn of twentieth century a leading executive of the Home Insurance Company. In an archived copy of The Weekly Underwriter there is the sad news that Mr. Correa died too young on October 24, 1912, with a net worth of $38,606. That was a while ago. The Titanic disaster was only six months earlier. One estimate of the current value of Mr. Correa’s fortune is $17,800,000—quite enough to afford a fine brownstone in such an exclusive suburb as Hoboken! One deduces that Mr. Correa must have been a man of mild manner and cultivated taste. We are not surprised to find his unopposed election to the New Jersey Philatelic Association on October 5, 1892. Is there still a New Jersey Philatelic Association? Do you still have to be elected to be a member?
As for the spouse of this admirable man, the lady whose card had been closely preserved for at least the better part of a century between the pages of a Mermaid Series edition of The Two Angry Women of Abington, I have not discovered her given name. But as Mrs. E. H. A. Correa of 920 Bloomfield Street her good works are lavishly spread upon the social and charitable records of early twentieth-century Hudson County. I shall conclude this whimsical indulgence with a particularly sweet message she has left us from the grave.
In 1907 Christ Hospital in Jersey City, a charitable foundation of the Episcopal Church, published as a fund-raiser something called the Kirmess Cook Book: A Collection of Well-Tested Recipes from the Best Housekeepers of Jersey City and Elsewhere. The cutesy title is an obeisance to the kind of ye-olde ethnic theme characteristic of do-good undertakings to this very day. “Kirmess” is a version of the old Dutch word for a certain kind of village church festival, and it will be familiar to lovers of classic Dutch painting. In 1900 the Dutch influence in New York and northeast Jersey, while waning, was still visible. Here is the contribution of Mrs. E. H. A. Correa.
WINE JELLY WITH WHIPPED CREAM.
Mrs. E. H. A. Correa, Hoboken, N. J.
Soak one box *Cooper’s gelatine in one quart of California port wine, three cups of sugar, juice of four lemons, one ounce stick cinnamon. Stand on extreme back of range for one hour, stirring occasionally. At the end of an hour, add one quart of boiling water, strain and put in a cool place to stiffen. When cold, serve with whipped cream.
*Peter Cooper (1791-1883) was the inventor of Jello.
Readers should be advised that I shall be attempting my next essay from somewhere on the road in northern Spain. If you haven't heard anything for three weeks, say, somebody probably ought to inform the authorities.
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
My Easter boutonnière, still going strong
The last day of March witnessed the last meeting of our Evergreen Forum seminar on the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The initial phrase of the poem’s famous opening (“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote…”) introduces a sentence of which the principal clause, appearing only eleven lines later, is “then longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.” That is, when the April showers arrive, people get itchy to go on pilgrimage. By strange happenstance, this statement is as applicable this year in twenty-first-century New Jersey as it was in fourteenth-century Kent. For we are indeed just about to leave, in ten days' time, to lead a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, under the sponsorship of the Princeton University Alumni Council. I shall attempt to “live blog” this event at it progresses, though with what success I am reluctant to predict.
What Chaucer more fully says is “When April’s sweet showers pierce to the root the drought of March…” Observant students, of whom there are many in the Evergreen Forum, with most among them having visited England, wondered what “drought” Chaucer could possibly have had in mind. At Bodiam weather station, quite near the pilgrims’ route, the annual average rainfall over two recent decades was approximately thirty-four inches, with about two-and-a-half of that falling in March. The explanation is that Chaucer is of course speaking in a figurative or allegorical fashion. The drought of March is the lean and penitential season of Lent, which comes to an end with the festival abundance of Easter. Once again this year’s calendar was cooperative, with Easter falling last Sunday, April 5. My son Luke and I were together at the stunning Easter Vigil Eucharist in the chancel of the University chapel, as we have been for so many of the last thirty Easters, starting in deep darkness at five o’clock and moving slowly toward the burst of light that comes when full sunlight finally hits the great east “Resurrection” window toward seven.
But New Jersey’s calendar and its meteorology were not so well synchronized this year. I like to wear a daffodil boutonnière on Easter. There has been no March drought here, but the moisture came in a form guaranteed initially to retard rather than to hasten the appearance of the tendre croppes. We had perhaps twenty inches of snow just last month, with protracted low temperatures. As March surrendered to April there were no daffodils in sight. By Easter eve the house was surrounded by incipient yellow buds, and among them I was luckily able to find one (though only one) beginning to open. Now, three days later, many more have appeared.
Daffodils are gorgeous, but even the nearly omnivorous deer (a large herd of which hangs out in my extended back yard) refuse to eat them. Everyone knows that the signature garden crop of the Garden State is the Jersey tomato. My tomato farming has been hampered by our unfortunate tendency to spend a central month of the growing season in Paris or somewhere else nifty, but even so I had good results last summer with a little, partially shaded plot at the front of the house.
the old garden plot
My appetite thus whetted, and under the inspiration of Chaucer, I determined to create a somewhat larger bed in full sun just south of the stone wall I put up around my property. This is at the edge of a large common meadow formerly known as the “Baseball Field”—an appellation dating from the 'Sixties, when there were still many young people in the neighborhood. This had to be wrested from a bramble patch overrun with various formidable jungle vines, especially coarse wild roses and the voracious species of Virginia Creeper that grows a foot or more per week and feeds from stubborn fat tuberous roots with the tensile strength of Kevlar. This horror must be entirely dug out and destroyed if you hope for anything else to grow in its former domain.
the new garden plot
Even if you lack commercial earth-moving equipment it is possible, barely, to achieve one’s goal. Some years ago in upstate New York I found in a dump a heavily framed iron grid, roughly three feet by four. Its original function is uncertain to me, but I was able to adapt it as a heavy-duty sieve in attacking the hideous root structure of this vine. The price of achieving a plot of Jersey topsoil suitable for producing the Jersey tomato is to dig down at least a foot and sieve every shovelful of the results, removing all brick bats, animal bones, small stones, Mason jar shards, and, especially, the tuber clusters and root fragments. This activity is not for the faint of heart, the weak of back, or the subtle of brain.
one spadeful at a time
So far, I am on schedule. The next task, which I must accomplish pre-pilgrimage, is to get adequate fencing around both the old and the new beds—unless my ambition can be satisfied by offering a dietary supplement to the deer. Then if I can get plants in the ground soon after returning from Europe, there will be some hope of having a tomato or two in September!
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Two of our granddaughters are just now on a fortnight’s school trip to China. (The only such trip I can remember from my own early schooling was a two-hour visit to the local water filtration plant. They called it Science.) In writing a note of encouragement to twelve-year-old Lulu, Joan inquired whether she and her sister Cora would be accompanied by Turkalee. Turkalee, a soft toy simulacrum of a turkey, has for many years been Lulu’s most intimate friend—intimate, and of course imaginary. In the past I have been an inadvertent eavesdropper on animated conversations between Lulu and Turkalee. I don’t actually know whether Turkalee is in China. They are by now a somewhat odd couple, and their future is uncertain. Lulu is in the effervescent flush of girlhood, but Turkalee is decrepit in the extreme, threadbare, limp-necked. But what a friend Turkalee has been!
Imaginary friends are rather on my mind at the moment. They are such helpful extensions of the self. First, I read of the very useful new app, “Invisible Boyfriend,” which for only $24.99, will fill the aching e-voids in your life. Then, in reading of the denouement of the University of Virginia rape-hoax episode fostered by Rolling Stone magazine, to which I devoted this page some three months ago, I had the startling apperçu that the whole thing must turn upon a most rare species of the imaginary friend—viz., the imaginary rapist. Jackie—aka “the victim” and “the survivor”—wanted to attract the sentimental attentions of a fellow student, Mr. X. She sought to animate Mr. X’s sluggish amatory response by making him think he had an ardent upperclass competitor. As this person was entirely imaginary, and thus unlikely to sue me, we need not call him “Mr. Y”. We can call him, as Jackie at first did, “Haven Monahan,” or as she later did, when he supposedly orchestrated her brutal gang rape, “Drew”. Jackie did her best to overcome the inconvenience of Haven Monahan’s actual non-existence by providing him with some baroque means of electronic communication available for a small fee in the cybernetic wilderness. Of course she had to write the actual texts herself, but that's no hill for a stepper.
The role of Haven Monahan was to set the cat among the pigeons, though I learn that in millennial-speak the cat has been replaced by the catfish. I quote from the indispensable on-line Urban Dictionary. “A catfish is someone who pretends to be someone they're not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances”. (The Urban Dictionary is better at definitions than at grammar.) In case you need to use the word in its verbal sense in a sentence, the urban lexicographers usefully provide an example: Did you hear how Dave got totally catfished last month?! The fox he thought he was talking to turned out to be a pervy guy from San Diego!
Totally? And from San Diego! My God! No wonder so many of us from time to time feel that the world would be a better place if we could control both halves of our daily communications. I am no longer embarrassed when--as happens with increasing frequency--I am discovered mumbling to myself. I simply explain that I find it increasingly difficult to get a good conversation going. A popular song of my youth—and research reveals that it actually antedates my birth—summed up what surely must be a nearly universal temptation. It was called “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”
I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came fro you.
I’m gonna write words, oh, so sweet
They’re gonna knock me off my feet
Kisses on the bottom
I’ll be glad I’ve got ‘em.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Each week I receive a certain amount of email concerning my blog posts. The messages are mainly encouraging, but I am sometimes surprised by the source mentioned, as it is not always my blog’s web page. Several in recent weeks refer to encountering an essay on “Senior Correspondent”, a site that appears to anthologize on-line journalistic gerontology for the pleasure and instruction of our fellow-seniors. I know of this site at least by name. Twice I rashly promised to write something for them and twice I ignominiously forgot to do so—at which point the editors sensibly decided that a purloined essay was probably just as good as a commissioned one, and maybe even better, in that it was actual rather than unconvincingly potential.
From the pirating of my essays I take absolutely no offense—far from it. The truth is the Lord’s, as Augustine says, and as for the Internet, it’s as free as the air we breathe or the water from a mountain spring. That I am a senior is valuably documented by my reduced-fare MetroCard. That I am a correspondent is perhaps slightly less certain, but still plausible. That I am communicating with other seniors is the subject of this essay.
Just yesterday I taught the fifth of six seminars in a Chaucer course I am teaching at the Evergreen Forum, one of several “adult schools” in our town. The phenomenon of “continuing education,” an important one nationally, is related to a number of demographic trends. People are living longer and healthier lives. The number of college-educated retirees is quite large in absolute terms, and steadily increasing. Many retired people, anticipating perhaps decades of mentally active life, have made such opportunities as tend to be found especially in the environs of college towns an important factor in their choice of retirement location.
Seniors are delightfully tolerant and forgiving as students—which is perhaps a way of saying they have pretty low expectations. They also tend to be smart and cultured and to have heard of such historical events as World War II. And the curriculum on offer from the Evergreen Forum is pretty relaxed too. Among my competitors are courses with such titles as “Devils, Demons and the Supernatural in Opera,” “What to Eat? Do Not Worry,” and “Curiouser and Curiouser: 150 Years of Alice”—all of which I’d like to take myself. Still, the idea of teaching an introductory Chaucer course on the Middle English text of the “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales seemed a bit eccentric to me even as I was proposing it. The question is not really whether you can spend six weeks on 850 lines of poetry, but whether such an activity can in any sense constitute an “introduction” to Chaucer.
The answer, I have been delighted to discover, is in the affirmative. I have a full load of thirty students, and at least half of them already had read some Chaucer. As recently as half a century ago Chaucer featured in high school English courses, and several of my students still hold in their memories, after all those years, some or even most of the first immortal sentence, florid and nearly endless (128 words), with which the poem begins: Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote…New students of Chaucer often think, mistakenly, that the hardest part is the language, but it takes no more than half an hour to correct that misapprehension, and to bring them to an understanding that a “modern version” of Chaucer’s text is not merely not the same thing as Chaucer, but something inevitably feebler and less interesting.
One can have a great experience for the first time only once, and it is really rather thrilling to see a septuagenarian first reading, and then really “getting” some of the great lines in the Prologue for the first time. Take, for example, Chaucer on gold. What Milton would later call “the precious bane” appears seven times in the Prologue and crucially controls the descriptions of six of the pilgrims. The spiritual failures of the Prioress and the Monk, two professional ascetics with high station but without vocation, are signaled by the inappropriate gold ornaments that are a part of their accoutrements. From the Prioress’s string of beads, rather in the manner of a modern girl’s “charm” bracelet is appended “a brooch of gold full sheene [bright]”, while the Monk fastens the chin-strap of his cowl in a somewhat extra-ecclesial fashion. “He had of gold ywroght a ful curious pyn.” To the Clerk of Oxenford (the original glad learner and glad teacher, incidentally) he offers the following couplet:
But al be that he was a philosophre,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre—
an idea dependent upon a “groaner” of a quibble then available on the word philosopher, meaning both an aspirant to wisdom and a money-grubbing alchemist! The concluding couplet of the description of the medical doctor—the medical profession (Little Pharma, perhaps?) was often taxed with the charge of cupidity in the fourteenth century—is less kindly:
For gold in phisik is a cordial,
Therefore he loved gold in special.
Here we see both the medicinal and the linguistic roots of my old grandmother’s “elderberry cordial”. Do you think the Doctor’s love of gold was really based in its value as a heart medicine? Finally, there is the Good Parson’s characteristically simple statement of an aspiration met by far too few of his colleagues in this poem—that of clerical holiness. In the middle of the seventeenth century Milton would famously say of the corrupt English clergy that “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.” Chaucer had anticipated him with his version of a biblical aphorism:…if gold ruste, what shal iren do? Then he tells it like it is.
For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste,
No wonder is a lewed man to ruste;
And shame it is, if a preest take keep,
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Starnina's "Thebaid" in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence
I am not a reincarnationist, nor a subscriber to Nietzsche’s theory of the “eternal return”, but I have not failed to note a certain circularity in my life, as I had reason to ponder last week, when I spent three days at Notre Dame University at the meeting of the Medieval Academy of America. It was the ninetieth annual meeting of this venerable institution, and while I have not been to all ninety, I must say that I do not recall another at which I found the intellectual fare more to my liking.
I used to be quite active in academy events and governance, and a regular participant in the annual meetings, which have no fixed venue but move around among many centers of medieval studies in this country and Canada. In retirement, however, my attendance has been intermittent. Paris has a certain pull, and of course life does move on. The early years of the Soviet regime saw the emergence of the sociological category known as “former people”. These were the aristocrats, ecclesiastics, and bourgeois professionals of the ancien régime who, lacking the will, means, or opportunity to flee and dispossessed of material possession and social station, now just sort of hung about like some collective ghost of Banquo. I wasn’t exactly spectral, but I did feel more than a little “former” as I bobbed about on the surface of a sea of youthful energy and ambition.
My first significant publication, in 1966, was a long essay on the Old English poem usually called the “Dream of the Rood”. The poet's stunning conceit is that the personified Cross appears to the dreamer and relates to him, from the perspective of the Cross, the story of the Crucifixion. The poet claims to relate a vision hwæt mē gemætte to midre nihte, syðþan reordberend reste wunedon--“that I encountered in the middle of the night, after folks [literally, voice-bearers] had gone to their beds.” The poem is a product of the rich monastic culture of Anglo-Saxon England and—if I am right—is actually an exposition of a specifically monastic theology. One of the papers I heard at Notre Dame cited this essay with the archaeological respect one might muster in invoking Gibbon or, maybe, Herodotus. It would have startled the young scholar to learn I was extant, let alone sitting before her very podium.
Opening Lines of the "Dream of the Rood" in the Vercelli Book
I had the very satisfying experience of being able to listen to talks by several of my own former students, and it was one them that took me unexpectedly in the direction of sleepless monks again. Scott Bruce, a historian at the University of Colorado, whom I had first met long years past when he was a student in a graduate seminar on asceticism, read an interesting paper entitled “Nocte surgamus: Sleep, Stars, and the Navigation of the Night Office in Medieval Monasticism.” The Latin phrase means “Let us rise in the night”.
The monastic names for the “night office” of prayers and praises, which was performed around midnight, varied somewhat, often being called the vigil or vigils. How did monks manage to get up in the middle of the night, night after night, to perform this duty so vigilantly? There were several strands to Professor Bruce’s paper, but one of the most interesting had to do with the history of human sleep generally. For there assuredly is such a history, and it has recently found its historian.* The monks probably had less difficulty than we might imagine, because like most other people they “naturally” awoke in the middle of the night.
Much of the extraordinarily rapid change that separates us from the world of our ancestors is of course technological, and of recent advent. One of the most revolutionary novelties—electric lighting—is not yet a century and a half old. It is so new, in fact, that was lacking in my earliest years in rural Arkansas. When it got dark, you went to bed—just like the chickens.
To “go to bed with the chickens”—meaning with the arrival of dark—was to habituate oneself to patterns of night sleep that shifted somewhat with the seasons, even with geographical latitude, but that on the whole were markedly longer than ours. We know from many written records throughout Europe and early America that people generally experienced a night’s sleep in two installments. A “first sleep” (this was their name for it) was heavy and dream-filled. It lasted from three to five hours. It was a balm for the physical exhaustion of heavy labor that most people in the Old World experienced.
The sleeper then awoke for a period of an hour or two. He or she might visit the latrine or use the chamber pot. It was the common hour for married couples to make love. Many people seem simply to have lain quietly in idle reverie, wool-gathering, prayer, or contemplation in a kind of hypnagogic suspension quite different from anxious insomnia. Members of religious communities rose to perform the liturgical office. After an indeterminate period, they drifted into sleep again. The hard edge of exhaustion having been blunted, the “second sleep” was less deep than the first, perhaps a kind of intermittent drowse such as I myself know very well. It ended when the night ended with the light of dawn. Then it was that “voice-bearers” arose from their beds. The monk moved on to the morning office, and the peasant to the field.
*A. Roger Ekirch, “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles,” American Historical Review, 106 (2001): 343-386.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
The Magdalen: walking baths and portable oceans
Richard Crashaw, a Roman Catholic spiritual writer of the first half of the seventeenth century, is not my favorite religious poet. The nature of his learned “metaphysical” wit, when employed in the development of Italianate Counter Reformation piety, produces what I have always thought of as a rather cloying “south of the border” effect. This is probably a personal prejudice, which I might be able to make a little more tolerable by saying that I am generally troubled by excesses of the Baroque in the visual arts as well. But one of Crashaw’s poems (“Saint Mary Magdalene, or the Weeper”) has stuck with me. The tears of the ceaselessly weeping Magdalen are melted crystal, falling stars, pearls, medicinal lozenges and a dozen other things. Wherever Christ walks through Galilee, he is followed by the Weeper with her “two faithful fountains/ two walking Baths, two weeping motions/ portable and compendious oceans.”
I had reason to recall all this recently when I heard a recording of the remarkable Costa Rican-Mexican singer Chavela Vargas singing a version of a popular traditional song called “La llorona” (“The Weeper”). The distinctive bittersweet timbre of Vargas’s voice, combined with the clarity of articulation, could make “Jingle Bells” sound spooky, and “La llorona” is grim enough to begin with. The Spanish word llorona means “weeping woman” (Sp. llorar from Lat. plorare). The denotative range seems pretty broad. At the one end llorona can be a trivial cry-baby, at the other the Weeper, Mary Magdalen. But the Llorona of this song is the central figure of a myth or folk tale apparently widespread in Central America and the American Southwest. Like much folk literature and balladry, a basic story or situation exists in many variants.* A beautiful woman of humble station is seduced by an aristocrat. After she had born his child (or children), he abandons her for a more suitable high-born mate. The abandoned mistress becomes deranged and murders her children, often beside or in a river, before taking her own life. She is then doomed forever to weep, an apparition shrouded in white, as she searches the earth for her dead children. To encounter this llorona at the midnight hour, or to hear her lamentation, is a frightening experience and a terrible augury of impending disaster.
There are versions of the llorona myth both in Spanish and in indigenous Amerindian languages. But the amazing Aarne-Thompson Motif Index of Folk Literature—which is exactly what it sounds like, a vast catalogue of narrative themes—suggests that the “original” Weeper, possibly historical, was a late medieval German woman. The rapid mutation of obscure historical event into myth and narrative incoherence is a general feature of folk music. We may recall that the historical germs of so many of the traditional ballads in our own tongue, most of which had their origins in the Border Country of northern England and southern Scotland, were barely discernible to the musicologists who lovingly searched them out in the Appalachian backwoods a hundred and fifty years ago.
The mind recoils before the concept of parental infanticide, but it is shockingly common. “Indeed,” writes Kirtley, “amidst the endemic violence of contemporary Western culture reports of distressed individuals destroying their families and then themselves scarcely make the front page of a large city’s newspaper, owing to their monotonous frequency.” But you probably recall two memorable episodes that did make it there, perhaps because the murderers did not then kill themselves. The first involved a psychotic depressive in Texas, who drowned her five children seriatim in a bathtub in an hour, and a South Carolina mother who, as her lover didn’t want to be saddled with kids, strapped two infants she had created with an estranged husband into a car, submerged it in a lake, and then raised a false cry of kidnapping.
If you seek the true essence of human tragedy, the first place you may want to look is folklore, but the classical drama is hardly less opulent in domestic gore. In the ancient texts a mother’s murder of her children can be revenge against their father. Think of Jason and Medea. There is hardly a grander, more heroic theme than that of the voyage of the Argonauts. But great heroes can also be great cads, and when Jason jilts Medea she slaughters the children they have together created. Niobe does not perform the slaughter of her own large brood, but it is her culpable pride that effects it. She actually becomes an architectural “weeper”, the marble font of an ever-flowing stream. In Ovid the infanticidal revenge that Procne takes on her husband Tereus, the rapist of her sister Philomela, is more violent and grotesque yet. I withhold the exact details from this family blog , even though they come from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the most high-brow masterpieces of Augustan literature.
David's "Slaughter of the Niobids" (Dallas Museum of Art)
In Ovid Procne is transformed into a swallow, and Philomela into a nightingale. In the western poetic tradition Philomel is herself a kind of llorona, a singer of great sweetness, but of no less sadness. On this topic Crashaw wrote one of his other most notable poems, “Musicks Duell”. The theme, an eternal one, is the commerce between Nature and Art. An expert lutanist seated on the greensward near the Tiber hears a nightingale singing in a nearby wood, and he challenges her to a musical duel. The contestants battle mightily, but at length the power of many strings overcomes the exhausted voice of the single frail bird, Philomela. “She failes, and failing grieves, and grieving dyes.” In the version of “La Llorona” rendered by Chavela Vargas the doomed singer signals the strange and paradoxical nature of her allure—a deadly desirability—in an arresting TexMex gastronomic image: “Yo soy como el chile verde, picante pero sobroso.” I am like the green chile pepper, stinging but delicious. I might describe that as contemporary Baroque.
*I find most of this in Bacil F. Kirtley, “‘La Llorona’ and Related Themes” in Western Folklore 19 (1960): 155-168