Wednesday, February 19, 2020

In Praise of Fake Roman Temples

 Greek Temple  (Sagesta, Sicily)
Amid several Trumpian controversies of the past two weeks is one that raises really interesting issues of aesthetics and cultural history.  In a document entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” the Administration announces its plan that “the Classical architectural styles” favored by our early Federal architects, styles reflecting “the architecture of democratic Athens and republican Rome,” should be “the preferred styles” for future Federal buildings.

This is a directive bound for contestation and even scorn.  Indeed it has already gathered a fair amount of the latter, including an editorial in the Times with the title “What’s So Great About Fake Roman Temples?  But in fact the questions it raises are quite interesting and worthy of serious thought as opposed to the usual confident rush to polarity that defines today’s politics.  My own thinking, though far from uncomplicated, has me finally siding with the “small-minded classicists”—the group to whom the Times attributes an attitude clearly offensive to their large-minded editorial board.  I don’t get all that many opportunities to side with the Trump administration, so I don’t want to miss this one.
Fake Greek Theater, Rome
I am not alone.  Generally speaking, the Times editorials are sermons to a choir whose members soon respond “Amen” in the letters column.  But not this time.  There was some lively “push back,” small-minded perhaps, but quite articulate, defending classical styles.  The sole  Amen-sayer did suggest the desire to continue in the architectural tastes of our Founders was equivalent to suggesting that, like them, men continue to wear wigs; and I’ll return to that shortly,

Matters of taste are proverbially indisputable; but really, lives there a man with soul so dead as to prefer the new Penn Station to the old, destroyed by broad-minded Vandals in the Sixties?  You can still get the echo of the old in the Post Office across Eighth Avenue.  That’s a fake Roman temple if ever there was one, just as the Æneid is a fake Odyssey  and the Divine Comedy is a fake Æneid, and all of our cultural tradition is “fake” to the degree that it acknowledges the giants upon whose backs the dwarves have mounted.  “Let us make a tabula rasa of the past,” goes the Socialist Internationale.  “Beginning with Penn Station!” chimed in Robert Moses.
Fake Roman Temple (Church of the Madeleine, Paris)

Me?  I’m all in for fake temples, though like the Romans themselves I prefer that the models be Greek.  My thinking about these things has been stimulated by a learned essay published nearly eighty years ago by the great medievalist and architectural historian Richard Krautheimer (d. 1994).  It is a highly technical scholarly essay, never intended for random bloggers; but I must pay homage to it.*  Krautheimer had been puzzled by the fact that many medieval churches declared in documents to be “copies” of or “modelled upon” an earlier building seemed, at first glance, to be so very unlike the supposed “original”.  That’s because “imitation” was more likely to refer to the idea behind a building than to its formal material elements.  That idea could be one of function, of theological dogma, or simply of spiritual “vibe”.  Krautheimer quotes a poem by John the Scot, an eminent medieval aesthetician, in which John rhapsodizes about the effect that thinking about the number eight has on him.  The Byzantine builders knew full well that form follows function.  It’s just that their concept of “function” was not limited to selling paper clips or conducting legal business.

In the history of public architecture in the West, ethical symbolism has played a huge role.  This is what Krautheimer meant, with regard to the medieval period, by an “iconography” of architecture.  But that symbolism could be secular as well as religious.  Free Masonry, a prominent intellectual influence at the time of our nation’s founding, built a whole moral universe out of the skills and products of builders in stone.  The great secular architects of early modernity—such as Andrea Palladio in Italy (1508-1580) and Inigo Jones in England (1573-1652) had long since brought classical styles into grand domestic buildings.

Fake Roman Fake Greek Temple (Princeton, NJ)

The ogive or pointed arch characteristic of the Gothic was a practical functional discovery that made possible some of the most beautiful buildings on earth.  But the word “Gothic” itself was a slur deployed by the Enlightened to dismiss the ideas with which they associated it.  When the Gothic Revival came around it was on account of a re-evaluation and expansion of those ideas.  The collegiate Gothic style—in which institutional trustees have been willing to invest lavishly from usually spare budgets--is not an homage to the doctrines of medieval Catholicism but to the “high seriousness” of the Christian educational ideal at the center of American Protestantism and from which American higher education clearly emerged.  College professors love to think of themselves as the radical cutting edge; but they also love to march about on ceremonial occasions in peacock capes and funny hats, because that’s the way they might have done things at the Sorbonne in 1304.  I taught for decades on a campus on which the very few ugly buildings included the Architecture School and the brutalist dormitories of the residential college of which I was the master.  The main complaints I had to deal with concerned food, of course; but students also felt gypped that their up-campus colleagues got to frolic in quadrangles framed by stone tracery.  That was the real college experience.

I would hope that our secular Federal buildings would aspire to a high seriousness of their own.  I am not among those who think that all or even most monumental modernist buildings are ugly.  Too many are, of course, but the Times rightly published (on-line) some impressive and beautiful ones.  But all lacked an “iconography” in Krautheimer’s sense.   You cannot reverence a tradition without being traditional   And the fact that state-sponsored classicism in this country has intended to invoke “the architecture of democratic Athens and republican Rome” is true even if it be the Trump administration that says so.
Super-Fake Roman Fake Greek Temple (James Farley Building, NYC)

What might be called iconographically significant anachronism is culturally prominent in many fields.  Our letter-writing friend with his quip about wearing wigs may never have seen a live British criminal trial, but surely he’s seen one in the movies.  And they’ve got gender equity!  There is no fake hair gap.  Even American judges continue to wear black robes.  The wigs are not emblems of small-mindedness but iconographic reminders of the timeless majesty of the law.  Clerical collars and indeed ecclesiastical vestments of all kinds invoke a special dignity once generally accorded the clergy.  I suppose that a priest could say Mass in a bathing suit with an ironing board for an altar, though the exercise might be sorely wanting in gravitas.

What is so great about “fake Roman temples” is the aspirational nudge they can offer our shared civic lives.  And what, exactly, makes them “fakes”?  Cultural imitation, properly understood, has through the long spread of our shared intellectual history combined obeisance to tradition with brilliant artistic innovation.  “True Wit,” wrote Alexander Pope, “is Nature to advantage dress’d—what oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.”  Shakespeare’s sonnets are not great because they have fourteen lines, yet the form--fake Petrarch, I suppose--is one of the conditions of their greatness.  Very clearly these are matters on which a perfect meeting of minds, large or small, is not possible; but surely they need not incite yet another skirmish in our culture wars.

*Richard Krautheimer, “Introduction to an Iconography of Medieval Architecture." Journal of the Courtauld and Warburg Institutes 5 (1942): 1–33, reprinted in: Studies in Early Christian, Medieval and Renaissance Art. Edited by James S. Ackerman et al. New York: New York University Press, 1969.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Pen and Gavel

The pen, it is alleged, is mightier than the sword.  But how does it stack up against the gavel?  This week I have been reading and thinking about two powerful literary responses to two famous (or infamous) judicial trials.  The first ended in the conviction of a French army officer on a charge of treason before a military tribunal in 1894.  In the second, in 1921, two Italian anarchists living in the Boston suburbs were convicted of capital murder before a court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  I refer, of course, to the “Dreyfus affair” on the one hand and to the “Sacco and Vanzetti case” on the other.

            Virulent French anti-Semitism did not create the Dreyfus Affair, but it greased the skids for a glide path to a monstrous injustice.  Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew, was a French artillery officer charged with passing military secrets to the Germans.  There had been treason, and there was a French officer who had committed it, but it was not Dreyfus ; and in any event the actual issue almost immediately became overwhelmed by a much more profound political-cultural struggle to the death between Republicans (the heirs of the Revolution) and Nationalists (political and clerical reactionaries).   The Army was one of the few national institutions commanding wide respect, but its leadership was full of anti-Semites, Catholic reactionaries, and faded aristocrats.  Having once convicted Dreyfus in a hurried, grossly incompetent and unfair trial, the Army leaders could not allow the correctness of their verdict to be questioned, though its defense required the compounding of injustices and an increasingly criminal cover-up—abetted at every step by a gutter press seething with malevolence.

 Alfred Dreyfus ( 1859-1935)

            Into this maelstrom the liberal novelist Emile Zola made the most famous journalistic intervention in history.  At the beginning of 1898 he published in a newspaper a blistering open letter to the President of France, Félix Faure.  This was the famous “J’accuse” letter in which he charged Army leaders, and especially the chief investigator, General du Paty de Clam, of conscious criminal malfeasance.  His aim was to invite a suit for libel which might force the uncovering of the cover-up.  The plan worked to a degree; for although the civil court too acted in a grossly prejudicial way, and although Zola was convicted, his intervention helped turn the tide.  Dreyfus was eventually cleanly exonerated.  Seldom has a secret conspiracy unraveled so dramatically.  The Dreyfus Affair convulsed France for a decade, and many historians see it as the defining event of post-Revolutionary French modernity.  Actually, Zola had not known the half of its iniquity, but his fearless catalogue of accusations remains one of the most influential op-eds ever penned.

Emile Zola (1840-1902)

The case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, an immigrant cobbler and an immigrant fishmonger, is just a hundred years old.  The crime was the murder of two men in a payroll heist on April 15, 1920 in Braintree MA.  The circumstances were and remain murkier than those in the Dreyfus Affair as finally revealed.  The two men were not rich Jews (Dreyfus was usually described as a “rich Jew”), but their families had not arrived on the Mayflower.  They were wops or guineas, in the slurs du jour.  Even worse,  they were politically active anarchists—one of the scarier words in a country in the grips of a post-War Red Scare.  Soulful Vanzetti, with his huge mustache and his eels, was very probably innocent.  Sacco, a true proletarian revolutionary with his cache of small arms and ammunition, was --despite decades of orthodox left-wing denial long since turned to sedimentary rock--probably guilty.  But the legal process, which found little room for reasonable doubt or much else that was reasonable, was grossly prejudicial.  Both were found guilty and both, after heated years of ferocious protests, political tensions, gubernatorial reviews, temporary stays, competing hysterias on the left and on the right, and the crudest forms of exploitation by accusers and champions alike, both were electrocuted in 1927.

Nicola Sacco 1891-1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888-1827)

The was no single Emile Zola for Sacco and Vanzetti; but there were a hundred aspirants.  Throughout the world, but especially in America, the number of writers and intellectuals who took up their cause was legion.  I cannot pretend to have read all of them, but I still have no hesitation in identifying one essay as the greatest.  That would be the memoir-essay of Katherine Anne Porter—she calls it a story—entitled “The Never-Ending Wrong,” first published in The Atlantic Monthly for June, 1977, half a century after the executions.*  A work so carefully mellowed can hardly be accused of giving voice to the passions of the moment.  It is instead a meditative poem in prose by one of America’s purest writers, ever.  Not that it lacks passion, but it is an examined passion.  Wordsworth famously characterized poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind”.


Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)

The history of American labor relations is rife with economic brutality, police malfeasance, judicial criminality, frameups and railroading.  But the history of radical protest is no less rife with manipulation, bad faith, and useful idiocy.  Porter was entirely aware of the cynical Communist efforts to highjack her own protest group back in the Twenties.  I myself am old enough to have seen thousands marching to proclaim the innocence of Julius Rosenberg, and I was provoked into writing a whole book by five hundred academic intellectuals gathered to deny the mendacity of Alger Hiss and heap calumny upon Whittaker Chambers.  Even though some of our historians are as dogmatic as the theologians of old, the standard of history cannot be the standard of Anglo-American jurisprudence: certainty beyond reasonable doubt.  Ms. Porter could not bring herself to believe, as I have come to believe, that Nicola Sacco was a murderer, that indeed his political doctrine made no accommodation for the “bourgeois” legal procedures in which he became enmeshed.  But that does not change the fact that the Sacco-Vanzetti trial was indeed a “never-ending wrong.”  The eventual, and for far too many the grudging rehabilitation of Alfred Dreyfus could not recompense his sufferings on Devil’s Island.  Esterhazy, the real spy, lived out his days in undisturbed mendacity in England.  The criminal conspirators in the Army (save one who committed suicide) made no atonement.  But Dreyfus was alive and well and  died in bed a septuagenarian.  For Sacco and Vanzetti it was the hot seat and the cold grave.  There was not much that a tardy resolution in the Commonwealth’s legislature could do about that—or even a brilliant retelling of the “story” by Katherine Anne Porter.

*Library of America, vol. 186, pp. 830-866.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Disasterology 101

Johnstown PA May 31, 1889

The evidence is in, and it is clear.  Once again, Iowans have interfered in our national elections, sowing confusion among our citizens and undermining confidence in our half-assed apps.  Among so much that is not yet clear is whether the situation should be classified as major debacle or minor disaster.  I opt for debacle.  As always, perspective is called for.  Among the websites I frequent is one called “Word Histories,” run by an indefatigable  etymologist, Pascal Tréguer.  His specialty is the explanation of common (and sometimes decidedly uncommon) English expressions, saws, and figures of speech.  One recent entry was “Don’t spit.  Remember the Johnstown Flood!”  While I doubt it is a common expression, I had encountered it once before in my eighty-three years.  I saw it on a wall placard in a nondescript roadside bar around 1960. 

            I presume you follow the transition here?  The  Johnstown Flood set me to thinking about comparative disasters from an historical point of view.  One is unlikely to avoid thinking about current ones.  So many are reported in the daily press that papers really ought to have a special “Apocalypse Section” at least once a week.  This would cover the body counts achieved by plane crashes, lethal fires, mass shootings, earthquakes, violent storms, common or garden-variety homicides, and really scary medical epidemics including, perhaps, opioid abuse.  A recent headline on an article about the fires in California and Australia caught the spirit: “The Twenty-First Century: Age of Disasters.”

Getting back to the Johnstown Flood of`1889, perhaps the first thing to say about it is that it was not a flood but a tsunami.  Johnstown is a small city straddling a modest river (the Conemaugh) about seventy miles east of Pittsburgh.  A group of wealthy Pittsburg industrialists and country club types had created an extensive private pleasure grounds about fifteen miles upriver from Johnstown, a prominent feature of which was the incorporation of a large lake artificially created by an inadequately designed earthen dam, a relic of the 1840s, restraining the south fork of the Conemaugh.  Disasters waiting to happen frequently tire of waiting.  The dam failed, releasing the hydraulic force of the Delta Mississippi into a modest but rapidly descending stream bed.  The water-wall obliterated several river-bank hamlets before hitting populated Johnstown.  It killed about 2200 people, many of whom suffered agonizing death in floating mountains of burning debris.  No need to worry about the Robber Barons of Pittsburgh; they had excellent lawyers.

The Johnstown Flood was prelude.  The American twentieth century got off to a notably disastrous start with the Galveston Hurricane of 1900—at least six thousand fatalities, perhaps as many as twelve thousand.  The comparatively modest death toll of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 comes nearly as a relief.  But I have skipped over the  Collinwood (Ohio, 1902) school fire with 172 incinerated kiddies and teachers and the Iroquois Theater fire (Chicago, 1903) with more than 600 victims, most of them female, including many children.  You may not have heard of this fire, which lacked the “social interest” historians have invested in the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory (New York, 1911).  Most of the 146 Triangle victims were sweated immigrant women and girls, not bourgeois Chicago matrons idling away a theater matinee, but the human folly that lay behind the horrifying death tolls was remarkably similar in both instances.  I shall leave unmentioned the fate of the Titanic (1912, death toll 1500 plus).  We ought to be able to give that one to the Brits.  The main theme here is American carnage.

Turning to “natural” disasters, Katrina, the storm that went a fair way towards destroying the city of New Orleans in 2005, may have been responsible for upward of fourteen hundred deaths—a huge number swollen by human failure and inefficiency. But so far that’s the worst our century has been able to do.   Superstorm Sandy of 2012, while visiting the northeast with massive property damage, took only about 230 lives, by far the most of them outside the United States.   I somewhat arbitrarily place the attack on the Twin Towers in the category of acts of war—not that acts of war are not disastrous.  But even Nine Eleven and the “endless” Middle Eastern wars following in its wake do not raise the level of the slaughter of the early twenty-first century to that of the early twentieth century.  Remember that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) twenty thousand British soldiers died.   By the time the battle was “over” the figure was 300,000.  The death toll for the whole of the Great War was about seventeen million.

Nothing seems more frightening than epidemic disease, and as I write the country seems poised on the brink of panic concerning the coronavirus infection first found in China and now showing up in many other countries, including ours.  The possibility of pandemic is real.  This is nothing to be nonchalant about.  As yet, however, the number of deaths is comparatively small even within China.  Meanwhile “ordinary” flu, though seldom mentioned in the press, has already killed about 8,000 in America.  That might be described as business as usual.  There is by now a national cultural amnesia concerning American mortality statistics for the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.  They are uncertain, but it carried away at least a half a million of a population just over a hundred million.

The most casual survey of world history should convince us that human life is a very fraught business full of danger, difficulty, and lethal adversities of every sort.  “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward.”  That’s in the Good Book.  It’s actually something of a wonder that humans have survived at all, but we are right now on a roll.  People have trouble believing that broadly and statistically viewed the human race has never been so well placed as it is now.  For example, vast numbers—really vast numbers-- have quite recently emerged from poverty to lives of modest sustenance.  This development is perhaps hard to see through the smoky blur of Australian wildfires.  But a lot of us apparently don’t want to believe it anyway and are encouraged not to think about it by a press operating under the simple proposition that “If it bleeds, it leads.”  How I’d love to see a headline reading “For Eighth Consecutive Year Nobody Shot at Alabama-Auburn Game”.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

William Hickling Prescott

I am not really one who frequently writes about historical anniversaries, particularly death anniversaries, but a coincidence invites me to do so now.  For I just discovered in my chance reading that William Hickling Prescott died precisely 161 years before the day I am writing this essay.  Prescott, born in 1796, was a great man and a great writer.  He has been described as the first serious or scholarly American historian, and his writings had great influence in the development of American historiography.  But before talking about Prescott it would be well to mention two other slightly younger contemporaries who also helped put American history writing on the map.

John Lothrop Motley (1814-1877) is most famous for his multi-volume Rise of the Dutch Republic.  Should that title in and of itself not send shivers down your spine, I suggest you set aside a week of your life to read Motley, a master of the gorgeous periodic sentence, a kind of Yankee version of Thomas Babbington Macauley, the great British Whig historian.  It is true that though very learned he never wholly mastered the Dutch language, for which he was criticized by some pettifogging Dutch Dry-as-Dusts.   But on his way to the bank he might laughingly have anticipated Hilaire Belloc in saying; “When I am dead, I hope it may be said—his sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”  Because they were: the books I mean.  I have no first-hand knowledge of the sins.

The third in the American historical triumvirate is Francis Parkman (1823-1893), author of the amazing studies of the contest between the British and the French in North America.  Parkman was perhaps the greatest of the three, and he dealt quite explicitly with American themes.  He was also a brilliant writer of English prose.  While his great achievement was undoubtedly France and England in North America, his first book, The Oregon Trail (1847) is one of the most extraordinary debuts in American literary history.  But it was Prescott who died on January 28th, and to him I must now return.

It took a certain temperament enabled by certain circumstances to be an historian in America two hundred years ago: you had to be affluent.  All three of these men were New Englanders, all three were Harvard graduates, and all three had private means that allowed them to pursue the Muse.  All serious English language history had been written by Englishmen like Gibbon and Hume.  Carlyle had published The French Revolution in 1837, the same year as Emerson’s prophetic lecture on “The American Scholar.”  American history before Prescott consisted mainly of puff pieces like Parson Weems’s Life of George Washington with its cherry tree fable.  Washington Irving was more serious, but still really a popularizer.

The world of Prescott’s youth was one of extraordinary upheaval on both sides of the Atlantic.  He was born only twenty years after Bunker Hill, where his grandfather had commanded the American guerillas.  Robespierre had mounted the scaffold only two years before he was born.  And revolution was by no means a thing of the past.  In the real time of his early years the vast Iberian-American Empires were breaking up into independent republics.  Following the pattern of numerous Spanish colonies Brazil, which occupies half the landmass of South America, proclaimed its independence from Portugal in 1822, the year after Prescott had definitively committed to his historian’s vocation.

Herein Prescott was to find his great subject—essentially the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire.  But he faced two difficulties, beginning with a personal liability that would stop most scholars before they even began.  He was for most of his life legally blind.  He was born with iffy eyesight.  Then he had gone up to Harvard at the age of fifteen, still a boy, and as you know, boys will be boys.  In a food fight in the college dining hall a chunk of coarse bread hurled with force hit him in the eye, blinding him.  This anecdote tells you something about the Yankee upper crust in terms both of deportment and baked goods.  Even the “good” eye was affected.  He never enjoyed thereafter more than partial and blurry vision even in bright sunlight.  To work by candle-light was impossible; and nearly total blindness descended on him precisely when he began serious work.

He knew that the historian depended upon original documentary sources.  The problem of not being able to see them was secondary, however, to the problem of not having them to see in the first place.  Historians depended upon a large international army of professional copyists—since replaced by printed editions, Xerox machines, and the Internet.  Sometimes they could actually buy the originals.  Prescott did travel to Europe, his modest personal fortune becoming a permanent research grant.  Then there was the awkward fact that the documents he needed were often written not in Latin (no problem) but in antique forms of Spanish, a language he did not yet know well even in its contemporary form.  So he immersed himself in that tongue and became highly proficient.  But he needed a native Castilian reader, and none was to be found on Beacon Hill.  The best he could do was a literate but impecunious monoglot Anglophone whom he taught, after a fashion, to pronounce the words of Spanish texts totally meaningless to the reader but at least partially comprehensible to the auditor: hour after hour, indeed month after month, of old legal formularies, royal edicts, and commercial accounts—all of which he stored nearly supernaturally in an amazing memory.  He wrote using carbon paper and an elaborately constructed board with lines marked off by wires.  Thus did America’s first great historian write his masterful History of Ferdinand and Isabella, followed by the History of the Conquest of Mexico and the Conquest of Peru. 

Written history has its styles, which are themselves unsurprisingly “historically conditioned.”   A modern school history text does not read as though it were written by Xenophon.  Contemporary academic historians can be critical of the grand but limited designs of their nineteenth-century predecessors, who tended to write about kings and queens and armies and battles to the neglect of social conditions and the lives of the vast number of ordinary people.  This is a valid criticism, even if I must point out that there weren’t many kings or queens on the Oregon Trail

But around the year 1900, at a time when the homes of educated and even modestly affluent Americans were likely to have an actual “library” room, publishing elegant multi-volume sets of Prescott, Motley, and Parkman was a thriving and profitable business.  The relics are still to be seen in dusty back rooms of old bookshops, at church rummage sales, and in eBay listings; and they still make great reading.  I hope before I die to see one or two of Prescott’s books in the Library of America.  Parkman already has two fat volumes, and Barbara Tuchman—another popular historical writer who knew how to bring out the story in history—is there.

William Hickling Prescott, born two hundred and twenty-four years ago, died on January 28th in the year 1859.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Hiram Corson Voices the Spirit

Hiram Corson, in the days when professors looked like professors 

Around here things have begun to slip in a distinctively geriatric way.  More than sixty years ago I one day noticed that my grandfather, who had always been a stickler about his modest personal toilette, was going two days, sometimes three, between shaves.  I still shave most days, but I’ve lost control of numerous other things of greater import, such as my library.  Half the time I set out to fetch one of my books, I fail to find it where it should be.  Very recently I lost a book I had agreed to review and had held in my hands only long enough to give it a superficial skim.  This means I am constantly having to go to the library to consult something I know is in this house or—even worse—ordering a second copy from the Internet.  I reckon that any price under ten dollars is saving me money otherwise paid out at gas stations and fed into parking meters, not to mention the annoyance of time-consuming and fruitless searching of my shelves.

Quite recently I thought I needed to consult an old favorite, Hiram Corson’s The Aims of Literary Study (1894, 1898), a handbook of great originality and enduring charm.  If you want to know why nineteenth-century political oratory is in a different and higher realm than that of the impeachment proceedings now in progress, this book offers a clue.  I think I already have two copies of it, but it’s of small format and easily lost behind or under a regular octavo.  I got another from Abebooks for six dollars, and it is nearly pristine.  As of May 4, 1899, as recorded on the flyleaf, it was the property of one Howard Stinson Kinney, presented as “First prize in Public Speaking.”  Mr. Kinney, apparently a talker rather than a reader, had not even cut all of the pages.

This is a wonderful little book, but by the time the new old copy had arrived, the urgency of my desire had been calmed by Google Books.  I don’t like reading books on line but will do so under duress.   So since the book arrived—and before it gets lost--I have been concentrating on the author rather than his most refreshing ideas about literary study.  Most people if asked the odd question “What is the greatest thing the French government ever did for the United States?” would probably answer: “The gift of the statue of Liberty.”  That was in 1886, and it is the wrong answer.  The right answer is “The revocation of the Edict of Nantes” two hundred years earlier (1685).  By this colossal act of self-defeating bigotry, Louis XIV rescinded the policy of the limited toleration of French Protestantism.  Among the long-term results of the French Wars of Religion was a very large exodus of French Protestants (also called Huguenots) seeking refuge in some neighboring countries.  The Huguenots were notable for their industry, their skilled labor, their artisanal training and accomplishments, their business acumen , their progressive attitudes, and their can-do spirit.  This was not a population that wise national leaders would ordinarily want to slaughter, persecute or expel.  But the Sun King’s folly was the bonanza of other lands, including England and her north American colonies.
Seventeenth-century French ecumenicism

The original American Corson showed up on Staten Island in the seventeenth century, his Carolina-bound ship having been blown slightly off course in a gale.  By the time of the Revolution the family had established a major beachhead in and around Philadelphia, where several of them adopted Quakerism.  Perhaps the most celebrated of the Corsons, also a Hiram (1804-1896), was a medical doctor resident at Plymouth Meeting.  This man, in addition to being famous for his superior medical prowess, was an early feminist and committed abolitionist.  Most readers probably don’t even know what a medical “house call” was, but I am just barely old enough to remember them.  Dr. Corson, making house calls, travelled on horseback or by carriage a distance equivalent to sixteen laps around the globe’s circumference!

But I must get to the doctor’s relative, my Hiram Corson, the English professor (1828 –1911).  He eventually taught at Cornell, an institution of unique importance in the history of American higher education for several founding innovations.  But his earlier pedagogical career was an exercise in virtuous works at such places as Girard College (indigent and underprivileged students) and the Ogontz School (highest quality education for young ladies).  He published dozens of essays and books, beginning with Old English, Chaucer, and the Elizabethans, but including Robert Browning, who in 1886 was the keenest of cutting edges.  His masterpiece, in my estimation, is his Aims of Literary Study; but what fascinates me even more were his extracurricular interests. 

Corson was a great believer in the spiritual, a concept only tangentially connected with religion.  For him every poem had an “intellectual” but also a “spiritual” content, the latter apprehensible only through expert vocalization.  It was not through literary analysis in a book or classroom discussion that one grasped the spirit of a poem, but through the expert articulation of the trained human voice.  The “vocal” aspect of literary study has practically disappeared today, but it is directly connected to the teachings of classical rhetoricians.  An American high-school graduate of the nineteenth century could be expected to have memorized a large store of English poetry and to be able to recite it in an elegant manner.
Madame Blavatsky

Corson didn’t stop there with “spirit”.  He was an actual Spiritualist and a pioneer student of “paranormal phenomena” and “psychical research”.  The second half of the nineteenth century was the heyday of poltergeists, table-rappers, and ectoplasm manifestations.  Corson was convinced that there had to be a few grains of wheat among all the chaff and heroically set out to winnow through it.  He was in cahoots—or as he thought of it, scientific collaboration—with the celebrated “controlled” medium Minnie Meserve Soule (1867-1936), a prim and proper Bostonian lady.  A “controlled” medium was one who in the trance-state became the voice or channel for specific familiar spirits from the Other World.  Minnie discovered her unwelcome powers in childhood through a series of remarkable precognitive dreams.  Her occult name was “Mrs. Chenoweth”, and she channeled an impressive spirit called Imperator as well as various young American Indian lasses, especially a sixteen-year-old Choctaw named Sunbeam.  Corson was a friend of Madame Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, and one of the weirder women who ever walked the earth.  Nominally a Russian Orthodox Christian, Blavatsky was fascinated by Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, and played a major role in stimulating the “oriental” aspects of Western occultism.  What is one to say about all this?  Well, it’s better than most current literary critical theory.  Corson entertained Madame Blavatsky at his home in Ithaca.  Though I have no documentation for it I like to think that over tea he introduced her to his friend Andrew Dickson White, one of Cornell’s founders, who in 1896 published his great two-volume classic, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Treason of the Intellectuals

A few days ago Ross Douthat, one of the regular columnists for the New York Times, published an essay entitled “The Academic Apocalypse: The crisis of English departments is also a crisis of faith."  I think that Douthat, who holds somewhat conservative political views and is a practicing Roman Catholic, is meant to offer a countervailing voice on an editorial page dominated by writers of a leftward drift.  Though I often agree with his ideas, my personal liking for him--not that we have ever met--is based in his intelligence and the courtesy and civility with which he and colleagues with very different points of view conduct themselves in the NYT podcast "The Argument."
Douthat’s column is a kind of review of, or response to, an anthology of essays published in the Chronicle  of Higher Education under the somber general title “Endgame”—as in the end of the line for literary study.  I have not yet read these essays.  I will, I suppose, though I probably don’t need to.  It is likely that  I could have written them myself, all of them, with all their differing perspectives; for one version or another of the central arguments, debates, laments, complaints or boasts they advance has been current during every stage of my career as a professor of literature.

            When I first joined the Princeton faculty in 1965, there was a bunch of emeriti geezers who used to sit around the coffee lounge of a morning in endless conversation about one of two cognate topics: how the Department was going to hell in a handbasket, and how much better it had been in the good old days.  I thought this was really pathetic, though I prudently held my peace, at least awaiting a tenure decision.  Then forty years passed, and something odd happened.  I noted that the Department had gone to hell in a handbasket, and that things had been different and a lot better in the good old days.

            The “endgame” analysis of literary study is not new, and my forty years of teaching were approximately the forty talked about in William Chace’s much noted essay entitled “The Decline of the English Department” published in The American Scholar, the magazine
of Phi Beta Kappa, in 2009.  Chace is a former English professor (modernism, Irish writers, that sort of thing) and the former president of three of our most prestigious colleges and universities.  Once he had no further aspirations along those lines, perhaps, he started writing a series of things in the genre of “At Last the Truth Can be Told.”  In this episode he began by noting “a well-publicized shift in what undergraduate students prefer to study”.  Heading toward the bottom line, there has been a marked decrease in the popularity of all humanities majors, but particularly I would have to say of the English major.  Forty years earlier about eight percent of all American undergraduates were majoring in English.  In 2003/2004 it was less than four percent.  Those are real statistics, but anecdote might be even better.  I was aware that in the year I retired (2006) there were just about half the number of English majors at Princeton as when I was chairman of the department back in the ‘Eighties.

            Douthat singles out for special praise an essay by Simon During, an Australian scholar of great ability who sees “the decline of the humanities as a new form of secularization, an echo of past crises of established Christian faith.”  Even without having read the essay, any Christian scholar would recognize the truth of the thesis.  While literary study cannot stand alone as the paradigm of the humanities, it does play an outsized role in the academy.  What are the “humanities?”   The word derives from the Latin phrase litterae humaniores, the more “human” or secular branches of writing as opposed to sacred texts, the stuff of “divinity” or theological study.  The introduction of humanistic study into the universities, which began as a supplement to “divinity”, soon enough went on to create a powerful alternative, even if its literary canon had a cutoff date of roughly the year 65 of the common era.  Furthermore there was in the cultural prestige of the litterae humaniores and the solemnity with which they were transmitted good reason to regard academic humanists as members of an hieratic class, and consequently to recognize that it may not be that Macbeth has suddenly become repellent but the way it is being taught or not taught by a secular clerisy that no longer “believes”.

In his decade-old essay Mr. Chace was aware of complex causality, but no less so of root causes: especially a want of professorial passion.    “At the root,” he wrote, “is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.”  Now this explanation was so right on, as we used to say back in ‘sixty-eight, that it immediately generated denial, indignation, and charges of bad faith from various eminences in the Modern Language Association.  The last thing the VP for Sales wants to hear is that his company is selling something that the “consumer base” doesn’t want to buy. 

But the term passion, which plays so prominent a role in Christian theological language, is deeply ambivalent.  It  may mean among other things an animating enthusiasm on the one hand or a blinding fanaticism on the other.   In 1927 the once celebrated French writer Julien Benda published a book entitled La trahison des clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals) in which he indicted the intellectuals for their “treason”—not against the nation state but against European civilization—in having with their political passions encouraged the disaster of the Great War.  A wonderful scene in Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) suggests that the chauvinism of cultural arbiters did more along those lines than an archducal assassination.

            The word clerc, still pronounced in England like the common surname, Clark,  is related to our words cleric and clergy, originally denoting someone with the learning uniquely characteristic of a churchman, a learning grounded in “moral virtue,” as Chaucer puts it.  He said that of the Clerk of Oxenford—he who would gladly learn and gladly teach, as a matter of fact.  Chaucer’s Good Parson, too, was “a learned man, a clerk”.
            In what, precisely, did the treason of the clercs consist?  In a chapter called “The Great Betrayal” Benda actually produced a three-part enumerated indictment:  1. The clercs have adopted political passions.  2.  They bring their political passions into their activities as clercs.  3.  The clercs have played the game of political passions by their doctrines.  This third head had a particularizing subdivision:  (a) the clercs praise attachment to the particular and denounce the feeling of the universal, and (b) the clercs praise attachment to the practical, and denounce love of the spiritual.  The Treason of the Intellectuals made quite a splash back in the day, and it is still worth a read.  There was some lively debate as to whether its inspiration was from the left or from the right, but most people could see that it was an indictment of, or perhaps only a lament for, a debilitating crisis of faith.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Son ou Lumière

This essay will be about abused cats and singing rainbows.  If you have a low tolerance for astonishing coherence of this sort, I suggest you stop reading and turn to the op-ed page of your morning paper.  A current Netflix sensation is a series entitled “Don’t **** with Cats” in which my asterisks of course stand for the universal obscenity ubiquitous in the speech of the verbally challenged, and now used indiscriminately in more or less meaningless nominal, verbal, adjectival, prepositional, and interjectional forms quite without reference to pleasurable conjunction of any sort.   Well a while ago a psychopath mounted on the Internet a video of his demented act of asphyxiating two adorable kittens.  This barbarism outraged a vast legion of cat-lovers, which as it turns out is really the group with which you should not ****, since two of its more obsessive and cyber-fluent members spent a couple of years on-line tracking down the culprit, one Luka Magnotta, a youthful and very weird Canadian narcissist who had later escalated from kittens to college students, one of whom he murdered and dismembered, also on videotape.  Luka is now and permanently in prison in Quebec. 

“As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,” says Gloucester in King Lear.  “They kill us for their sport.”  Experts in abnormal psychology have noted that boys who torment animals not infrequently later exhibit other serious pathologies, including homicidal violence against fellow human beings.  But felines have always been in a special category as victims of allegorical slaughter.  I refer you to the well-known work of my friend Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History.  With this book we get somewhat closer to today’s actual subject—the ocular harpsichord of the Abbé Louis-Bertrand Castel—but only somewhat and only after briefly considering its theoretical antecedent, the cat-piano.  The cat-piano was supposed to work in the following way.  A number of differently voiced cats, carefully selected by a process of caterwaul-auditions, were to be affixed to boxes within a clavier-like instrument.  Instead of initiating the sound of vibrations from tuned strings, the action of the pianist, or rather painist, caused sharpened hammers to jab the cats, whose induced screeches of agony would paradoxically rise in a feline harmony of beautiful meowsic.  We must remember that through the eighteenth century the torture of small animals seems to have been widely regarded as an acceptable amusement, though we have good reason to hope that the cat-piano never got off the drafting board.

the (imaginary) cat-piano

The grotesque (or perhaps satiric?) idea of the cat-piano may well have derived from some of the acoustical speculations of the Jesuit genius Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), who in 1650 had published his amazing book, Musurgia universalis, a title I translate freely as “Everything Anybody Could Possibly Ever Know About Music”.  Two generations later this book made a big impact on another erudite Jesuit, the French mathematician Louis-Bertrand Castel (1688-1757).  From both the aesthetic and the scientific points of views many Enlightenment thinkers were concerned with the relationships among the human senses.  Diderot writes a letter about the blind, and another about deaf-mutes.  Rousseau invents a crackpot musical scale.  Other great minds try to squeeze out every drop of juice in the analogy between poetry and painting found in a line of Horace’s Ars poetica.  Here I can suggest another terrific book by another friend—Lawrence Lipking’s The Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England.

Father Castel became fascinated with the relationships between vision and audition, seeing and hearing.  He became seized of the idea of inventing a musical instrument that would produce patterns of color rather than patterns of sound.  Castel was brilliant, bull-headed, and highly argumentative.  Voltaire called him “the Don Quixote of mathematicians” because of his propensity for picking arguments with great scientists of his age, especially Sir Isaac Newton.  Newton had done important work on the refraction of light, including identifying the “seven primary colors” as still conventionally catalogued.  Furthermore Newton had already proposed an analogy between the seven colors and the seven musical notes of the expanded scale of Guido d’Arezzo.

Sir Isaac Newton's correlation of the primary colors and the musical scale

Castel was still half-medieval in his essentially mystical view of the nature of physical reality.   His mind still danced to the mundana musica, the silent “music of the spheres”, as had the minds of Boethius and Dante.  That music should be studied primarily as a branch of mathematics seemed obvious to him.  He was a noisy anti-Newtonian on important topics of physics, retaining his commitment to René Descartes and his followers, but he enthusiastically embraced the idea of a “music” that would be visual rather than sonic, and in 1725 he published his ideas on the subject and set out to construct a clavecin oculaire, or harpsichord of color.  He had encouragement not merely from various theoretical physicists and mathematicians but also from his friend, the celebrated musician Jean-Philippe Rameau.

There are many references to the clavecin oculaire  or color harpsichord in eighteenth-century scientific literature, but it still remains shrouded in mystery.  Presumably the percussive action initiated by the keys, instead of being directed at taut wires or captive cats, would cause bands of colored material to rise and fall before the audience in richly orchestrated chromatic harmonies.  Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter.  The documentary evidence as to whether this musical machine was in fact ever achieved, or whether any actual persons actually saw it perform, is ambiguous and contradictory.  Newton’s ideas were not widely accepted among French intellectuals in 1725.  Voltaire was one of the people who changed that.  In 1737 he published a kind of Newton for Dummies entitled “Elements of the Philosophy of Newton”.  By the time he published a second and expanded edition in 1748 the tide had turned.  The Cartesian loyalties of people like Father Castel were becoming old-fashioned, even quaint.  But in that 1748 edition, in a new chapter on Newton’s optics, Voltaire gave a plug to the clavecin oculaire.  That was a generous gesture from a man who hated Jesuits almost as much as they hated him.  I think Newton himself would have done the same.  I mean, it really is a great idea.

 Rimington's instrument and chromatic score

There have been various attempts to revive Father Castel’s idea, even without his deep ideological investments in it.  A minor British painter of the early twentieth century, Alexander Wallace Rimington, created a “color organ.”  He patented it in 1893, and performed on it before a large audience (viewership?) in 1895.  But by then many important questions about the transmission of light and sound had reached at least general scientific consensus.  With no semi-mystical revelations weighing in the balance and with the battle of the Newtonians and the Cartesians already but a distant memory, Rimington’s device was but a passing novelty, a flash in the pan, or perhaps a blur on the sounding board.