Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Bligh Bond and the Brexit

Bligh Bond
A funny thing happened to me as I sat down to write my contribution for the rapidly expanding Brexit Anthology of Sore Losers.  His name is Frederick Bligh Bond (1864-1945).  Bond was a prominent English architect of the Edwardian period.  Among his collateral forebears was Captain Bligh of Bounty fame, whose amazing feat of seamanship had continued to thrill the youth of Britain long into the Victorian period; and he usually called himself simply Bligh Bond.  I first encountered Blight Bond many years ago when I consulted his book on old English rood screens, written in collaboration with another notable character named Bede Camm.  That was probably forty years ago, and I had forgotten all about him when—in connection with the book I have just completed—I consulted another of his collaborative works: Studies in the Apostolic Gnosis (1919).  This is a quite brilliant and quite mad book; but it is certainly a must-read for anyone interested in the number thirty-seven, which I happened to be at the time.

Glastonbury: the old...

Now you may be aware of the fact that the Brexit vote took place on the Thursday of the week of the Glastonbury Festival.  Glastonbury is an ancient ecclesiastical site in the far west of England.  The Festival is a sort of annual Woodstock, somewhat moderated and cultivated to meet appropriate British specs.  Its origins go back a century.  Its popular music dimension, now prominent, dates from about 1970.  The Festival is a magnet for contemporary British youth.  Pundits soon began noting that while Dionysian British youth were busy making music and love rather than money or war, they were not voting in the referendum in which their dour, uptight Apollonian elders were dooming them to a return of the Fifties and, possibly, the inconvenience of visas for the beaches of Ibiza.  Hence the forced marriage of Glastonbury and Brexit in the tortured journalistic mind.

...and the new

Part of the hokum surrounding Glastonbury is its imaginary connection with ancient Druidical rites and prelapsarian ecological mysticism, now joyously revived between rock band sets.  As I discovered, Mr. Bond bears some responsibility for this.  As a medievalist I was quite aware of its less sexy but actual ancient Christian associations, and I was even vaguely aware that what had put the place back on the map were dramatic archaeological operations in the early part of the twentieth century.  I was unaware, however, that the director of the excavations was Bligh Bond, and even less aware of the extraordinary scientific principles by which Bond was guided.

Bond was the son of the head of Marlborough School, by whom he was privately and no doubt strenuously educated.  Throughout his early adult life he combined public professional success as an architect with a private quest for religious mysticism which, by the end of the century, led to his immersion in Spiritualism.  This interests me, perhaps because one of my first publications, based on a graduate student seminar paper, concerned Browning’s dramatic monologue “Mr. Sludge the Medium,” for which I had to do considerable research into Victorian Spiritualism.  Bond combined his eccentric version of Anglo-Catholic practice with table-rapping spiritualism in a way that could cause alarm among two groups.  The particular mode of spiritual discourse through which he came to communicate with the Other World was “automatic writing”, a system by which the departed were supposed to hold converse with the living through the mediation of a specially gifted amanuensis.

At Glastonbury, which in legend had been the site of a pilgrimage made by Joseph of Arimathea, were the remains of an important Benedictine abbey that had been especially rich booty in Henry VIII’s campaign of ecclesiastic spoliation.  The site had then been used as a quarry for centuries.  The challenges to the archeologists, who in 1907 set out under Bond’s direction to study the site, were enormous.  One great puzzle was the location of an important chapel (the “Edgar Chapel”) that was clearly referenced in ancient documents, but now utterly vanished.  The chapel had been finished shortly before the Dissolution by Abbot Whiting, who had been martyred as well as dispossessed.

Where should they start to dig?  Architectural parallels suggested the likely spot, but Bond was doubtful and turned to the Spirit World.  Through the good services of a trusted medium-scribe, a former naval officer named John Allen, sixteenth-century monks began a vigorous correspondence with Bond in early Modern English and Church Latin.  The spirit papers included an actual hand-drawn architectural plan, with the surprising location of the obliterated chapel clearly marked. This invaluable document was signed “Gulielmus Monachus” (roughly, Bill the Monk).  Bond dug.  He found the missing chapel.  The rest is history: the discipline of Supernatural Archaeology was born.

from out of the blue, a blue print

Believers believed, skeptics were skeptical.  The former included the great neo-Gothic architect Ralph Adams Cram, creator of the Princeton University Chapel among other magnificent piles.  The latter included the Anglican theological authorities in charge of the Glastonbury dig, who eventually fired Bond out of embarrassment.

It seems to have been the Great War, which seared the sensibilities of so many among the European elites, that pushed Bond over the top, if you will forgive the license.  One of his books, The Hill of Vision, is a collection of automatic writing from members of the “Company of Avalon” and other sage otherworldlings with advice as how to avoid any repetition of the great catastrophe.  In the late Twenties Bond went to America where he became for a time the educational director for the American Society for Psychical Research.  He was ordained a priest, then in short order consecrated a bishop, in the Old Catholic Church.  Mired in multiple controversies, he returned to Britain, retired into obscurity in North Wales, and left an unpublished dossier of spirit-communications from his ancestor Captain Bligh.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Doing Horace One Better

            Among a thousand unforgettable images in the Divine Comedy is one in the nineteenth canto of the Inferno in which the pilgrim Dante likens himself in simile to a mendicant confessor at the execution of a murderer.  “I stood, like the friar who is confessing a treacherous assassin that, after being fixed, recalls him and thus delays the death.”  There is a ghastly glimpse of social history behind these lines.  The punishment for hired assassins in medieval Florence was to be asphyxiated, and in horrible fashion.  The condemned man was stoutly affixed to a post and placed head-first in a hole to about his waist.  The executioners then filled the hole with loose earth.  The criminal has made his confession and received his absolution.  But to hold death at bay even for but an instant, he “remembers” an unmentioned sin, and calls the friar back.

            The prospect of annihilation is a powerful stimulus to the narrative imagination.  A great work of world literature, one that most readers will know and love, exemplifies the point.  I mean the Arabian Nights, also known as the Thousand Nights and One Night, an ancient compilation and a treasure house of great old stories like “Sinbad the Sailor”.  The rather gruesome premise of this collection is that a pathologically jealous eastern potentate each night takes a virgin for a bride.  In the morning, in order to give her no opportunity to betray him, he has her executed.  Eventually they run out of virgins—all too easily done, even in conservative circles--but a particularly clever young woman, Scheherazade, daughter of the vizier, volunteers.  In bed, she tells her new husband an intriguing story—but breaks off before its denouement.  The potentate decides to allow her a second night to complete the tale.  This she does, but immediately begins, but only begins, another.  Once more the fascinated husband grants her an “extra” night—and so it goes for 1001 nights, by which time he is permanently hooked or booked.

Ferdinand Keller : Scheherazade and the Sultan  (1880)

            From neither from the sexual nor the existential point of view are my circumstances so dramatic as those of Scheherazade, but they are not without a certain parallelism.  I am finally, within a very few weeks, having to submit the copy for a long “finished” book.  I think it’s a good book, and certainly one I have worked hard on, but I realize I have been doing almost everything in my power—such as writing two other books in the meantime—to avoid letting it go. 

I had a good college friend—now many years dead, alas—with whom I used to discuss possible life plans.  He had an excellent one, though it went unfulfilled.  Step one was to marry a very rich woman.  Step two was to get a bathrobe and a pipe.  He could shuffle around the house endlessly in the bathrobe.  If asked what he did, exactly, the answer would be “I am writing a novel”.  An occasional puff on the pipe would seal the plausibility of the vocation claimed.  “You see,” he said, “to be a writer you don’t actually have to publish anything.  All you have to do is be writing something.”

I do have a permanently unfinished novel, but it hardly counts among the half dozen or so unfinished scholarly books.  The thing is that writing leads to more writing, while finishing something leads to a void, awkward questions, snarky reviews.  I also note, thanks to the little device provided by Google, that this is the 364th weekly essay on “Gladly Learn, Gladly Teche”.  Since there are seven days in a week, and fifty-two weeks in a year—well, even I can do the math in my head.  I am just about to complete seven years of weekly blogging.  And I also recall that my very first essay, in addition to being way too long, was in part devoted to Luis de Camões and to the book that I even then had been working on (off and on) for the first three years of my retirement.  So that makes a full decade of purposeful delay, meaning that I have surpassed the famous advice of Horace in his “Art of Poetry” that you should wait nine years (…nonumque prematur in annum…) before releasing your manuscript from the desk drawer in which it has been moldering.  But I have achieved this through honest sloth without recourse to the active nocturnal sabotage practiced by Penelope.

  "Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night" by Dora Wheeler (1856–1940)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Finding a Good Book


              My blog essays vary considerably in their lack of ambition, but mainly readers get a snapshot of my Tuesday mind around lunchtime when I realize with a start that it is Tuesday around lunchtime.  This week was an exception.  I had a really serious topic—what I’ll call in short hand the Stanford rape case—and I was mulling over some issues in my head for a couple of days.  Then the Orlando massacre occurred, an event so horrible as to silence more modest revulsions, yet one concerning which I have nothing conceivably useful to say. 

Furthermore there came into my mind from the ether the advice of the Apostle: “whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report… think on these things.”  A scholar’s life is like all others in most respects.  Its girders are family and friends, its secondary framing the other human relationships connected to them and to one’s professional duties and habits.  How lucky I have been in all these regards.  One particularly marvelous aspect of the scholarly life is that you actually get paid for reading books.  It occurs to me that at least a few readers who read just for the love of truth, beauty, enlightenment or amusement might be interested in some professional advice.

“Of making many books there is no end,” wrote the biblical sage at a time when there were many millions fewer of them than there are today—before adding sagely “and much study wearies the body.”  A time will arrive in your life, if it has not already arrived, when you will realize with a pang that there is no possible way that you will be able to read all the books you will want to read, need to read, would be better for reading.  So many books, so little time.

One classic mistake sometimes made by even sophisticated readers is an overemphasis on the contemporary.  You probably ought to do no more than a tenth of your reading from among titles taken from the current book reviews.  You would never limit your appreciation of music to works composed in the last twelve months or your enjoyment of painting to canvases finished in the last two weeks.  There is nothing wrong with reading to “keep up”—that is, from a desire to be able to participate intelligently in a larger cultural conversation—but the conversation you really want to be interested in covers centuries and continents.  It is a conversation—like all the best aspects of culture—that brings the living into colloquy with the dead.  Remember Milton’s wonderful observation in Areopagitica: “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

You can find your quarry by trial and error in a leisurely walk through the stacks of any reasonably well stocked public library, but I have found it helpful to call upon the aid of others who have thought longer and more systematically than I.  Among my books there are three to which I make recourse on a pretty regular basis.

The first of these is now called An English Library: a Bookman’s Guide, by F. Seymour Smith.  The first edition, dated 1943, which I picked up back in the Fifties, was one of those funny old wartime British books that seemed to be printed on crumbling toilet paper.  The edition I now use—there may well be a more recent one—dates from 1963.  Its new introduction begins: “An English Library, like wartime willow-herb, grew on a bomb site.”  It is double the size of the original effort, but still true to the old subtitle: “An Annotated List of Classics and Standard Books”.  If you were to read half of them, you’d be reading at a very high standard indeed.

The second reference work is a much more recent addition.  I became addicted to it only during my fairly recent residence in Paris.  The second-hand book trade in France is miserable.  The old joke about boarding house fare—“the food is absolute poison, and such small quantities”—seems vaguely relevant.  There is not really a lot on offer, and the prices will strike an American as shockingly high.  But at the Saturday market in Georges Brassens Park in the Fifteenth I was willing to pay 10€ for La Bibliothèque idéale, which is one of the “Encyclopédies d’aujourd’hui” of the Livres de poche series.  Its subject matter, cunningly distributed over a thousand pages, is French-language books (including many translations) that a couple of Parisian intellectuals consider your best intellectual diet.  They have forty-nine categories, and in each of them they list and characterize what they take to be the ten most important, the twenty-five most important, and the forty-nine most important titles.  Notice that they leave you a whole category to make up for yourself, and within each category you get to choose one additional title.  Robbespierrean democracy.

Finally, I use an American book—Steven Gilbar’s Good Books: A Book Lover’s Companion (Ticknor and Fields, 1982).  This is another huge and promiscuous catalogue, organized by interesting and often enough eccentric category, that eschews the obviously highbrow.  A nice feature of this book from my point of view is that it has a foreword by Clifton Fadiman—a name that will be familiar to you only if you are getting on in years.  He was one of the great public literary intellectuals of the Fifties, and the host of a popular quiz program.  He features tangentially in my Anti-Communist Manifestos.  We also just happen to have two elegant modernist Danish wood and leather beds that once belonged to him in our crawlspace, though I shudder to imagine their current condition.  I’ll reserve the account of how Clifton Fadiman’s beds got into my crawlspace for the next time I am desperate for a blog topic.  The next time you are desperate for some good bibliographical advice you can turn to any of the three books mentioned.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Gilded Cages

a ransomer arrives at the sponging-house (Vanity Fair, vol. 2, cap. xviii)

A fabulously wealthy Middle Eastern gold merchant, Reza Zarrab, has been indicted for criminal trial in New York.  But he does not fancy the idea of awaiting his court date in such accommodations as are usually provided by the criminal justice system.  He would prefer a luxury apartment to Riker’s Island, and would propose to pay for it himself, relieving the taxpayer of any financial liability.  He also offers to put up a huge bail bond and even finance special police guards to guarantee his appearance in court.  He will gladly wear a GPS tracking device.  He actually represents a class of wealthy defendants.  I read about this in the Times, and as usual, or at least often, the numerous readers’ comments in the on-line edition were as engaging as the article itself.  Most comments rejected Mr. Zarrab’s proposal for a privately financed gilded cage with scorn or indignation.  The recurrent adjective was unfair.  My own initial reaction was along these lines—until I thought about it for a moment.

The guarantee to a “speedy” trial has become a dead letter, but the presumption of innocence need not follow it.  There are two plausible justifications for pre-trial detention.  A guilty person might run away, thus frustrating justice.  There is also the possibility that such a person might commit further mischief, such as the destruction of evidence or suborning of potential witnesses.  Neither justification can be convincingly invoked in this instance.  Punishment is not an acceptable justification for pre-trial detention, since it obviously assumes guilt.  But Times readers want to punish Mr. Zarrab for being obnoxiously rich and having resources others lack.  Is this a matter of “fairness”?  Some people get to go to Yale, others to Dade County Community College, and most to no place at all.  I’m willing to part with an extra hundred bucks for six inches of supplementary legroom on a United flight.  Is it unfair that somebody else can regularly afford First Class?  The morality of the one-percent solution to pretrial detention would seem to me to be an honestly open question.

Our penology is uncertain of its goals.  Punishment?  Reformation?  Protections of Society?  For the most part the prisons of earlier centuries much more frankly had to do with money.  Serious malefactors could be chastised with horrible corporal punishments or dispatched by hanging, decapitation, compression, suffocation, incineration, breaking upon the wheel, and a variety of more imaginative ordeals.  This sort of thing expanded the population of potters fields, not of prisons.  Punishment was public because it was generally believed that seeing bad people put to death fostered a socially useful shock and awe in the spectators and fostered their moral improvement.  A famous instance in the British navy in 1757, the execution of Admiral Byng by firing squad, is wickedly remembered in Voltaire’s Candide, where the naive hero points out that "in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others."

Incarceration was a different matter, having to do with money.  In the Middle Ages the purpose of taking prisoners was to collect the ransom somebody was willing to pay for them.  You might call it military kidnapping.  Noble prisoners lived pretty well, and the tradition of luxury imprisonment—more or less what Mr. Zarrab is now petitioning for—continued into the eighteenth century.   For the most part eighteenth-century prisons were organized on the principle of Pay to Stay.  The pauper in rags, chained to an iron ring in some vast stone cellar, is much beloved by Hollywood; but from the economic point such a scenario wasn’t a paying proposition.  Prison employees were expected to  live off the tips of their affluent charges.  The Cardinal de Rohan, held in the Bastille under the most ignominious of circumstances, was nonetheless able to throw a sumptuous dinner party for seventy-five friends in his prison pad.  The idea of Debtors’ Prison, which seems so strange to the modern sensibility, was actually a kind of logical extension of medieval ransom in the age of Adam Smith. 

In England there was a delightful institution called the sponging-house.  The sponging-house, which took its colorful name from the manner in which water can be squeezed out of a sponge, was a kind of private debtors’ prison.  Few wastrels were really so broke that they couldn’t come up with some cash under extreme duress.  A private creditor at the end of his patience, with the help of the bailiffs, could have you carted off to the sponging-house for squeezing.   Sin gives birth to death.  You had to pay for your own keep, at fancy hotel prices, while being squeezed.  The sponging-house continued to operate well into the nineteenth century.  In London several such enterprises were operated by Jews, a fact that contributed to the anti-Semitic money-grubbing literary stereotype in Dickens and others.  There are several memorable descriptions of the sponging-house in our literature.  My own favorite is Mr. Moss’s establishment in Cursitor Street, off Chancery Lane, in Vanity Fair.  To it Rawdon Crawley is from time to time dragged.  From it he escapes to his domestic hearth only to discover his wicked wife Becky in a highly compromising situation with the wicked Lord Steyne.  I don't know what has become of Mr. Zarrab's petition, but in general plus ça change...

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Adolf Trump?

There was what I thought a very good article in yesterday’s Times, “The West’s Weimar Moment” by Jochen Bittner, one of the editors of the German weekly Der Zeit.  I agreed with many of his main points, though that is of little importance.  What I found most impressive in the piece was its sensible use of analogy, a self-imposed discipline conspicuously lacking in so much of the political commentary currently written by American political pundits.  Bittner wants to point out some general parallels in the current political psyche of America and Western Europe with the general mood of the 1930s.  The very general analogies he draws are enlightening and mainly convincing, and all the more so because he takes pains to show that he knows what an analogy is: a comparison between things that are in some ways alike and in some ways not alike.  “…[I]t goes without saying,” he writes in his first paragraph, “that Donald J. Trump and Austria’s Norbert Hofer are not Adolf Hitler."

That may go without saying to someone who knows something about Hitler and is well versed in the political history of the 1930s, but it apparently is big news to a wide spectrum of the American punditocracy.  I will not compile an anthology from the liberal eminences who have opined that Trump is a virtual Hitler, as the undertaking would far exceed my word limit.  But I note that deployment of the “Hitler analogy” is usually a kind of intellectual ejaculatio praecox.  That is why half a century ago, when I was a student at Oxford, there was already a rule among debaters that the team that first invoked the Hitler analogy automatically lost.

There is an irony in the fact that Mr. Trump, who is often accused of stoking a fear of  “the Other” among unsophisticates, is himself “otherized” by so many intellectuals.  Within the broad spectrum of American political aspirants and office holders, past and present, Mr. Trump is chiefly remarkable for his extraordinary celebrity, most of which is the product of the increasingly frantic insistence of his adversaries that he is unworthy of the office to which he aspires.  That he is in several ways an “outlier” I will readily grant.  For example, his genius for publicity, and for manipulating a generally hostile press to advertise him and amplify his “message”, is indeed awesome.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me”—said it, that is, in the same way that Shakespeare said “To be or not to be—that is the question”.  I mean he wrote it in a work of fiction.  Unfortunately, Ernest Hemingway did not actually offer the riposte, “Yes.  They have more money”.  I wish he had, for he then would have defined the principal “otherness” of Mr. Trump.  Other otherness is hard to find.  From the political point of view what I see in Trump is not an alarming otherness but a depressing familiarity: an air of entitlement sometimes disguised as unconventionality, a grossly exaggerated rhetoric wed to a childish command of the English language, an ego-driven affect.  It is apparently hard for our press to see through all this to the fact that Trump is, in the context of the starting cohort of Republican presidential candidates, a rather pragmatic fellow, a moderate figure who advocates a progressive income tax, opposes no-holds-barred free trade, and, while advocating a large role for the government at odds with conservative fiscal asceticism does suggest a comparatively modest role for American military power.

None of my friends or neighbors knows anybody who supports Donald Trump.  Certainly none of their relatives are enthusiastic Trump advocates.  That’s because I live in Princeton, New Jersey.  But limited cultural horizons are not identical with sophistication, let alone virtue.  I at least have a dim racial memory of my youth in places west of the Delaware River where people ride around on motorcycles and in pickup trucks, hunt and kill rabbits, ducks, and deer with twenty-twos and shotguns and then actually eat the gristly meat with enthusiasm.  Other amusements may include cattle auctions, stock car races, or tractor-pulls.  They shop at Walmarts, and they lamented the demise of Western Auto.  They frequent chain restaurants on the Interstate.  They drink California red wine that comes in gallon jugs.  Most of them have never been in a taxi cab in their lives, but not a few have attended Bible study on Wednesday nights.   They hang out at the VFW.  They make a living by doing hard things like driving trucks and working on oil rigs.  Ours is a vast, continental nation; and it is just possible that our categories of appreciated “diversity” may be in need of expansion.

            I once read a very frank letter of evaluation from a British academic whom we had asked to make a confidential comparison of two possible candidates for appointment.  He wrote thus in summary: “Of Candidate A it can at least be said that—as compared with B--he is a dry blanket.”  We had to interpret that as but qualified enthusiasm.  When the best thing you can say about a presidential candidate is that he is not Adolf Hitler you have perhaps not said very much.  But that you feel compelled to say it at all suggests, perhaps, that Mr. Trump has not been alone in his irresponsible rhetoric.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Absolutely Constitutional

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
The Constitution of the United States of America, amendment 2

I believe that it was the young Lord Acton who remarked that “ablatives confuse me, and ablatives absolute confuse me absolutely”.  It must have been around 1844.  He would have been about ten years old, and having a hell of a time with his Latin course at Oscott College.  He had a point.  I thought of this while watching a video of Mr. Trump’s loyal speech to convened members of the National Rifle Association, whose endorsement he had just received.  He promised his audience that he would not let them down in supporting their gun rights, but that the same could not be said about his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.  “Hillary wants to disarm vulnerable Americans in high-crime neighborhoods….Whether it’s a young single mom in Florida or a grandmother in Ohio, Hillary wants them to be defenseless, wants to take away any chance they have of survival. . . . And that’s why we’re going to call her ‘Heartless Hillary.’ ”

A person who would willfully take away any chance for the survival of Ohio grandmothers would be heartless indeed.  I suppose that single moms in Florida fall more into the category of the judgment call.  Ms. Clinton did not take this lying down, however.  “You're wrong,” she tweeted in Trump’s direction. “We can uphold Second Amendment rights while preventing senseless gun violence.”

The dramatic “evolution” of positions taken by American politicians is a feature of our political life.  I seem to remember that Mr. Trump, not all that long ago, was favoring a prudential approach to the gun issue.  And as an Arkansan I can guarantee you that Hillary Clinton was not espousing any form of gun control when she was the first lady of my state.  Au contraire, as the great W. C. Fields always used to say.  But the wind bloweth where it listeth, and political candidates get blown about rather more than others.

I myself am less interested in the rights of the second amendment than in its wrongs, beginning with its syntactical solecism but including also the chaos of its punctuation.  Getting to the bottom of this necessitates a brief chapter in the history of education.  European pedagogues of the Enlightenment period stressed the classics.  To be considered moderately educated one had to be able to read Latin easily.  To be well educated meant you could write it flawlessly as well.  Young men spent a great deal of time studying Latin.  Many pedants, unfortunately, considered Latin vastly superior to the vulgar tongues and tried to impose its rules on the local native language.  In England that was English.

There is in Latin a common construction called the ablative absolute.  Eighteenth-century writers of formal prose seem to have thought it ought to be common in English as well—despite the fact that modern English shed its system of noun declensions centuries earlier, and thus didn’t have ablatives.   According to the latest edition of Gildersleeve’s Latin Grammar, “The so-called Ablative Absolute is an Ablative combined with a participle, and serves to modify the verbal predicate of a sentence.”  That’s perfectly clear, I’m sure.  But of course the reason the nominal form is absolute (i.e., “standing apart from a normal or usual syntactical relation with other words or sentence elements”) is that it stands apart from a normal or usual syntactical relation with other words or sentence elements.  Therefore though we can through a strenuous act of imagination conclude that the noun of a well regulated Militia is or in a parallel linguistic universe might be in the ablative case and that it combines with the participle being, there is absolutely no living Nobelist in literature, Harvard law professor, or other clairvoyant who can tell you for sure what it has to do with the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.

Then there is the problem of the rampaging constitutional comma.  There is a current English ablative absolute respectable enough to have been adopted as the name of a program on NPR: the phrase all things considered.  Under no circumstance would you say “all things comma considered” any more than you would say “all things comma bright and beautiful”.  But note that the infallible Founders have “A well regulated Militia comma being…” Did they lose confidence in the absolutism of their ablative or did they, as I suspect, throw in a comma every now and then just for the hell of it?  What other explanation can you offer for the third and final, comma, in, the, second, amendment?  The subject of the principal clause of the second amendment is the right to bear arms.  Its predicate is “shall not be infringed”.  Why, o tell me why, is there a comma between them?

In an earlier blog post I already expressed the opinion that the second amendment should be repealed (as was the eighteenth, concerning the prohibition of alcoholic drink) employing the constitutional process most of the Founders thought would be frequently used, but which has been seldom invoked since the Constitution mysteriously changed its status from that of an excellent utilitarian handbook for that of a sacred text in a revealed religion.  I realize that my suggestion is a non-starter.  My fallback position is this: would somebody, please, parse the second amendment.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Typical Ambiguities

This has been a busy week that proved yet again, as though it might still need proving, the relentlessness of life, which shows scant respect for the concept of retirement.  This is the last week of the eighth decade of my life.  It already has included an oh-so-close bicycle accident that had my spouse for many hours in the Emergency Room and left her for the time being looking like a war casualty, and her family members shaken.  Less dramatic has been my attempt to get my vegetable garden properly laid out as I dodged between thunderstorms.   Also, I am in the terminal push of final revisions on a scholarly book that must be returned to the press within a few weeks.

            Under these circumstances, naturally, I need to tell you about the latest addition to my library—a library to which further additions are theoretically forbidden.  But I happened upon a practically new copy of the Library of America edition of Shirley Jackson’s Novels & Stories and got it, against any rational expectation, with a single-digit bid.

 Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

            The short story is, in my opinion, the queen of prose genres, and certainly one of the great genres of American literature in particular.  I grew up reading O. Henry, whose collected volumes lay strewn about my grandfather’s house in Arkansas.  In my early reading years, when ours was a nation of magazine-readers, most popular American magazines published short stories.  That is part of the world we have lost.  Short stories are a wonderful introduction to the world of fiction.  I would never have developed my love for Henry James if I had been obliged to read The Golden Bowl cold-turkey, without being coaxed to the big novels by degrees, through short stories and then The Turn of the Screw.  I certainly read a few of Jackson’s stories at their original publication

            Jackson wrote one of the most famous short stories in the English language: “The Lottery” (1948).  You probably have read it, but if you haven’t I am not going to be the one who tells you about it.  To this day it appears to hold its instantly established record as the most controversial story ever published in The New Yorker.  In the volume just acquired the editor concludes with an appendix (“Biography of a Story”) in which Jackson gives her bemused account of the story’s reception.  Not untypical of the letters received at the offices of The New Yorker was one that begins thus: “Never has it been my lot to read so cunningly vicious a story as that published in your last issue for June.  I tremble to think of the fate of American letters if that piece indicated the taste of the editors of a magazine I had considered distinguished.”

            But the story that captured my attention this week was one I had not before read: “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” which originally appeared in Story magazine in 1943.  This is a very “in-group” title, the group in this instance being literature professors of my generation.  For Seven Types of Ambiguity is a once-famous book of literary criticism published in 1930 by the English “New Critic” William Empson, then a wunderkind of twenty-four.  Jackson was twenty years my senior, but she was also an English professor and married to another.  She must have been teaching at Bennington while I was studying at Sewanee in a quite similar English department where names like Empson, Ransom, Warren and Wellek were confused with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  How very different are things today.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

 William Empson (1906-1984)

            The Empson book is brilliant, ingenious, and deeply annoying in equal measures.  His categories do not always on mature thought prove to be inexorable.  One could expand his “method,” if you want to call it that, to seventeen or seventy types of verbal ambiguity, or perhaps reduce the seven back to one.   But none of this matters in Jackson’s story, where the book’s role is thematic in a way sufficiently signaled by its title alone.   The setting of the story is a large old New England second-hand bookshop.  Two principal characters are an intellectual and impecunious young man in whom I can easily recognize my younger self, and a middle-aged man in whom I fear to recognize my older self.  The young man would love to buy a used copy of Seven Types of Ambiguity but makes do with reading it by fits and starts during frequent visits to the bookshop.  The older fellow wants to buy up several yards of nice sets of classic writers at one fell swoop.  This story, too, has a “surprise ending” illustrating perhaps the “banality of ambiguity” but perfectly in tune with the mood of my own week.  I still hear people asking—usually somewhat obliquely—some form of the question “What exactly is it that literature is good for?”  If one has to ask the question, one is probably unable to receive the answer, which is—also somewhat more obliquely posed—“to help make sense of life”.  For life, as you may have noticed, has its ups and downs and puzzling uncertainties.