Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Princeton in the Great Fear

Immediately following the storming of the Bastille in July of 1789 there spread throughout vast areas of rural France a mass delusion known to historians as “the Great Fear”.  Its acute phase lasted about three weeks.  Rumors were rife that brigands were marauding through the countryside plundering villages, burning crops in the fields, and killing peasants.  The grapevine typically claimed that the violence had already reached such-and-such a nearby village and was now headed “this way”.  You can perhaps imagine the actual social consequences of such widespread panic—or perhaps you cannot.   Suffice it to say they were considerably more revolutionary than the attack on the Bastille itself.

I am not particularly good at correctly predicting results of such things as athletic contests and political elections, but I do have a nose for codswallop and hogwash that many of my peers seem to lack.  I well remember when just about Thanksgiving of 1987 I saw a report in the Times of the supposed kidnapping and sexual torture of a young woman named Tawana Brawley in Wappinger Falls, NY.  I knew immediately that the story had to be a hoax—an obvious conclusion arrived at only much later and most reluctantly by the mainstream press, and only after having contributed generously to the creation of a horrible episode of racial tension and having promoted the Rev. Al Sharpton to his tenured position as race-hustling political guru among the American punditocracy.

Toward the end of last week several urgent messages from various centers of social gravitas in our upscale community of Princeton, NJ—the Y, the public library, the mayor’s office, the University’s “Tiger Alert” service—appeared in my email and, I supposed, in the boxes of many others..  They informed me that on the proximate Saturday, maybe even the next day, white supremacists were planning a hateful march through the center of our little town.  Not to worry, however.  The police were prepared to protect us.  Plans for emergency street clearings and special parking restrictions had already been put in place.  I had never before heard of the fascist entity sponsoring the march--the New Jersey European Heritage Association—but an instant’s Internet research confirmed the existence of such a sadsack sodality, or at least the existence of a website featuring a photograph of a pregnant blonde and a lament for the comparatively anemic Caucasian birth-rate in America.  White Supremacy, while no laughing matter, is nonetheless ludicrous.  Conspicuously absent, however, was the announcement of a March on Princeton, or indeed on anywhere else.

I already was beginning to have vague intimations of that Tawana Brawley feeling as I set out to discover the evidence triggering our very own local Great Fear.  Of course a sizable political demonstration in the center of a bustling town, whether by white supremacists or the PTA, but especially one requiring police supervision at least as vigilant as that for the 10K “Turkey Trot” at Thanksgiving, would normally require prior planning.  According to the mayor’s communication, no application had been made by the NJEHA or anybody else for a permit to march or demonstrate on this particular Saturday; but (and here the plot took a sinister turn toward the passive voice) fliers announcing a proposed march had appeared in the town.  Anonymous, but appeared.  How to assess the threat?  Hume’s argument against miracles is an argument from probability.  Is it more probable that a man walked on water or that the report of his having done so was mistaken or actually fraudulent?  To my mind, the proposition that White Supremacists were going to have a political rally in Princeton, NJ, was a priori less probable than—well, than most ways you could finish the sentence.  But Xeroxed fliers pushed me over the edge, as they might have done to others who have spent forty years on a college campus observing the potential for mischief inherent in anonymous fliers.  In 1708, wicked Jonathan Swift published a flier predicting the imminent death of an annoying astrologer named Partridge.  Nothing Partridge did thereafter could convince the public that he was not in fact dead.  They wanted him to be dead, and they had seen his death predicted in a flier.

No pasarán!  Palmer Square, Princeton, N. J., 12 January 2019

The White Supremacists were no shows, but there was still a pretty impressive counter-demonstration, presuming that one needs no actual demonstration to counter one.  I was not there, but I got the following report from Tiger Alert: “More than 500 people chanting and holding signs marched around the square for more than an hour this afternoon.  They went ahead with their demonstration even though the white supremacist group did not show up.”  The racists were presumably back lurking under the bridges with the rest of the trolls, waiting for the Billy Goats Gruff.  There may not have been such a flap in these parts since October 30, 1938.   On that evening CBS transmitted a drama, a version of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds adapted for radio by the genius of Orson Welles, that convinced its listeners that hostile Martians had landed at Grover’s Mill, practically in spitting distance of the Princeton campus, and that they were headed “this way”.  Old Mrs. Skillman, my landlady in graduate student days and an eye witness, told us all about it.  No counter-attack, but lots of people apparently took refuge in the Catholic church two blocks east on Nassau Street for a hastily initiated prophylactic novena.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

These Childish Things

Not too long ago I found at the back of a drawer filled with miscellaneous junk one of my old pocketknives.  I hadn’t seen it, or any other boy’s pocketknife in years, and it started me down a path of remembrance of things past that is becoming for me a familiar itinerary.  How very different were the “old days” of even a single lifetime!  A fortnight ago it was Christmas.  Because of the diverse travel plans, housing arrangements, commissary assignments, and social priorities of the three families of our adult children, our Christmas morning gift exchange was, by common-sense general agreement, a scaled-down event to be achieved as modestly and expeditiously as the presence of several small, excited children might allow.  But even if one stuck with the “one gift” policy, which not everyone did, our sitting room was soon overflowing with piles of hastily removed crumpled wrapping paper, and the carpet already littered with unprepossessing bits and pieces of brightly colored plastic, constituent parts of various games and gizmos designed to ignite a temporary excitement among their recipients and, in the longer term, swell the trade deficit with China.

I remember no plastic from seventy years ago.  Our infantile amusements were, for the most part, self-designed and their implements home made.  We actually made our own sleds, skis, and wheeled carts.  Living on a run-down farm mainly consisted of fixing broken things and making do with what could be whittled out of ash and cedar blanks.  A corner of the barn was always full of old metal rods, gears, and wheels patiently awaiting their inventive recycling. Nor was this phenomenon limited to the economically marginal in the American sticks.  I don’t read a lot of political biography, and seldom long retain much of it when read; but I do remember a small detail from an autobiography of Harold Macmillan, who had been the British Prime Minister during my Oxford years.  He had been born in the final years of the nineteenth century.  The style of his upper-crust upbringing—a straight line from a nannied nursery through Eton to Balliol College, Oxford—avoided ostentatious displays of affluence; but the family was quite comfortable.  He makes the point, nonetheless, that as a growing lad he and his peers always made their own toys and rarely saw a store-bought one.  My Uncle John, though not an Etonian, shared this spirit.  One day he found a cache of old iron horseshoes under a chicken shed he was repairing.  That same day between dinner and sundown he had created a horseshoe pitch that gave pleasure for the next thirty years.

Most toys needed wooden parts, and this is where the pocketknife came in.  I am not talking about the portable workshop that was the old Swiss Army knife, nor some sturdy, potentially lethal Opinel.  I mean a fifty-cent flat piece of gun metal, three or four inches long and clad in faux antler, possibly sheathing but a single blade of high quality carbon steel that would accept, through patient honing, a super-keen edge and hold it.  All cutting tools had to be kept sharp, but the goal for a pocketknife was a blade that could effortlessly slice though a piece of notebook paper.  Everybody whittled, all the time—except when honing the blade with an Arkansas stone, also carried in a pocket.  You got to be quite good just by eyesight at shaving things straight, and to a fairly fine tolerance.

The knife itself was a toy.  Can I be writing these words? I am a modern parent of hyper-modern parents who carefully read all warning labels, ingredient lists, expiration dates and allergy alerts.  But we boys once played Mumblety-Peg endlessly.  Mumblety-Peg was like Country Ham.  All aficionados of it knew its exact rules with dogmatic certainty, and no two sets of rules agreed.  Essentially it was a game of considerable skill involving precision in knife-throwing at a defined or imagined target on the ground.  Often the thrower adopted a contorted bodily posture to create a novelty feat that his competitor in the game had to match.  The knife-throw could also have a role in another all-consuming pastime—“keeper’s” marbles.  This term meant in theory that you actually took permanent possession of marbles won; but the natural justice of childhood, unlike the avarice of its elders, rebels at the obscenity of monopoly.  So what it meant de facto was the endless ebb and flow of the supposed booty among the various participants.  Anyway, going in for the kill in a defined “marble circle” might involve the expert sectioning of the circle by knife-throw.

“Gender roles” were not nearly so fixed as our contemporary academic theorists would have you believe.  Most “motion” games—Kick the Can, Simon Says, Red Rover, and so on—were generally played by all.  The total cost for the equipment for these games was zero dollars and zero cents.  Hopscotch was primarily but not exclusively a girls’ pastime; but the kingdom over which girls ruled most awesomely was that of the skip-rope.  As Joni Mitchell says, you don’t know what you’ve got til it's gone.  I’ve lived in my present, pleasant neighborhood for thirty years now.  Never once have I encountered on its broad sidewalks the traces of a chalked hopscotch grid.  Nor anywhere, in the last half century, have I seen the vernacular choreography, as precise as that in any Hollywood review, of agile children leaping, seemingly without effort, in and out of a maelstrom of rapidly whirling rope.  Out comes the doctor.  Out comes the nurse.  Out comes the lady with the alligator purse.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Abandoned Women

Dido and Aeneas, alfresco in Rome

Over the holidays I watched one of the free Netflix offerings, “The Little Hours,” which is an intermittently amusing pseudo-medieval comedy loosely based in Boccaccio’s Decameron.  It got me thinking about the importance of horny nuns to the European literary tradition, and the problems that tradition raises for the current search for the “authentic female voice” in our early literatures.

            Before you had nuns you had widows, the most influential of whom was the Carthaginian queen, Widow Dido.  Though committed to the memory and ashes of her murdered husband Sychaeus, she immediately feels a hormonal stirring when Aeneas rides into town.  (He washes up on the beach, actually.)  In one of Virgil’s great lines Dido confesses to her sister Anna: Adgnosco veteri vestigia flammae (iv. 23) “I recognize the signs of the old flame.”  Here is the ancient origin of the still current phrase old flame; but note that in Virgil it means not a particular old boyfriend but eroticism itself.  But there is such a thing as spiritual eroticism as well.  Near the end of the Purgatorio the pilgrim Dante, sensing the proximity of Beatrice, says to Virgil: Conosco i segni dell’antica fiamma.  Virgil would surely have recognized one of his own greatest lines, but it is precisely at this point (Purgatorio xxx, 48-49) that Virgil has disappeared from the poem like a whiff of smoke.  “Types and shadows have their ending,” as the Pange lingua puts it, “for the newer rite is here.”

            Dante’s “use” of Dido, which is enabled in part by the linguistic closeness of Latin to his Florentine vernacular, is particularly brilliant; but any European who could read knew Dido’s tragic history.  After indulging in a torrid sexual affair with her—which she called a “marriage”—Aeneas dumped her and sailed away to do his boy thing (founding the Roman Empire).  Crazed by love, Dido committed suicide.  Thus she became literature’s most famous abandoned woman—and abandoned in the double sense of giving herself over completely to passion and of being scorned by a faithless lover.  This literary version of the “abandoned woman” was given its classical expression in Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of the imaginary letter exchanges between famous abandoned women and the jerks who shafted them.  Prominent among them are the purported letters of Dido.  For a thousand years pre-pubescent boys had Latin drills based in the erotic language of the fourth book of the Æneid.  Augustine writes about it.  So there is a great deal of the “voicing” of abandoned women, and all of it written by males, and all of it deriving ultimately from the male schools of classical Antiquity.

Abelard and Heloise, from a MS of the Roman de la Rose
Fast-forward to the first half of the twelfth century.  In general the social conditions of women have not changed dramatically since Ovid’s day.  It’s still a man’s world.  But Christianization has created at least one very important innovation in this regard: the female religious house.  In the thousands of nunneries of medieval Europe tens of thousands of women live by votive principle in single-sex communities having as little commerce with men as is practically possible.  In these houses there are often important functions, “leadership roles” of teaching and administration, of financial management, of artisanal crafts that perforce have to be undertaken by women.  From this situation arises a paradox.  A form of life seemingly designed to demand maximal denial of, and impose maximal constraints upon its followers in fact enables many women to flourish in ways that would never be open to them in the world beyond the cloister.  This is particularly true, perhaps, in the sphere of letters.  Virginia Woolf famously yearned for “a room of her own.”  In the Middle Ages it was fairly easy for a woman to get one, if it was a cell.  So we get a Hrotsvitha, the learned tenth-century canoness of Gandersheim, and the author of erudite Latin dramas on the model of those of Plautus and Terence.  In the twelfth century we get the polymath genius Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine nun who was among other things a poet, a musician, a scientist, and a speculative theologian.

            This brings us to one of the most celebrated literary episodes of the Middle Ages, and back to horny nuns.  I refer to the famous dossier of “correspondence” between Abelard and Heloise.  Concerning this famous dossier I am a heretic, for I do not believe that Heloise’s letters are any more “real” than Dido’s letters in the Heroides.  This is a blog post, not a scholarly essay, and I shall not argue the case.  I freely admit that my heresy, which has proved on more than one occasion to be life-threatening when raised in the presence of feminist scholars, is a distinctly minority view; but I have to call them like I see them.  One of Heloise’s great lines to Abelard is this: “Even if I could be Queen to the Emperor and have all the power and riches in the world, I’d rather be your whore.”  That is one horny nun, and in its level of abandonment the “authentic voice” sounds to me like that of Ovid.

            Be that as it may, the Abelard-Heloise correspondence had a huge fictional posterity.  It is not going too far to see in it a precursor of the epistolary novel, which became so prominent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with writers like Richardson in Pamela and Choderlos de Laclos in Les liaisons dangereuses.  The horny nun also became a staple of the love literature of those centuries.  The most famous of a dozen examples is probably the Portuguese Letters (Lettres portugaises traduites en français) first published in Paris in 1669.  The purportedly “authentic voice” of the letters was that of a jilted Portuguese nun named Mariana Alcoforado.  The actual author was a French libertine and Ovid-reader named Gabriel de Lavergne, sieur de Guilleragues.  Another male fantasy, actually.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Christmas with Yuri and Lara

This year’s family Christmas preparations involved troop movements and contingency planning at a degree of complexity in comparison with which the Normandy Invasion must be regarded more along the lines of a trip to Trader Joe’s.  I was merely a grateful observer of their expert execution by others.  The Montreal contingent arrived on Saturday night.  Joan had brilliantly snagged six last-minute bargain seats for the production of “A Christmas Carol” at the McCarter on Sunday. Everything went like clockwork including not merely the timely conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge but—mirabile dictu—even parking at the theater!  Next day, the Christmas Eve feast at Kingwood was a culinary tour de force by son Richard and an epic success, followed by a second when we whisked all the little ones off to the statutory church pageant featuring live manger animals and classic Christmas carols.

By then I had already undergone a strange catharis in no way formally connected with the holiday, yet still somehow useful for it.  Every life, however humble, must have its Eureka moments.  For me one came in my fifteenth year when the Modern Library edition of The Brothers Karamazov came into my hands.  I felt I had never before read anything so strange and wonderful.  Some of the exotic flavor, I would later learn, derived as much from the translator Constance Garnett as from Dostoyevsky; but no matter.  Here was this vast world of obsolete titles, puzzling patronymics, “degrees of frost”, visionary monks, and thirty different kinds of horse-drawn conveyance--and from its center vivid moral issues shining forth as bright as klieg lights.  I went on a reading jag: more Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol’s Dead Souls.  This must have been in the year 1951, height of the Cold War, the year of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness.  Gray-faced Russians in bad gray suits were throwing tantrums at the UN.  The Rosenbergs were on death row.  How could  Alyosha Karamazov have morphed into Andrey Vyshinsky?  I knew that if I ever wanted to get serious about this interest I would have to learn Russian.  I surprised myself with the realism of my decision.  I would not get really serious, but I would nonetheless continue to indulge my Anglophone Russophilia.  Otherwise, what’s the point of literary translation?  At Sewanee there was an old guy named Eugene Kayden, an economist but also somehow an expert on Russian poetry, and he helped me.  It was from him I first heard the name of Boris Pasternak.

On Saturday afternoon our “Montreal family” set off in the direction of Princeton.  I tend to get sleepy pretty early, but I was determined to be awake when they arrived.  So I did something to guarantee that I would not nod off.  I slid a DVD of “Doctor Zhivago” into the reader on my computer and settled in for a couple of hours of intense emotional immersion.  I take the probably heretical view that Doctor Zhivago is a good novel, but a great film.  Book and film need to be regarded as quite separate, though obviously related, works of art.  My opinion is that just about everything in Lean’s film is perfect.  I watch it about once in a year or eighteen months.  You cannot make caviar a daily commonplace.  It always made my eyes tear up.  This year I just let it rip, a solitary weeper in a darkened room.  The term “tear-jerker” was invented to try to shield us from the embarrassing reality of our own emotions.  If you can without weeping watch the scene in which Lara departs by horse-drawn sleigh from Varykino, leaving Zhivago to do his far, far better thing—well, you probably should make an appointment for a general physical check-up.

Is there a “tragic sense” of history?  I have studied enough of it to know that mostly it is a record of intense human struggle against formidable enemies: want, disease, ignorance, “natural” disasters and the unnatural ones launched in the darkness of the human heart.  This may be a grim view, but it seems to me the one upon which the Christmas “message” is posited.  And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.  That is the “comic sense” of history, and the one that keeps me from despair.  Be this as it may, no reader of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy is allowed to doubt that “there are tears in things”—as Virgil has put it, nearly two thousand years before them.  But there are degrees and styles of tragedy.  The tragedy of the political pathologies of modernity is on so colossal a scale as to beggar the imagination.  Only comparatively recently have I read the historian Martin Malia’s extraordinary book The Soviet Tragedy; but I had much earlier seen its central truths foreshadowed in Dostoyevsky’s Devils (The Possessed) and delineated in the twentieth-century pages of Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.   What David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” does with unmatched brilliance is to exemplify a vast intercontinental disaster through the private grief of two compelling characters worthy of Dickens or Victor Hugo or any of the great nineteenth-century heirs of the Romantic tradition.  It was only accidental that, this year, it also served as my version of keeping watch by night.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Christmas, Hurry!

 Albrecht Durer, "Holy Family with Three Hares"

Christmas is now less than a week away.  The practical meaning of this sentence is that you have no more time to be reading random blog posts than I have to be writing them.  But, then, again, I’m left with the conundrum of the old ars longa and the definite vita brevis, so one plunges on.  In this household we career through pre-Christmas from crisis to crisis, with this day’s crisis being the Christmas cards.  They really do need to be on their way within forty-eight hours.  I have been printing our own since about 1970, when the first Vandercook arrived ; but this year the premature descent of chaos, combining with age, infirmity, and a serious writing obligation conspired against me.  God rewarded me with a miracle.  While searching for a lost book—which I never did find of course—I stumbled upon a large cache of old cards unused by anyone but the spiders who seem to have been nesting in them for the last decade.

            Over the years we have had a wide variety of designs.  The old Christmas blocks from the Twenties and Thirties that I used to find among the junk bought at auction are now so retro as to look futurist.  And early in my Christmas card career I had a reasonably high quality set of four of Durer’s Christmas etchings reproduced.  Among the lesser known curses of the digital age is that the photoengraver has disappeared from the earth, so my line etchings are now antiques approaching the value of their prototypes.  But they are large, barely fitting into an A-6 envelope.

            Of the Durers my own favorite is the so-called “Holy Family with Three Hares,” which features a pretty well-fed Madonna and Child, and an emaciated Joseph looking approximately 102.  This was the image that led me to do extensive research into Joseph iconography, and the place to do that is in the pages of the Cahiers de Joséphologie.  I’ll wager I’ve got you there.  There is a certain genre of magazine that seems to exist only in the waiting rooms of dentists’ offices.  Mainly they have as their subject matter the latest trends in aluminum tubing or the undiscovered charm of picturesque shopping malls in Passaic County.  The plausible theory would seem to be that people who are waiting in dentists’ offices are probably so preoccupied with premonitions of the root canal that stocking Harper’s or The New Yorker, which actually require a paid subscription, would be a frivolous expense.  Since people are only pretending to read anyway, a dog-eared copy of Dental Prophylaxis Today for May, 2013, will serve quite well. But even in these grim antechambers, brilliant with fluorescent lighting and shiny plastic laminate chairs, you will not find the Cahiers de Joséphologie, a treat reserved exclusively for obscure medieval scholars and sub-sub-librarians.

            Durer shook off this mortal coil in 1528.  But don’t think that dead white males, just because they are my specialty, are the only artists in our salon.  We have, whenever possible, tried to patronize up-and-coming painters as well.  Somewhere around 1988 Luke Fleming, then about ten years old, produced for his Sunday School class at Trinity Church the now famous sequence known to art historians as “Luke’s Luke”—referring, of course, to the most tender and feminist of the four evangelists, and the one whose treatment of the Christmas legend is regarded by many scholars as the most poetic and inventive of the four of them.   Luke, who as we know from extra-canonical sources produced a portrait of the Virgin, was certainly the only practicing painter among them.  Fleming was particularly struck by what he called the “urgency of the kinetic moment” suggested by one textual detail (“And they came with haste…”, Luke 1:16)—a sentence written of the shepherds, though Fleming’s fecund imagination reassigned it to the magi of Saint Matthew.  Thus was born “Wise Man in a Hurry”.  I was, as I say, fortunate enough to stumble upon a store of our old cards, which, though mainly consisting of a more conventional (camelback) treatment by an unknown commercial artist from Fall River, MA, included several exemplars of “Hurry”.

 Luke Fleming the Younger, "Wise Man in a Hurry"

            Now, of course it is I who am in a hurry—too rushed to explain what I learned from the Cahiers de Joséphologie about the insistence of certain influential theologians of the fifteenth century that all paintings the Holy Family clearly depict in Joseph a geezer too old to cut the mustard.  We have to get our cards into the mail, among other things.  But it suddenly occurs to me that a blog post itself might serve as well as any three by five piece of printer’s stock to send holiday greetings to all our far-flung friends in many lands.  So to all of you a very merry Christmas, and throughout our whole needy planet let there be peace and good will to all.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Brief History of X


I first became interested in semiotics from the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible.  Of course I had never heard of “semiotics” at the time, and I am still not sure I understand everything meant by the term as used by some of my more learned colleagues.  Looking at its Greek root, I take it to mean the study or theory of signs, the most numerous of which are the words we use in our attempts at oral or written communication.  But of course there are also pictorial traffic signs, signs of good or bad weather, signs of life, signs of the times, and many others.  One of my favorite characters in Chaucer, who has spent some hours with an itchy mouth, says “that’s a sign of kissing, at the very least”.  Anyway, when Cain killed his brother Abel, God set a “sign” upon the murderer (Genesis 4:15).  That is the word used in the medieval Latin Bible.  In the Authorized English version the word is mark, and over the centuries there has been a good deal of inconclusive speculation as to what the sign or mark of Cain was.  It had a puzzling ambiguity.  Though it identified a murderer, its purpose was to protect him from anyone who might set out to kill him.  Anyone who dared to effect revenge for Abel would be “punished seven times worse”!  But what was the “mark of Cain?”

The old rabbis, later followed by Christian exegetes, suggested various possibilities.  One was that it was the image of a dog—a late suggestion pretty obviously influenced by the accidental similarity of the name “Cain” to the Greek  (kuon) and Latin (canis) words for “dog”.  More common was the idea that the “mark” was merely a hideous facial expression, accompanied by a palsied tremor, but this, too, was probably classically induced by a “dog word”—meaning something like “dog-faced” or “smiling in a dog-like manner”.  Many commentators agree that the mark, whatever it was, was on Cain’s forehead.

That may get us somewhere.  A scholarly essay I’m working on just now reviews the ideas that led Francis of Assisi to adopt the tau (a Greek and Hebrew letter equivalent to the Latin “T”) as his personal signature.  It was in imitation of the mysterious figure (Ezekiel 9:2), a “man…clothed with linen, with a writer’s inkhorn at his belt”.  The function of this scribe is to walk through Jerusalem and to “mark tau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh, and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof.”  Only this small band of penitents will be spared from general slaughter.

There is another important appearance of the forehead-writer in the Apocalypse, but I must move on to his secular traces, which are numerous and surprising.  One way of crossing two squiggles made a T.  Another formed the Greek letter chi, the initial of “Christ” in that language, and the parallel to Latin X.  Since there are quite a few words relating to Christ in Christianity, scribes were happy to use X as an abbreviation and save a little time with things like the “Count of Monte Xo,” “Xofer Columbus”, and even “Merry Xmas”—I speak of many years ago, before the regime of the PC police.  Already in ancient times several of the minimalist letters had been used to mean any graphic mark or sign.  That is, tau was a letter, but as a word it meant “mark” or “sign”.  The Vulgate phrase “the sign Thau” is an innocent pleonasm, like “the River Avon”—afon being the forgotten Celtic word for “river”.  When a Roman teenager put together his 1:1000 scale model of a trireme or whatever, the instruction was to “insert fold T into slot X” or “make sure the tri jot is correctly aligned with the reme tittle” or something like that.
So X—now no longer necessarily thought of as the sign of a cross—became the sign or mark for anything you wanted to sign or mark, beginning with the mathematical unknown that you were supposed figure out with the help of Y.  And of course X marks the spot where the body was found.  Our own particular, individual signs are our signatures.  But what about illiterates?  During World War II one of my aunts worked for some alphabetical New Deal outfit doing good among the primitive mountaineers on the south bank of the White River in northern Arkansas.  She used to speak of the “exers”—not a generation of aging hippies, but people who signed all legal papers with an “X”.  I think it was the immortal Irving Berlin who wrote: “My uncle out in Texas can’t even spell his name;  He signs his checks with X’s, but they cash them all the same.”  More recently a Country and Western song entitled “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” was nominated for a Grammy.  This has absolutely nothing to do with my subject, but it is a sobering reminder of just how few words rhyme with Texas.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Past President

 Augustine somewhere reminds us that all our cultural investments in the ceremonies of death—funerals, memorials, official periods of mourning, and the like—while we may think that they truly honor the dead, are actually and of necessity palliatives for the living.  This idea seems to be one of those obvious truths which we could well do without, and so usually do.  I think that in the Antique world, at least as regards members of those social classes who have left us the written and archaeological records out of which so much of our history is constructed, the ceremonies of death on the whole were more elaborate and protracted than they are with us.  There was in the first place rather more death, so to speak, certainly a greater awareness of the fragility of life and how it could be taken in an instant from a living person of any age at any time.  Honoring the dead is reassuring to the living at least to the extent that only the living can do it.

I think of all this, of course, as the body of one of our former presidents, George H. W. Bush, lies in state awaiting an elaborate funeral amid what the papers are calling “a national outpouring of emotion.”  I think that’s probably an exaggeration, but nonetheless I have seldom been more aware of the truth of Augustine’s observation.  The living are mourning for—the living.  Most of the “coverage” scarcely even tries to disguise the fact that what is on our minds is not a dead president but a living one.  One of the burdens of advancing age is a weakening of the memory.  “Old men forget, ” says Shakespeare’s Henry V in his immortal speech, "yet all shall be forgot.”  But not quite yet.  Anyone who was sentient in the year, say, 1990—not so very long ago—must be amazed, not to say mind-boggled, at the stream of hagiographical commentary from journalists and political oppositionists who barely had a civil word for the defunct during the relatively short course of his incumbency.  But the line “Middle-aged men forget” fails to scan.  It just doesn’t cut it at the poetic level.  As for the possibility of young men forgetting, you need not worry; most of them never knew in the first place.  As for us—meaning the living—we yearn for the hagiography and will welcome it on whatever terms are on offer.

I found very moving the press report of the former president’s final hours.  President Bush was with an old and dear friend, James Baker, like the former president himself an eminent American statesman animated by nearly antediluvian concepts of patrician public service, duty and honor, with whom he had a terse religious conversation.  Bush apparently declared that he would like to go to Heaven.  Baker apparently opined that he was about to do so.  The former president was ready to move on.  I never expected to hear so straightforward and unsophisticated an exchange reported on the PBS “News Hour,” but there it was.  And it really could have come straight out of medieval hagiography—specifically, from the deathbed accounts of various monastic saints.  Perhaps my favorite among these is the report of the last moments of Aelred of Rievaulx on January 12, 1167 given by his friend Walter Daniel.  Aelred has to have been one of the sweetest characters God ever made, and he was dearly loved by all the brothers.  As he lay dying, a pall of gloom blanketed the whole monastery, and everyone awaited a “word”.  In Cistercian religious houses a great deal of time was spent in silence.  The monks even developed a sign language that allowed them to combine taciturnity with various practical necessities.   But of course the Office was recited in Latin, which was also the ordinary language of discourse and even casual conversation.  Yet the last words of the dying saint were uttered in English.  They were: for Crist love.  The reason for this vernacular departure, so to speak, is that what the saint wanted to say required six syllables in Latin but only three in English.  Aelred was in a hurry to get on.

As a schoolboy I was made to memorize “Thanatopsis,” a poem about death by the early American poet William Cullen Bryant.  That may seem harsh, but remember that in those days it was not uncommon for an irate teacher to come after you with a razor strop.  Though I begrudge it the precious space the poem takes up in my contracting memory, there is nothing I can do to dislodge it.  So at this season of the waning year, of my own antiquity, and of the national “outpouring of emotion,” I am inclined to take encouragement from its final good advice and from the good example of our late president: “Sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams.”