Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Dream Books




                                                                                      The Policy Player's Dream Book

            While on a recent Gothic streak I briefly revisited Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.  It was published when I was two, but has aged a great deal better than I.  What a story!  And what a great opening line: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Perhaps it is because my own dreams are so infrequent, so paltry, and so seldom remembered that I have made a subspecialty of literary dreams, in particular the medieval genre of the dream vision.  I was already thinking about dreams when the latest number of Cabinet: A Magazine of Arts and Culture arrived at our house.  Should this journal by some oversight not regularly grace your own coffee table, you should know that it is highly hip.  Though I try to stick to the pre-Copernican scene, it is hard to preserve one’s old-fogey credentials unsullied if young people play any significant role in your life, as is likely to happen with college professors and grandfathers.  The brilliant editor of Cabinet, Sina Najafi, was a college friend of my son Richard.  Later I met his likewise brilliant spouse, the artist Nina Katchadourian.  Cabinet has some other Princeton connections.  One of its principal editors is a brilliant historian of science here.  So, you grasp the recurrent leitmotiv: brilliance, if sometimes rather quirky brilliance.

                                                                                        Fat cows and thin cows?  Too simple!

            Each number of Cabinet includes several short essays devoted to a common theme.  For issue number sixty-seven it is “Dreams”.  Of several interesting articles, one devoted to the prominence of dream books and soothsaying in African-American popular culture captured my attention.*  The author has uncovered a small library of cheap dream manuals popular among a black readership in the nineteenth century.  I was struck by the essentially medieval character of the books described.  Dream “theory” underwent a huge paradigm shift with Freud and other modern psychoanalysts.  Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1899) tries to explain the dreaming process in terms of the oblique expressions of a unique and individual subconscious as experienced by a unique individual consciousness.  Dreams are deeply personal.  This is very different from pre-modern dreams, regarded as objective external communications not generated by the dreamer, though frequently requiring decryption.  They were messages from the gods or the God. In ancient Greek religions, people would sometimes sleep in temples, hoping thereby to “incubate” revelatory dreams. The Bible offers various examples of revelatory dreams, particularly with regard to the two Josephs: the vizier of Egypt (Genesis 41) and the husband of Jesus’s mother (Matthew 1 and 2).  As we shall see, Egypt was especially important for dream lore.

The Aesculapion of Pergamum in Anatolia, where ill patients tried to dream of cures


                     The great classical work on the subject is the huge Dream Book (Oneirokritikon) of Artemidorus of Ephesus, who lived in the second century.  Perhaps you can find a casual way to drop the word oneirocriticism, dream interpretation-- from Greek roots meaning “dream” and “judgment”-- into your next conversation with a work mate.  Artemidorus’s book is actually a kind of encyclopedic compilation, running to five volumes in its modern edition, of the earlier works, otherwise all lost,  by many experts in what was a popular genre.  Ancient dream books were generally practical reference works to be used for purposes of decoding.  What did it mean to dream of an eagle, gold ducats, or a meal of fermented barley?  The dream books could tell you—in a rather mechanical and brain-dead fashion.   A considerable increment of subtlety was added to the field of dreams a couple of centuries after Artemidorus by a Neoplatonist scholar named Macrobius, who wrote one of the more surprising perennial best sellers in European cultural history: A Commentary on the Dream of Scipio.  Macrobius’s great contribution was to draw distinctions and to provide categories.  To begin with, not all dreams were significant.  Many were nightmares sent not from the gods but (as Ebenezer Scrooge would have it) from “a bit of undigested  beef, a blob of mustard, a crumb of cheese.”  Of significant dreams there were several kinds, and they required learned distinctions.  Macrobius disdained the simplism of the old dream book.  Dream interpretation required learning, wisdom, and great skill.  Hence, in the high culture, the frequent connection of oneirocriticism with cutting-edge astrology and mathematics.  One thinks of Dr. Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s resident astrologer.   But there was always also a popular or folk level, usually associated with wizened crones or “witches”.  These are the distant posterity of Ovid’s vetulae (little old ladies), women of sinister fascination, go-betweens and abortionists.

             If dreams can be interpreted, they can be misinterpreted, with possibly fatal results.  We have, for example, the dream of the tyrant Croesus.  He dreamed that the god Jupiter washed him and that the god Apollo dried him off.  He thought this a wonderful harbinger of a well-deserved visit to the Turkish baths on Mount Olympus.  But his daughter Fanny, the local Cassandra, had a sounder if sadder interpretation.  Croesus was hanged from a gibbet.  Jupiter Pluvius drenched the dangling corpse with rain, and the scorching rays of Apollo the Sun dried it out.  The requirement of an expert exegesis, when a mistaken interpretation could have such dramatic real-world consequences, is what makes much medieval dream vision so interesting.  Misinterpretation can also be comic, as it is in Chaucer’s epic of chicken sex, the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale.”

            The popular “dream books” of which Vandegrift writes in so illuminating a fashion actually have very little to do with the tradition of Artemidorus and practically nothing at all with that of Macrobius.  They don’t even have all that much to do with dreams.  Nor, actually, am I convinced of any peculiar African-Americanness to be found in them.  Apart from their  obvious target audience, one of several non-traditional readerships of their time, they fit comfortably into a familiar category already well established in the eighteenth century.  Dream-interpretation very early became conjoined with various kinds of divination and soothsaying, especially when related to financial fortune: coming into or finding, money, lost objects, buried treasure, divining lottery numbers and winning horses or the like.  In America, especially, a lottery game called Policy commanded something of the huge number of habitual, addicted players  who today follow Power Ball.  The “dream manuals” combine folk superstition with the incipient format of family board games or fortune cookie slips in providing a diverting procedure for arriving at comforting “news”.  The mother lode of nineteenth-century folk divination was the hugely popular Oracle of Napoleon, the magic manual supposedly found by the Emperor in a pyramid—Egypt being since time immemorial the source of esoteric wisdom for European crackpots.  For Napoleon the Oracle was apparently indispensable for conquering the world.  It continued to provide lesser mortals (for only a dime!) with an ingenious way to tell their own fortunes by making recourse to its interrogatories, charts, and tables.  (You can find an amusing introduction to it here)And since it was plagiarized from a learned Renaissance humanist steeped in the Egyptomania of his age, it still has the faintest whiff of an ancient bitter perfume.  I have written a little about this in The Dark Side of the Enlightenment.


One of dozens of cheap editions of Napoleon's Oraculum

            Seeking to ascertain knowledge of future events in the hopes of financial profit or other personal benefit—insider trading at the supernatural level, so to speak—has always been considered dubious from the moral point of view.  In his epic poem on the Civil Wars, Lucan presents his great Stoic hero Cato with a temptation.  An opportunity presents itself for Cato, while marching through the African wilderness,  to consult the oracle of Jupiter Ammon.  He could thus find out whether he will have success in battle.  But Cato is not concerned with whether he is on the winning side; he is content to be on the right side.  So he declines to visit the oracle.  Dante describes diviners as those who “would attempt to constrain the Divine will.”  But high mindedness from the high culture was entirely foreign to these proletarian pamphlets which, in feeding fantasies of the lucky strike and the big payout, served a purpose and met a demand.  Like blues songs or work shanties, they might serve to amuse, distract, or give transitory hope to some humble folk whose daily lives were filled mainly with hard labor, material difficulty, and limited horizons.   And after all we all do have to dream, and we all do dream.  Should you happen to dream that you went to Manderley again, I do have some practical advice.  Write that down, and then just keep on writing.  You may end up with a real dream book.


*Christopher W. Vandegrift, “Oneirocritica Afro-Americana,” Cabinet 67, pp. 77-86.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Appalachian Baroque


            The pandemic has effected many dramatic delays, postponements, and reversals, most of them unfortunate and some disastrous; but at the domestic level it has afforded me one or two useful permission slips.  In recent years I had been making some effort to downsize my library, a very painful task.  That has come to a screeching halt and indeed something of a reversal.  If you can’t get to a big research library, indeed rarely leave your own precincts except for walks in open places, you need to import reading material.  I am allowing myself to buy at least  such volumes of the magnificent Library of America as I lack and want.  That is how a beautiful, two-volume boxed collection of the short stories of Peter Taylor arrived at my house recently—1,397 pages of them to be exact.


James Agee (1909-1955)


            There are at least two great Tennessee writers of the twentieth century, James Agee and Peter Taylor.  If names count for something we would have to add a third, Tennessee Williams, though he was not really a Tennessean.  It is only because a medievalist feels safer in judging defunct writers that he  says nothing of the very powerful and happily extant Madison Smartt Bell.  All three of the older guys have connections with my alma mater, Sewanee, the University of the South, though none of them attended it.  Taylor and especially Agee were significantly influenced by Fr. James Fly, a priest who long taught at the St. Andrew’s School just beyond the Sewanee domain.  Taylor lies buried along with Flye and many of my own revered teachers in the extraordinary Sewanee cemetery.  Agee and Taylor were both serious, unsettled Christians.  Tennessee Williams much admired his grandfather, a Mississippi priest who was a Sewanee graduate, and in his honor left the college a sizeable legacy in his will.  Late in his life Williams, never particularly religious,  joined the Roman Catholic Church, though I think rather in the manner of an American Oscar Wilde, and for much the same reasons.   The greatest of them in my view was Agee, who died far too young.  Nobody has written better film criticism.  And his unfinished novel, A Death in the Family, is a great work of art.


Peter Taylor (1917-1994)


            The current topic, however is Taylor’s art.  I began with one of his substantial older and more famous stories—“Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time” (1958, the year I graduated from Sewanee).   It was, I think, the first thing I ever read in the Kenyon Review, twin, as we thought of it, to our Sewanee Review.  The plot is rather fantastic, but you don’t mind.  A really great fiction writer can always get a reader not merely to tolerate but positively to collude in the famously “willing suspension of disbelief.”  The Dorsets, an aging, unmarried brother and sister, living in isolation and genteel poverty in a decaying mansion in what I think must be one of the more sizeable old towns in an imagined geography somewhere beneath the western extension of the Mason-Dixon line, are  largely disapproved of by the town’s “society”, who disdain their standoffish eccentricities and geriatric slovenliness.  Yet they have long hosted a  single elegant annual social event—a house tour and dinner party for a select group of the town’s graduating high-school seniors, strangely endorsed by the young people’s parents.  So we have mysterious people, a mysterious party, and a mysterious house in which, very mysteriously indeed,  the sole piece of art on display is a magazine reproduction of a mid-sixteenth-century work of the Florentine Mannerist Agnolo Bronzino.: his so-called called “Allegory of Love” or “Allegory of Cupid and Venus” in the National Gallery of Britain.  We get the story of what happened the year of the last dinner party, the year that Bronzino met the Junior Varsity of the First Families of Virginia, so to speak.


            As you can see if you didn’t already know, it is one hell of a painting.  Does Bronzino’s incestuous theme extend to the  aging Dorset siblings?  Who are the strange onlookers?  Taylor’s short story is, among other things, a subtle and softcore example of Southern Gothic, perhaps most famously exemplified by Faulkner’s necrophiliac short story “A Rose for Emily”—echoed by Taylor—and the recent spectacular novel by Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time, which enthusiastic critics have praised as “Hillbilly Gothic”—a  possible upgrade?  What is Taylor’s story really about?  Since I’ve  got 1,368 pages of other stories still to go,  I can keep thinking about it as I move along.  What I am thinking about just now are the commodious convergences of life, a pattern of personal and mental implosions  that transform seemingly random and disparate personal experiences into a plausible if fragile coherence: Taylor, Tennessee, Sewanee, then in widening, fainter rings so much of Southern literature, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon, Andrew Lytle, lesser lights yet, with all of whom I had some fleeting, obscure, spear-bearer’s association.


            The Bronzino was a different matter.  I doubt, at the time I first read Taylor’s story, that  I had the slightest clue of who he was or the good sense to think that he and his painting might have some specific role in the strange narrative.  That all changed when I got to graduate school and read Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology, first published in 1939, one of a small shelf of books that directed me to a major theme of my life’s work.  Iconology, more precisely than the broader term iconography, is the study of the figurative or allegorical meaning of the images (in Greek, icons) in the visual and plastic arts.  Very often such images have their origins and/or parallels in literary texts, especially in the classical poets or the Bible and its early exegesis.  Panofsky was one of the great German art historians scattered through the Anglophone world by Hitler’s madness, and one who became a colleague of Einstein’s at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.  His book on iconology was already twenty-five years old when I met him.  His principal iconological interests were secular and often arcane—the commerce between the profound revival of classical learning in Renaissance Europe and the visual art of that period.  I now believe that some of his interpretations are too ingenious by half, but his deep discussion of the Bronzino was for a time the last word on the subject.  It had to have been directly or indirectly from Panofsky, I now see, that Taylor had taken the painting’s very title: Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time.  Well, there are few permanent  “last words” in humanistic study, but three out of four ain’t bad.


Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968)


            I tried to do a quickie catchup on Bronzino studies of the last few decades, as best one can do such things at a home computer screen.  The most interesting thing I turned up along these lines was an essay in which a young scholar identifies the subject of the painting as “bisexual eroticism” deriving from an ancient debate renewed in the Renaissance, largely but not entirely whimsical, concerning the comparative pleasures on offer from the lower orifices of schoolboys and nubile maidens.*  That day I read no further—in Bronzino studies that is.  Hillbilly Gothic seemed the safer and chaster choice for the moment,


            Naturally I claim to know what the Bronzino painting really “means”, and I could tell you, but then of course I would have to kill you--a violation of Google's rules for its bloggers' platform.  So I shall end by returning to my beginning.  The point I wanted to make was that even among the constraints, constrictions, and limitations of a pandemic lockdown of unpredictable duration we are not without resources.  As Milton’s Satan said when faced with a drastic downgrading of his real estate options, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”


*Will Fisher, “Peaches and figs: bisexual eroticism in the paintings and burlesque poetry of Bronzino,” in Sex Acts in Early Modern Italy: Practice, Performance, Perversion, Punishment, ed. Allison Levy (Ashgate, ca. 2010), pp. 151-164.  [This time, three out of four are bad].  I should not gratuitously choose to impose possible indelicacy upon my genteel readership, but I think it important to remind ourselves from time to time of just how cool and edgy the study of dead white males can sometimes be.


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Donald, the Dex, and Me



            Fitzgerald’s famous story “The Rich Boy” begins with two oft-quoted sentences: “Let me tell you about the very rich.  They are very different from you and me.”  Hemingway is supposed to have deflated this pseudo-sagacity by responding, “Yes, they have more money.”  That was a great crack, but Fitzgerald still had a point. Despite all our democratic pretensions, the actual disparities between Americans in wealth, power, and well-being have become something of a scandal.  To be fair, the democratic dogma, degraded or not, was never very realistic.  For example, it should be obvious that the life of an American president is necessarily very different from that of an ordinary citizen like myself.  Just for starters, I don’t have a red button I can push if I want to destroy the world—an idea that, on fleeting occasion, has come into my mind.  I don’t have Air Force One at my command. I did make a model airplane once when I was about eight, but God only knows what became of it.  Nor do I resent my own humdrum obligations of which the President, ex officio, is free.  It would definitely be infra dig to have the President of the United States wandering around his basement in bedroom slippers wondering what the hell became of the toilet plunger.  Every now and again, though, there is an intrusion of the Higher Democracy.  There are a few shared experiences that might be called the Great Levelers, in which the commonality of the human condition is exposed in its ineluctable simplicity.  None of us can avoid death and taxes!  Well, just to be safe, maybe I had better say none of us can avoid death.

            It was the Immortal Bard himself who wrote, in a charming song in Cymbeline:

            Golden lads and girls all must

            As chimney sweepers, come to dust

and it is in that inevitable dust-heap that Donald Trump and I shall find our eventual equality.  But of course human bodies don’t just become dead for no reason.  As the Duc de Somewhere-or-Another famously said, Pour être mort, il faut mourir.  For many of us the prospect of the process of transition is more unnerving than its inevitable end. Some sudden or gradual interference with the physical requirements of vitality arrives.  Frequently this is a somewhat unpleasant experience.  Medical science does its heroic best to defer the inevitable, and in its magnificent delaying tactics I have discovered a kind of prelude or premonition of presidential parity: dexamethasone.


            It has been reported that when the President returned to the White House from Walter Reed Hospital he made a few remarks that puzzled reporters from our newspaper of record, who just will not get off his case.  He said this, for example: “I’m back because I’m a perfect physical specimen and I am extremely young.”  Physical perfection may be in the eye of the beholder, but there is at least a rough consensus concerning the Seven Ages of Man.  It is true that Mr. Trump is ten years younger than I, but seventy-four is not usually thought of as extremely young.  Hence the journalistic puzzlement.   Indeed Mr. Trump himself injected ambiguity into the matter when he added: “I’m a senior.  I know you don’t know that.  Nobody knows that.”  Letters to the editor in that same journal tried to make a big deal out of such remarks from the Unknown Senior.  One Dr. Fink, an internist in Beverly Hills, noting that Mr. Trump has been prescribed dexamethasone, insisted on quoting the minute print of the little paper that comes with that particular medicament: “Psychic derangements may appear when corticosteroids are used, ranging from euphoria, insomnia, mood swings, personality changes, and severe depression, to frank psychotic manifestations.”  It adds that should you already be psychotic, the medicine may exacerbate the psychosis. 


            Well, I perked up when I read that because here was an arena in which I could compete as an equal with the President of the United States.   I myself have been ingesting these same pills on an occasional basis for quite a long time now.  With me it has been five the night before and five the morning of a chemotherapeutical infusion, followed by one or two for a couple days after.  The tablets themselves are tiny but terrific, sort of like the Monty Python rabbit.  I persevered into old age in my naïveté concerning our national drug crisis, but I now see it’s possibly less complex than I had been imagining.  Drugs  make you stop feeling bad and start feeling good, and there is a certain simple-minded attractiveness to that sequence.  Fight fire with fire, or as Ovid puts it, speaking of the pains of romantic disappointment, drive out the old nail with a new one.  Dexamethasone is a steroid that, by inhibiting the ordinary operations of the immune system, leaves you in blissful ignorance of the full extent of your body’s revulsion to what is happening to it.  Of the dire possible side-effects on the little piece of paper, I suffer only insomnia, which is quite enough, as it could accurately be described as insomnia on steroids.  And the little paper leaves unmentioned a number of interesting anal, oral, fetal, fecal, and armpit sensations that you simply can’t get from Nehi grape soda.


 cuniculus audax (montepythonicus)


            There is a problem with dexamethasone.  It is quite a mouthful—linguistically, that is.  Try repeating the word three or four times, fast, and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s hard enough to say the word even once while you are actually on it.  Much of the English medical vocabulary is artificially invented, constructed from Greek roots, sometimes with Latin intervention,  by scholarly physicians in the Renaissance.  Linguists speak of “inkhorn terms,” manufactured words as it were siphoned directly from the ink bottle into the linguistic mainstream rather than developed from earlier vernacular forms.   Big, intimidating words are almost inevitable under the circumstances.  For example, the Greek roots meta and its variant meth are practically invitations to long-winded pretension, as in metempsychosis and metamorphosis and methodology.  Though our national meth problem is primarily chemical, one cannot wholly ignore the linguistic side.  That’s probably the reason the pros favor streamlined jargon.  If you hang around an infusion bazaar long enough, it is inevitable that you will overhear a certain amount of elliptical conversation among the highly trained staff, such as “Are we sure she took her dex?”  That’s because having to say dex-a-meth-a-sone every time really sucks.  Speaking of which, aficionados of Medical Forensic Files and Nurses Who Kill will certainly  know that succs is short for suc-ci-nyl-cho-line, the drug of choice used by eight out of ten homicidal health professionals when offing their patients, parents, or intimate partners.  It’s even harder for the coroner  to detect than it is for him to pronounce.   Fortunately, there are no such persons in the establishments I frequent, but I have noticed that the medicalese spoken in those parts is characterized by frequent elision and abbreviation: A-fib, Catscans, EKGs, meds, MRIs, chemo itself.  That’s how Dex has transitioned from the pharmacological to the familiar, and become as much of an old friend to the Donald and me as Darkness was to Paul Simon.




Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Gospel Truth



The motto of Harvard University, to be found  boldly divided into trinitarian folios and mounted on an heraldic shield,  is VERITAS, Latin for “truth”.  You are sure to have seen it at the bottom of the title page of a learned book, or, if not there, on a keyring, beer mug, or sweatshirt.  It is also the title of a terrific new book* by Ariel Sabar that my erudite son-in-law Zvi just sent me as a gift.  Zvi is a broad-gauged historian, a Sinologist, an expert among other things on Islam in China.  In his spare time he is also what you might call a Bible buff, a student of the literature and archaeology of antique Judaism in the time of Jesus.  Some of his more colorful fellow Bible buffs play roles in the book Veritas, to which I shall return after a brief but necessary digression into scholarly autobiography and an embarrassing confession I have not before made public.


            The subject of my doctoral dissertation was the iconography—the pictorial illustrations—of medieval manuscripts of a popular medieval poem, The Romance of the Rose.  Most of its many surviving manuscripts date from the fourteenth century, the period of the height of its popularity.  There are many illustrations of aristocratic women, some allegorical and some not.  A common feature of attire of aristocratic French women was the tippet—a decorative band of cloth, often a long one, that hung from the sleeve.  I had never before seen such a thing.  The human mind, puzzled by what is unknown and unfamiliar, strives mightily to crowbar the phenomena into categories of the known and the familiar.  Looking really hard, I did not see strips of cloth but rods of wood attached by a ringed clasp to the arm near the elbow: medieval elbow crutches!  But how to account for such a large population of crippled women?  Probably bone degeneration caused by dietary insufficiency.



            This “discovery” was entirely peripheral to my interest in the poem, and I had no ideological commitment to its validity.  But for about three weeks I truly believed it, and continued to “see” wooden rods, until somebody told me about tippets.  Fortunately, I had not mentioned my breakthrough in medical history to anyone.  It was an interior drama of the mind.  Having established my own residence in a glass house, I can now start hurling stones.  Veritas is about what can happen when a scholar does have an ideological commitment to a wacky idea and does want to tell people all about it.


            The wacky idea was that Jesus had a wife, probably Mary Magdalene, and that there was written evidence of this not merely in the Da Vinci Code but in a very ancient bible-like text, a newly discovered fragment of a Gnostic gospel henceforth to be known as the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (GJW in academy-speak).  The scholar with ideological commitments was Professor Karen King, formerly a professor of divinity at Harvard.  If you do want to read a four-hundred-page book about feminist biblical scholarship, hot wives, child molestation, con artists, and the curious sociology of south Florida—as I sincerely hope you do—stop reading this essay immediately, as it could spoil a great experience awaiting you in Veritas.  But for the unfortunate few who lack the time or inclination I shall persist.  Prepare yourself for a breathless ride.


            There are three human actors in this drama, and one on paper.  The two human antagonists are an erudite and famous and feisty feminist scholar at Harvard and a seedy German con man and pornographer.  The hero is Ariel Sabar, the author, who styles himself a journalist, but obviously is actually the world’s Numero Uno Private Eye.  The paper player (GJW) is a fragmentary text on a piece of papyrus of about five square inches.  You can read the whole thing in less than thirty seconds—provided, of course, that you can read garbled Coptic fluently, as a surprising number of people in this book seem to be able to do.  The fourth line of GJW is supposed to say: Jesus said unto them my wifeI think it’s in Lolita that the narrator, Humbert Humbert, recalls having read a French mystery novel in which the clues were printed in italics. The scribe of GJW was similarly accommodating.  Karen King, the Harvard Professor, biblical scholar, ewig Weibliche  of the radical Jesus Seminar, and author of an imaginative book about Mary Magdalene, was intrigued to hear this, for she was already of the belief that women were far more important in organizing primitive Christianity than you would know from reading the canonical gospels.  Those gospels had first been spun and then given privileged status by a bunch of patriarchal geezers whose sex phobias encouraged misogyny, the suppression of women, and the establishment of an exclusively male and celibate clerical caste.  Speaking of gospels, in this tale Professor King  was in the classical lingo of the confidence game the mark.  The con man was a brilliant but reptilian German lowlife named (no kidding) Fritz.  Raised in the south of (West) Germany, Mr. Fritz had a difficult and perhaps traumatic childhood.  Later he started on a graduate degree in Egyptology in Berlin but dropped out before achieving it.  He reappears sometime after German reunification as the director of a new museum dedicated to the Stasi, the old East German Secret Police.  His directorship was brief, as he was lousy at his job though possibly adept at stealing treasures he was ostensibly guarding.  The next act finds him in south Florida, where he may be an officer in a German tool-making company, and may be the proprietor of a Potemkin gallery dealing in Egyptian art and antiquities, but certainly is the entrepreneur of a robust pornography outfit called HotWives.  HotWives is more or less what its name suggests, and the hottest wife, the superstar of most of the videos, is Mrs. Fritz—porn name, Jenny Seemore.  And, oh, yes: using linguistic expertise gleaned in graduate school, and a piece of ancient papyrus gleaned from God knows where, Mr. Fritz forged the fragment GJW and drew it to the attention of a famous Harvard professor who, he had excellent reason to believe, might be willing to authenticate it.  Eventually she did, against her own first instinct and the view of numerous peers whose shared perception of the fraud differed mainly in their esthetic judgement of the degree of the amateurishness of its fakery.  The coming-out party was  a biblical conference in Rome.  That was the place to stick it to the Pope and all that Virgin Birth, clerical celibacy, male priesthood stuff!  She then published it to academic drumrolls in the prestigious Harvard Theological Review. 


            It turned out to be a debacle, of course, leaving not only Professor King but various other Harvard worthies (its PR departments, the editors of the Theological Review) with most of a large, drippy omelet smeared across their faces.  But in the end traditional Christians dodged the bullet of having to think about a sexually active Jesus Christ.  I suppose I am not a traditional Christian, because that idea in the abstract bothers me not at all.  My medieval Franciscans spent endless folios in meditating upon Jesus’s Passion and its agonies.  Giving a little time to some imagined ecstasy might seem only fair were there any better evidence than that concocted by an erudite pornographer.  There isn’t.


            Sabar tells this story in amazingly documented detail, leaving a reader marveling at his forensic skills.  The first two thirds of the book can be read as a kind of exotic academic comedy, but in its last movement it becomes quite somber.  The author does not hesitate to detail the long path of evasion, obfuscation, professional impropriety, and actual prevarication Karen King traveled in order to overcome her own disbelief in a pseudo-antique fraud highly convenient to supporters of certain political and cultural arguments of today.  Nor does Sabar stop there.  He goes “heavy” of a sudden.  He wonders aloud how well a postmodern historiography for which facts are the malleable ornaments rather than the solid foundation of the intellectual enterprise actually can serve the endlessly  restated mission of our educational institutions, particularly the oldest and most famous of them, one proclaiming in wrought iron its allegiance to Veritas.  It turns out that “seeing is believing”  is  fake news.  Very often it works the other way around.  We see what we already believe, want to believe, or need to believe.  That’s how  one sees prosthetic devices instead of haute couture.


*Ariel Sabar, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife (Doubleday: New York, 2020), pp. 401

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Courting Disaster



            Give no thought to the morrow.  Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.  We have that on the highest possible authority, but I am no more able than the vast majority of my compatriots to cease from worrying about the next day, and the next after that.  A general pandemic anxiety, often vague but always disconcerting, has suffused our household and probably most households.  There has been and continues to be plenty to be worried about: the virus and its medical and economic devastations, police brutality, mob brutality, violent storms, raging wild fires, an impending general election already characterized by rancor, suspicion, and (whatever the results of the voting) premonitions of outraging approximately half of our fellow citizens.


            One of the gaudiest floats in the fast-moving pageant of impending dangers is dedicated to the donnybrook awaiting us in the confirmation process for a new nominee to the Supreme Court.  The nomination is not yet a week old, but the first brickbats were already being hurled in the actual public announcements of Justice Ginsburg’s death on September 18.  As seemliness has long since disappeared from our politics, we can hardly wonder at its absence in much of our political journalism.  Be that as it may, the opposing forces have formed their ranks.


            Our Supreme Court was one of the most extraordinary innovations of our Constitution.  There was no very close model then in existence, and there have been surprisingly few close imitations since.  Only in the first decade of the nineteenth century did the court’s principal task, judicial review, become explicit.  The famous early Chief Justice, John Marshall, put it this way: “It is emphatically the province of the judicial department to say what the law is.”  That dictum itself, was, of course, already an interpretation of the written document that was to be the final arbiter of the validity of all legislation proposed by Congress and confirmed by the signature of the President.  That document was, and is, the Constitution.  Thus I can say emphatically, using Marshall’s word, that the Supreme Court is a body of literary critics charged with adjudicating the meaning of written texts—laws proposed by the Congress—in the light of an older one, the governing Constitution of the United States.  Since my whole career as a professor of literature has been devoted to the attempt to explain the meaning of old literary texts, I consider myself qualified to comment, in a general way, on the Court’s performance in that same genre.  A cat may look at a king.


            The unspeakable is not the same thing as the not spoken about, but not infrequently the two are close allied.  The American Civil War had several contributory causes, and some historians of the war, like some of their predecessors who were participants in it, have been eager to cloud the obvious principal cause in some kind of redeeming complexity.  Not so Lincoln.  In his justly famous Second Inaugural, the President said this: ”One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.”  Even if “all knew” that slavery was the cause of the war, there was a preference for talking about other causes, mainly more abstract and high-minded or at least less concrete and sordid ones, such the preservation of the Union or the sovereign rights of individual states.


            Talking about secondary or even factitious issues is in political circles a time-honored means of avoiding real ones that are controversial.  In any political system in which continuing access to power depends upon the short-term popularity of elected representatives there is bound to be a lot of dodging and weaving.  Sometimes admirable motives seem to justify the grossly politic in all politics.  The framers of the Constitution were so eager to achieve a fragile political union that they thought they could get by with passing the buck about slavery.  Not to do so might have doomed the national project from the start.  After the Civil War politicians thought they could get by with passing the buck about unjust social arrangements that frustrated the promises of emancipation.  They have been doing that more or less ever since, with results so lamentable only the blind can fail to see them.


            The anticipated battle over the proposed confirmation of Judge Barrett is not unrelated to the unhappy history of avoiding unpleasant topics.  I venture to suggest that, as Lincoln would put it,  “all know” that “somehow” the cause of this war is abortion.  But it is ever so much more comfortable to talk about other things, such as the outrageous hypocrisy of Senators McConnell and Graham, the fate of Merrick Garland, the high-handedness of Harry Reid, the borking of Robert Bork by Ted Kennedy—well, I’ll cut it off there, but we could easily continue on a bipartisan grievance tour probably going back to the British Enclosure Act of 1773 and beyond.  These topics are all of great interest, and have undoubtedly contributed to the poisonous atmosphere in which the battle will be joined.  But outrageous hypocrisy is nowhere mentioned in our secular Sacred Text, nor is there any suggestion that a duly elected President cannot offer a nomination three weeks or three days before the end of his statutory term.


            Abortion, though a supremely contentious issue in the country, nonetheless commands a kind of strange and paradoxical consensus.  Most Americans don’t much like the idea of abortion; most Americans don’t much like the idea of criminalizing abortions either.  That pretty well describes my own state of ambivalence.  What is for some a settled matter of constitutional right is for others an everlasting affront to conscience.  One can well understand why prudential legislators have been willing to let the literary critics on the Supreme Court deal with the matter.


            Any intelligent American can read the Court’s decision in the case of Roe versus Wade, which is based in an exegesis of certain phrases of the Fourteenth Amendment.   The Court’s vote in 1973 was not even close, seven to two.  We now know what the law is because “it is emphatically the province of the judicial department to say what the law is.”  But though that same intelligent American is obligated to honor the force of the law, she is not forbidden from regarding the exegesis on which it is based as highly curious.  As early as the period of classical antiquity Stoic logicians bewailed the near impossibility of meaningful written communication “because all words are ambiguous.”  Yet they could only be interpreted through other words.  “That is like bringing a quenched candle into an unlighted room”.  The heirs of such ideas, in trendy modernized form, are today very common in university departments of literature.  This is one reason why much literary criticism, which in earlier periods commanded a broad audience among general readers, has become an arcane, mandarin, and above all unconvincing enterprise uncongenial to lovers of literature.   You may or may not buy the argument that Satan is the real hero of Paradise Lost quite without Milton’s realizing that fact.  That was a rather mad idea floated by William Blake when Paradise Lost was not quite as old to him as the Constitution was for Justice Blackmun when he wrote the majority decision in Roe versus Wade.  There is not a lot of “real life” consequence in that interpretation of Paradise Lost, which is now commonplace in Departments of English.  Yet it is neither more nor less obvious than the interpretation of “unreasonable search and seizure” in the Fourteenth Amendment made by the court in 1973.  That is why both parties in our duopoly have been at times quite open in insisting that the crucial issues in a presidential election are the President’s powers of nomination and the Senate’s power of confirmation.  Power is often unattractive in its naked form, but eventually real issues do emerge even, or perhaps especially, when Congress doesn’t want to deal with them.  But the issue here is not really a clash of high-minded moral principles— let alone the struggle of good and evil so often invoked to describe it.  It is a squabble of literary critics and a contest of textual interpretation.  Not that high principle plays no role.  The high principle of the Republicans is that their candidate must be confirmed.  The high principle of the Democrats is that that must never happen.  The situation seems rather bleak, yet not quite so bad as last night’s alleged “debate.”




Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Instrumental Agreement


            “All the instruments agree..,”  It’s actually part of a line from an Auden poem, his famous elegy written in response to the death of W. B.  Yeats on January 28, 1939.  What all the instruments were in agreement about was that the day of the great poet’s death was “a cold, dark day”.  I now hear the phrase about the agreement of all instruments being applied to almost anything the speaker wants us to believe is certain.  In fact I have myself used it in that sense.  Of course Auden himself had in mind far more than just the weather or the meteorological instruments used to measure and describe it.  The instruments of mind and heart and artistic aspiration were likewise in mournful concord at the loss of so great a poet.  When a great life, talent, or virtue is extinguished, the physical loss is often the least of it.  The death of greatness casts a very large shadow.  The application to art and artists is hardly a new one.  At the death of Orpheus all of Nature wept.


            As it happens, the agreement of all instruments beginning with those of the meteorologists has been much on my mind this week on account of the unusually dramatic arrival of autumn.  The calendrical event took place on Monday, though I think that the actual measurable equinox was yesterday.  The drama of autumn’s arrival, however, was not in the calendar but in the change of the weather itself.  The last day of summer was sultry, hot and moist.  The first day of autumn was cool, crisp and dry.  Like most of the rest of the country we had been following news of the terrible fires on the West Coast.  We have friends in Portland, and a close friend here has a daughter and grandchildren living there.  Along with the refreshment of cool air in central New Jersey came the news of considerable improvement three thousand miles to the west.  They had had some rain, enough to douse some fires and slow down others, and to clear away some of the clouds of suffocating smoke.  Our friend’s daughter reported by phone that she and her kids were at last able to go out of doors comfortably, and “even to breathe some fresh air.”  Again all the instruments, or at least several important ones, appeared to be agreeing.


            Is the paradox here real, or simply imagined?—that the refreshment of new life should appear with the advent of the season of waning, retrenchment, indeed death?  For death did indeed arrive.  On the last Friday of summer came the news that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of our Supreme Court had died.  The national outpouring of sadness and admiration has been extraordinary.  I can remember no other such widespread lament for a defunct jurist in my lifetime.  Its genuine basis cannot be doubted even though it is probably exacerbated by specific political anxieties as well as a much more generalized feeling of foreboding triggered by the disquieting anxieties of the medical pandemic. 


            Most of us operate on an emotional plane on which the personal and the public, the interior and the exterior, the individual and the cosmic are in interplay.  As the years have rolled by the autumn has become for me an ever more wistful season.  I think I have probably written about this more than once.  Certainly I remember an essay I devoted about a year ago Keats’s great “Ode to Autumn”, among the many excellences of which is the poet’s perfect capture of the season’s paradox, or at least the somber interplay between fruition and decay, vitality and extinction.  Then, in yesterday’s newspaper, I found a beautiful little essay entitled “At Summer’s End” by a fine Nashville writer named Margaret Renki, a contributor to the Times who specializes in such topics as the “flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South”.


            Though it didn’t get around to politics or culture, exactly, her essay is full of little gems—about the natural world and about the lessons of life and art that world teaches.  I suppose one could say the same thing about the “Ode to Autumn.”  But at heart her column was for me an instance of déjà vu and not that only.   For I have not merely seen it  before but read and written it before as well.  Ms. Renki would appear to be considerably younger than I, for her sense of vague plangency at fall’s arrival appears to be a new thing for her.  It is one I have known for at least two decades.  “But perhaps the reason I didn’t feel sad about the onset of fall when I was young,” she writes,  “is only that I was younger, with my whole life still ahead.”  Yes, perhaps so.  But the analogy of the course of human life and the course of the vegetative year, with the beginning of autumn the definitive beginning of an end, is surely hard-wired?  All the instruments agree.