Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Absolutely Constitutional


"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
The Constitution of the United States of America, amendment 2

I believe that it was the young Lord Acton who remarked that “ablatives confuse me, and ablatives absolute confuse me absolutely”.  It must have been around 1844.  He would have been about ten years old, and having a hell of a time with his Latin course at Oscott College.  He had a point.  I thought of this while watching a video of Mr. Trump’s loyal speech to convened members of the National Rifle Association, whose endorsement he had just received.  He promised his audience that he would not let them down in supporting their gun rights, but that the same could not be said about his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.  “Hillary wants to disarm vulnerable Americans in high-crime neighborhoods….Whether it’s a young single mom in Florida or a grandmother in Ohio, Hillary wants them to be defenseless, wants to take away any chance they have of survival. . . . And that’s why we’re going to call her ‘Heartless Hillary.’ ”

A person who would willfully take away any chance for the survival of Ohio grandmothers would be heartless indeed.  I suppose that single moms in Florida fall more into the category of the judgment call.  Ms. Clinton did not take this lying down, however.  “You're wrong,” she tweeted in Trump’s direction. “We can uphold Second Amendment rights while preventing senseless gun violence.”

The dramatic “evolution” of positions taken by American politicians is a feature of our political life.  I seem to remember that Mr. Trump, not all that long ago, was favoring a prudential approach to the gun issue.  And as an Arkansan I can guarantee you that Hillary Clinton was not espousing any form of gun control when she was the first lady of my state.  Au contraire, as the great W. C. Fields always used to say.  But the wind bloweth where it listeth, and political candidates get blown about rather more than others.

I myself am less interested in the rights of the second amendment than in its wrongs, beginning with its syntactical solecism but including also the chaos of its punctuation.  Getting to the bottom of this necessitates a brief chapter in the history of education.  European pedagogues of the Enlightenment period stressed the classics.  To be considered moderately educated one had to be able to read Latin easily.  To be well educated meant you could write it flawlessly as well.  Young men spent a great deal of time studying Latin.  Many pedants, unfortunately, considered Latin vastly superior to the vulgar tongues and tried to impose its rules on the local native language.  In England that was English.

There is in Latin a common construction called the ablative absolute.  Eighteenth-century writers of formal prose seem to have thought it ought to be common in English as well—despite the fact that modern English shed its system of noun declensions centuries earlier, and thus didn’t have ablatives.   According to the latest edition of Gildersleeve’s Latin Grammar, “The so-called Ablative Absolute is an Ablative combined with a participle, and serves to modify the verbal predicate of a sentence.”  That’s perfectly clear, I’m sure.  But of course the reason the nominal form is absolute (i.e., “standing apart from a normal or usual syntactical relation with other words or sentence elements”) is that it stands apart from a normal or usual syntactical relation with other words or sentence elements.  Therefore though we can through a strenuous act of imagination conclude that the noun of a well regulated Militia is or in a parallel linguistic universe might be in the ablative case and that it combines with the participle being, there is absolutely no living Nobelist in literature, Harvard law professor, or other clairvoyant who can tell you for sure what it has to do with the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.

Then there is the problem of the rampaging constitutional comma.  There is a current English ablative absolute respectable enough to have been adopted as the name of a program on NPR: the phrase all things considered.  Under no circumstance would you say “all things comma considered” any more than you would say “all things comma bright and beautiful”.  But note that the infallible Founders have “A well regulated Militia comma being…” Did they lose confidence in the absolutism of their ablative or did they, as I suspect, throw in a comma every now and then just for the hell of it?  What other explanation can you offer for the third and final, comma, in, the, second, amendment?  The subject of the principal clause of the second amendment is the right to bear arms.  Its predicate is “shall not be infringed”.  Why, o tell me why, is there a comma between them?

In an earlier blog post I already expressed the opinion that the second amendment should be repealed (as was the eighteenth, concerning the prohibition of alcoholic drink) employing the constitutional process most of the Founders thought would be frequently used, but which has been seldom invoked since the Constitution mysteriously changed its status from that of an excellent utilitarian handbook for that of a sacred text in a revealed religion.  I realize that my suggestion is a non-starter.  My fallback position is this: would somebody, please, parse the second amendment.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Typical Ambiguities


This has been a busy week that proved yet again, as though it might still need proving, the relentlessness of life, which shows scant respect for the concept of retirement.  This is the last week of the eighth decade of my life.  It already has included an oh-so-close bicycle accident that had my spouse for many hours in the Emergency Room and left her for the time being looking like a war casualty, and her family members shaken.  Less dramatic has been my attempt to get my vegetable garden properly laid out as I dodged between thunderstorms.   Also, I am in the terminal push of final revisions on a scholarly book that must be returned to the press within a few weeks.

            Under these circumstances, naturally, I need to tell you about the latest addition to my library—a library to which further additions are theoretically forbidden.  But I happened upon a practically new copy of the Library of America edition of Shirley Jackson’s Novels & Stories and got it, against any rational expectation, with a single-digit bid.

 Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

            The short story is, in my opinion, the queen of prose genres, and certainly one of the great genres of American literature in particular.  I grew up reading O. Henry, whose collected volumes lay strewn about my grandfather’s house in Arkansas.  In my early reading years, when ours was a nation of magazine-readers, most popular American magazines published short stories.  That is part of the world we have lost.  Short stories are a wonderful introduction to the world of fiction.  I would never have developed my love for Henry James if I had been obliged to read The Golden Bowl cold-turkey, without being coaxed to the big novels by degrees, through short stories and then The Turn of the Screw.  I certainly read a few of Jackson’s stories at their original publication

            Jackson wrote one of the most famous short stories in the English language: “The Lottery” (1948).  You probably have read it, but if you haven’t I am not going to be the one who tells you about it.  To this day it appears to hold its instantly established record as the most controversial story ever published in The New Yorker.  In the volume just acquired the editor concludes with an appendix (“Biography of a Story”) in which Jackson gives her bemused account of the story’s reception.  Not untypical of the letters received at the offices of The New Yorker was one that begins thus: “Never has it been my lot to read so cunningly vicious a story as that published in your last issue for June.  I tremble to think of the fate of American letters if that piece indicated the taste of the editors of a magazine I had considered distinguished.”

            But the story that captured my attention this week was one I had not before read: “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” which originally appeared in Story magazine in 1943.  This is a very “in-group” title, the group in this instance being literature professors of my generation.  For Seven Types of Ambiguity is a once-famous book of literary criticism published in 1930 by the English “New Critic” William Empson, then a wunderkind of twenty-four.  Jackson was twenty years my senior, but she was also an English professor and married to another.  She must have been teaching at Bennington while I was studying at Sewanee in a quite similar English department where names like Empson, Ransom, Warren and Wellek were confused with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  How very different are things today.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

 William Empson (1906-1984)

            The Empson book is brilliant, ingenious, and deeply annoying in equal measures.  His categories do not always on mature thought prove to be inexorable.  One could expand his “method,” if you want to call it that, to seventeen or seventy types of verbal ambiguity, or perhaps reduce the seven back to one.   But none of this matters in Jackson’s story, where the book’s role is thematic in a way sufficiently signaled by its title alone.   The setting of the story is a large old New England second-hand bookshop.  Two principal characters are an intellectual and impecunious young man in whom I can easily recognize my younger self, and a middle-aged man in whom I fear to recognize my older self.  The young man would love to buy a used copy of Seven Types of Ambiguity but makes do with reading it by fits and starts during frequent visits to the bookshop.  The older fellow wants to buy up several yards of nice sets of classic writers at one fell swoop.  This story, too, has a “surprise ending” illustrating perhaps the “banality of ambiguity” but perfectly in tune with the mood of my own week.  I still hear people asking—usually somewhat obliquely—some form of the question “What exactly is it that literature is good for?”  If one has to ask the question, one is probably unable to receive the answer, which is—also somewhat more obliquely posed—“to help make sense of life”.  For life, as you may have noticed, has its ups and downs and puzzling uncertainties.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

On the Loose




            I am certain to have mentioned in the past, and perhaps on more than one occasion, a wonderful old book by Richard Chevenix Trench called The Study of Words.  It originated in a series of lectures to Anglican seminarians in 1850 or so and went through many nineteenth-century editions.  Together with Owen Barfield’s brilliant History in English Words (1926), which might be regarded as its more philosophical offspring, it had a formative influence on the way I think about our English tongue, which is after all the raw material of my life’s work of literary study.  These books insist on the ethical dimension in linguistic development; and it is that emphasis that makes them more interesting to me than the arguments between proponents and opponents of Noam Chomsky.

            I thought of Trench when on the same day that I spotted from my truck cab what I think was my first loosestrife bloom of the season I heard Hilary Clinton on the news calling Donald Trump a “loose cannon”.  The purple loosestrife, which is now found almost everywhere wet enough, is for many North American botanists a menacing invader and a threat to biodiversity, but I love to see it.  However, it is the name that interests me here.  In ancient Greece it was apparently called lusimachion, honoring an important soldier, Lusimachos.  Only a truly great civilization names flowers rather than tanks after their generals.  However, fanciful etymologists soon decided that what it really meant was something that loosed (from luein) battle or strife (mache).  Elizabeth Kent, sister-in-law to Leigh Hunt and author of the very popular though anonymously published Flora Domestica (1823) ran with this invention and claimed that the Romans put loosestrife under the yokes of matched oxen because it helped the animals get along and work better together.  It loosed their strife.

            But nobody knows what loose used to mean either.  In the radio interview alluded to earlier, it became obvious to me that although Mrs. Clinton correctly characterized Donald Trump as a “loose cannon”, neither she nor her interviewer actually knew what a loose cannon is—or rather was, since we no longer have the problem.  They seem to think it means something along the lines of “scatter-shot”.  If you yourself are in the dark on this important matter, I cannot too highly recommend the Horatio Hornblower books by C. S. Forester.  Early European artillery had a few fixed pieces, but most cannons were essentially long movable barrels to be lugged from one emplacement to another.  Poor guys were forever being ruptured, maimed, or crushed trying to move these things about.  Using such guns on warships was particularly hazardous.  The weight of the smallest cannons, designed for a projectile of about two pounds, was approximately six hundred pounds.  Weights increased dramatically for larger shot.  The “big guns” (twenty-four and thirty-two pounders) could easily weigh a couple of tons.  Now imagine you are in the cramped, dark, and smoky gun deck of the Fighting Temeraire, and one of its ninety-eight monstrous metal cylinders breaks or is blown free of its restraints and starts rolling around at gravity’s caprice with every haw, heave, pitch and roll of the ship’s motion.  Such a loose cannon, having worked up the momentum of a long roll, is perfectly capable of breaking through the hull; but more immediately it is likely to squash, bisect, or decapitate any seaman in its way, with special preference given to those whose desperate assignment is to retake control of it.  The danger posed by a loose cannon has nothing to do with its firing projectiles.  It is in the weight, mobility, and unpredictable movement of the instrument itself.


 Trafalgar

           Mr. Trump, who claims that as president he would revel in his unpredictability, is presumably not discomfited to be called a loose cannon.  Loose cannons are not the only troublesome bits of loose metal that now have for us a mainly metaphorical existence.  Perhaps you know someone who from time to time “flies off the handle”.  This is a reference to the distressing ungovernability of the iron heads of wooden-handled tools the operation of which involves violent percussive force.  One doesn’t want to be struck by a volatile hammer- or axe-head—nor, at least in Iron Age societies, does one want to lose the head itself (See 1 Kings 6:6).

            Should you find my use of volatile somewhat odd, you might like to consult another biblical verse, Psalm 50:11, which in the Authorized Version begins “I know all the fowls of the mountains…”  I happened to run into this in a medieval Latin text recently.  The author naturally used the Vulgate, where just to confuse us the number of the psalm is 49 and the birds are in the heavens rather than the mountains.  The text begins Cognovi omnia volatilia…“I have known all the flying things [birds] …”  I had never in eight decades tumbled to the obvious fact that our nearly obsolete word fowl (German Vogel) captures the essence of birdness—flying—much better than does our bird.  So, yes, Mr. Trump is a loose cannon, and yes, he flies off the handle, and, again yes, his considerable volatility makes him quite a rara avis.






Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Bathroom Babble



“If Donald Trump dresses as Hillary Clinton, he still can’t use the little girls’ restroom.”  So said Senator Ted Cruz of the great Princeton class of 1992 shortly before throwing in the towel.  There is a context, but you can skip it, as it only makes things worse.  As a medievalist who tries not to read too many books written since the advent of movable type I rarely find myself on the frontiers of contemporary thought, but on this public bathroom stuff, I have been way out ahead of the curve for years.  An enlarged prostate is a stern tutor of bathroom philosophy.

My party has a three-pronged program concerning public bathrooms.  (1)  There ought to be many more of them [axiom], and they ought to be salubrious [corollary].  (2)  In particular, there ought to be a crash program of public bathroom construction in New York City with the aim of approximating the ratio of comfort to pedestrian mile to be found in London, Paris, and other civilized cities.  (3)  Any woman ought to have access to any public bathroom anywhere.

I hope that this third plank does not lure me too close to the cutting edge of the culture wars or, for that matter, of Mr. Cruz’s not quite rapier-like wit, which I find more to resemble a fungo bat, actually.  The need for gender justice in this matter needs no progressive political theory for its justification.  It is a matter of anatomical empiricism.  Simply observe the queues outside the ladies’ room at the Eighth Avenue end of Penn Station at rush hour, or at the Metropolitan Opera entr’-acte.  In my house both men and women use the same bathroom, and I can remember that arrangement going back as far as the time of my grandparents.

Of course when it comes to elimination the distinction between public and private is of great anthropological weight, and it is easier to eliminate it in a blog essay than in general social practice.  But doing so, even on an accidental basis, can lead to anthropological insight.

This anecdote concerns a woman I know intimately and who was many years ago my companion in attending a series of Gauss Seminars.  The Gauss Seminars in Criticism are a prized cultural institution on our campus.  Famous literary scholars, artists, and thinkers in many fields come to town to deliver a series of seminars before an invited blue-ribbon audience of their peers and votaries.  The animated discussions following the talks are meant to be as probing and brilliant as the talks themselves.  They take their name from Christian Gauss (1878-1951), a once famous Dean of the College, literary critic, and mentor of such luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson.

            The venue for the Gauss Seminars has not been constant, but they usually command something of architectural nobility.  In the year of which I speak—it might have been 1977—a mansion on Prospect Street, home of a recently defunct all-male undergraduate dining club, had been bought up by the University—and the Gauss was meeting there to hear the late great anthropologist, Dame Mary Douglas.  The audience was properly august, and Douglas’s lectures highly stimulating.

            The “break” between formal talk and informal general discussion arrived, and my aforementioned female companion left in search of a jakes.    After a certain amount of wandering about marble halls, she found one.  It was denominated “LADIES” on a scarcely visible, hand written three-by-five card.  She was not surprised to find in it in addition to the stalls she sought a wall of stand-up urinals.  This place had been, after all, a men’s club.

Sequestered in her stall, attending to her business, she was alarmed to hear two loud, hearty, male voices burst confidently into the bathroom and head in the direction of the urinals.  Furthermore, the voices were unmistakably those of two local, eminent, semi-public intellectuals well known to her, Professor X (a philosopher with a distinctive and carefully preserved German accent) and Professor Y, a patrician, prize-winning litterateur, one of the ornaments of our neighboring state university.  You would probably recognize the names of these gentlemen; but they some time ago went to their eternal rewards and deserve their peace.

The split second in which she might have made known her presence came and went; she was forced to adopt Church Mouse Mode.  As these guys did their business they conversed loudly.  After a few damning remarks of faint praise for Mary Douglas’s lecture, they began talking about their own most recent books.  Both had recently published one, and to acclaim.  But the inadvertent eavesdropper could not help noting a certain edge to the ego-heavy self-congratulation.  Years earlier she had studied Beowulf at Oxford.  She remembered the scene in which Beowulf and his nemesis Unferth indulge in a bibulous argument about Beowulf’s swimming prowess as once revealed in a contest with somebody called Breca.  That form of semi-ritualized competitive male boasting or verbalized testosterone is known in Old English as gielping.   I think that the equally expressive if somewhat more vulgar expression in our contemporary tongue is pissing contest.






























































































































































































































































































































































th Avenue end of Penn Station at rush hour, or at the Metropolitan Opera entr’-acte.  In my house both men and women use the same bathroom, and I can remember that arrangement going back as far as the time of my grandparents.

Of course when it comes to elimination the distinction between public and private is of great anthropological weight, and it is easier to eliminate it in a blog essay than in general social practice.  But doing so, even on an accidental basis, can lead to unique anthropological insights.

This anecdote concerns a woman I know intimately and who was many years ago my companion in attending a series of Gauss Seminars.  The Gauss Seminars in Criticism are a prized cultural institution on our campus.  Famous literary scholars, artists, and thinkers in many fields come to town to deliver a series of seminars before an invited blue-ribbon audience of their peers and votaries.  The animated discussions following the talks are meant to be as probing and brilliant as the talks themselves.  They take their name from Christian Gauss (1878-1951), a once famous Dean of the College, literary critic, and mentor of such luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson.

            The venue for the Gauss Seminars has not been constant, but they usually command something of architectural nobility.  In the year of which I speak—it might have been 1977—a mansion on Prospect Street, home of a recently defunct all-male undergraduate dining club, had been bought up by the University—and the Gauss was meeting there to hear the late great anthropologist, Dame Mary Douglas.  The audience was properly august, and Douglas’s lectures highly stimulating.

            The “break” between formal talk and informal general discussion arrived, and my aforementioned female companion left in search of a jakes.    After a certain amount of wandering about marble halls, she found one.  It was denominated “LADIES” on a scarcely visible, hand written three-by-five card.  She was not surprised to find in it in addition to the stalls she sought a wall of stand-up urinals.  This place had been, after all, a men’s club.

Sequestered in her stall, attending to her business, she was alarmed to hear two loud, hearty, male voices burst confidently into the bathroom and head in the direction of the urinals.  Furthermore, the voices were unmistakably those of two local, eminent, semi-public intellectuals well known to her, Professor X (a philosopher with a distinctive and carefully preserved German accent) and Professor Y, a patrician, prize-winning litterateur, one of the ornaments of our neighboring state university.  You would probably recognize the names of these gentlemen; but they some time ago went to their eternal rewards and deserve their peace.

The split second in which she might have made known her presence came and went; she was forced to adopt Church Mouse Mode.  As these guys did their business they conversed loudly.  After a few damning remarks of faint praise for Mary Gordon’s lecture, they began talking about their own most recent books.  Both had recently published one, and to acclaim.  But the inadvertent eavesdropper could not help noting a certain edge to the ego-heavy self-congratulation.  Years earlier she had studied Beowulf at Oxford.  She remembered the scene in which Beowulf and his nemesis Unferth indulge in a bibulous argument about Beowfulf’s swimming prowess as once revealed in a deep-sea contest with somebody called Breca.  That form of semi-ritualized competitive male boasting or verbalized testosterone is known in Old English as gielping.   I think that the equally expressive if somewhat more vulgar expression in our contemporary tongue is pissing contest.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Gain and Loss




For bears of little brain like myself certain abstract concepts encountered daily in the newspapers—“city planning,” “community organization,” “social dislocation,” and many others—tend to take on meaning only through instances of small, local, and sometimes even trivial exemplification.  I am prepared to follow my thought-leaders in the belief that Robert Moses, who carved up New York City’s old neighborhoods and repackaged them with gaudy ribbons of expressways and flyovers, is one of the great sociological criminals of the last century.  But my censure is as tentative and imprecise as the phenomenon was huge and consequential.
           
            The reshaping of Dillon Gym is a different matter.  This week is my second without a morning swim.  The Dillon pool is closed for two months as part of a major upgrading of the whole gymnasium.  The sense of dislocation is intense.  There are of course alternative pools, and their opening hours will be more convenient for my own particular needs beginning in May, when I should also be recovered from a minor surgical episode and ready for the plunge.  When Dillon does reopen in the summer, however, everything is likely to be changed as much as if Robert Moses had pierced it with the West Side Highway.  The Men’s Locker Room is to be gutted, and all the old rusting metal lockers scrapped.   Their replacements, of which we have already seen a sample model in mock up, will be in spiffy red, with built-in combination locks like those in hotel room safes or (as I imagine it) the offices of CIA bureaucrats.  They will obviate the need for the clunky portable locks we all have now, so easily forgotten or accidentally attached to someone else’s locker.

            All this will be part of Princeton’s Great Leap Forward in Fitness—except for one unfortunate consequence.  A reconfigured gym will undoubtedly destroy the adventitious communities that have grown up over many years of people who for a variety of reasons happen to show up at the same long row of lockers each weekday at about the same time.  I have mentioned “my” locker community several times over the years in the blog.

            I had reason to think about all this last week.  One morning Joan found resting on the windshield of her car in our open carport a copy of William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center.  I understood immediately what for her had to be a puzzle.  The book had been dropped off for me by one of my locker room buddies, Steve S., a financial expert in the Budget Office.  He is one of a very large number of top professionals in many fields whose work enables the vast and intricate enterprise that is a university.  In the normal course of events few faculty and fewer still students ever encounter these men and women—even though we couldn’t be here without them.

            I have locker-room bonhomie to thank for meeting Steve, a sage and witty commentator on the current political scene and a voracious reader of interesting books.  My conversation with him is usually limited to about forty-five seconds a day, though every six weeks or so he and another locker buddy and I spend forty-five minutes together over coffee and gab at Panera.  It is he who had told me about American Ground, offering to let me have his old copy.  I had forgotten about it, but he hadn’t, and he took the trouble to seek out our house and drop the book off.  American Ground, which I think enjoyed a certain acclaim upon its publication in 2002, is about what happened at Ground Zero after the devastating attacks.  What happened in a nutshell was one of the most humongous, technically challenging, and politically charged cleanups in world history.

            I read it within forty-eight hours of posting my last blog entry, “Earth Works,” in which I had dramatized the difficulties of redistributing a cubic yard or two of topsoil over a couple of hundred square feet.  The irony did not escape me.  At Ground Zero the workers were faced with acres of dangerously unstable debris, mountainous in its contours, incalculable in its weight, containing an unknown number of rotting bodies.  There were unremitting lethal threats of avalanche, flooding, and uncertain toxins.  There were all sorts of things that you would never have thought of—at least I would never have thought of.  There was the danger posed by the large quantities of Freon that had been needed to keep thousands of stock-brokers cool.  A collapsing skyscraper, it turns out, is the world’s greatest pile-driver, requiring the expertise of mining engineers to redress.  There were indeed heroes galore, but also major conflicts between policemen and firemen as to which were to be more heroic.  This recalled to me the medieval fist-fights between Franciscans and Dominicans over the issue of which group should be given the humbler position in ecclesiastical processions.  Looting was endemic, and of heroic proportion.  There were after all computers and executive suite tchotchkes lying around everywhere.  But above all there were the staggering piles of concrete, cement dust, and steel.  How could you possibly pick it all up?  What could you possible do with it if you could?  But they did find a way, and I suppose that if the Financial District can get used to such a dramatic relocation of its neighborhood, I will eventually get used to a new locker room.  But what will I do without my bibliographer Steve?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Earth Works



            Spring arrived in these parts in a big rush, as though it must hurry as fast as possible into summer, and I have been forced to try to keep up with it.  Last year the summer vegetables were particularly succulent, and as through the winter I remembered all the delicious pasta sauces, salads, and ratatouilles I came up with a bold—or as I might describe it now, foolhardy plan.  I would expand that part of my agricultural enterprise that gets the best southern sunlight.  This could mean, if all went well, even more and better pasta sauces, salads, and ratatouilles.

            We are not talking agro-business here.  By my rough-and-ready reckoning I am planning to add to the total agricultural production of our country about an additional .00459 acre of land.  The trouble is that every square foot of it must be wrested from the combination of jungle and veldt abutting the current cultivated plot, and then protected by a high wire fence from the large deer herd that even now stand off at a distance licking their chops as they watch me sweat.

            The jungle and veldt aspects of the challenge, while different in kind, demand a similar response.  First: the jungle.  We have in these parts a horrible invasive vine of Asiatic origin—New Jersey’s answer to kudzu--the Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, sometimes called porcellainberry.  It is capable of overwhelming and strangling even large trees.  Ruthless cutting back offers temporary relief, but porcellainberry has the sinister regenerative powers of the Hydra.  The only way really to get rid of it is literal deracination—a task only slightly less difficult than that presented by bamboo.  (We have that in profusion, too, but one menace at a time.)
The dreaded vine on the march

            As to the veldt, where there is neither forest nor jungle around here there is rich grassland.  The sod is particularly luxuriant.  Indeed local farmers of cultivated sod made a small fortune during the first phase of the housing boom supplying developers with instant lawns.  (During the second they made large fortunes selling off the farms themselves.)  There is a reason that the first agricultural settlers on the Great Plains, destined to be our national granary, were called sod-busters and why so many of them went mad in the attempt to bust it.  If you want to have thriving tomato roots you have to get rid of the grass.
           
I don’t go in for power tools, except for the indispensable one, a pickup truck.  Several years ago I spent a pleasant semester of my post-retirement as a visiting professor at Colgate.  One day, knocking around the country roads, I came upon a roadside junk heap in which there was a sturdy steel frame, three feet by four, into which had been fitted and stoutly welded a mesh of heavy steel wire.  I have no idea of its original purpose, but I could easily imagine a use for it—as an industrial strength sieve or screen for breaking up heavy clods of New Jersey top soil.  I tossed it—well, truth to tell I manhandled it up into the truck bed and eventually brought it home.

a home-made topsoil strainer

So for the past couple of weeks I have been straining roughly .00459 of an acre of Mercer County separating the precious top soil from a tangle of vine roots, many the thickness of my thumb, removing the odd splinter or fragment of schist, and above all separating every possible fleck of rich dirt from its grassy wig.  The remaining turves add some solidity and opulence to the compost pile; but the wretched vine roots are consigned to the untender mercies of the town’s monthly pick-ups of brush and vegetable debris.

Nothing is more allegorical than a garden.  In fact, I have written books on that subject.  The garden would seem to be one of the great cultural archetypes.  But for me one of the finest of emblematic gardens is neither biblical nor medieval.  It appears in what is perhaps the sweetest work of the genius philosophe, Voltaire.  At the very end of Candide, one of the immortal short fictions of our tradition, the young man who gives his name to the work, meets an old Turkish farmer.  This simple man teaches him what a quest for exotic experience and abstruse philosophy has failed to provide.  It might be called the “meaning of life”.  Speaking of his few arpents of small-holding, the old Turk says “I cultivate them with my children; the labor shields us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and want”.  Hence Candide’s motto: il faut cultiver notre jardin, we must tend to our garden.  I don’t know about boredom, vice, and want; but it doesn’t do much for an aging back.

 Voltaire in his garden at Ferney

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Clerical Error



 Archbishop Justin Welby

Among the steadying qualities of Anglicanism, a certain reliable boringness has always rated high on my list of admirable clerical qualities.  Very little ecclesiastical business makes it to the pages of the National Enquirer or the News of the World.  In the last couple of weeks, however, a sensational story concerning the maculate conception of the sitting Archbishop of Canterbury has raced like a cheetah through the Anglophone press.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby himself remains, we have every reason to believe, above reproach.  But a large blot has appeared in the ‘scutcheon.  For all these years he thought himself the legitimate issue of his mother and Gavin Welby, an international whisky salesman.  But DNA testing has proved beyond doubt that his actual father was Sir Anthony Montague Browne, one of the confidential aides and high-level secretaries of Winston Church in the post-war years.

So far as historical records might indicate, replacing Gavin Welby with Sir Anthony Montague Browne as one’s father could definitely be regarded as “trading up”.   Gavin Welby was an alcoholic poseur who had abandoned the name (Weiler) of his German Jewish forebears and successfully infiltrated himself into a very okay Anglo-American social set that on the Anglo side included important Conservative politicians and on the American important Democratic politicians.  He almost married Patricia Kennedy in America and Vanessa Redgrave in England.  Between the might-have-beens he actually married a blueblood named Jane Portal, who was one of Churchill’s post-War low-level secretaries.  The future archbishop was born almost exactly nine months following the exchange of vows in Baltimore, where the couple had eloped.  While I hate to be unAnglican or prurient, I do conclude that there must have been an intimate exchange between high- and low-level secretaries no more than about forty-eight hours before the prelate’s mother and long supposed father eloped.  Learning about all this for the first time years after the deaths of both an unknown actual father and an imperfectly known, mistakenly assumed father would have been a shock for anyone.  In an age in which we are all obsessed with the question of “identity”,  Justin Welby has handled the astonishing revelation with what I must regard as great aplomb; and he has become of the object of well-deserved sympathy and admiration.  As the great poet of ancient Jewry put it so many centuries ago, and as the entire Church sings today: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

Not that a medievalist is likely to be shocked by evidence of irregularity in the sexual histories of the higher clergy.  In general, it is true, we are dealing with irregular begetters rather than the irregularly begotten, but there are numerous examples of the latter class as well.  One of the more distinguished archiepiscopal bastards of medieval England was Geoffrey FitzRoy, Archbishop of York from 1189 to 1212.  He was one of the several illegitimate children of King Henry II, more famous for his dealings with Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury.  Geoffrey had managed to become Bishop of Lincoln without ever having been ordained a priest—which was a pretty good trick even in those days.

The REVE was a sclendre colerik man

There were large numbers of priestly offspring in the good old days, and they had to be cared for.  In fact clerical paternity could have a good deal of social cachet. In Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale” the thieving Miller who is the chief butt of the satire is said to have a high-born wife (“ycomen of noble kyn”), since the local parish priest is her father.  She can boast of having the “blood of Holy Church” flowing through her veins.  The priest, who is wealthy, intends to leave the parish treasury to his handsome granddaughter, who is the other female lead in the fabliau.

As the Welby news was breaking I was as usual in the midst of some random reading.  I happened to pick up Du Pape by Joseph de Maistre, the arch-conservative thinker of post-revolutionary France.  This book argues that the rescued unity of Europe, indeed of the whole world, depends upon a recognition of a supreme papal power subject to no secular authority on earth.  But it includes, almost incidentally, a learned dissertation upon, and warm defense of clerical celibacy, here regarded as essential to the health of the body politic.  De Maistre considered a married clergy among the worst horrors of Protestantism, and it is doubtful that a viewing of Spotlight would have changed his mind.
 Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821)
His argument jogged my memory, and took me back to records of the trial of one of Welby’s more eminent predecessors in Canterbury, Archbishop Cranmer, who was burnt at the stake in Oxford in 1556.  One of the papalist prosecutors, the oleaginous Thomas Martin, a doctor of civil law from Bourges, and the author of an admired work on clerical celibacy, sought to amuse the court by asking Cranmer, with obvious sarcasm, whether the prelate’s children “were bondsmen to the see of Canterbury”.  Without missing a beat the archbishop responded with a question of his own: “whether, if a priest at his benefice kept a concubine and had illegitimate children, those children were bondsmen to the benefice or not”.  Merry England was still pretty merry, and the milieu of the “Reeve’s Tale” had by no means disappeared.  “I trust you will make my children’s cause no worse,” said Cranmer.