Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Many of us are disturbed by issues of “social justice”—a term I bracket with quotation marks only because it means different things to different users—having to do with large disparities evidenced in the economic resources of our citizens. In the shorthand language of our political discourse we identify some of the issues as income inequality, the living wage, the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work. To what extent is the State authorized to coerce “justice” in the creation and distribution of wealth? To what extent is it competent? A good deal of modern history, certainly since the time of Karl Marx, has been driven by such questions. We have the hecatombs to prove it.
If we have no agreement on what a minimum wage should be we seem to have none at all about a maximum wage. I was fascinated by a recent press report from the world of art commodification. A few years ago a group of art dealers paid less than twenty thousand dollars for a Renaissance painting of Christ thought possibly to be from the “school” or “workshop” of Leonardo da Vinci. Later super-experts concluded that the artist must have been Leonardo himself. Very rarely do humanities professors make the Market quiver, but this time they did. Sotheby’s, the famous auctioneers, facilitated the sale of the re-evaluated painting to a Swiss buccaneer of the beaux-arts named Bouvier for eighty million dollars. Almost immediately Bouvier flipped the painting, as though it were a rehabbed loft in Bushwick, to a Russian billionaire collector named Rybolovlev for $127,500,000.
Now everybody is mad, and the suits are filing suits. The art dealers think they were stiffed for roughly fifty million. Ryboloviev makes a similar complaint since, he asserts, Bouvier should have been operating as his agent in the original purchase. Sotheby’s is aggrieved that their probity has been called into question. Fleming is mad because a beautiful painting of Jesus Christ as “Savior of the World”, quite possibly actually by the hand of one of the greatest Christian artists of the Renaissance, has become a talisman of obscene wealth. Read the forty-fifth canto of Pound: No picture is made to endure nor to live with but it is made to sell and sell quickly, with usura, sin against nature.
Of course “Christian social teaching,” though frequently invoked, is not exactly clear and prescriptive. Jesus did say “The laborer is worthy of his pay,” but what should that pay be? Since I was a child I struggled with the parable of the “Workers in the Vineyard” (Matthew 20). A landowner hires men to work in his vineyard. Some start out at the beginning of the day. A few hours later he hires some more, and so on throughout the day. But at the end of the day he pays each man an equal wage—a denarius, the standard daily wage of an agricultural worker—with no differentiation between those who worked all day and those who worked an hour or two. The point of all this, according to Jesus’s cryptic conclusion, is that “the last will be first, and the first last.” (My wife, a Bible scholar, tells me not to fret about this, as it is almost certainly a posterior addition to the parable.)
Naturally those workers who began at the crack of dawn did not think this was fair, and I have never been able to figure it out myself. In 1968 we were living in the south of France, at Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, near to Petrarch’s old retreat at the Fontaine de Vaucluse, when the Revolution exploded. The Revolution, for the youngsters among my readers, was a bit of French student guerrilla theater that got out of hand. Paris was the scene of most of the action, but even the remote provinces experienced serious dislocations on account of transportation strikes and, especially, the unavailability of gasoline. The sister of the farmer on whose property we were lodged had a large cherry orchard; its annual crop was the chief source of her yearly income. The Revolution created a crisis, since her fresh, ripe cherries could not be gotten into the produce markets. The best she could do was wait in vain hope that the strikes would end. When the fruit was over-ripe, she tried to salvage something by selling the crop for a pittance to a nearby jam factory. She was so desperate for pickers that Joan and I agreed to help out gratis. It was great fun but also hard labor, and when I got tired I simply awarded myself a work-break. Several of the hired hands grumbled openly about this; but I thought my response was invincible. They were being paid. I was working for free. The landowner in Jesus’s parable asks “Why be jealous because I am kind?” But one among the cherry pickers was not silenced. I should not be allowed to work for free or to take unauthorized breaks. All cherry-picking and cherry-pickers should be the same. Egalité trumped Liberté, and to hell with Fraternité.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Ruby with her authorial father (photo credit: K. Dixon, omni-talented mother)
The past week for me was mainly a happy swirl. I spent it on Washington Square in New York, mainly “helping out” with two of my grandchildren (Lulu and Cora) whose father had to be out of the country lecturing. It was delightfully light duty, mainly a matter of being around in the evening and putting together a few meals. My daughter was able to set me up with a computer and a fine place to work during regular work hours. These circumstances allowed me to insulate myself somewhat, but only somewhat, from the chill and gusting political winds unleashed the previous week. My workspace overlooked Washington Square Park, and on at least three days there were raucous anti-Trump demonstrations. At the very end of the week we all migrated to my son Richard’s house in Brooklyn, where we had a mini-party in anticipation of second-youngest granddaughter Ruby’s fourth birthday and to mark the somewhat more-than-fourth of her aunt, our dear daughter, which falls close by.
Five out of six of our grandchildren are girls, each of them delightful in a distinctive way. Being able to hang out with some of them for several days of their routine school lives was a rare treat. There is a special kind of investment one makes in one’s grandchildren—more mellow and reflective, perhaps, than that one had made in their parents. Our grandchildren are living indices of rapid social change. I knew all four of my long-lived grandparents quite well. They were all of the nineteenth century. When I compare their lives with those even now being lived by my grandchildren I am nearly staggered by the scope, breadth, depth, and existential consequences of the differences between them. But our country has always been a cauldron of dramatic change, as I was led to meditate by the accidental recovery of one of my strayed books.
Our eldest child, Richard, the father of Ruby, is a man of parts with a special interest in the post-colonial world of the Caribbean. As Cuba now sets out on its new path toward Chinese style pseudo-socialist bureaucratic plutocracy his book, Walking to Guantanamo, already a classic of offbeat travel literature, will become ever more valuable for its portrait of Fidel’s “old” new Cuba. Richard has spent even more time, however, immersed in black Caribbean Francophonie. Enabled by an impressive command of the Haitian creole, he pursues various fascinating cultural projects in Haiti. My eye caught something familiar on his bookshelf—namely my copy of the Library of America anthology of the writings of Lafcadio Hearn. I had forgotten, as I usually do, that I had lent it to him; but Rich is Hearn’s ideal reader.
Patrick Lafcadio Tessima Carlos Hearn was born in 1850 on Lefkada, one of the less famous of the Ionian Islands, and died in Tokyo in 1904. In his intense, questing, adventurous, and often desperate life of fifty-four years he lived out and recorded in his lush writings an exotic version of the “American dream” that is perhaps unlikely to be the first to appear spontaneously in the mind of the casual auditor of that hackneyed phrase. His father was an Irishman, a medical officer in the service of the occupying British army, his mother an illiterate Greek islander unfortunate enough to have fallen in with him.
They played hardly any role in his miserable early life. In his mature years Lafcadio could remember ever seeing his father only four times in his life; the mother, having been dumped by the father through the instrument of a particularly egregious annulment, eventually died in a Greek mental asylum. Hearn was grudgingly educated by reluctant relatives and supposed family friends in Ireland, England, and France. Coercive overexposure to Christianity in its Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant forms perhaps eased his eventual embrace of Buddhism, which he eventually adopted along with Japanese citizenship.
In 1869 Lafcadio himself was dumped with a one-way ticket to America and instructions to proceed to Cincinnati. There, on the Ohio River, that meandering extension of the Mason-Dixon line, still roiling in the wake of a great war that ended the institution of what he rightly called “American feudalism”, Hearn arrived penniless. The “immigrant narrative” is that people came to America “in search of a better life”. What that often actually meant was that other, more powerful people in Europe, while sometimes being unwilling simply to kill them off, didn’t want them around any more. Young Hearn eventually found his feet as a journalist—in Cincinnati, in New Orleans, and in the French Caribbean. He left a unique body of commentary on the cultural diversity, much of it founded in a long history of the forced migration of African slaves, of the aging New World. To his practical fluency in French he added a deeper philological impulse that led him toward folklore and anthropology. He was fascinated by the cultural dynamism of creole social alloys. He himself was married for a time to a former slave woman in violation of the miscegenation laws on the statute books of the State of Ohio. Hearn has been credited with the “invention” or literary discovery of New Orleans as a principal site of the American picturesque. If you have time but for a single brief essay, let me suggest “The Creole Patois” (pp. 744-748). All this of course came before his “Japanese period,” for which he is best known among those who know him at all.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
The very sad news of the death of the journalist Gwen Ifill, one of the anchors of the PBS News Hour, is in our house a kind of “objective correlative” of a more pervasive distressed mood following the general election. I had no personal acquaintance of Ms. Ifill, but I was a great fan. She was a luminous presence of intelligence, amiability, and spiritual generosity, a person of refinement and moral weight. She understood the distinction—strangely unobserved by many of her professional peers—between reporting the news and trying to make the news.
Journalism has played a huge role in recent political events, either through an actual or a perceived “media bias”. We say that seeing is believing, but it as often works the other way around. We seek confirmation of what we already believe, often with great success. That is perhaps the essence of living or writing in a “bubble”. My fear going into the election was that, whatever the outcome, about half the country would be left feeling aggrieved. I was right about that, though wrong in identifying which half. From one point of view this election barely had a winner. Trump was behind in the gross popular vote, and he won only because of the vote in the Electoral College—the way the Cubs won only because of the rules of baseball. According to most of the sources I read Donald Trump won because large swaths of the American electorate cannot accept America’s increasing “diversity”. I think that is exactly backwards. Mr. Trump won because America is already “diverse” in ways apparently unfathomable to the nation’s elite journals. Looked at from the broad perspective that includes the “down-ballot” and state elections the vote was a stupendous Republican victory, an electoral blizzard.
Years ago, while I was researching my book The Anti-Communist Manifestos, I came upon a man named Sender Garlin, an American Communist journalist and one-time staffer on the Daily Worker. Among other things, Garlin had played a role in the conversion to Communism of the young Whittaker Chambers. Though his politics were grim, he was a fellow of good humor as is suggested by the following anecdote he reported. In 1927 Garlin was working for the Bronx Home News, and was assigned to write the story about Lindbergh’s solo flight to Paris in May of that year. His editor, ever mindful of his journal’s parochial mission, put the following headline on the story: “Lindbergh Flies over the Bronx on Way to Paris”. I was reminded that cosmopolitan self-absorption is still vibrant in the Borough of Manhattan as well, when on the second day following the election the New York Times ran a two-banner headline proclaiming that “Democrats, Students and Foreign Allies Face the Reality of a Trump Presidency.”
Hard upon that, I was sedately tooling about in my second-hand Mazda, with my radio tuned, as always, to NPR. NPR has suspended its regular programming in order to focus full time on their “International Festival of Sore Losers,” an enterprise possibly accordant with my own mood. The “New Yorker Hour” came on, featuring the famous magazine’s editor (David Remnick) and two of its staff writers (George Packer and Amy Davidson) in conversation about the election and its meaning. These are three extraordinary intellectuals. I actually remember Remnick as a brilliant Princeton literature major nearly forty years ago. And you don’t get to be a New Yorker staff writer by just showing up. But this conversation, I mean…Tell me not in mournful numbers. Concerning the rubes who elected Trump there’s been an intellectual development among the Sore Losers. They (the rubes) are more to be pitied than censured. True enough that they may mostly be academically uncredentialed and unpigmented persons of xenophobic, homophobic, and racist character, but one has to make allowances for their upbringing, which has been among grain silos, cow pastures, revival meetings, and meth labs. The conversation partners joined in the heavy, heroic effort to understand their compatriots in Bartlesville and Altoona, though they had to stoop ever so low to do it. Being deplorable in elite eyes might be painful; but being pitiable must be crushing. I hope it will not come to suggesting “Hug a Hillbilly” lapel buttons.
I think that we can conclude that American journalism—as opposed to certain inspiring American journalists—failed us rather badly during the late political campaign. Fortunately as we face the anxious days ahead we do have other and more promising institutions, and in particular our Constitution with its reasonably clear delineation of powers and the limitations on those powers. For stamp our little feet as we may, wave “Not My President” signs as we wish, he will indeed be our president. According to Mr. Trump Americans have become so used to losing that we don’t know what winning is. That is one of several of his positions for which I find scant empirical backing. It seems to me that a large cohort of Americans—including some who wield the overwhelming power of the press—are so used to winning that they have forgotten how to lose in the spirit of the democratic compact.
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
statue of Champollion, courtyard of the Collège de France
This morning we have learned the results of the American general election. Concerning the dreadful campaign I have absolutely nothing novel, interesting, or cheerful to say, beyond citing the refrain of one of our oldest English poets: þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg. The poem is “Deor” in the Exeter Book, a catalogue of disasters that befell various legendary Germanic worthies, concerning each of which the gloomy poet concludes “That one passed away—this one may too”. Lincoln had had a yet more ancient philosopher in mind when he wrote thus: "It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words `And this, too, shall pass away’.” Thus ends my desperate search for a segue to the day’s actual theme, which is philological.
Figeac: Place Champollion
Champollion, of course, was “the father of Egyptology,” the “man who solved the riddle of the hieroglyphs”. I once heard him described, less felicitously, as “the man who cracked the Rosetta stone.” (Actually, it was already broken like that long before his time.) What a great man! Anyone with a passing familiarity with France, whether it be the France of the fourteenth or the twenty-first century, is likely to develop a somewhat ironical view of the place. But say what you will, what other nation—in addition to producing at least 450 kinds of cheese—venerates a philologist as a great national hero? Champollion exemplifies the bountiful harvest of the Enlightenment and the brighter side of the French Revolution—both of which certainly do exist. A boy genius from a modest household in the sticks, Jean-François fell in love with language. No passion is more intense. I know, because I have a son pretty much like him. While still in the single digits he was mastering the canonical classical tongues—and some others. He was already infused with a generous and questing republican spirit, and his merit was recognized by others so inspired.
In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt. There was method in this madness, though it cannot concern us now. The campaign was a military disaster but a cultural bonanza. It ignited yet another European spasm of Egyptomania—they seem to occur every few centuries—including a kind of learned international phoneme race. The ability to read the formal ancient written language of the Egyptians, the hieroglyphs, had vanished from the earth in time immemorial. Everybody knew that serious progress in understanding the amazing culture exposed to view in the excavated temples and looted artifacts depended upon the decipherment of the hieroglyphs. Concerning the hieroglyphs many crackpots had had many crackpot theories over the centuries. Now whole battalions of crackpots rushed onto the field. But so also did the most brilliant linguists in Europe, including the imposing English polymath Thomas Young, and set themselves to the task in earnest. It was Jean-François Champollion, a nobody from Figeac, who got it right. He did so by calling upon his unparalleled erudition and by thinking outside the box.
In this instance the box was the general belief that the hieroglyphs were a repertory of pictorial symbols: bowl, wave, hawk, owl, kissy mouth, etc. Well, the hieroglyphs manifestly are that. But Champollion reckoned that if they were the elements of an actual language they could not be just that. They had to signify in such a fashion that they could be read aloud in significant phonetic combinations. That is, they were the letters of an alphabet. The line of Old English poetry in my first paragraph twice uses the obsolete English letter þ. That letter in ancient times was called a thorn (sharp-pointed woody projection), of which it was a “picture” of sorts. But when you see on the page a þ you do not think “rosebush,” and you do not say “thorn”. You recognize it as the graphic representation of a sound that in our English is represented by th. This was the great “secret” of the hieroglyphs. They may be cool pictures, but they are in the first place the letters of the ancient Egyptian alphabet. Like certain other brilliant intellectual breakthroughs, this one seemed so simple once some genius had made it. Champollion died far too young in 1832, but not before providing the human sciences with a tool of extraordinary power.
The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone
Wednesday, November 2, 2016
I have just finished reading Philip Short’s biography of Mao Zedong. Even as I write that sentence I blush at its exaggeration. The author is short, not his book. It’s a volume of about 750 pretty big pages with a huge dramatis personae whose names my aging and occidental brain finds it difficult to keep straight. But it was the book that several knowledgeable friends told me I should read if I hoped to begin to understand Mao, who by any way of looking at things was among the most consequential actors upon the historical stage of my own times. I did a good deal of skimming and hopping about as directed by Short’s comprehensive index. I did read major sections in their entirety, including that on the Cultural Revolution; so I will exercise a license to which I may well not be eligible and say that that “I read the book.”
What did I learn about Mao? I well remember idealistic young Americans marching in the streets chanting his praises. On my own campus there were those who affected his dismal haberdashery. In France in 1968 I saw a huge sign fashioned by the student revolutionaries for one of their rallies that read “Our cause is invincible, for we have a weapon forged in Sinkiang.” I didn’t know what it meant exactly, but it sounded persuasive. Philip Short is an engaging journalistic historian, not a moralist or a political polemicist; but the gist of his book, in my admittedly episodic reading, is that Mao was one of the very greatest monsters in recorded history, perhaps even Numero Uno. The man achieved hecatombs that surpassed the joint production of Hitler and Stalin. He inspired the admiration and emulation of other murderous despots limited in their ambitions only by the comparatively more modest size of the populations under their subjection.
You should not have to read seven hundred pages to find out that a man was a monster. My complaint about biography as a contemporary literary genre is that biographies seem destined to get longer and longer. Having just spent the better part of a week working under the direction of my son Luke in trying to clean up my study I have seen for myself how easily and how quickly junk mail can become sacralized as an “archive”. Technological developments in communication make it easy to create “documents” and way too easy to keep them. On Anthony Weiner’s seized laptop the FBI has found 650,000 emails of conceivable pertinence to Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, fifteen-year-old girls in North Carolina and—who knows?—maybe even Carlos Danger himself. Most people seem to be concentrating on the “pertinence” issue, but I can’t get there, my intellectual energies having been drained by the preliminary effort to imagine six hundred and fifty-thousand emails. Someday some biographer of somebody is going to find it necessary to read them and tell me all about them.
Classical models teach us the wisdom of biographical brevity. Think of Plutarch, think of Seutonius. There are about twelve thousand words in the Gospel of Mark. Is there anything more biographically felicitous than Aubrey’s wonderful and wonderfully titled Brief Lives from the seventeenth century? Samuel Johnson published the Lives of the Poets—fifty-two of them, like a deck of cards—in a single collection. A century later the cultural critic Matthew Arnold would nominate six of the best of them as established, permanent “points which stand as so many natural centres, and by returning to which we can always find our way again." That’s pretty high praise. John Reed, a founder of the prelapsarian American Community Party, crammed more into his thirty-two years than the television lounge of your average pensioners’ home could pool together. When he was twenty-nine he wrote a little autobiographical gem, Almost Thirty, that practically electrified me when I first stumbled upon it.
Only after reading Philip Short did it occur to me to pull down from its shelf my favorite contemporary collection of short biographies: Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. This book, incidentally, is one I hope could be in my Desert Island Library should I ever be forced to put one together. Clive James was combating political correctness before it had even settled into its name. In this book he deploys his ideas through the medium of about a hundred biographical essays. For anyone inclined to respect learning, to honor history and try to be honest about it, and to value the Western cultural tradition and its distinctive achievements, one of the greatest obstacles is the slovenly but fashionable forgetfulness that he calls “cultural amnesia”. I suffer as well from forgetfulness of the more conventional kind. I could not remember for sure whether he had an essay on Mao, but of course he does. It is five pages long, and that includes an encomiastic review of Short’s biography and other relevant bibliographical information. His opening sentence: “The full evil of Mao Zedong (1893-1976) is continually being rediscovered, because it is continually being forgotten.” So Short had to go long.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Bill Bowen (1933-2016)
William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton University, died last week. Bill was already a professor in the Economics Department when I arrived on the faculty in 1965. Two years later he became provost—technically the second person to hold that new office, though effectually its creator—before being elevated to the presidency in 1972. He was the seventeenth president of our venerable institution, and served until 1987. This meant that I was an observer of his entire administrative career here. I was never a member of the Administration, but I served on various consequential committees and chaired an important academic department during that time, so that I have a reasonably informed basis for my high opinion of the man and his work.
Large and noble educational institutions respectful of long tradition and governed by the fiduciary principle generally move like battleships in port—which is to say, slowly and carefully. But move they do. There is no standing still. They are getting either better or worse. And they move in large part animated by a vaguely defined “leadership”. My father was of the cynical opinion that the divine protection of the Church was proved by the mere fact of its continuing existence through centuries of malfeasant leadership. But if you happen to be a part of some large earthly enterprise whose mission you applaud, even but a small cog in the machine of human betterment and fulfillment, it is inspiring, encouraging, and beneficially challenging to know that the people at the top, including particularly the person at the very top, are of outstanding character and capacity.
I believe that a large part of our persistent national malaise, an acute phase of which has flared up during the current election campaign, arises from the want of access to such credible belief. So I have a nearly sacred obligation to acknowledge the great good fortune of having spent a professional career under the leadership of four presidents very different in their accidental qualities but very alike in their essential excellence.
The death of a man of Bowen’s eminence and achievements naturally attracts obituary attention commensurate with its subject. I have seen several impressive notices already, and more will appear. This brief appreciation is not of that sort. I am not a theoretician of American higher education, and I do not feel qualified to comment on a career that many knowledgeable people would say became more rather than less important after Bill left Princeton and went to the Mellon Foundation. But I have never seen anyone put more into a job than Bowen put into his. The man was an indefatigable worker to judge by my accidental observation. As an early-morning swimmer I habitually passed by the back side of Nassau Hall on the way to the pool in the pre-dawn dark. I always knew when the President was out of town: the lights were not blazing in his offices. On several occasions I travelled with the President and others to alumni conclaves hither and yon. I noted that he spent practically every minute of the return flights writing longhand against a clip-board: hand-written notes thanking hosts or otherwise following up on particular matters from the meeting or event.
I once drew him up short by telling him that he had an “abbatial” style—that is, the style of a Benedictine abbot. Religion was not a big thing with Bill, and I doubt that he had much pondered the medieval monk as his role model. But the analogy remains in my opinion just. He prided himself on knowing the name of every faculty member—no mean feat. And though his first and apparently ruthless concern was always with “quality” and “absolute distinction” in his faculty, I came to hear over the years of several instances in which he made discreet, helpful interventions in relief of drastic faculty health or family emergencies—and that was only in the small plot of the institution in which I myself toiled. He was expert, too, at letting other people have his own way. As Lyndon Johnson was to the U.S. Senate, Bill Bowen was to the Board of Trustees.
He was not an easy man to get one past, but I did it one time, when he was still Provost. To understand and forgive the anecdote you must realize that even I was once young and even Princeton had its mildly wild side around the cultural revolution of the late Sixties. My very dear friend Jim Magnuson was then a playwright in residence as Hodder Fellow. Jim had among his trove of stage properties a tent-size crimson gown fashioned in a light corduroy material that had been prepared for a production of The Duchess of Malfi—doubtless for the duchess herself. It was decided that human felicity would be increased if I were to march in the Commencement procession wearing this garment. I did so. The truth of the matter concerning academic ceremonies is that you can do almost anything so long as you do it with pomp and apparent authority. Beside, one fake Renaissance garment is pretty much like another. A moment of inadvertent but felicitous eavesdropping at the end of the ceremony picked up the following.
Bob Goheen: What was that robe John Fleming was wearing?
Bill Bowen: Oh, Bob, that’s an old Oxford gown—said with apparent authority.
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
Is it possible for you to write some complete, coherent sentences without using the first letter of our writing system? The response to the question is “yes”, though the sentences might end up looking very odd, contorted, or contrived. For the shunned letter is indeed the second most frequently used in English writing—only its fellow-vowel E being more often employed. Hence, few extended prolusions of prose could omit it.
The gimmick in the paragraph above is that it contains not a single A. That feature makes it a lipogram—from the Greek λείπω, leave out—a literary bagatelle in which a writer voluntarily submits to some more or less absurd compositional constraint, such as avoiding the letter A, in order to demonstrate…exactly what?
There is a very long history to this sort of thing. A deservedly obscure Greek poet named Tryphiodorus is supposed to have written his own versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, each in twenty-four books corresponding to the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet. In serial fashion each book scrupulously avoided its appropriate letter: no alphas in book one, no omegas in book twenty-four, and so forth in between. The great Lope de Vega, who could write a play in the time most people require for a shopping list, wrote five novels in order to omit from each one of the principal vowels (a, e, i, o, u); he did not consider y a worthy challenge, despite the fact it is the Spanish word for “and”. It is alleged that in 1816 a strange drama entitled “Pièce sans A” had a very brief run upon the Paris stage. The opening (and only) night of the “Play without an A” got off to a bad start when the lead flubbed its initial line. The curtain rose to discover a man greeting another on stage. “Ah, monsieur!” cried the first. “Vous voilà.” The audience howled with laughter, but with the help of the prompter the actor recovered and started again: “Eh, monsieur, vous voici.”
These and numerous other examples are provided by the estimable William S. Walsh in his inestimable Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (1893). Mr. Walsh had no high opinion of lipograms, which he regarded as forms of “literary trifling” and “useless tours de force.” He thought that Tryphiodorus belonged to “those early centuries of our era during which the world, or the greater part of it, seems to have been in a state of blue mould for want of work.”
In fact the lipogram thrives on post-modernity, and I believe its mouldiest days are still ahead. Perhaps the greatest of modern lipogrammatologists was Georges Perec (1936-1982), the tragically short-lived author of the indisputably brilliant Life: A User’s Manual, a book from which not much was left out. But as a prominent member of an avant-garde literary conspiracy (in rough translation the “Atelier of Potential Literature”), Perec was all about pushing envelopes, shattering parchment ceilings, jumping the barracuda, and leaping the lipogram. His masterpiece in this field was the full-length novel La Disparition (The Disappearance ), a book in which the letter E never appears except insofar as its manifest absence invisibly ministers to major themes of lack, loss, and mysterious disappearance and is an important plot-theme. In 1994 Gilbert Adair (1944-2011), a brilliant Brit, published his English translation of this book, eless, as A Void. I became aware of it from reading an eless review by my old friend and one-time Princeton colleague, the late Paul Gray, then the book editor at Time magazine.
Intelligible language may be the distinctive feature of the human species and its principal advantage among all other animals. It is difficult to imagine effective human community without effective speech. What of written language? For most of recorded history a large majority of humanity was illiterate, and large swaths still are today. Now most advanced countries enjoy high literacy rates—one of the features that make them “advanced”. With negligible exception the educational systems of the world silently subscribe to this view. Human civilization in its entirely depends upon archived thought and information. How is it then that although the vast majority of humanity does a fair amount of talking each day, only a small minority ever does even a little writing?
It is the view of many that the hardest thing about writing is thinking up something to write about. I used to think that too. The old word for this was “invention,” which in Latin had really meant “finding” or “discovering” as in the “Invention of the Cross”. The famous orator Cicero thought that “invention”, the discovery of convincing arguments, was the first job of rhetoric. My own thinking about this has evolved.
Thinking up things to write about is a piece of cake. The trick is in figuring out what to leave out in writing about them. Say that Shakespeare wants to write about his terrific girlfriend, a subject for which the potential material is infinite. How does he discipline the presentation? Well he limits himself to fourteen lines of iambic pentameter distributed in three quatrains with a concluding couplet, with a rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, gg. That makes him leave an awful lot out, to be sure, but also forces him to make what he puts in really counts. If literary trifling and useless tours de force can add some variety to a writer’s workout, I’m all for them.