Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Matila Ghyka (1881-1965) in full military/diplomatic rig
Individual lives, like all of history, have a tendency to divide themselves up into discernible periods; and in life as in history it is the transitional moment that is most difficult to define. When did the Jurassic give way to the Cretaceous, or the Medieval to the Early Modern? I’m feeling indefinite and micro-transitional myself. I have finished a book project, and before I really settle into a couple of others there will be a brief trip to England, beginning later today, to take in the annual “Oxford Thinking” conference and to visit family and friends.
My recently completed project involved the study of some erudite Renaissance poets who use complex mathematical schemes in the construction of their poems. Believing that the divine Creator had laid out the universe in perfect, intelligible harmonies, Christian poets, no less than painters, sculptors, and architects, often sought to imitate or echo in their own works what they sometimes called “divine proportion”. One very common device exploits the so-called “Golden Section” (division in extreme and mean ratio) or plays with its arithmetical expression in the irrational “Golden Number,” Φ (1.6180339887….)
The weeds grow thick around the topic of Pythagorean number mysticism, and a poor literary scholar can easily get lost in them. Just as I was about to drown in the choppy waves of Robert Herz-Fischer’s A Mathematical History of Division in Extreme and Mean Ratio I chanced upon a life raft in the form of an older, delightfully “humanistic” book dealing with the information I needed by somebody with the unlikely name of Matila Ghyka.*
I used it with profit and made a mental note that, when some unfettered leisure should arrive, I ought to find out who Matila Ghyka might be (or as it turned out, might have been). My transitional otium has allowed me to do so. What I found was that Matila Ghyka, who died in 1965, was a polyglot Aromanian aristocrat. Or he was a French naval officer. Or he was a Romanian diplomat. Or a vagabond world-traveler. Also a mathematician, a philologist, and an American college professor. Most of all he was an exciting odd-ball thinker and an engaging writer.
One gets the impression that by the turn of the twentieth century Transylvania and Moldavia (Ghyka’s native haunt) had changed little since the time of Count Dracula except that its upper crust, to a degree even greater than the Russian aristocracy, had immersed itself in French language and culture. Ghyka, who had been educated almost indefinitely in French Catholic schools, naturally wrote in French, but in a French beyond my pay grade.
I was delighted to learn that he had written an autobiography, more delighted still to learn that there was an abridged version in English wonderfully entitled The World Mine Oyster (1961). The writing is excellent. The author has translated his own French into his own English. There was yet better news. This book has a substantial introductory essay by a favorite author, Patrick Leigh Fermor, prince of modern “travel writers”. It turns out that Ghyka and Fermor were old friends, having around 1934 shared the exotic hospitality of the Princess Marie Cantacuzène at her estate at Tetzcani in Moldavia.
But then Ghyka was friends with numerous writers, including two of the giants of modern French literature, Marcel Proust and Paul Valéry. Who knew? Not I, for sure. But if you read Ghyka—another of whose books available in English is The Geometry of Art and Life—it becomes obvious why artists so deeply concerned with rhythm and structure would find him congenial. Valéry is a rare example of a “creative writer” with a powerful philosophical mind. Of Ghyka’s demonstration of the aesthetic ubiquity of Φ, Valéry wrote thus: “I maintain—and I have made it a precept of my personal aesthetic—that there exist, in the order of the spirit, powers of passion and of ‘sentiment’ as strong—even if more rare—as those in the order of the ‘heart.’” If I understand this aright (by no means certain), here was a modern artist subscribing to some twentieth-century version of sacramental hierarchy or of the Great Chain of Being.
But leave all that aside. Quite apart from any abstruse aesthetic theories, The World Mine Oyster is a simply fascinating autobiography rich in exotic information and strange adventures. Much of it has to do with a world long vanished, as viewed by a certain kind of cultivated European sensibility that has as good as vanished. And the introductory essay by Patrick Leigh Fermor is pure gold. There is currently issuing from the press what is already a stream and will soon be a flood of books marking the somber sequence of Great War centennials. How extraordinary it seemed to me amidst all this to stumble upon these old reflections from the Balkan hinterland where the whole mess began. The World Mine Oyster is not too easy to find. But any educated and curious “general reader”—the sort of person for whom this blog’s essays are intended, plausibly or not—will be rewarded by seeking it out, even should the effort involve enlisting the services of Interlibrary Loan.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
There is much to worry about these days, so that occasions for unalloyed rejoicing are to be fully indulged. I just returned from one in Birmingham, Alabama, and despite the torturous circumstances of the returning flights, I’m stoked with optimism about our country’s human capital. I was last in Birmingham in the late 1950s. I seem to remember a rather dull and shabby small southern city, though it had not yet fully achieved the infamy soon enough to be bestowed upon it by its racist police chief. What I find now is a biggish metropolis with biggish buildings, and lots of “multis”—multi-lane highways, mutiplex theatres, multi-million dollar suburbs, and a multi-cultural population moving if not at a gallop at least at a canter.
I was in Birmingham to attend the wedding of my friend and one-time student Sanjiv Bajaj (Princeton, ’02) and his gorgeous bride Snehal Desai. Sanjiv has been the head of the ultrasound section of the radiology department at a New York teaching hospital. (Incidentally, somebody needs to get the word to Garrison Keillor that many of the nation’s top doctors were English majors.) He will now pursue his burgeoning career in his hometown of Birmingham in proximity to his close-knit family of origin.
The venue for the wedding was exquisite--the Birmingham Botanical Gardens--and the weather, in refutation of Mr. Google, bright and sunny, very. For this special occasion, the benign, elephant-headed Ganesh, atop a small column, greeted guests as they entered the area of the reflecting pool. All the principals in the wedding were spectacular in their apparel, though some of the guests were merely magnificent.
There were many parts to the wedding, but I was able to follow pretty well with the help of an enlightening printed program. So far as I was concerned, the real action started with the baraat, or ceremonial arrival of the bridegroom on a walkway some seventy yards or so from the reflecting pool enclosure, where the ceremony and feasting were to take place. Amid a throng dancing to an insistent drumbeat, his face masked by a veil of pearl-beaded threads, the groom began his slow ceremonial progress toward the distant bride. Both of Sanjiv’s highly cultivated parents are physicians, but they sure know how to boogie. (His mother told me that ceremonial purity would have demanded that the groom have a horse. Unfortunately the only horse in the state of Alabama specially trained to the loud drumming had recently expired.)
Driving in a strange city, I had given myself lots of time, and arrived rather early. So I entered the gardens and sat down to read a bit on a bench near an imposing sycamore tree. Soon I was joined by an amiable elder, out for his daily constitutional, who engaged me in conversation. It turned out that we were exactly the same age and fellow Episcopalians—which is the sort of thing that seems vaguely portentous when strangers are talking on park benches. He told me that the tall sycamore was a “moon tree”—that is, that it sprang from one of the seeds taken by Stuart Roosa into space on the Apollo 14 Mission to the Moon in 1971. It later seemed rather poetic to me that the groom’s dancing procession should start in its shade.
This was my first Indian wedding, and I cannot avoid the kind of comparisons that are the necessary recourse of the unsophisticated. The liturgies of all the Christian sacraments, certainly including matrimony, reflect the old Roman legal mind. In this connection a student of comparative religion must notice both striking similarities and significant differences. In this Hindu ceremony the contractual theme was obvious, but it was only one element of a rich spiritual allegory that honored those material and domestic realities that actually define married life. There was a good deal of emblematic feeding and eating. The bride’s mother greeted her new son-in-law by washing his feet. The father-in-law crowned him with sindoor, rice, and flower petals. The showering of flower petals, indeed, was extravagant, and by the end the floor was a floral carpet.
Amidst the impressive solemnity there were delightful playful moments. For instance, at one point the bride and groom must “lasso” each other with flower garlands. As though to impede this process, their family members make them more difficult targets by raising them high on their shoulders. One feature that struck me is what I will call the reverent nonchalance of most of the numerous guests. The actual nuptial ceremony, as distinct from its marvelous ritual preparations, took more than an hour. Joined by several friends, the close family members, all of whom played important ceremonial roles, gathered in a square around the havan, the relatively small space in which the wedding couple sat enthroned and in which the priest presided. The large majority of the guests were scattered about under the tents or around the reflecting pool. They chatted happily but quietly. Some were snacking and sipping tea or ice-water, from time to time directing their attention to what I will call “center stage”. There was something of the vibe of an Eastern Orthodox Eucharist. Everybody recognizes that something transcendental is going on, but the level of active participation is to some degree optional. At the moments of ceremonial emphasis, of course, the entire crowd joined in the applause and communal blessing.
The overwhelming feelings communicated by this event are not hard to summarize. The first is the power of love, so beautifully expressed in many parts of the ceremony. A second is the solemnity of the marital state, the awesomeness of which is not however compromised by frequent interventions of the ludicrous. A third is the affirmation of the indispensable social context of human marriage. Sanjiv and Snehal come together in all their unique individuality, but powerfully inspired and supported by ancient tradition and cohesive community. This is a context that aligns the achievement of individual fulfillment with the broader social good, and it is something our country desperately needs. My warmest best wishes to this delightful couple, and my warmest thanks to their generous parents, the founders of the feast.
This post was made possible by photographs supplied by my fellow guests Ben and Amy Markham, college contemporaries of the groom.
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
In theory the most democratic land on earth should be the “Republic of Letters,” as the learned men of the eighteenth century metaphorically referred to the bourgeoning international class of scholars, intellectuals, and artists of that age. In fact, the world of learning was long the province of wealth and social prestige. To a greater extent than I am happy to acknowledge it still is. I note a newspaper discussion in the last few days stimulated by an article entitled “Generation Later, Poor Still Rare at Elite Colleges”. That could have been “Centuries Later”.
The Rogue Scholar of today’s essay, Eugene Aram, was born in Ramsgill in the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1704, the son of a gardener. His life ended on the Knavesmire gallows at York on August 6, 1759, when he was executed for capital murder. On the basis of some scant boyhood schooling Aram somehow, by sheer force of the intellectual will, became an autodidact with a sharp focus on languages and language theory. He earned a paltry living as an “usher” (assistant master and general dogsbody) in a school. For long hours at night, by candle light, he taught himself the classical and sacred tongues.
He was a real-life Jude Fawley (the protagonist of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) in more ways than one. In the country town of Knaresborough he married a local slattern with whom he shared little love but lots of sex and too many children. Motivated by vulgar cupidity, he murdered a local cobbler, Clark; but the meaning of the sudden disappearance of this fellow, whose corpse was never found, was not at first grasped, even when Aram abandoned his numerous family and took off for parts unknown. This was in 1745. In London, and later at King’s Lynn in Norfolk, Aram continued his obscure career as a teacher and his ever more ambitious philological researches, which were now obsessive. The cold case of the vanishing shoemaker warmed up in 1758 with the accidental discovery of a skeleton (not Clark’s, as it turned out) just about when, again by accident, a citizen of Knaresborough passing through Lynn, a hundred miles away, was startled to run into Eugene Aram on the street. It had taken more than a decade, but the jig was now up.
Aram’s trial at the York Assizes is of apparent interest to historians of English law. The defendant, acting as his own counsel, made a brilliant speech, which has been preserved. It proves (at the hypothetical level) that a man of such scholarly attainment was incapable of common greed, let alone base homicide. Unfortunately, he did not refute the much less hypothetical testimony of a former confederate who ratted. In an effort to avoid a public hanging, the philologist attempted suicide; but he was unsuccessful, and the hangman had the last word.
Since he never occupied an academic position favorable to the publication of his scholarly findings, Aram’s philological speculations went entirely without public notice or discussion. But surviving notes make it clear that he was in advance of the scholars of his age on at least two important questions. He recognized, in the first place, that the relationship between Greek and Latin was a cognate one. That is, the two languages were cousins rather than parent and child. Secondly, although the theory of an hypothetical “Indo-European” language had not yet been formulated, he recognized that the marginal Celtic languages known in Britain were not exotic “outliers” but members of a large interrelated group that included English, the ancient classical languages, and the modern romance tongues.
But the murderous etymologist lived on in song and story. In eighteenth-century Britain lurid crimes and ghastly punishments were great engines of popular literature. The “true crime” genre, still very popular, really got going then. The “penny dreadful,” before the inflation of the nineteenth century, cost a mere farthing. Cheap broadsheets with crude but emphatic woodcuts depicted the violence. Moralizing accounts of the criminal’s last words from the scaffold, occasionally brushing up against textual plausibility, edified the morbid spectators. Above all, juicy crime was the stuff of the improvised song. The gore of some of the Border ballads, in which so much of the old proletarian aesthetic is confusingly preserved, approaches parody:
And Withrington I needs must wail, as one in doleful dumps ;
For when his legs were smitten off, he fought upon his stumps.
The tradition of course was brought to America, where it took root and flourished. Murder is an indispensable motif of our old folk music, which largely eschews bloodless crime. You can hear a great recording of Mississippi John Hurt singing “Stagger Lee”, but you’ll probably not find an equivalent ballad devoted to “The Legend of Bernie Madoff”.
Aram’s murder of Dan Clark was rich with potential, made for media. He had bashed the man’s skull in, and then secreted the body in a riverside cave that had centuries earlier been the abode of a medieval hermit! What could be more ghastly or more Gothick? Of the dozens of poems, plays, and novels devoted to the celebrated crime of this rogue scholar, two have had considerable staying power. Thomas Hood is a minor poet, but his art ballad “The Dream of Eugene Aram” shows that he could have been a contender. I have never read Bulwer Lytton’ s novel Eugene Aram and can now safely say I never shall. If writing this essay is not a sufficient stimulus to do so, I cannot imagine what would be. Indeed I now regard my youthful perusal of The Last Days of Pompeii as an indiscretion. But Bulwer Lytton commanded a very large audience in the Victorian era and has his readers still.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
I notice in my reading of contemporary writers, especially journalists, the frequent appearance of the adjective Orwellian. Its meaning is seldom precise, though it generally relates to the more or less flagrant abuse of language in the service of political ideology as exemplified by the authorities of the fictional “Oceania” in Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, or sometimes as analyzed in Orwell’s famous essay on “Politics and the English Language.” I admire Orwell and don't mind ceding him the adjective, though as a promoter of more ancient authors I might prefer Tacitian* after the Roman historian.
A place you’ll see Orwellian frequently is on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Often enough, alas, you will also find Orwellianism itself there. In yesterday’s edition, which I was reading on-line in the early morning before our printed copy had arrived, I came upon a little section called “Times Insider”. This appears to be the journalistic equivalent of those wretched videos with titles beginning “The Making of …" with which the movie industry actually tries to “monetize” its narcissism by taking you “backstage” or “inside” the making of some film. It was a free sample of what I could get on a regular basis for only $2.50 a week more, if I upgraded my subscription. Here was an “insider” article explaining why the Times has banished the adjective burly—defined by that journal as meaning “stout, heavy or muscular”—from its pristine pages: “‘Burly,’ a Word with a Racially Charged History”.
In one of the few articles concerning the much discussed recent events in Ferguson MO that I missed, the Times had apparently used the adjective burly to describe both Michael Brown, the black youth shot to death, and Captain Ronald Johnson, a black state trooper called in to supervise policing in the town. I have seen only photographs of those men, of course; but there seems to me no doubt that Brown was burly, and Johnson may well be burly too. But, says Assistant Editor Kyle Massey, “Readers wrote to say that ‘burly’ has long been a racial stereotype; the word hasn’t appeared in this context in The Times since the readers’ notes.”
The episode in Ferguson has become another emblem of the tragic racial problem in our country; but that is no reason to make it the occasion of ludicrous linguistic balderdash, codswallop, or indeed simple politically correct poppycock--on the part of “readers” or anybody else. The word stereotype is synonymous with cliché. The words (one English, one French) meant exactly the same thing: a printing block or form capable of producing a large number of identical copies. If it is really a cliché (or a “racial stereotype” of long standing) that blacks are said to be peculiarly burly in a peculiarly negative way, Mr. Massey and his “readers” should be able to produce many literary examples. But, no…. I am a professional philologist, and I have come up with precisely one literary example linking burliness with dark complexion. In 1837 Carlyle wrote thus of his hero Mirabeau, a “Caucasian” Frenchman: “Destiny has work for that swart burly-headed Mirabeau.” That I found recorded in the OED wherein “readers” can easily trace the noble lineage of the adjective burly. Craigie and Hulbert, in their Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, record no uniquely American use of the word.
Swart and burly-headed?
In our racial climate, so vigilant for offense and so pre-emptive in the indictment of an expected ill will, there are bound to be strange linguistic episodes. In recent decades I have read of two public officials, one in New Jersey and a second in Washington, who got into trouble by using the adjective niggardly perfectly appropriately, but within the hearing of people apparently unfamiliar with a word in common educated use since the time of Chaucer. The wrath that fell upon them, though absurd, at least has a genuine linguistic explanation. My cadet son Luke, a linguistic anthropologist who is completing a book about an astonishing range of culturally demanded euphemisms, tells me that in many of the world’s isolated indigenous communities, the use of certain words in certain circumstances can be forbidden on account of phonological accident. You cannot say dart, because it is too close to dirt—that sort of thing. In some languages a man must abandon the everyday lexicon and use a virtually alternative vocabulary in the presence of his mother-in-law! Some of the bear-hunters of the far north are never, while on the hunt, to use the actual word bear. A bear might hear them and be offended--or forewarned. So they say “pine needle” or some such instead!
But English is not a tribal tongue with four hundred and fifty-eight native speakers. It is a great world language with a vast literature. While it is living and vibrant with variety and change, it is not an anarchy of tribal dialects—whether the dialects be regional, racial, or political. The tragic loss of a young American life in a context of deplorable social antagonism and racial tension is indeed an appropriate occasion for soul-searching. But somehow I doubt that an Orwellian purge of the lexicon conducted by our “newspaper of record” in sanctimonious ignorance will give us much help.
* Tacitus writes thus: Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. (To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace.)
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
When we speak of the “criminal classes” we ordinarily include college faculties only by way of metaphor, but the erudite malefactor is by no means missing from the annals of crime.
One of Dr. Johnson’s frequently quoted—and perhaps yet more frequently misquoted—aphorisms is this: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully”*. It was not merely a theoretical speculation, but arose from Johnson’s empirical experience of counseling his fawning admirer, the Reverend Doctor William Dodd, who was convicted of forgery and hanged at Tyburn on June 27, 1777.
Dodd (born 1729) rose from modest origins to become a very successful society preacher in London. He was known as the “Macaroni Parson”—the word macaroni here having its old meaning (as in the early American song “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) of ostentatious foppishness of manner and dress. Along with his social pretensions and aspirations, Dodd had considerable erudition and affected even more. Doctoral degrees didn’t always mean too much in those days either, but he had one. There are some two hundred titles under his name in the catalogues of large libraries. He was an editor of Shakespeare, and the compiler of a best seller called The Beauties of Shakespeare.
In earlier times Dodd had earned his bread as a tutor to the rich and famous, especially the youthful Lord Chesterfield: but he always needed more bread, and he didn’t have tenure. Later, when an attempt to bribe his way into a lucrative post was exposed, he fled to the Continent and lay low for a couple of years. He now got a new nickname—“Doctor Simony”. Returning to London and needing to clear his debts he borrowed £4000 (about a million dollars in today’s money) from his old student Chesterfield. The only trouble was that he didn’t tell Chesterfield about it, finding it more expeditious to write the check himself. When the old schoolboy did find out about it, by mere chance, the noble lord was not amused. Even less forgiving was King George III.
No American is likely to praise this monarch, but I shall try. True enough he was a blockhead even before going mad. But he was actually something of a stickler for public morality, and a sincere one. In particular he took the view that in a country that prospered by trade no vows could be more sacred than those involved in credit and banking. Since the broad social consensus of the age agreed that hanging a man for stealing a sheep was just, Doctor Dodd was in deep doodoo. The mores of the time are perhaps also suggested by the fact that a young man scheduled to die with Dodd was being punished for a failed attempt at suicide! Medieval “benefit of clergy”, though still not totally abolished, was so weakened as to offer Dodd no comfort.
He did have friends and supporters. They wrote letters, and they signed petitions. Pundits like Dr. Johnson lamented the prospective loss to the Republic of Letters. Some of the more practically minded among his friends put together a considerable purse with the thought of bribing one of his jailers to allow him to escape, but the Death Machine was not to be so easily defeated. His cell at Newgate was triple guarded. So they designed a new tactic. Dr. Dodd would hang, but he would not die.
The plan was this. Though they could not effectively corrupt the prison guards, they hoped for better results with the actual executioner—generally known as “Jack Ketch” in honor of the celebrated hangman of the previous century who had established the gold standard of barbarism in his line of work. They would pay this man a hefty sum not to let the body long dangle from the rope. Instead, he was quickly to relieve the dead weight, so to speak, from the tension of gravity and then to join with others in moving the body as expeditiously as possible to a waiting coach. That was Phase One of the Plan. Phase Two, of which Jack Ketch had no knowledge, was to rush the body by cab from Tyburn to certain rooms in Goodge Street where a team of Resurrectionists would be awaiting it. This was a group of medical men, hardly more crackpot than most of their professional peers, who thought that with the help of salves, ointments, an experimental air-pump, and perhaps a particularly adroit application of the Heimlich Maneuver, they might be able to revive the Unfortunate Doctor Dodd (his last nickname, and the one that stuck.)
The Tyburn "Tree"
Forget the fact that Phase Two was nutty to begin with. Unfortunately, it could not be implemented in any event on account of the intervention of Fleming’s Second Historical Law: Nothing fails like success. The learned William Dodd eschewed the role of the cloistered scholar. He sought fame in the public arena, and lots of it. For his final gig he enjoyed a success beyond his wildest dreams. People used to turn out in significant numbers to listen to his sermons or his lectures on Shakespeare, but those crowds were as nothing compared with the throng that turned out to watch him swing. You can easily grasp the problem presented by thousands of milling Doddheads. The hearse was supposed to make its way swiftly from Tyburn (roughly where March Arch is today) to a place near today’s British Museum, moving through streets approximately as clogged as Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The plan might have been cool, but unfortunately Dr. Dodd’s body was even cooler.
*Boswell's Life of Johnson (Oxford English Classics, 1826), under September 19, 1777 (vol. 4, p. 150)
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Cora and Lulu, in Concord
One of the nicer biblical prophecies of the Peaceable Kingdom, from Micah, proclaims that “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.” I like to apply this thought to my pleasant state of retirement. As a student of literature, I know the difference between the literal and the metaphoric. Nonetheless I have tried on numerous occasions to cultivate my own fig tree. They do grow around here, and I have even seen a few flourishing ones. My friend and former GP, Genuino Nazzaro, who lives hardly half a mile from here, has one sufficiently fecund to supply me, from time to time, with a luscious compote whipped up by his wife Dina. I, however, don’t seem to have the knack; over the years I have murdered, by slow torture, a small orchard of fig saplings. I’ve done considerably better on the grapevine front, however.
Our first abode in Princeton was in the high-rise Hibben Apartments nestled in the corner formed by Lake Carnegie and the railroad tracks. This was one of two large boxes—the other being Magie—in which most of the junior faculty of the Princeton of the Sixties resided. As there were nearly two hundred units, our numerous fellow apartment-dwellers included quite a few destined for academic fame. We lived on the seventh floor at the top of the ventilation shaft that on the first floor passed through the apartment of the Giamattis. Bart Giamatti would later become the President of Yale and later still the Commissioner of Baseball. We used to pick up the aroma of the Giamattis’ cooking (mainly Italian) and the distant discontents of their baby, now the actor Paul Giamatti. Quite apart from such olfactory brushes with greatness, some of our life-long friendships date from that era.
Hibben and Magie were recently torn down. On the lakeside site a whole little village of townhouses, now nearing completion, will replace them. Buildings do come and go around here. The Music Building was built, torn down, and magnificently replaced all during the continuing tenure of my 1990 Toyota! Still, there goes yet another fugitive monument of material flemingiana.
Sometime shortly after we moved out and into a real house, roughly in the middle of the Age of Aquarius, some apartment dwellers founded a large communal vegetable garden in the waste land beside the tracks. Enthusiasm waned all too soon, alas, and it was abandoned. About a decade later the garden site was bulldozed to make room for yet more cars. Of course all this had been foretold by the prophetess Joni Mitchell: They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Knocking around this destruction site one day with one of my kids, we found that the dozer had savaged and broken up various rooted fragments of what must have been a substantial Concord grape vine. We tossed a few into the back of the truck.
The rest is history, because two of these mangled uvial disjecta membra, when reverently buried in my garden, sprang into life the following spring. They became the matriarchs of a veritable woodland vineyard surrounding my property. I decided then and there that my gardening skills were probably better suited to a plant that could be cultivated by road grader than one so apparently temperamental as the fig. Thus I bagged the idea of the fig tree, settling for multiple grapevines instead. One of the offspring of the original detritus now covers and softens my garden shed. Another two vines, while I was not watching, climbed up large conifers, challenging them to mortal combat. Several others, more carefully managed, have created a screen replacing three holly trees destroyed by a hurricane.
Now of course one hopes that a grapevine might produce grapes. Mine have been pretty prolific, but in a wild and wasteful way. The ones on the shed roof either get eaten by birds or shriveled against the hot roofing. Most of the others dangle in clumps twenty or thirty feet above my head. This year, however, things have been different. The first of what I imagine as a rather elaborate network of bamboo trellises has supported and protected the grapes. One of the huge old conifers, broken in half by the wind two years ago, has become a kind of volunteer trellis, with some of its grapes, at least, now in reach.
Under these circumstances I invited the two resident granddaughters to help me with the harvest, and if they wished, to report, as guest bloguistas, on their activities. On account of the generational trope, working with my granddaughters amid the vines was particularly satisfying for me. If you think about the medieval artistic motif of the “Tree of Jesse,” the tree is after all really a vine. Lulu is into poetry at the moment. So she penned a postmodern effort that begins “Jeepers! Jumping jars of jovial jam!” Jesuitical jihadists! This poem rather strays from the point in its attempt to preserve the rhythms of Piers Plowman; so I omit the rest. However Bloguista Cora offers the following sober and accurate account in prose.
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Senator John Walsh
It would be an exaggeration to say that the week’s news has consisted of nothing but major disasters. Simply by moving away from the front page of the New York Times I was able to find some minor ones, including the fact that Senator John Walsh of Montana has plausibly been accused of plagiarism. Walsh, a “decorated war veteran” who was appointed to fill out the term of Max Baucus, who resigned the Senate to become our ambassador in Beijing, was already facing a difficult contest in the upcoming November election. He now faces possible ignominy greater than his probable political defeat. United States senators are not required to write term papers, but when they do, they ought not to cheat. His excuse is at least novel. He does not claim that the dog ate the paper. Instead he suggests that PTSD “may have been a factor” in inhibiting his recourse to quotation marks and footnotes. “My head was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment.”
Walsh is a Democrat, and since the balance of party power in Congress is very much an issue of interest at the moment, the partisan angle has been prominent in the news coverage. That is not my angle, however. There is perhaps not much that is truly bipartisan in our current political life except the political sleaze. I am less offended by what Walsh has said about it than by the judgment of his fellow Montana senator, Jon Tester. “…I don’t think it’s that big a deal, I really don’t. Look, Walsh is a soldier, he’s not an academic…”
Really? Plagiarism, which combines theft with lying, is a quintessential violation of fair dealing just as stock market fraud, embezzlement, and scamming little old ladies with unneeded roof repairs are violations of fair dealing. All too frequently we discover a major league embezzler in an academic institution. Ordinarily the response is not “This is no big deal…Schnackenfuss is an academic, not a banker…” It is hardly the case that academic credentials accrue no material gain. As a matter of fact Walsh is not a soldier but a politician who once was a soldier and apparently once considered an advanced academic degree sufficiently important or valuable to invest time and effort in its pursuit.
I have a couple of professional reactions to the situation. The medievalist in me first scorns, then pities the post-romantic cult of the ego that makes plagiarism possible and commonplace. Medieval plagiarism was abundant, but it was of a completely different sort. The idea was to pass off your work as somebody’s else’s, not vice versa. Nobody knew who Schnackenfuss was, but if Augustine wrote it, it must be good. If somebody wrote some great mystical theology in Greek, it must have been Dionysius the Aereopagite (see Acts 17:34).
Pseudo-Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, taking a dim view of the proceedings
My other reaction is slightly more severe. The occasion of the alleged plagiarism was Walsh’s master’s paper—it has also been called a “thesis”—at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, PA. The paper is fourteen pages long and apparently contains “several” unacknowledged borrowings from various sources, some of them verbatim. One of the things that is making egregious plagiarism of this sort less common than it once was is that it is so easy to spot. Anybody who has a reasonable familiarity with the scholarly literature in a field and knows how to do a Google search can expose it in five minutes. But it appears that nobody at the War College questioned the paper in 2007. That role was perhaps reserved for an “opposition researcher” in a political campaign seven years later.
What is the “War College”? One might be curious to know more about an institution where a master’s thesis can be fourteen pages long. If you visit the institutional website you will learn that it is a fully accredited institution of higher education. American higher education is somewhat peculiar in its system of “voluntary” accreditation. It is not some government bureaucracy that licenses colleges and universities, at least not directly. It is instead one of the several autonomous regional accrediting agencies that have developed over many years. For several years I served as one of the members of the Commission on Higher Education of one of the largest of them—Middle States—covering a geographical area including the seaboard states from New York to Maryland, plus Washington, D. C. and Puerto Rico. That last venue was particularly useful for Commission meetings.