Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Red Orchestra, Repainted

There recently arrived in the mail a heavy book package.  The arrival of a book is no rare event in this household, but I was nonetheless puzzled, as I usually remember what I have on order.

I opened it to discover a thick paperback (nearly six hundred pages) entitled La véritable histoire de l’Orchestre RougeThe Real History of the “Red Orchestra”—by Guillaume Bourgeois.  It was a complimentary copy with a nice author’s inscription.  The cover art is catchy: superimposed dark silhouettes of trenchcoated “spooks” upon a swastikaed red background.  As many readers will know, the “Red Orchestra” was the name given by the Nazi counter-espionage agencies to the Russian spy rings working in western Europe just before and during World War II.  In the slang of the German agencies, spies were “violinists”.  Hence the Sonderkommando (special unit) established by the Nazi authorities to root them out called the large ensemble of Communist spies an orchestra, the Rote Kapelle.  In terms of the popular espionology of action movies and spy thrillers, no group is more famous than the Red Orchestra and no single spy more heroic than its Conductor, the legendary Leopold Trepper. 

As for the book’s author, Guillaume Bourgeois, a professor of modern European history at the University of Poitiers, he is not a complete stranger to this blog.  He was my host on a memorable picnic at Vaux-le-Vicomte, which I wrote about at the time last year.

We first met soon after I had published The Anti-Communist Manifestos in 2009.  One of the four anti-Communist bestsellers I had written about was Out of the Night (1941), by a one-time German Comintern agent named Richard Krebs.  This man became famous overnight under his pen-name “Jan Valtin” with the publication of his blockbuster.  For although I had never heard of the book when I stumbled upon it in a junk pile in Cranbury NJ, it was the bestseller of its year, and it played no insignificant role in the literary history of the Cold War and especially in the creation of American anti-Communism.

Bourgeois, an expert on Communist activities in the pre-War European maritime unions, knew a great deal about Krebs/Valtin.  Slightly embarrassingly, indeed, he knew more than I did, despite the fact that I had published a couple of essays on him based on archival materials in the Princeton library. 
 Leopold Trepper, Super-spy

The received wisdom concerning the Red Orchestra is that it was one of the most successful espionage groups of all time.  Its leader was Leopold Trepper (1904-1982), a Polish Jew whose development, like that of Arthur Koestler, took the not uncommon path through youthful Zionism to Communism.  He was recruited by the GRU and eventually was directing several loosely connected espionage groups in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe, especially Belgium and Switzerland.  Readers of John le Carré and Alan Furst will know something of the weirdness of living in a hall of mirrors presided over by faceless manipulators of disinformation and handlers of double agents.   Such authors might prepare them for Trepper’s autobiography, The Great Game (Le grand jeu, 1975).  According to Trepper, the “great game” was the complicated ruse by which he was able repeatedly to hoodwink the Abwehr (German Counter-espionage) and to deploy a major engine of Resistance under the very noses of the German occupiers.    Using mainly amateur but politically committed agents, the Red Orchestra was able to deliver a veritable mother load of crucial information to Moscow.  Part of the Trepper legend is that he actually forewarned Stalin of Operation Barbarossa (Hitler’s stab-in-the-back invasion of his treaty ally, the Soviet Union, in June of 1941).  Unfortunately, Stalin refused to believe him.  Likewise the Red Orchestra was credited with stealing and transmitting information crucial to the Soviet victory at the Battle of Stalingrad (autumn and winter of 1942/43), the turning point of the European war.

That is essentially the history of the Red Orchestra in most books on the subject, and what’s not to like?  Surely we all love to imagine detestable Nazis in their spit-and-polish uniforms being outfoxed by grizzled peasants in berets, frumpy housewives, and old nondescript guys in really bad suits—you have seen it a dozen times in the movies.  This heroic history was pleasing to the war’s victors, and especially to the French Communist Party, which advertised itself as the heart of the Résistance and the “party of the 75,000 fusillés”*--the number of their comrades who had faced German firing-squads.  Later, in the Cold War, ex-Nazis and other Germans had their own reasons to encourage the West to fear the nearly supernatural powers of Soviet intelligence.  But is this the true history of the Red Orchestra?

One of the big problems in studying spies is that spies are, quite literally, professional liars.  Unfortunately they don’t always start telling the truth when they turn to autobiography.  That is the problem I had (have) with “Jan Valtin”.  Not all that many super-spies live to tell about it.  Those who do can reasonably expect that there are few other survivors in a position to contradict their fibs.  Unfortunately for them there are archives.  Guillaume Bourgeois has been chasing the history of Communist espionage through the archives of Europe for the last twenty years. 

To call his findings “revisionary history” is putting it mildly.  This terrific book will surely soon be translated into English for the convenience for the large number of espionage buffs in the Anglophone world.  For the moment I shall say no more than that it is comforting to learn that on occasion truth is not stranger than fiction, just more interesting.

Guillaume Bourgeois in mid-allnighter

*The Nazis were champion murderers, but this is an instance of political poetic license.  There were perhaps four thousand civilians executed during the German occupation of France.  The number of Communists among them is significant but uncertain.  Many of the fusillés were randomly selected “reprisal” hostages.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Reprobate Reprobatus

            I was away from the gym for a mere two weeks, but that was long enough for major developments to develop, majorly.  It turns out that the guy whose job it is to open the front doors of Dillon Gym to allow ingress to the milling crowd of impatient jocks precisely at six thirty had been three or four minutes late for the last few days.  Indeed, it was grumbled about, three or four minutes of lateness seemed to be the “new normal”.  The old normal, which we had enjoyed through the last weeks of the summer, was four or five minutes of earliness, so I thought this might simply even things out.  Others were less forgiving.  One early bird reported that he had drawn this fellow’s dereliction to his attention and asked, “What happened?”  His only response, a cryptic one, had been “§ife happened.”  There was a disagreement among the auditors as to whether the first letter was an L or a W.

            So when he arrived on Monday about forty-eight seconds late, I piled on.  “Good morning, reprobate” was my cheerful and of course facetious greeting.  There was no response, as in blank stare.  Perhaps he didn’t hear me, but my friend and fellow heel-cooler Gary did.  What did you call him?” he asked.  This man has a Ph.D. in molecular biology, but he was unfamiliar with the word reprobate.  He opined that it is probably easier to get by insulting people if the insults are incomprehensible to the insulted.  Maybe so.  I was reminded of a great Q and A joke:
            Question: what is the difference between a mafia don and a deconstructionist?
            Answer:  The deconstructionist makes you an offer you can’t understand.

            This anecdote may be meaningless to you, but it gives me an opportunity to get back to my Wednesday schedule.  For not only do I know the meaning of the word reprobate, but I know more than I should about Saint Christopher (Reprobatus).  I had to learn about him in detail some years ago when I was working on Columbus.  Christopher/Reprobatus was rudely given the hook by the Second Vatican Council back in the early Sixties, leading to a continuing glut of cheap Christopher-medals on eBay, but I want to bring him back.

            Here is the beautiful legend.  A long time ago (doubtless also far away) there was a giant wandering about by the name of Reprobatus.  He would have been your run-of-the-mill giant, except for one somewhat unusual circumstance.  Atop his gigantic human body he had a dog’s head.  Reprobatus was in fact a cynocephalus (i.e., dog-head).  Thereby hangs a tale (as well as a tail), though one irrelevant to this post.  I will allow myself the very modest digression of saying that when Columbus reported finding cannibals in the New World, he was actually talking not about anthropophagy but about cynocephalism. 

St. Christopher sniffs the incense

            Reprobatus wanted to serve the most powerful king on earth, and set out to find him.  He did uncover a number of extremely powerful dudes, but each of them, he eventually discovered, actually lived in fear of a ruler more potent yet: Satan, the devil.  There is always a “Help Wanted” sign up in Satan’s window, so that Reprobatus had no difficulty in finding employment as his retainer.  He seems to have spent some time in his domestic service before discovering, apparently by accident, that Satan, too, trembled before a mightier power.  He shook with fear at the sign of the cross.  So Reprobatus set off in search of the Christ.

            The Christ proved a little more difficult to find than Satan, but the mere intention to seek him out had a marvelous effect on the giant’s physiognomy.  His dog’s head was immediately transposed into a handsome human head, though of course one of gigantic size proportionate with his giant’s body. 

            For Reprobatus decaninization was the necessary prelude to canonization.  He was continuing his search for Christ when he came upon a small boy at the edge of a body of water he apparently wished to cross.  The giant picked him up, put him on his shoulder, and set off into the stream.  Only then did he realize that of all the gigantic tasks he had undertaken in his life, this was the most arduous.  He moved doggedly on, but he felt as though the whole weight of the world was upon his shoulders.  That is because it was.  The young child he had picked up, all unknowing, was the Christ Child, who bore upon his own shoulders, as he would upon the cross, the enormous weight of the sins of mankind.

            Reprobatus had earlier changed heads.  Now he changed names.  The suffix fer (from Latin fero, “to carry”) means “bearer” or “carrier”.  Henceforth Reprobatus would be Christopher, the Christ-bearer, the one who carried Christ.  Christopher Columbus invented a fancy signature in which he calls himself “Xpo-FERENS”, using the present participle.


Saturday, September 26, 2015

Reading Flora Thompson

Flora Thompson (1876-1947)

           East, west, home’s best.  I didn’t think much of this rhyming aphorism when subjected to it as a child, but like so much other elder-wisdom I once contemned, it has grown on me.  We were lucky enough to get a couple of the slightly roomier “Economy Plus” seats that spare my kneecaps two and a half centimeters of scrunch without bankruptcy, and we were walking out of Newark Airport no more than twenty minutes after touchdown.  That was a record.

            In England we had had good and for two or three days even beautiful weather.  We started out with an old friend, recently widowed, in a lovely part of Hampshire near Petersfield, a handsome and prosperous old country town that I was visiting for the first time.  Then came the two-day “Meeting Minds” conference in Oxford, with a visit with more old friends, and that was followed by three days with my in-laws, John and Margaret Newman, in Wye near Canterbury. A delightful overnight with yet more friends in Barnes left us poised for a quick run to Heathrow.

            The “Meeting Minds” program, though perhaps not quite so opulent as last year’s, gave us several stimulating lectures.  I probably ought to tell you about one or two of them, but for me the most exciting intellectual event of the trip was the investigation of a book on my brother-in-law’s shelves: Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford.  I should be embarrassed to be discovering it so late, given its fame.  It was first published about seventy-five years ago, and since then it was taken up by book clubs, honored with a Folio Society Edition, and canonized as a “classic” both by the Oxford University Press and Penguin Books.  Yet I had never read it, so perhaps it will be new to some of you as well.

            Lark Rise is a wonderful work of social history written in the genre of  intermittently fictionalized autobiography. The somewhat strange title is an amalgam of the place names that feature in the three sequential memoirs in which Flora Thompson remembers her childhood progress from an agricultural hamlet, to a village, to nearby country towns.  Flora Jane Thompson, née Timms, was born in 1876 in a remote agricultural hamlet called Juniper Hill in a corner of Oxfordshire.  It was a pretty miserable place consisting of a few laborers' cottages.  It was the kind of place that had neither church nor school, only a public house in which her father spent too much of his time and certainly too much of the family’s meager resources.  This man was a skilled stone mason, a potential sculptor really, defeated and embittered by penury and want of opportunity.  He could have been a model for Jude the Obscure.

            “Lark Rise”—the title of the first memoir--is the name used instead of Juniper Hill in the account of her early years.  It was actually the name of a single wheat field near the family cottage.  Many of the farm fields in Britain had been laid out and hedged by the time of Magna Carta.   The author describes a moment in the late nineteenth century British countryside now vanished forever.  Despite the tremendous upheavals of the Industrial Revolution the techniques of wheat farming Flora remembers from her girlhood were still essentially those of Piers Plowman.

            I may not have read Lark Rise earlier because a friend once told me that it was similar to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.   I had enjoyed that book, but the author herself really bombed in an appearance at Princeton with which I was involved, and that may have put me off.  In fact, it’s not even close.  Lark Rise is by far the richer work.  Flora Thompson has as keen a sensibility for the natural world as any of the great naturalists, but she also knows that human beings live in history no less surely than they live in nature.  The unstinting humanity of her book is for me its most remarkable feature.

            Some of the best autobiographies are those that conceal the autobiographer for the sake of objectives deemed more valuable, such as other people.  As an autobiographer, Thompson held her cards very close to her chest.  It is not easy to get at her.  Fortunately I was able to find a fine essay in which a scholar had done the work for me.*  After brief schooling—though fortunately not too brief to lay the groundwork for her own literary development—Flora had to set off into the world, for her a world strictly enclosed in its class limitations.  Her work life mainly involved postal work, and trailing about behind her postmaster husband.  We learn very little of this man, a most conventional sort and decent enough probably, except for his total inability to enter his wife’s spiritual world or to understand her literary goals.  Like many other fine prose writers, Flora spent too long trying to be a poet.  Such results as I have reviewed are pretty lackluster.  The history of her times inflicted upon her its distinctive punishments.  Her beloved younger brother, the bosom companion of her childhood, died in Belgium in the Great War.  Her beloved son, serving in the Merchant Marine, perished at sea in 1941.  She herself died in 1947, as the Labour government was doing its best to bury the last remnants of the old Britain she had so brilliantly remembered in her books.

Margaret Lane, “Flora Thompson,” in her edition of A Country Calendar and Other Writings (Oxford, 1969).

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Carl Emil Schorske (1915-2015)

Carl Schorske—famous historian, the Dayton-Stockton Professor emeritus, amateur musician, friend, and matchless Mensch—died over the weekend at the Meadow Lakes retirement community in Hightstown midway through his one-hundred-and-first year.  Joan was expecting this.  She had last visited him on the previous Friday, by which time he was already in “hospice” mode, only dubiously aware of her presence.  She told me he must soon slip away altogether.  But the rational acceptance of the inevitable lacks the sharpness of its final actuality, and she is left grieving.

Most of us, even when we do not think of ourselves as living in “spheres”, operate within more or less public and private arenas.  As Carl’s colleague on the Princeton faculty I was very much aware of the man’s professional fame.  It was in 1980 that he published his masterwork: Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture.  It had been long anticipated, and it became instantly famous, winning (among numerous other trophies) the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1981.  Its subject, of course, is the extraordinary richness and fecundity of the artistic and intellectual milieu of the Austrian capital in the age of Sigmund Freud and Gustav Klimt.  It is beautifully written, with a subtlety that honors complexity and a clarity that guides the general reader through it.

Many honors followed.  Carl was recognized repeatedly by the Austrian government for his outstanding contributions to the study of their national culture.  He was in the first “class” of the then-new MacArthur Fellowships, which the press had dubbed the “Genius Awards”.  These are lucrative as well as prestigious.   For a party marking the honor a witty childhood friend of Carl’s from Scarsdale wrote a poem with the refrain “’Til the fin-de-siècle he’ll be counting his dough”.

Schorske had enjoyed what I sometimes described as an ideal career for an American academic.  One of the great things about higher education in this country is its variety.  Karl experienced the best of it.  He began his teaching career at Wesleyan, one of our finest liberal arts colleges.  He then went for a decade to Berkeley, the flagship campus of one of the greatest of our great state universities.  Finally of course he came here to Princeton, among the most distinguished of our private research universities.  In a sense he had it all.

fêted in Vienna 

But I must leave the public side of Carl Schorske to the major obituaries that are certain to appear soon.  Our feeling of loss, especially Joan’s, is intimate and domestic.  Since about 1970 she regularly made music with Carl and other friends in a string quartet.  The photograph below will not be found on any CD covers, but it is a monument to decades of joyous companionship.  It is of uncertain date, but it must be from the mid-Seventies.  It shows from left to right Joan and Carl, the two violinists, Jerrold Seigel, an eminent historian then at Princeton and latterly at NYU, and Kathleen Amon, who worked in administrative offices at the University.  Carl was a regular well into his eighties, and the group continues to play today with two of its original members—Joan and Kathleen.

The love of music, though doubtless magnified by his talent as singer and player, was part of a broad, delightfully old-fashioned, and courteously deployed culture that included literature, the visual and plastic arts, travel, current events, the New York scene—you name it.  He was interested in everything including—maybe even especially—in whatever it was his friends were doing or had to say.  If you hang around academics you are bound to meet lots of brilliant people whose talk consists of engaging mini-lectures or mini-seminars.  Encountering them is often exhilarating, but Carl had the rarer gift of being a truly brilliant conversationalist: a man brilliant alike in his talking and in his listening.

I last saw Carl in March, at a gala party celebrating his hundred birthday.  It was held in one of the public spaces of his retirement community.  I have to confess that in general visiting nursing homes creeps me out, probably in the fashion that visiting prisons might creep out a bank robber.  Yet this was a wonderful event, meticulously organized by Carl’s dear friend the musicologist Christopher Hailey, an expert in Viennese modernism.  The place was packed with old friends, old colleagues, old students, not a few of them minor eminences themselves.  There was an excellent presentation featuring professional musicians from New York and beyond.  The Austrian Minister of Culture had come from Vienna to present Carl with yet another gaudy kreuz of Ruritanian appearance.  But the high point of the day for me came in the informal refreshment hour following the program.  I am unsure of how it happened exactly, but to the delight of the revelers Joan and Carl spontaneously joined in duet singing a song from Gilbert and Sullivan.  It was Jane’s song from “Patience”: Silvered is the raven hair.  “Silvered is the raven hair….Halting is the youthful gait….Spectacled the limpid eye….”  I was able not merely to hear but to see it all perfectly, having recently undergone successful cataract surgery.

Like many of the important cultural figures he wrote about Carl could be rightly described, I suppose, as a secular intellectual.  But he fully honored the role of the religious tradition in creating our western civilization.   What lover of classical music does not?  Liz, his wonderful wife of more than sixty years, who herself died only last year at a great age, was a life-long serious Roman Catholic.  It is condign that this great man, so rich in years and accomplishments alike, should leave us at the portal of the High Holy Days.


We are preparing to depart in a few hours for ten days in England, and while I try to keep a regular schedule with my blog posts, I do not go to fanatical ends to do so.  As Jesus reminds us the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.  I will travel more blithely without schlepping a computer about with me.  And even as this post is a few hours early, the next will probably be a few days late.  Deo volente, I shall be in touch soon enough.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On the Lake

 Lake Carnegie

Married people generally come to know each other very well, and when you have been married to someone for fifty-three years, you may be surprised to learn there are still surprises.  This Monday past, Labor Day, was spectacularly beautiful—the third and best-yet day of the long holiday weekend.  For most of us, I think, Labor Day has few industrial associations.  It is, instead, a punctuation point, an end of something and a beginning of another.  To judge from the commercial advertisements in the papers the national theme is “Back to School!” But we have graduated.  I no longer go back to the lecture hall in September, nor have we had school children living with us for the last couple of decades.

Thus I was rather surprised when my wife said to me over coffee: “We need to mark Labor Day.”  Surprise turned to amazement when she specified the proposed mode of its marking.  “How would you like to get the canoe and go out on the lake?”  Within twenty minutes we were dragging the canoe from its happy home in a bamboo patch at the bottom of the yard and lifting it into the bed of the pickup.  The canoe is sixteen feet long, the truck bed with its tailgate extension, ten.  So with some rudimentary tie-downs and with gravity working slightly in our favor, we gingerly drove the scant half-mile to the launching dock without encountering another vehicle on the road.

It was by now perhaps nine o’clock.  The lake was calm and beautiful, and there was still a hint of cool in the barely perceptible morning breeze.  If I had started out thinking “Why am I doing this?” the thought soon turned to “Why don’t I do this every day?”  While we were unloading a second pickup arrived—a grizzle-bearded guy with a kayak, looking as much like a mountain man as it is possible to do in suburban New Jersey.  There were a few people on the lake, two or three pairs of fishermen who had sacrificed any claim to moral seriousness with their huge Evanrude outboards.  But mainly, to the east, in the direction of the now well risen sun, the narrow lake lay flat and empty as far as the eye could see.  So we set off east toward the Harrison Street bridge and the long stretch of elegant lakeside homes beyond it.

I will say little about our joint skills of navigation and oarsmanship, except that their inadequacies provided ample material for marital recrimination.  Ornithology is probably a safer topic.   There are splendid waterfowl on Lake Carnegie, and their numbers seem to be increasing.  There is an islet with a large dead tree that sometimes has several white egrets like Christmas decorations.  There were ducks of several genres, known to us and unknown.   There was a floating flock of cormorants, spaced out in a curving line with the precision of Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile.  There were many herons—flying low across the water or perched amid the snags of dead trees fallen at the water’s edge.  Poets seek in vain for the right adjective for the heron—“wise,” “stately,” “hieratic”—none of them just right, but I can do no better.

We paddled about a mile in the direction of Kingston, admiring some of the Lakeside Drive properties to port side.  I had noticed from driving along the road that one of the most lavish of these is for sale, and was amused now to see a “For Sale” notice facing the lake at the water’s edge.  On reflection I suppose that anyone capable of buying it is as likely to approach by yacht as by car.  At length, probably a mile from our starting place, we arrived off the rickety dock of our friends Giles and Diana.  Indeed Giles was in sight, laboring in his back garden on Labor Day.  This had not been planned, but seize the day!  We shouted to him.  He blinked in amazement.  We tethered our canoe and crawled out on hands and knees onto the splintery planks.  It was a piratical caper, a home invasion by canoe.

We invited ourselves to coffee, which we took in the front garden, where Diana had been doing her laboring.  Amidst the jollity, spontaneity conquered all.  We agreed on the spot that we must get together again soon, indeed about five o’clock that same afternoon at our house, for a communal meal.  The early hour was chosen to accommodate Diana’s tennis mania.  Her belief was that Roger Federer and John Isner were to begin a crucial duel in the US Open at seven. 

            The meal was delicious, with an adventurous if grab-bag menu.  We began with a small primo of pesto Genovese.  Diana had some hamburgers, and we grilled them—to satisfy my spiritual need for a “Labor Day Cookout”.  Then there was a huge ratatouille.  (Have I mentioned that we have a large harvest of tomatoes and zucchini?)  Eschewing the air-conditioned house, we sat outside in the quite warm air of late afternoon, ate delicious food, and talked the talk of friends.  Conversation ranged widely, though one recurrent theme was the English West country, which our friends had recently visited.  It was the perfect Labor Day, and all the result of Joan’s  surprising initiative.  As Enobarbus once remarked of Cleopatra, Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.  A canoe, after all, has its similarities to a royal Egyptian barge.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Johan Huizinga (1872-1945)

The seasons rarely follow the commands of the calendar.  Over the past weekend, with a good three weeks of calendrical summer still ahead, fall arrived.  Suddenly the air was drier and the sky bluer.  Suddenly a half hour of dawn light had vanished.  Our granddaughters, their minds already now captured by the pleasures and the problems of their school year in New York, packed up and departed in a big rented vehicle with their parents, leaving us in a house that suddenly seemed large, quiet, and empty.  With the quiet came also a vague disquiet.  As usual I face writing deadlines, and I need to get ready for what I can now legitimately call our annual September trip to England.  Without the delightful juvenile distractions that have served me so well all summer long I actually have to turn my mind to practicalities and obligations.

            The distinctiveness and change of the seasons are among our great poetic themes.  Though nursery rhymes were a memorable part of my infancy, the first piece I remember consciously thinking of as a poem, which I found in R. L. Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, was “Bed in Summer". Its subject is a young boy’s regret that in summer he must go to bed while the day is still light and the sounds of the world’s busy life can still be heard through his window.

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day…

I “got” it, or thought I did.  Even as a child I found it wonderful that someone else could express my own complex feelings in carefully chosen words and elegant rhythm.  But there was more to grasp as I discovered only much later, when I arrived in Oxford in the autumn of 1958 at the age of twenty-two.  Oxford is about fifty-two degrees north, roughly level with the southern tip of Hudson’s Bay.  It started getting dark about four in the afternoon.  Edinburgh, where Stevenson was born, is about fifty-five degrees north.  The episode fixed in my mind an important principle of literary study, the need to attend to the interplay between the spiritual world of literature and the physical world in which it exists.  Later I ran across a passage in C. S. Lewis in which he says that Shakespeare’s great sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”  would be meaningless to an Eskimo—words to that effect.

In the part of the world in which I live Indian Summer, an indefinite “season” with Labor Day and Thanksgiving at its extremities,  is my favorite time of the year.  The jungle ceases to rage, and the yard work becomes easier.  The cut-back creeper rebounds only feebly.  There are beautiful walks to be taken along the canal towpath beneath “pleached alleys” of russet and yellow leaves.  Yet in a certain sense one knows that the beauty is born of exhaustion.

In 1919 the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga published a book, destined for scholarly fame, called Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen.  Being a Dutchman was a pretty lame excuse for publishing an important book in the Dutch language, and he was justly punished when the English translation appeared under the title The Waning of the Middle Ages.  The Waning of the Middle Ages was a “cross-over” book, a serious and erudite academic study that developed a large audience among general educated readers.  Many thousands have read it under that title, which nicely catches its author’s gloomy view of the late Middle Ages.   But herfsttij actually means “harvest time”, i.e., autumn (German Herbst).   The book, which is now nearly a century old, continues to be sold and read.  A more recent English translation has corrected the translation to The Autumn of the Middle Ages.

One arrives at an autumnal point in one’s life—probably around the age of fifty--when the question becomes slightly more urgent than an issue of linguistic precision.  Is life’s autumn a “harvest”—an ingathering of the fruits of careful and patient cultivation—or is it a waning, a diminishing, an inescapable emblem of finitude and mortality?  Even as I pose the question as either/or I know in my heart that it is another one of those damned both/ands.

The last time I wrote on this theme, already four years ago, I invoked Keats’s “Ode to Autumn”.  It is perhaps the one indispensable “autumn” poem in our tongue: Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.   We have been enjoying the mellow fruitfulness part as rarely before.  We are practically drowning in tomatoes, and we have to keep a hawk eye on the squash.  They can turn from succulence to gigantism in a period of forty-eight hours.  But Keats knew too about the year’s surrender to oblivion, drowsed with the fume of poppies.  Except the grain of wheat falling into the ground die,” writes Paul in another autumnal meditation, “it abides alone; but if it die, it bears much fruit.It would be self-indulgent of me to wax too plangent about these things.  After all, one does slog and blog on.  Keats was dead at twenty-five within a year and a half of writing his “Ode to Autumn”.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Mayor and the Mammary Menace

 Times Square patriot: discredit, Google Images

The Big Apple is in crisis, but fortunately Mayor Bill de Blasio is on the case.  He is responding, as a Times editorialist pointed out, with the vigor that an effective leader might bring to bear on an outbreak of Ebola. Good thing, too, for this enemy is more insidious yet.  Attractive and attractively painted young women are wandering topless and panchromatic, star-spangled indeed, through the pedestrian spaces of Times Square, offering themselves as local color or background for visitors’ selfies—or is it nudies?  For this service the desnudas or nudistas (so they denominated themselves) hope to receive some small spondulics from the grateful and titillated turistas.   The economic model is well established: tips for tits.  But the mayor is shocked.  The corrupting power of the bared female breast is well known to historians, and the situation brings to my mind, in a somewhat circuitous fashion, the third greatest line in world literature.

            I feel impelled to preface some of the remarks that will follow with the attestation that my family background at the grandparental level is mainly Irish.  Furthermore I was much influenced in my youth by reading the works of important American writers, such as James T. Farrell and Eugene O’Neill, who regarded their Irish-Americanness not as a funky or endearing ethnic distinction but more along the lines of a stigma or even a curse.  My grandfather Fleming, a native-born American the highpoint of whose life was service as a recruiting sergeant in the Spanish War of 1898, was full of lore about banshees and leprechauns that came to him from his parents, refugees from the potato famine. 

My grandfather had many strange and to me romantic locutions, several of them monetary in theme.  Something of no value was “not worth a pewter fourpence”.  The lowest form of the low-life, and this was a populous nation, was a man so depraved that “he would steal the coppers from a dead man’s eyes.” Apparently a penny or halfpenny was often used for cosmetic purposes as temporary weights to seal shut the eyelids of a corpse.  There was even the cliché of the crock of gold that in a dire emergency had been hurriedly buried among the potato fields, and then never found again.  “The Flemings,” he told me, “were kings in Ireland”.  Only much later did I learn the requirements for kingship in old Ireland.  The king was the guy who owned two pigs.

Off key and with a grating voice he would sometimes sing snatches of old ballads.  I now wish I had had the intelligence or curiosity to listen more closely, to ask questions, to write something down; but caught up in “the fierce urgency of now” in its mainly trivial manifestations I lost forever a fragile filament of linkage to that Old World that, eventually, I would spend most of my life studying.  The one song I can recall was a version of “Barbara Allen,” among the most popular of the English Border ballads, not Irish at all, except possibly in his odd pronunciation of the girl’s name “Barbrey”.
Lady Godiva in Coventry: patriot and pioneer desnuda

Only many years later, and then in an academic setting, would I pick up a smidgen of the traditional literature of medieval Ireland—not very much, but enough to appreciate the great Irish national epic.  Literary epics, of course, deal with great themes.  Think of the vast wanderings of Ulysses; think of the fall of Troy and the foundation of the Roman Empire.  Imagine with Tasso the siege of Jerusalem, or with Camões the first voyage of Vasco da Gama from Lisbon to India.  The Old Irish epic, as befits a nation whose royalty is measured in terms of its livestock holdings, is called the Táin Bó Cúailnge or, as I might translate it, The Cattle-Rustling Raid at Cooley.

Don’t ask me what is in the (mostly prose) Táin, because everything is in it.  Its hero is the giant warrior Cuchulainn (kuh-HOO-lin), and he is not to be messed with.  He is one of the notable berserkers of martial lore—warriors whose combative fury borders on or even attains madness.  The classical prototype is the Hercules figure of Hercules furens or Orlando furioso.  At a crucial stage of the non-stop action Cuchulainn goes berserk in a battle, rushing in circles around his massed enemies, smashing skulls and severing heads.  The enemy queen comes up with a desperate plan.  She prevails on some macromastic patriot girls to step out naked into Cuchulainn’s sightline, hoping that the full frontal nudity will distract the champion.  The cunning booby trap works, and Cuchulain slows down for a gawk.  After being plunged into successive cauldrons of cold water, he cools off.

The women advance at the order “Naked ladies to the front!”  At least that was how I first read it in a mid-Victorian translation.  Naked ladies to the front is the third greatest line in world literature, and one of the top ten military orders in world history along with Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes (1775), England expects that every man will do his duty (1805), and Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead (1864).