Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Autumnal


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). 







Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Allegorical Advantage



“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails.  And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month.  After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.  But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her. (Deuteronomy 21: 10-14)

            During the last two weeks an investigative journalist named Rukmini Callimachi has published extensive reports of an organized, large-scale system of sexual violence and slavery that the Islamic State has established in territory it controls and calls a caliphate.  The details are so circumstantial and horrific as to shock even readers jaded by a daily surfeit of reported mayhem.  “In the moments before he raped the 12-year-old girl,” Ms. Callimachi begins, “the Islamic State fighter took the time to explain that what he was about to do was not a sin. Because the preteen girl practiced a religion other than Islam, the Quran not only gave him the right to rape her — it condoned and encouraged it, he insisted.”

            Generally speaking wars are fought by young men under conditions that undermine civilized social norms and enable transgression.  “Rape and pillage” go together like “fire and the sword” in the pages of our history textbooks.  Long before the Rape of the Sabine Women, foreign females might be viewed as a convenient source of breeding stock.  The cultural exchange was not always violent.  Following the Second War there came to this country large numbers of “war brides” from Britain, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines—places where large numbers of young Americans had passed through as allies, invaders, or occupiers.
Giambologna's "Rape of a Sabine Woman"

            As Johnson points out in a Rambler essay, “Precept has generally been posterior to performance.”   The religious sanction for rape, perhaps the most shocking element in Ms. Callimachi’s story, justified “facts on the ground,” as we now call them.  The Times reassures us that ISIS’s practice is based on a “narrow interpretation” of the Koranic text, one that most Muslims would disavow.  That gives some comfort, though probably not so much to the Yazidi girls in the sacral brothels of Iraq or the little Nigerian girls carted off by Boko Haram.

            What would a “broad interpretation” mean?  Consider some earlier Semitic texts held to be sacred.  Many of the early Christians were so disturbed by certain parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that there was a lively debate as to whether the writings could actually represent Revelation.  The history of the conquest of Canaan is essentially a catalogue of war crimes.  What do you do (see Judges, chapter 19) with a Levite who with a butcher knife cuts up his gang-raped concubine into twelve parts?

            More immediately to the point, how do you deal with the epigraph from Deuteronomy at the top of this essay, which is another primitive justification for sexual booty in the ancient Near East?  Fortunately for lovers of western classical literature, Saint Jerome and other early exegetes found a way of saving the Scriptures from themselves.  Jerome thought that this Deuteronomic legislation could have no literal application in the Age of the Incarnation.  Its force was instead allegorical or spiritual.

            The passage was an allegory not of sexual conquest but of cultural appropriation.  The beautiful female captive should be understood to mean the beautiful literature of ancient Greece and Rome.  The poems of Homer and Virgil were full of polytheistic mythology, sexual violence, and martial barbarity.  But they were likewise replete with ancient wisdom expressed in language of unsurpassed beauty.  To obliterate or suppress them would be to throw out more baby than bathwater.  So the classics were, as we say, “preserved,” by being sent off to the allegorical nail salon.  Were it not for the work of pious, devoted medieval monks with their monkish commentaries, there would be no “classics” to study in our schools and colleges.

            Saint Augustine found in another scriptural text the identical lesson.  Shortly before they exited Egypt the Hebrew slaves robbed Pharaoh blind, gathering up all the expensive and ornamental cookware they could find, vessels of silver and vessels of gold.  The Hebrew euphemism for this was “borrowing”, but they had not the slightest intention of returning the goods.  “And they spoiled the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:36).  As grand theft might appear to be an unseemly habit for the Chosen People, Augustine found in the episode an allegory of the humanistic impulse.  Christians did not have a monopoly on the truth, which wherever it found expression belonged to the Lord; but they should take it and use it wherever they found it.  The gold was the wisdom of the ancients, the silver the beautiful rhetoric in which it was clothed.

            In the great medieval Christian epic (the Divine Comedy) the character Dante chose as his guide and mentor not Saint Peter or Saint Paul but the pagan poet Virgil.  Virgil, though he could lead others to belief, was himself an unbeliever.  He is therefore, sadly, damned for all eternity.  As Hell goes, he’s definitely in one of the better neighborhoods—but still…Among the first words he utters in the poem are these: “I lived in the time of the false and lying gods.”  This detail is to be sure “judgmental” on Dante’s part, but it is very different from blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas.  You don't have to read the Æneid if you don't want to, but you don't get to incinerate the last copy.


 Ancient Buddha of Bamiyan, before and after Islamic intervention

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Ethel Rosenberg




I thought that last Thursday’s televised bear-baiting event, amusingly misnamed a “debate,” in which numerous Republican candidates took softball swings at hardball questions thrown in their direction by uncooperative Fox journalists, would have at least one bright aspect: it would give me an easy week, blogwise, as it has given most of the political commentators of the nation.  But then on Monday there appeared in the Times an op-ed essay by Michael and Robert Meeropol, entitled “Exonerate Our Mother, Ethel Rosenberg”.  So the Rosenberg case has trumped Trump in my mind.  I wrote a little essay about it a year ago, when the death of David Greenglass was announced, but it continues to worry my mind, as it probably worries others of my generation.

Ethel Rosenberg may no longer command much “name recognition”, but she played a significant role in the history of mid-century America, and especially of the Cold War and of McCarthyism.  On June 19, 1953, she and her husband Julius, having been convicted of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union, were executed by electrocution at Sing Sing prison.  Julius Rosenberg and Ethel’s brother David Greenglass were accused of giving “the secret of the atomic bomb” to Russian espionage agents.  Ethel Rosenberg, and others, were believed to be conspirators.  The Rosenbergs left two young children—Michael (b. 1943) and Robert (b. 1947) who were later adopted by the singer-songwriter Abel Meeropol, whose name they adopted. 

The guiltlessness of the Rosenbergs was an article of faith among American Communists, of whom there were still a surprising number in 1950, and among some other segments of the American Left.   The Meeropol brothers spent many years of their adult lives loudly proclaiming their parents’ innocence and, thus, the injustice of their deaths.  Only fairly recently, with the publication of once-secret Russian espionage intercepts and the actual public confession of one of Julius’s still-living fellow spies, did they come to acknowledge that their father was in fact a spy.  They now focus their efforts at righting ancient wrongs on the case of their mother.

Should Ethel Rosenberg be “exonerated”?  I certainly wish she had not been executed.  The trauma inflicted upon the Rosenberg children in these circumstances probably cannot be easily imagined.  I have furthermore come to oppose capital punishment on general principle.  There never was a single “secret” of the atomic bomb, though Greenglass’s crude sketch of an implosion lens might have been a big help to Russian bomb engineers.  The evidence suggests that the vigor of the government’s prosecution of Ethel was intended to put pressure on Julius and encourage him to confess.  According to the Meeropol brothers, that evidence “demonstrates conclusively that our mother was prosecuted primarily for refusing to turn on our father.”  If I had been grading their essay in a writing course, I would have written in the margin here: “Take greater care with your adverbs.”  Conclusion is frequently in the mind of the concluder, and the fact that Ethel may have been primarily prosecuted in attempt to force a confession from Julius does not mean that she was not rightly prosecuted as a collaborator in espionage, as I continue to believe she was.

That Ethel Rosenberg’s execution was a possible judicial blunder I can accept.  The prosecutors’ strategy was probably maladroit.  But I cannot accept the argument—or rather the simple assertion—that Ethel was an innocent person knowingly framed by malevolent government prosecutors.  Some “evidence” on which the Meeropols make such an insinuation approaches the ridiculous.  Since the Soviet intercepts do not assign to her a code name as they did to her husband (“Liberal”), she could not have been involved!  On the other hand there may well have been an injustice of omission if not of commission.  Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law, David and Ruth Greenglass, were as gung-ho Communists as the Rosenbergs themselves, and considerably more naive.  Ruth Greenglass, very likely an active conspirator, or at least a wannabe, was never charged.

When a few years back I almost accidentally, and certainly naively, began writing my book The Anti-Communist Manifestos, I was unaware of what a bear-garden the field of American Communist history was.  Essentially I found an arena in which the political battles of the 1930s are refought with vituperation and footnotes, though more of the former than the latter.  As I got deeper into my book I was forced to confront and try to explain the fact that a significant number of idealistic American intellectuals--and in France and some other European countries a huge number--had been either actual members of the Communist Party or pretty vigorous fellow travelers.  All Western Communist parties of the time were slavishly indentured to Stalin’s Russia, and by 1950 inquiring minds knew, or should have known, a great deal about the appalling realities of the Soviet regime.  Hence an American Communist of that period had the rather stark choice of being a fool or a knave.

Most were in the former category, true believers for whom the realities of actual Communist power in practice were nothing more than lies and capitalist propaganda.  The syndrome is eloquently analyzed in literally dozens of autobiographies of ex-Communists, but I especially recommend Arthur Koestler.  The conspiracy in which Julius Rosenberg undoubtedly played a central role and his wife probably played a minor one was of a different sort.  It was knavishly criminal, treasonous, and dangerous.  The Meeropols’ current argument is that Ethel was convicted of participation in it on the basis of perjured evidence by her brother David Greenglass and his wife Ruth, the motive of their lies being the protection of Ruth.  In this scenario David lied to save his guilty wife, while Julius merely refused to tell the truth to save his innocent wife.  Such a scenario would provide an interesting gloss on Julius’ character but not, in my opinion, grounds for the “exoneration” of Ethel.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Ascetical Summer


  
 Onward!

          It is high summer, the beginning of August—a fact with different meanings for different people.  I think back to Paris.  By now Paris, while by no means a ghost town, will be showing marked signs of underpopulation.  The French even have a word for it—aoutiens, Augusters, people who skip town in August.  Thousands will have taken off for their country places—there still being a few that are not owned by Britons—and others are cramming the airports to catch their cheap flights for bargain vacations in Greece.  It's an ill wind that blows no one good.

            For me the calendar change brings a whiff of sadness, and also anxiety.  Luke, Melanie, John Henry, and Hazel boarded their enormous van yesterday morning and set off for their home in Montreal.  We are having a changing of the guard, as Katy and Zvi with their two younger daughters, Lulu and Cora, have now arrived.  The fun of summer is not over, but we have reached an important punctuation point.  Already at both ends of the day the light is receding.  I can still see perfectly clearly as I set off on foot for the gym in the morning, but daylight and sunlight are not the same.  The sun does not make its appearance, presuming it deigns to do so at all, until I am on my way home.

            The first visible signs of the waning of the year account for the whiff of sadness to which I alluded.  The anxiety is, as usual, of my own making.  I have not kept to the work schedule I set up for myself at the end of May.   That this schedule was not particularly strenuous makes the failure to maintain it a bit of an embarrassment.  In the autumn (specifically at the end of October and beginning of November) I am scheduled to deliver the Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame.  There are to be three of them, spaced out over a week during which I shall do some informal teaching as well.  In theory each lecture will form the core of a chapter of a book on my general theme--“Asceticism and Literature in the Middle Ages”—though the book will have several additional chapters.  My task for the summer  was to finish off one of the lectures in each of the three summer months, the last of which we have now entered; but it hasn’t exactly happened that way so far.

            The topic is a vast one, to which I devoted much thought and a small lagoon of printer’s ink during my active career.  Oversimplifying grossly—and gross oversimplification is the only sort worth indulging in—the vast bulk of European literature for a thousand years is either directly or indirectly the product of ascetic institutions.  Monks and a few brilliant nuns, men and women who officially “despised the world” and often went to elaborate lengths to withdraw from it, were the principal creators of the world’s literature.  This is a circumstance that from one point of view is easy to grasp yetimpossible to understand from another.  To begin with, it is very hard for a twentieth-century mind—the only kind twentieth-century people are supplied with--to gain access to a world so distant and so strange.

            The first great monastic convert of the Christian literary tradition was an affluent Egyptian named Anthony (252-356) who, in his youth, heard the gospel reading from Matthew: “If you would be perfect go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor…”  He did exactly that, and then took up the life of a hermit (literary a desert-dweller), practicing a spiritual athleticism of extraordinary austerity.  Thousands of young urban Christians tried to follow his example of retiring to the wilderness to macerate their flesh and do battle with the demons who inhabited the waste spaces.  They were perhaps spiritual versions of today’s aoutiens, except they sought to reverse the process.  They were not trying to empty the city.  They wanted instead to urbanize the countryside.  Their motto: “The desert a city!”

            This episode had literary inspiration in the fantastic biography of Anthony written by the famous theologian Athanasius of Alexandria, which must be counted among the most influential books ever published.  It has left its impress on geniuses like Augustine, who saw in it an important analogue to his own economy of conversion, and Hieronymus Bosch, who devoted about a dozen paintings to its subject matter.  At least one modern literary genius must be counted among its fans: Gustave Flaubert, author of the “historical” novel The Temptations of Saint Anthony.

            It is easy enough to find the topic “interesting” for its strangeness alone, but modern enlightened thinkers have generally found it something else—offputting, repellent.  Gibbon’s erudite chapter on early monasticism in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a masterpiece of literary demolition.  Another writer whom I greatly admire and from whom I have learned much, the nineteenth-century Whig historian and political philosopher W. E. H. Lecky, encapsulates the enlightened view in a few trenchant sentences:  “There is, perhaps, no phase in the moral history of mankind, of a deeper or more painful interest than this ascetic epidemic.  A hideous, sordid, and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, passing his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of the nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates and Cato.  For about two centuries, the hideous maceration of the body was regarded as the highest proof of excellence.”*  Trying to navigate betwixt Augustine and Lecky in fifty-five minutes is proving a serious summer challenge--and that's only for starters.
 
*History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, (NY 1872) vol. 1, p. 114



Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Agricola





I grew up mainly in the country and entirely in what my father called the United States, meaning somewhere certainly west of Pittsburgh and preferably west of the Mississippi.  When for college I went all the way to Tennessee I considered that I was doing a bold and contrarian thing.  That I ended up spending most of my life on the East coast is one of those ironies through which Life punishes bigotry and redresses ignorance.

I know all the New Jersey jokes—what exit?, only state with a state smell, etc.—and am known to dust them off myself.  But while it is true that our state is not entirely free of problems, generally only one of our senators is under indictment at any particular moment.  I have long since become a great booster of the Garden State, beginning with the garden part.  The topsoil of Middlesex County is so scrumptious-looking that when you see a pile of it you want to reach for a spoon.  God obviously intended it for vegetables, but a square foot of it is worth so much to the real estate developers that God is no longer frequently consulted.  There is a smallish building lot in central Princeton currently on the market at one million dollars.


So the pressure is on us suburban farmers.  Central Jersey remains a paradise for the amateur squash and tomato crowd, whose numbers I have this year expanded.  My own horticultural efforts have been pretty lame for years, but I always had the excuse that I was away from Princeton for several crucial weeks of the growing season.  This year, as I knew in advance that my absence would be shorter and earlier than usual, I decided to go all out.

Going all out meant some serious manual labor.  I have had a small tomato patch at the front of the house where it is fairly easy to put up temporary fencing and where the road traffic, though light, has some inhibiting influence on the deer.  But this year I constructed a more ambitious garden, in full sun, on the south side of the stone wall at the end of my property.  This had to be wrested from heavily sodded turf, which I sieved, shovelful by shovelful through a tough steel mesh, enriching the crumbled remains with several years’ worth of compost and leaf mold.   It is about seven yards by six, which is not exactly the south forty, but still plenty big enough to keep me busy.

This back garden is seriously overplanted.  Of tomatoes alone there are about twenty vines--Ramapo, Krim, Big Boy, Cherokee Purples, the odd grape and cherry, and two or three as yet unidentified volunteers found in odd places, one odd place being the buildup of gutter silt along Hartley Avenue.  In addition I have luxurious patches of sweet basil, some sturdy eggplant, reasonable bell and sweet peppers, and several exuberant patches of zucchini squash, which behave as though in a try-out for a science fiction flic.  One out-of-control Concord grape vine, which I allowed to remain on the site, gives some kind of punctuation to this jungle.  

 compost offerings to distract the groundhogs

There are natural enemies galore.  In previous years I have never grown anything here that has not shown signs of mysterious blights, blotches, or vegetable eczemas; but this year, so far—knock on wood...  Animal critters are another matter.  I think I have bought off the resident groundhog colony with the opulence of the vegetable compost on offer, and I have made it pretty difficult to get into the garden at ground level.  Still, we live by faith.  The deer are another matter.  The casual fences I have constructed must be regarded, from a deer’s perspective, as merely symbolic.  If I expand the garden yet further, as I am tempted to do, I shall perhaps get serious and go to ten feet.  But so far this year I have lost only one plant, swallowed nearly whole by a rubbernecking white-tail browsing over the fence. I am happy to report that the lost plant was a jalapeño pepper planted by mistake.  I can but hope that the marauding deer had a few dyspeptic moments.


I was somewhat late in getting the plants in, and the crop is only now appearing.  We are drowning in zucchini, which has the unfortunate tendency to grow large and woody overnight, before I even spot it.  We have had the first delicious peppers and eggplant, and loads of small, succulent salad tomatoes.  The first of the big tomatoes are now turning red, and all indications suggest a bumper crop in tidal wave form.  It is never a good idea to count unhatched chickens, but I think I am being prudent readying my Mason jars to do up a batch of spaghetti sauce for the bleak midwinter.

 agricultural photography by Joan Fleming

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Saint Augustine at Downton Abbey




For my scholarly writing last week I needed to consult very briefly a Latin text of Augustine’s Confessions.  My library is well supplied in that category.  I even have a prized signed presentation copy of the edition of that work—signed by the editor rather than the author, needless to say—but one doesn’t use fine Limoges for Chinese take-out, which in intellectual terms is roughly analogous to what I was up to.  So I plucked the nearest to hand, which turned out to be a crumbling school edition published  at Ratisbon (Regensburg) in 1894.  I must have bought it in Oxford about 1960, and I haven’t looked at it in years.  I quickly finished my pedestrian task, and then turned my attention to the physical book.  It seems to have cost me two shillings and sixpence and once belonged to “E. Courtney [?] from the library of Canon Claude Jenkins”.  This latter eminent gentleman once had been Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford.  But it was the elegant bookplate of a yet earlier owner that caught my eye and piqued my curiosity. 


Who was this Winifred Burghclere who would serve only ung and whose kinky emblem was a dragon-backed nun?  Like thousands of others in the Anglophone world we were caught up in the enthusiasm generated by the BBC television series Downton Abbey.  I was aware, too, that the actual great house used in its filming is Highclere Castle in Hampshire.  And the bit of philologist in me knew that the root meaning of burg—OE byrig, which shows up as the suffix –bury in so many English place names--is “fortified place” or “castle.”  Hence, the strange Burghclere might possibly mean “Castle Clere” or something like bright or shining castle.   So I thought there might be some connection with Highclere.  The odds were not good, but even a stopped clock gets it right twice a day; and in this instance philological phantasy leads to an interesting story.

The previous owner of my Augustine, Lady Winifred Anne Henrietta Christiana Herbert (1864-1933), was the daughter of the fourth Earl of Carnarvon and (eventually) the wife of Herbert Gardner, an important Liberal politician and (eventually) the first, last, and only Baron Burghclere of Walden.  Lady Winifred’s girlhood home was Highclere Castle—i.e., “Downton Abbey”!  She was very close to her slightly younger brother George (1866-1923), who before succeeding to his father’s title (Earl of Carnarvon) was titled Lord Portchester and known to his intimates as “Porchy”.


"Porchy" at his ease

“Porchy” must be remembered as one of the great eccentrics in the famously eccentric British aristocracy.  (Among the few failings of Downton Abbey is Lord Grantham’s want of eccentricity.)  Porchy was filthy rich and could indulge his passions.  He loved fast horses and fast cars.  Fast women seem not to have been his thing.  Their traditional role was filled by amateur Egyptology.  “Porchy” bankrolled several important digs, including most famously the work of his close friend Howard Carter, who in 1922 stumbled upon the tomb of Tutankhamen.   This was among the most sensational finds in the history of archaeology.   All the world marveled, but King Tut himself was not amused.  We have all heard about the “Curse of the Mummy” or the “Revenge of the Pharaoh”.  Some few months after the opening of the tomb a mosquito bite on Porchy’s lordly jowl, complicated by a razor nick, turned septic and killed him.  Lady Burghclere, a serious historian and a fine writer, has left us a beautiful, crisp, and moving memorial of her brother.  It is published as a preface to the wonderful book by Howard Carter and A. C. Mace on The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen.  It is a little gem, and finding it has fully justified the time spent wandering by the wayside of my ostensible current project.


Howard Carter examines the find 
There is yet more in this digression to interest an English professor.  Lord and Lady Burghclere had four daughters.   The youngest of them was named Evelyn—a name of importance in the Herbert family.  Actually her whole name was Evelyn Florence Margaret Winifred (1903-1994), but the most important part was the Evelyn.  That is because in 1928 she married a young British writer, destined for later fame, whose name was also Evelyn—Evelyn Waugh.  For a while this elfin couple cut quite a swath through the socio-literary upper crust as “He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn”.  But marriage is a fairly serious business, and the common ground in which it is rooted should probably be more than nominal.
He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn

The he and the she wandered apart, and I fear that the she wandered so far as a lover’s arms.  Waugh sued for divorce—with all the self-righteousness and ignominious rituals that the stolid law of that time required in such matters.  Some critics think this was the event that plunged Waugh into the depressive misanthropy that, at least in my opinion, colors so much of his work.  It perhaps also hastened his conversion to Roman Catholicism, which in turn required further legal shenanigans, this time ecclesiastical, to get an annulment.  He got one, and it was then as though She-Evelyn had never been, and he had never had an Anglican mother-in-law who read Augustine in Latin.

 Tut, tut