Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bambi's Cousin

For Americans of my generation the Walt Disney film Bambi (1942!) was a significant life experience.  It was one of the earliest of the fabulously successful artificial animation films (following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937, and Pinocchio, 1940) of the genre that made Disney famous and that has continued to go from strength to strength for the better part of a century into the age of Pixar.  A pictorially magnificent tear-jerker, Bildungsroman, and an early tract of eco-propaganda, Bambi made a huge impression on my young mind in, probably, 1944.  At that time I was entirely unaware that the movie was based on a book published by the Austrian writer Felix Salten in 1923. 

            Salten entered my consciousness, via a circuitous route, about sixty years later, when I was writing a book on anti-Communist literature.  I discovered that Whittaker Chambers—the antagonist of Alger Hiss and super-patriot or super-snitch depending upon your political metabolism—had for a certain period in the Twenties supplemented a meager income by translating German language books.  His one huge success was Bambi (1928), which became a Book-of-the-Month selection.  Until very late in the twentieth century few American academics and intellectuals could face up to the reality that Hiss had indeed been--as Chambers alleged--a secret Communist, a low-level Soviet agent, a traitor, and a world-class liar.   Their reluctance required of them more or less inventive theories of why and how Chambers had been able to frame Hiss with flamboyant untruths and a specially manufactured typewriter.  One theory was that his deranged mind had projected upon his friend Hiss bizarre plot elements of a fiction by another Austrian writer, Franz Werfel, (Der Abituriententag, 1928) translated by Chambers as “Class Reunion”.  A scholar must consider all evidence.  Having read “Class Reunion,” I thought I’d better read Bambi as well.  I found no political clues in either, but I did end up among what must surely be but a happy few who saw the film Bambi at age eight and read the novel Bambi at age sixty-eight, with pleasure and admiration in both instances.

            One interesting aspect of Bambi (the book) is its lore concerning the methods used by mother deer in raising their offspring.  That sentence, which in terms of the techniques of prose composition could be called a “transition,” requires some spatial movement as well—away from my library and in the direction of our large back yard and toward the several seriously forested acres of common ground lying between it and Lake Carnegie about a quarter of a mile to the south.  Today these grounds are home to a numerous and increasing herd of whitetail deer—in addition to several other species of wildlife.  These deer are not quite tame, but they show less and less fear of human habitations and the activities surrounding them.  The deer mate mainly in November and, after a gestation period of about 200 days, the does drop their fawns mainly in late spring or early summer.

            Our suburban deer face no predators, though the automotive slaughter on major roads is dramatic.  This year has witnessed a particularly large crop of deer babies—portending problems ahead for gardeners and possible short rations for the deer themselves.  A couple of weeks ago I was out combating the sprouting bamboo—the gestation schedule of the bamboo being roughly that of the deer themselves—when I practically fell over a curled up fawn along the edge of my back lawn not fifty feet from the house.  The newborns, though not entirely immobile, are barely ambulatory.  The mothers park them in some supposedly safe place, then leave from for hours on end, returning to nourish them and, as soon as they get control of their thin, wobbly legs, lead them off to the woods in the gloaming of dusk or the dawn’s faint light.  When I looked again after a couple of hours, the cradle was bare.

            New Jersey suburbanites

         But what sort of places, exactly, does a mother deer consider “safe”?  Our house is one in which the actual front door gets little use.  We generally enter through the garage, and go in and out from the garden side at the back.  On Saturday morning, however, probably to check for the mail, I did open the front door—only to be startled by an agitated russet motion and the clatter of ineffectual tiny hooves against the stone of the threshold.  An enterprising doe had decided to use our front porch as her maternity ward!  I made the discovery about ten-thirty in the morning.  How long had the fawn been there?  Had the letter-carrier simply reached over it to reach the box?  Later in the afternoon our daughter arrived from New York.  She has been a participant in earlier animal husbandry capers on the family acres.  We tried to reach Animal Rescue, but without success.  We then consulted the all-knowing Internet, and in particular an impressive essay on offer from some deer lovers in SouthCarolina.  Its advice was: Leave the fawn be.  Mother knows best.

            Periodically throughout the day we tiptoed around to the front of the house to take a peek or a photo.  The fawn sat there on the welcome mat hour after hour--serenely, patiently, with touching infantile dignity.  Our daughter drove back to New York.  As night fell the animal was still there.  But in the dawn of Sunday, made confident by the expertise of the South Carolinians, I boldly opened the front door and looked down to see what I expected, a slab of bluestone and a welcome mat.

A note to our esteemed readers.  I believe that 460 of the 462 posts of on this blog met a rigorous once-a-week schedule.  But I now find that fanaticism is among the characteristics that are waning with age.  It is my hope that I shall be leaving tomorrow on a tour of great libraries in Britain, followed by some serious down time in the Provençal countryside and the fleshpots of Paris.  The hope is that blog and blogger will reappear in about a month.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Library Crawl

Tenth-century glossed psalter in the British Library

In ten days’ time we leave for a long-scheduled European trip full of both promise and challenge.  The challenge part has to do with the infirmities of the aging, which have inexplicably become more noticeable of late.  The promise lies in the purpose of the trip and its various attractive destinations.  It will begin with a secular pilgrimage, of which I am to be the Harry Bailey, to several of the great centers of learning in southern England.  Many American educational and other cultural institutions are now active in promoting tours and cruises intended to combine learning and pleasure, and we have been involved with several in the past.  This one, called “Great Libraries and Literature,” will take us to London, Oxford, Cambridge, and Canterbury, among other places.  Having spent untold pleasant hours in many of the world’s great libraries, and having followed the profession of a teacher of literature, I probably have the superficial qualifications for my assignment.

But they are, truly, superficial.  Only as I have been forced to think about the matter in something like a comprehensive way, have I realized just how superficial.  I wish we knew more about the great Library of Alexandria.  We know basically two things: it contained a very large number of scrolls, and the scrolls were burnt to ashes in a disaster that occurred around the beginning of the common era.  It was a museum—i.e., an institution dedicated to the Muses, and therefore something at least vaguely similar to a modern research library.  The Christian world would have to wait a long time to see its like.

Half a century ago a distinguished British historian, J. H. Plumb, published under the title The Death of the Past a series of essays outlining an argument concerning the origins of the archive.  Somehow I was quite surprised to discover that the conservation of documents was so clearly motivated by, well, conservatism.  Plumb points out the interesting fact that nearly all of the world’s earliest surviving written documents—to the extent that a clay tablet or an inscribed marble qualifies as a “document”—are legal or legislative attestations of ownership, hierarchy, dynasty, and dominion.  The field beyond the rock pool belonged to my grandfather.  Then it belonged to my father.  Now it belongs to me.  It was the material utility of this kind of conservative imperative that gives birth to the archive.  Plumb further argues that until fairly recently few historians had serious ambitions of “objectivity”.  History often had an agenda similar to that of other earlier writings.

            Religious conservatism has a somewhat complicated relationship to political conservatism, but the two have in history been closely, sometimes inextricably, related.  We may start with the Bible.  The English word derives from a Greek plural meaning simply books, and the plural form has its importance.  The Bible is a comprehensive collection of biblical books, which is to say that it is itself a kind of library in itself.  Post-Protestant Americans, when and if they think of the Bible, are likely to envisage a large, heavy book, probably bound in black leather.  But such mini-libraries rarely existed before the age of printing.  It is possible that none of the Fathers of the Church—including Jerome, who translated the whole of the Bible into Latin—ever saw one.  In early Christianity, as in antecedent Judaism—the biblical unit was the individual book or the partial selection of them.

            The word manufactured obviously once meant “made by hand”.  Manufactured goods tend to have an economic value related to three things: the cost of the raw materials of which they are made, the amount and skill of the handiwork required to make them, and the social utility or prestige assigned to the finished good.  Though the materials used in the manufacture of early European books varied, the best were made of prepared animal hides, a relatively expensive commodity.  The labor needed to create a manuscript (literally a “written by hand”) was intensive and, in a largely illiterate world, so highly skilled as to carry with it a whiff of the esoteric.  Finally the social value assigned to the Bible on account of its absolute sacral claims was very high, and encouraged the utmost scrupulosity not merely in the creation of books but also in their preservation.

            One single book of the Bible was a huge factor in the growth of libraries.  I refer to the Psalter—the collection of a hundred and fifty Hebrew hymns attributed mainly to King David.  This book was at the practical center of Christian monastic life.  In the Benedictine centuries (beginning in the sixth century) thousands of monks in every nook and cranny of Europe were required to “perform” the Psalter communally and in its entirety during the course of each week.  Nothing so stimulates the creation of a new book as the example or provocation of an old one.  The “monastic library”—from which our modern warehouses of erudition derive in a fairly straight line—began with the Psalter.  The first examples of recorded vernacular text in almost every language of Europe are to be found in early psalm-books.  The monoglot children brought into the monasteries as oblates and novices needed interlinear vernacular glosses to grasp the meaning of the psalms’ hard Latin words.

            As we set out on our library crawl, we may perhaps wonder whether Karl Marx, sitting day in, day out, at his hard seat in the British Museum gathering the materials for works that would inspire a radical, cataclysmic, and continuing assault on the intellectual and social remnants of Old Europe, might ever have given a thought to those young Godrics, Bodos, and Jãos, pondering to understand the meaning—either in lexical or in moral terms--of  divitias in Psalm 36 [37]:16,  “Better is the little which the righteous has than the great wealth of the wicked.”

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Springs of Helicon

Thomas Gray (1716-1771) 

Among the riffs developed by Garrison Keillor for the formerly brilliant “Prairie Home Companion,” was one about a fictional association called P.O.E.M.—the Professional Organization of English Majors.  The name was a lighthearted contribution to a fairly copious genre of English Major Jokes, but one offered by a man whose powers of articulation and imaginative narration showed just how vital the fundamental skills of literacy remain for the life of the spirit.

Outside of the joke world, however, the English major would seem to be in marked decline.  This is a theme confirmed by my mailbox.  Since I spent my life as an English professor, it is not surprising that so many of my alumni friends are interested in the subject.  It is a rare week in which no old friend or acquaintance forwards to me some essay or op ed column discussing the decline of the humanities in general or the specific debilities of the current study of literature.  One of the oddities of American academic culture is that although our faculties are hotbeds of political radicalism, our alumni bodies tend to be champions of the unchanging eternal verity.  The Princeton light bulb joke is this.  Q: How many Princetonians does it take to change a light bulb?  A: Two.  One to change the bulb and the other to talk about how much better the old bulb was.

I noticed over my years of teaching that the selection of students’ majors, undoubtedly influenced to some extent by parental advice, varied sharply (and quickly) with national economic conditions.  You can see this in the dramatic rise in numbers in students choosing economics (or business in institutions that teach it) and computer science.  Even so, the long-term decline of literary study is dramatic.  Over the last ten-year period, while the total annual cohort of American bachelor’s degrees was increasing by 26%, the number of English majors was declining by about 20% in absolute terms—from roughly 3.7% of all graduates to 2.2%.  (In 1970 it was 7.6%).

I am less inclined to mourn the statistics than to ponder their causes.  Obviously undergraduates are voting with their feet, but I believe that their motivation is less economic or vocational than it is intellectual or spiritual.  College students tend on the whole to be comparatively smart; many I have known are brilliant.  I fear that very bright students who love literature are concluding that English departments are not particularly good places to study it.  Even though they never enjoyed the illumination of the old bulb, they can tell when the light is dim and indirect.  Race studies, gender studies, “cultural” studies—all these can be studied less obliquely in other programs and departments.  One can also avoid the middle-man altogether.  Programs in “creative writing” and the visual and performing arts are burgeoning.

It is true that literature is a word with different meanings.  It can and sometimes does mean simply anything written, as in “I have read most of the literature on gastric ulcers, and…” But when we speak of English or American literature, or of the literature of any nation or language, we are talking about a set of relationships and a tradition.  There would be no classical Latin literature without explicit Greek antecedents.  There could be no Dante without Virgil, and no Virgil without Homer.  Reading Joyce’s Ulysses will never be easy, but it will be impossible if you don’t know that.  This fact demands of the literary student not merely some erudition but an attitude of informed conservatism incompatible with many post-modernist trends, and certainly its more narcissistic, even solipsistic ones.

A genuine political radical, the Scottish socialist and classicist J. W. Mackail, succinctly expressed the fundamental principle of literary study in a brilliant little book published more than a century ago by.   Mackail was in his time a famous Virgilian.  He had pretty good cultural connections.  He was the friend and biographer of William Morris, the son-in-law of Edward Burne-Jones, and the father of Angela Thirkell.  His book, a revised version of lectures given at Oxford during his tenure as Professor of Poetry, is entitled The Springs of Helicon: A Study in the Progress of English Poetry from Chaucer to Milton.  The title itself is allusive, invoking lines from a once-famous Pindaric ode written by Thomas Gray in the 1750s, “The Progress of Poesy”.  Helicon was the mountain sacred to the Muses; the two springs on its slope were Hippocrene and Aganippe.  “From Helicon’s harmonious springs” wrote Gray, “A thousand rills their mazy progress take”.

Gray’s poem is brilliant, but it is not easy, as the fancy classicism of his image might suggest.  Let Mackail himself make the necessary points in the brief introductory remarks in which he defines his subject as the “...Progress of Poetry, or in other words, the consideration of poetry as a progressive function and continuous interpretation of life.  Poetry may be thus regarded, and it is thus that Gray regards it in his great Ode, whether in relation to the life of the individual from youth to age, to the life of a single nation or language, or to the larger movements and progress of the life of mankind as it successively embodies itself in different ages and countries, and is there re-embodied and re-interpreted by art.”

Except for such “cultural revolutionaries” of the last century as produced the hecatombs that stagger the human imagination, culture is ever a fruitful commerce of tradition and innovation.  “In our own literature Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton have been the subject of such long and minute study, that for criticism to return to them now might seem like laboring in a thrice-plowed field.  But in truth not only is that field inexhaustible, but each generation must work it anew to gain its own food….The most high poets, unwasting also and unweariable, not only repay, but require perpetual reinterpretation.  To each age, to each reader, they come in a new light and bear a fresh significance: the progress of critical appreciation follows the progress of poetry; and the whole interpretation of the past becomes, in its turn, a part of the thing to be interpreted.” 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Countess of Grantham & the Duchess of Sussex


    There is already so much commentary in the American press about the “Royal Wedding” that I know that my own positive impressions are widely shared among my compatriots.  It is pleasant to be in the social mainstream for a change, though my “take” may be a little eccentric.  I am of course not anti-British—how could I be?—but in general I deplore what might be called “aristocracy creep” in America.  Our country fought and won a revolution to overthrow the hereditary principle, and to establish democracy as a goal with republicanism as its instrument.  The great George Washington refused coronation, but we got only as far as John Adams before the dynastic imperative reappeared in another form.  As we entered our most recent campaign season the two presumptive “front runners” were—out of a hundred million eligible candidates—a Bush and a Clinton.

            Some significant portion of the wedding’s American viewers must have also fairly recently watched the fabulously successful British television drama series Downton Abbey.  Its subject is life in a (fictional) great stately home in Yorkshire in the early decades of the twentieth century—a time during which an essentially eighteenth-century social model was threatened and eventually quelled by new social and economic realities.  Like most viewers I was fascinated in an almost prurient way by its “upstairs-downstairs” social hierarchies and its depiction of the domestic rituals and the minor melodramas of the idle rich and their adherents.

            But there was some serious social history as well.  The industrial revolution and mercantile capitalism were unforgiving to wealth mainly derived from large land-holdings.  The upkeep of a seventy-two bedroom house with a domestic staff of thirty is substantial, and many of the titled grandees of the shires, though half buried in social cachet, were short of cash.  So many of them went where the money was.  In this instance that was not the bank, but watering holes such as Newport, R. I., where there was a certain supply of the nubile daughters of rich, often nouveau riche, American tycoons.  It was the inherited fortune of the American-born Countess of Grantham (Cora Crawley, played splendidly by Elizabeth McGovern) that rescued Lord Grantham’s great house and continued to bankroll it through fifty-two episodes.  Thus had a certain segment of the waning British aristocracy turned in “real life” to the New World for redress of the ills of the Old.   Read Henry James, especially Portrait of a Lady, for some of the moral niceties of the situation.

            Well, American womanhood came to the rescue of distressed British bigwigs again last Saturday.  There is capital, as in financial, and capital, as in social.  The fictional Countess of Grantham was happily endowed with money capital, megabucks.  She had other things going for her as well, but the conduit to her man’s heart had been a checkbook.  Meghan Markle, now to be styled the Duchess of Sussex, is loaded with social capital.  Admittedly she had been earning 50K a pop in one of her recent acting gigs—not exactly chicken feed—but what she is bringing to the House of Windsor is a treasure more precious than pearls, a steamer trunk full of American social capital—sharp intelligence, real modernity, celebrity with an egalitarian aura tinged with feminist consciousness, a fundamental genuineness so far triumphant in face of the weirdness of the life she now enters.

            The latest Duchess is a wind tunnel of fresh air.  The British “royals” are not under imminent threat of extinction, but they are not wildly popular either.  A lot of contemporary Brits feel about the monarchy more or less the way I feel about Las Vegas.  It has little to do with me, but I can appreciate that it’s a big money-maker in the national tourist sector.  It does take a lot of good will to accommodate the anachronisms of the setup.  Queen Elizabeth is the only monarch the large majority of her subjects has ever known.  On the whole she has done an amazingly dutiful job in a situation no thoughtful person would wish upon an enemy, but she is a woman in her nineties whose early cultural formation is literally from a bygone era.  Her son and heir, who is considerably less popular, already looks like the Ancient of Days, and his comparative modernity includes unhelpful eccentricities.  This is a point made by the Economist in what is the best of the analytical essays I’ve read arising from this marital moment.

            Given the current urgency of racial issues both in Britain and America, and the attention given to them by many prominent journalists, I suppose it was inevitable, as well as a good thing on the whole, that the racial theme should loom large in the punditry.  Yet much of what I have read was written by people more familiar with critiquing the Oscar awards than delving into the symbolism of religious liturgies.  The “royal wedding” was a hugely public celebration of a Christian sacrament according to an Anglican rite.   The ministers of the sacrament of matrimony are not the officiating clergy in the big hats and cool capes but the marrying couple themselves—in this instance an international couple with slightly different melanin levels.  I presume they had a lot to do with the planning.  The service featured a range of excellent Christian music, though of course it would be impossible to suggest the vastness of the range to be heard in churches across the globe.   A gospel choir sang of a love that would sustain even should the mountains fall into the sea (Psalm 46:2).  An English boys’ choir sang of love that demands moral action (John 15:14).  The remarkable feature of the repertory was not the color of the singers but the unifying theme of love.  The preacher said the whole thing was about love.   One doesn’t need to contrive a racial “angle” in Christianity.  The world-wide Anglican Communion alone has upward of a hundred million members, a numerical majority of whom are black and brown people.

            Since it was a royal event at which the queen was present, the singing of “God Save the Queen” was a must.  But I also want to say God save the Duchess of Sussex, whose social capital may cooperate with the Deity to that end.   

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Adulteration of the Adult


 "The Seven Ages of Man" by William Mulready (1838)

I suspect that like many other underemployed Americans I have been wasting far too much of my time of late scouring various news outlets with ears alert for a dull clunk announcing the fall of the second shoe in one of the several presidential episodes only half-completed and therefore still pending.  Conspicuous among these is the curious caper of the Stormy Daniels Retirement Fund.  Stormy Daniels, of course, is the stage- or rather screen-name of a specialized film actress whose claim to have once been intimate with Donald Trump has been met with stout denials and a circuitously “funneled” check for $130,000.

There is in this still murky matter a large potential for titillation, shock, embarrassment, and indignation.  The indignation of an English professor will perhaps strike you as somewhat eccentric in its genre, which is lexical.  The American press, almost without exception, regularly identifies Stormy Daniels as prominent in or even as the “star” of numerous adult movies.  Now I am an adult, and I have been to a movie or two in my time.  I had never even heard of Stormy Daniels let alone ever seen her on the screen.  Of course she has nothing to do with adult movies.  Her specialty is pornography.   Having been goaded into some philological research I can tell you that the first recorded use of the word “adult” as a euphemism for “pornographic” dates only from 1958.  And as the reference work in which I find this information puts it, the development “does no honor to the word adult.”

When Hollywood claims an “adult theme” for one of its products, you can be pretty sure that the subject they have in mind is some form or another of adolescent sex.  It is true that Latin adultus is the past participle of adolescere, but since the sociological emergence of modern “adolescence” in the last century, Americans have displayed a decreasing interest in actually growing up.  Adolescence, which began as a stage, seems increasingly to be permanent life style aspiration.  Any connection between adolescere and adulterare (to corrupt or debauch) is purely fortuitous, though perhaps in the current moment perhaps also poetic.

We tend to divide the span of human life into six parts: infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth, middle age, and the Republic of Senior Citizens.  The traditional list of olden days was slightly more expansive.  Human life had “seven ages”.  The classical expression of the topic in our literature will be found in a well-known soliloquy of Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first [1] the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then [2] the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then [3] the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then [4] a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then [5] the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age [6] shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is [7] second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

As you see, for Shakespeare the yukky-love stuff of adolescence was gotten out of the way pretty early on before one advanced to two stages of social gravitas—one in the military, the other in the civic sphere.  Here our President, who is of course both commander-in-chief and executor of the laws, seems to fit the pattern tolerably well.  On the belligerent side “full of strange oaths”, “sudden and quick in quarrel” sound pretty close to the mark.  As for the judicial side, “capon-lined” is a reasonable if perhaps somewhat fanciful description of the midriff; and though our leader is beardless, “formal cut” does at least make a stab at the general tonsorial vibe.  Full of wise saws?  One cannot expect exactitude from a poet.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Blue & Gray in Black & White

 I am posting this essay a bit early, as circumstances seem unlikely to allow me to keep to the more usual schedule.  So you get a book report.

Now and again one rather casually picks up a book to find that it is hardly possible to put down.  That just happened to me.  For the past several years the Library of America has been bringing out a series of books entitled The Civil War, distributed in four volumes devoted successively to the four intense war years from the spring of 1861 to the spring of 1865.  Though each volume is the work of historical experts, secondary commentary is limited to chronologies, brief biographies, and textual annotations rather than historical analysis or opinion.  The volumes are really anthologies of original documents from a very wide range of authors:  the war “told by those who lived it.”  While absolutely “neutral” or “objective” history is an impossibility for any work depending entirely upon written documents and their editorial selection, the volume devoted to the war’s first year, seems scrupulous in its “objective” ambition.  This first volume is devoted only in small part to the war’s early military actions, concentrating instead on the political crisis preceding the outbreak of hostilities.

Several sobering facts impress themselves upon the mind of a twenty-first century reader of these old documents—at least upon mine.  The sobering facts are of different orders of magnitude.  The first, which for me is by no means the least impressive in its gravitas, is that in 1860 our country--in which the proportion of the college-educated was minute--was practically overrun with elected officials and private citizens who could read, write, and speak the English language with correctness, accuracy, elegance and forensic force.  The editors of the volume have put on the dust jacket a rhetorical question posed by Edmund Wilson: “Has there even been another historical crisis of the magnitude of 1861-65 in which so many people were so articulate?”  I am writing this on a day when a featured story in the national press documents what I am tempted to call an inarticulateness contest between the President of the United States and his new lawyer, the former mayor of our largest city, the ostensible subject of their shared obfuscation being Mr. Trump’s large payment of hush-money to an entrepreneurial sex-worker. Mr. Giuliani adds social insult to linguistic injury by treating the huge sum involved as approaching the risible, “almost pocket change” to the super-rich, though in fact it is roughly five times the annual average per capita income in this country.  “All I'm telling you,” says the President, “is that this country is right now running so smooth. And to be bringing up that kind of crap, and to be bringing up witch hunts all the time — that's all you want to talk about."

More importantly—or at least more substantially—this book has definitively answered for me the question of whether the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery.  All my life people north and south have seemed eager to persuade me that it really was about something else, despite a very explicit verse in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.  What becomes clear from reading this anthology of original documents, whether they be formal political manifestos laid out for public discussion by public officials or private and informal communications among friends or family members, is the general apprehension—most explicit among southern politicians but widely shared also in the North—that the fact and magnitude of Lincoln’s victory in November of 1860 spelled the doom of the system of chattel slavery in the United States.  Abolition was not Lincoln’s policy.  It was not the policy of the Republican Party.  It was precisely with regard to the acceptance of the status quo in the South that the victorious “moderates” expressed their “moderation” in the face of noisy Abolitionism.  But for that considerable part of the country whose principal wealth was capital investment in four and a half million souls in human bondage, reluctant toleration was scarcely better than frank opposition.  The southerners correctly considered “Black Republicanism”—their slur approved by Douglas in his famous debates with Lincoln—a conspiracy to contain and strangle slavery by forbidding its extension in the new territories.

Their recourse for the protection of their property was the rule of law.  The Republic was not then a hundred years old, yet to read these southern politicians one might imagine that the Constitution was as ancient as the Magna Charta.  They repeatedly invoke “the Constitution of our fathers.”  They speak of Andrew Jackson, who died in 1845, as an Englishman might speak of Henry II, who was born in 1133.  They did so appropriately, because chattel slavery was entirely constitutional.  Politics has been famously defined as “the art of the possible”.  A less charitable definition might be “expertise in can-kicking.”  The hagiography of our Founding Fathers rarely emphasizes the Constitution’s epic can-kick on the issue of slavery.

The politicians from the slave states knew what Lincoln had said before his election.  “A house divided against itself, cannot stand,” candidate Lincoln had said in 1858, quoting the Gospels.  “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.”  Even then you didn’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Schools of Eccentricity

I do not know whether sociologists have noted and explained the declining number of true eccentrics among us, or the decline of social eccentricity generally; but it seems to me a marked long-term feature of contemporary life.  I wonder whether my readers share that perception.  Of course a professional academic is particularly well placed to observe it, as the Academy has been both the nursery and the haven of eccentricity.  How well I remember my first impressions of the marvelous assortment of oddballs on the streets and byways of Oxford in the late Fifties: clerical dons bicycling along in their tattered gowns and brightly unmatched argyle socks, pipe-smoking female philologists with stringy gray hair as copious as Rapunzel’s, all done up in huge latticed coils at the back of the head, mumblers everywhere.  Nobody batted an eye.

Last week I received an electronic inquiry from a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.  She is writing a master’s thesis “that concerns Rose Rand’s Logic of Demand Sentences (1930/62) in the context of the development of deontic logic,” and she continued: “I have read your column from 2003 where you describe your encounters with her.”  Did I, she enquired, have further information?  In my correspondent’s opinion Rose Rand had importantly anticipated “the work of von Wright on deontic logic.”

That is the sort of delightful arrow from the blue that from time to time drops into academic mailboxes, but it was also intimidating.  Quite apart from the deontic logic part I did not immediately register the name of Rose Rand.  I could not for the life of me remember having written about encounters with her.  But it all did come back to me, especially when the woman in Groningen—clearly a masterful researcher--sent me an electronic copy of my own long-forgotten essay.

When I first joined the Princeton faculty the place was nearly Oxonian in its density of eccentricity.   There was a chemist, commonly known as “Dr. Boom” for his histrionic and pyrotechnical lectures, and his supposed inspiration for a film called The Absent-Minded Professor.  There was an eminent sociologist who strode about with a huge walking-stick accompanied by two mighty mastiffs.  Our ubiquitous and delightful Recording Secretary rode everywhere on an old bicycle to which a prominent (and one hopes, artificial) tiger’s tail had been attached.

But these were all examples of cultivated eccentricity, at least to a degree.  It is in academic libraries that one will find the wholly unselfconscious real thing.  Here I speak as one brought up in the observatories of large reading rooms in Oxford, London, and Paris.  The offspring of social marginalization and erudite monomania can be true eccentricity.   In my early years at Princeton there were several unusual people padding around the stacks of Firestone Library, including the Nobel laureate John Nash, reinvented with considerable poetic license for the film A Beautiful Mind.  Great wits are sure to madness near allied”, wrote Dryden; “and thin partitions do their bounds divide”.
One of Nash’s trademarks, odd footwear, was also a specialty of a small, frowning woman of gimlet glance and impenetrable accent who clomped about the philosophy shelves on the third floor in high-top Keds.  As her hunting grounds were not far from Medieval Theology, she frequently crossed paths with medievalists.  In time we came to exchange muttered greetings.  We all knew her as “the Polish Logician”.  It was a year or two before I came to know her name: Rose Rand.  She had no connection to Princeton much more substantial than a library pass, but concerning her Rumor raced through the Firestone stacks, as gossiping Fama had flown throughout Libya with reports about Dido, mixing truth and falsehood.  Rose Rand had been the amanuensis of the Vienna Circle of philosophers in the early 1930s.  And/or she had been Heidegger’s girlfriend.  She was nearing the completion of a huge manuscript that would prove more important than Bacon’s New Atlantis or Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach.  I did not know then about deontic utterances and the logic thereof—not that I know all that much now.

I am ashamed to say that in those days I regarded her mainly as a campus “character”.  Since then I have gleaned some reliable information from standard reference works and from my new correspondent in Groningen.   Dr. Rand was born in Lemberg (now Lviv in Ukraine) in 1903.  She indeed did study philosophy in Vienna and, as a graduate student, did participate in the seminars of the Vienna Circle.  What could have been—and almost certainly would have been--a highly honored academic career was blasted by the madness of the Hitler regime.  She escaped the Holocaust, but apparently at no small cost to her psychological and bodily health.  She fled first to England, where destitution reduced her to manual labor and a nervous breakdown, and where she never found lasting teaching jobs commensurate with her skills.  Sexism, while not so murderous as anti-Semitism, probably played a role.  Later, at various academic sites in America, she eked out a living with small grants and some ad hoc teaching, but remained marginalized and impecunious. In the era of post-War academic life in the universities of Western Europe and North America, many intellectual refugees from Nazism and Communism flourished, won prizes, made great contributions to their fields; but many others could barely hang on by a fingernail.  Such is one of the injustices that encourage the tragic sense of life.

I lost track of the Polish logician well before her death in 1980.  I have learned that all her papers have ended up at the University of Pittsburgh, an institution boasting what is perhaps the world’s premier Department of Philosophy.  The young scholar in Groningen hopes soon to be able to visit Pittsburgh and work with them. Incidentally, what deontic means as a linguistic term is “expressing duty or obligation”—such as an obligation, perhaps, to recognize that sometimes little old ladies in tennis shoes are important and original philosophical thinkers.