Wednesday, February 22, 2017
We just had a great weekend that included an overnight visit from old friends abetted on the meteorological front by an unexpected premonition of spring. There were a couple of memorable meals and lots of good talk. Joan and I capped it off by attending a “National Theater Live” filming of Shaw’s Saint Joan in a terrific production with a brilliant rendition of Joan by Gemma Arteton. The weekend also included one curious incident, beyond that of the dog in the night, that is.
Shortly before nine on Sunday morning I was driving toward church with our friend Susan when my clunky old flip-top cell phone rang. Now my cell phone seldom rings, and practically never while I am driving. On the rare occasions that does happen, I practically never try to answer it. But this time there was an unusual convergence of circumstances that encouraged me to do so. There was to begin with an ideal place to pull over and stop; secondly, I actually knew where the phone was and that I could easily reach it; third, I believed that the likely caller was my wife, who had forty minutes earlier set off to the hospital to see another close friend who (we had learned) had been taken there the previous night with a heart scare. So I pulled over and answered the phone.
However, the caller was not my wife but my daughter in New York. The conversation went like this—
J: Hi, hon…
K. I’m very glad to hear your voice!
It is always nice to feel appreciated, but this was a slightly odd remark, given that she rather frequently hears my voice without commenting upon the fact and, as I thought I remembered, had done so quite recently. Heard my voice, I mean.
But there was an explanation. She had just received an email from an eminent medievalist, a colleague of hers presently resident in Oxford, expressing her condolences upon the occasion of her father’s death, and soliciting suggestions for possible authors of a memorial notice to be published in Speculum, that best-selling quarterly organ of the Medieval Academy of America. The rumor of my demise, which I must characterize as grossly exaggerated if not flat-out fake news, had in fact originated at Academy headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. That Sunday was very busy, and by the time I broke free the rumor had been apologetically retracted quite without my intervention. I felt no desire to make further inquiry into it. However, I continued on to church with an augmented appreciation of my continuing existence and received Communion with an augmented sense of gratitude.
“It must have been some other John Fleming.” That’s the best the medievalists could come up with by way of excuse. John Fleming is not a common name. On the other hand, it is not exactly what you would call an unusual name either. At all points of my career there have always been two or three other John Flemings out there helping to besmirch or to burnish my reputation. One of them was the pre-eminent rare book dealer in New York. I never met him. He operated out of baronial offices on East Fifty-Seventh Street, where he had become wealthy flipping Gutenberg Bibles and Shakespeare First Folios. He was supposed to have chopped up one or two precious medieval manuscripts in order to maximize profit by selling the individual illuminated pages. It is hard to believe that so cultivated a man could be guilty of so philistine an act, and I report rather than affirm the accusation. What I can say with more confidence is that several manuscript experts in the medieval field were no less certain that John Fleming was a vandal than that I was John Fleming. I have reason to believe that misprision once cost me a place on the ballot of the New Chaucer Society! But sometimes what you lose on the roundabouts you can make up for on the straightaways. There was a prolific British art historian named John Fleming, who often collaborated with his life partner Hugh Honour. Several times when I was about to give a guest lecturer or participate in a conference panel the presider or introducer attributed to me, with glowing commentary, one or more of the important books produced by this couple.
This is, however, the first time I had been credited with another man’s death.
Descartes’s best known contribution to philosophy is sometimes called simply the Cogito, Latin for “I think”. You can arrive at certain grounds for belief in your existence simply by thinking about it. “I think; therefore I am”; for even if the mode of that thought be doubt, it requires an extant mind to do the doubting. So on this one I elect to go with the Cogito.
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
I was in my CVS the other day picking up the medical prescription of the week, and I could barely make it to the back, where the pharmacy counter is, through the large stacks of bright red Valentiniana clogging the aisles: greetings cards, heart-shaped gewgags too numerous to catalogue, and three or four metric tons of chocolate of pedestrian quality. “Aha,” I thought to myself, “Saint Valentine’s Day must be approaching.” In the words of our president, I am like a smart man. But one of the advantages of marrying an English spouse who came of age during Post-War British Austerity is that such a person was unlikely even to know what Saint Valentine’s Day is, let alone be prepared to show offense when roses fail show up in timely fashion.
Despite naturalization and fifty odd years of acculturation she has mostly acquiesced in continuing to ignore the day. Mentions of its arrival in this household are generally muted or ironic, and gift exchanges have been very rare. So when I crept out of bed in the pre-dawn on February 14th and padded off to the kitchen I was most disconcerted to see in the middle of the breakfast table a large package in gift wrapping with an affectionate note that concluded “fooled you…” Indeed she had fooled me, but I still had a good hour before she would arise. It is not always convenient to work out of a “study” that approximates in the profusion and miscellaneous character of its crowded contents those of Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop, but on rare occasions, such as this one, it can pay off. I was able to rummage about and come up with an as yet ungifted antique ornament as well as a gold-foil box in which to present it. I put the box on the kitchen table. This ploy would fool absolutely nobody, I knew, but it provided me with at least a flimsy ethical fig leaf in which I might face the dawn. My own gift, when eventually unwrapped, turned out to be a delightful small tableau in watercolor and paper appliqué by a prominent local artist and musician.
The first thing to know about Valentine’s Day is that it is, or should be, strictly for the birds. According to premodern ornithology, the fourteenth of February was the day on which the various birds chose their mates. The first substantial reference to this mating festival comes from a curious poem of Chaucer’s written well over six hundred years ago. In a list of his works once made by the poet himself it is called “The Book of Seint Valentynes Day of the Parlement of Briddes”—parliament meaning, of course, jaw-boning, chewing the fat, debating, or simply having a good natter.
The discovery of any possible connection between talking birds and any saint named Valentine has remained elusive given the fact that what we know about the former is probably more reliable than what we know about the latter. Saint Valentine is one of numerous hagiographical mysteries—hagiography being the literary genre of sacred biography. The great scholarly work on Christian hagiography, begun by a squad of Jesuit historian-philologists in the early seventeenth century and still in progress as I write, is called the Acta Sanctorum. Only the most physically fit among us can hoist a volume of this work and only the most erudite have the slightest chance of getting anything out of it once hoisted. The rest of us would do well to make recourse to one of two relatively brief English language popularizations (a mere twelve to sixteen volumes each), both entitled The Lives of the Saints. These are the work, respectively, of an eighteenth-century Roman Catholic priest named Alban Butler and a nineteenth-century Anglican priest named Sabine Baring-Gould. It is not mere sectarian bigotry that leads me to prefer the latter. Baring-Gould is one of the great if underappreciated eccentrics of English literature, not be mention being the actual godfather of Sherlock Holmes.
As Baring-Gould makes clear our first problem concerning Saint Valentine is that of the plurality of bodies. The real Valentine was a Roman priest persecuted by the Emperor Claudius II—aptly known as “Claudius Gothicus”. The Emperor, miffed by Valentine’s indiscriminate working of miracles no less than by his successful evangelism, “condemned Valentine to be beaten with clubs, and afterwards beheaded. He suffered on the Flaminian Way, on February 14th, A. D. 269. The body of S. Valentine is preserved in the Church of S. Praxedis, in Rome; but the head in that of S. Sebastian.” I myself have on more than one occasion accidentally left my hat behind, but forgetting one’s whole head suggests to me a level of distraction nearly culpable. Yet I find nothing avian about this martyr, and certainly nothing erotic. No more promising in this regard is any of the eight other Valentinian corpses catalogued by Baring-Gould, including that venerated in Annecy, that donated by Pope Urban VIII to the monastery of Socuellamos in Albacete, Spain, that treasured in Hamme in Belgium, or that “given in 1651 to the Jesuits of Ghent.” Some mysteries must simply be granted leave to retain their mysteriousness.
"Be Mine!" Paper and pigment, 13.5 x. 13.5 cms. K. Amon, American, early twenty-first century.
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Sam Clemens, Printer's Devil with his composing stick
My claims to be a letterpress printer become increasingly threadbare, as my annual production is reduced to a few classy envelopes and a minimalist Christmas card. But heavy printing equipment still monopolizes a goodly part of my living space, and I remain attuned in various ways to matters typographical, which show up in unexpected places. I would not have thought it likely that at my august age I would find myself reading for the very first time a “new” work by Mark Twain, but that is what happened when I picked up my volume of The Gilded Age and Later Novels and started on the very latest: 44, The Mysterious Stranger.
For a novel that is perplexingly incoherent, incomprehensible, and incomplete, it is a pretty engaging read. I might call it “post-modern” had it not been completed before Modernism is supposed to have begun in 1913, and I do call it “magical realism,” which is at least two thousand years older than Gabriel García Márquez.
The time of the novel is the late fifteenth century, the setting a strange Austrian castle occupied by a printer’s shop. The first-person narrator is a sixteen-year-old apprentice named August Feldner: a job the novelist himself once had. The printers are engaged in the enormous task of producing a large edition of a Latin Bible for the ecclesiastical authorities. There is in the book a strong strain of Masonic anti-Catholicism that has to be genuine Mark Twain and reminded me of both my grandfathers.
A book report on The Mysterious Stranger could make a decent blog essay, but the tangent I prefer to pursue is invited by the book’s extraordinarily rich and accurate vocabulary of letterpress printing technology. The author is all over quoins and friskets, makereadies and the “stone” that was as fundamental to printers as to alchemists. There can have been but few writers more typographically attuned than Mark Twain—for which fact there is a very good explanation. Long before he was Mark Twain, Sam Clemens had put in many a weary hour in the print shop. It is furthermore true that even more memorable than the means by which one becomes rich are those through which one becomes bankrupt.
Everyone knows about Johannes Gutenberg, but how many know about Ottmar Mergenthaler? How many fewer about James W. Paige? Gutenberg’s double invention, which brought together finely cast movable types with a machine capable of accurately exerting considerable leveraged pressure against them, effected a true “paradigm shift” in the manner of reproducing a written text. It is a sometimes sad truth of industrial history that if a repetitive task performed by human hand can be performed by a machine instead, the machine will win out. Today we tend to emphasize volume: the printing press could produce an indefinitely large number of identical pages at a rate no scribe or scriptorium full of scribes could hope to match. The early printers themselves stressed also accuracy: the printed word could carry the authority of having been corrected in proof by an expert editor or even the author himself.
It is an exaggeration, though one I permit myself, to say that Gutenburg’s printing technology of 1450 remained largely unchanged until roughly 1950. In that same period the demand for printed materials increased astronomically. My guess would be that in the period between 1750 and 1850 demand probably doubled. Presses could be and were improved and speeded up by the application of mechanical power, but there remained a bottleneck: the types had to be set by hand. Compositors (type-setters) might become amazingly agile and productive as compared with their Renaissance predecessors; but the entire printing industry knew that the next big thing had to be an automatic type-setting machine. Certainly Samuel Clemens did.
By the middle of the nineteenth century inventors throughout the industrialized world were hard at work on the idea. But America was the Land of Invention, and it would be two Americans who in the 1870s would independently and almost simultaneously succeed: James Paige (1842-1917), an engineer from Rochester, and the German immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854-1899). Paige won the prize for bells and whistles, Mergenthaler for lateral thinking. Unfortunately Mark Twain put his money, and I mean all his money, on the Paige Compositor. That is, he invested heavily in a project that might have made him a millionaire.
Paige had come up with a huge and almost supernaturally complicated machine that set individual pieces of type as a human compositor would, only much faster. A firm believer that hypothetical perfection should ever war against achieved adequacy, he then kept fiddling with improvements for years while his competitor went into production. This competitor, Mergenthaler, had had one of history’s great brain waves. His machine would not juggle thousands of small pieces of “cold” foundry type just dying to misbehave; it would be instead a small foundry itself, casting in hot metal whole solid, stable lines of text as they would appear in the columns of a newspaper or pages of a book. For this reason he called his invention the Linotype Machine.
Merganthaler's Linotype machine
In his will Shakespeare famously bequeathed to his wife his “second best bed”—a legacy no doubt generously conceived and gratefully accepted. But second best is not always good enough. The vast printing industry of the late nineteenth century turned out to be cruelly uninterested in the second best mechanical composing machine on offer even if a great American writer had bet the farm on it. These days, of course, only a few antiquarians like myself are interested in metal type at all—hot or cold. No doubt there are also those who collect Betamax and buggy whips.
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
My mother, though an unwavering supporter of my educational aspirations, thought I spent too much time reading and thinking and talking about books. It is true that the stuff of books--the depiction of life and reflections upon it—is not the same thing as life itself. From time to time one meets some blinkered academic real-life exemplar of Melville’s “hopeless, sallow tribe which no wine of this world will ever warm,” who fails to grasp this elemental truth. But I am not now, nor ever was of their number. Still I do tend, in my mind, to relate life’s emergent occasions to books read long ago. As it turns out, such times include political emergencies.
The same conservative and patriotic impulses that made it impossible for me to vote for Donald Trump made it impossible for me to view his incipient presidency with naked prejudice or simply to bewail the democratic consensus that, in truth, more often than not leaves me in the minority. There is indeed something awesome about the much-touted “peaceful transfer of power” in and of itself. I have not abandoned all hope, but I have found myself thinking about some of my earliest encounters with transformative books.
The first great book I remember reading was Paddle to the Sea. A young Indian boy living near Lake Nipigon in Ontario carves a small model of a canoe with oarsman and places it in a hillside snow bank to await the spring thaw. Down rivulets and washes and creeks and ponds and streams the wooden paddler fitfully glides, bumps, and hurtles over several years, touring the Great Lakes, making it at last to the St. Lawrence Seaway and, finally, to the sea itself. From this book I learned two things: some in-depth geography and the wonder of narrative. It is a particular joy to me that my grandchildren have shared my infantile enthusiasm for this book.
Paddle to the Sea naturally had an “author,” one with a strangely repetitive name: Holling Holling. But I never thought of it as an authored book. If it had an author it was the fictional Indian lad who had carved the boat; its hero was the little toy boat itself. But not too much later I did find a “favorite author”. His name was Harold Lamb (1892-1962). Harold Lamb was a versatile professional writer in several genres of fiction and non-fiction. He had a special interest and expertise in Eastern materials, and two of his early popular historical works had a big impact on me. These were Genghis Khan: The Emperor of All Men (1927) and Iron Men and Saints (1930). His imagined version of the barbaric world of the Mongolian steppes introduced me to what only several decades later I would come to call alterity—the radical “differentness” of human history that wars against our comfortable assumptions about “the unchanging human heart.” The vision of the Crusades in Iron Men and Saints, though it would now make the medievalist in me groan, convinced me of the potency of ideas in history.
But I also read one very important “political” book before my twelfth birthday, though I would not have described it as political at the time: Syrian Yankee (1943), the autobiography of a Levantine immigrant named Salom Rizk (1908-1973). Rizk arrived in America in 1927, more or less just in time for the Great Depression. He lacked resources or powerful sponsors. He was a poorly educated Arabic speaker lacking even rudimentary English. He was immediately thrown into living and work conditions most of us would describe as appalling. Yet the book is a glowing paean to America and the “American Dream,” a self-conscious and eloquent meditation on the differences, still to some degree relevant, between the Old World and the New. The book thrilled me in with its infectious patriotism, as it was intended to do. In school each morning we pledged our allegiance to the flag. Syrian Yankee gave new meaning to this formulaic exercise. How proud I was to be an American. Just like Salom Rizk! I see now that the book’s mass-market success was fanned by the saccharine boosterism of DeWitt Wallace at the Reader’s Digest. Salom Rizk was the very model of the successful “assimilated immigrant”. But so what? He really was such a model.
The year 2017 is not 1927, when Rizk arrived in New England, nor 1947, when (probably) I read his book. There are other significant differences to be born in mind. The “Syria” from which Rizk departed was actually that part of the decayed Ottoman province now called Lebanon. Rizk was not a Muslim, but a member of the once numerous ancient Eastern Christian communities now rapidly vanishing from the Middle East. Furthermore his family already had American connections that, though lapsed, proved crucial for his success in reaching our shores. But he was a Syrian Yankee, a great American, in his time a giant of Arab-American letters, and a philanthropist who did important and effective work on behalf of “Save the Children”. We could use quite a few more of his ilk. It is an insult to our intelligence no less than our moral instincts to be told by our national leaders that would-be Syrian immigrants—“huddled masses yearning to breathe free” if ever such existed--are today so great a threat to our physical safety that they must be subjected to “extreme vetting” (absurd phrase!), shut down, locked out, turned away. Have we so far lost our confidence—along with our dignity and our decency?
Tuesday, January 24, 2017
As readers of my blog no doubt tire of hearing, I am a man who feels blessed by his family: three brilliant children, two brilliant daughters-in-law, a polyglot son-in-law and six delightful grandchildren now spread over nearly a generation. Nor does my good fortune end there. My father used to quip: “Of all my wife’s relations, I like myself the best.” I could never express such a sentiment, however jesting, concerning the familial extensions of my spouse, whose company I always enjoy.
However, there is one sad lack. Circumstances have conspired to deny me local avuncular status. That is, I have no Fleming nephews or nieces. Luckily Joan has two very accomplished nieces in England who do not entirely deny my acquaintance. But though my father had two brothers among his six siblings, and though I myself had two brothers, the sole hope for the long-term perpetuation of my particular line of the Fleming name is one puckish lad in Montreal, currently four years old.
One of the most important figures in my infancy and childhood was my father’s older brother, Uncle John. About the earliest certain memory I have is that of a rabbit that darted out in front of me while I was toddling along hand in hand with my Uncle John. He was a wonderful man. Everyone should benefit from the inspiration and if possible the guiding hand of an Uncle John. Thus over this past weekend, when I was doing my damnedest to keep my head when all about were losing theirs, etc., etc., I was greatly relieved to learn that our new president had enjoyed such an advantage.
I was able to review two speeches that President Trump gave over the weekend. The first was very solemn, his formal inaugural, which will probably be remembered in the annals of our national oratory as “American Carnage” for short. Eloquence and substance apparently being in the ear of the auditor, this speech has received dramatically discordant reviews. You almost certainly have heard it yourself, and formed your own opinions. I could not possibly comment. The second speech, somewhat less formal, was delivered to a room full of employees of the Central Intelligence Agency. President Trump made the following points, among others. Nobody is a greater fan of the intelligence community than D. J. Trump, nobody. He intends to give this group lots of backing, perhaps even too much. The Press is mendacious, as evidenced by their false reports that had said negative things about intelligence and especially as evidenced by Zeke, from Time magazine, who said that DJT had banished a simulacrum of MLK from the White House office. However he (the President) had appeared on the cover of Time frequently, probably a record number of times, dontcha think. We must wipe ISIS from the face of the earth, just have to. People in military service, law enforcement, first responders, and probably you too (CIA employees) voted for me in large numbers. Right? And so advanced the rhetorical flow, roughly with the convolutions of the River Meander.
Speaking of which, the reader may fear I had wandered from the avuncular theme. Not at all. Praising the academic prowess of Michael Pompeo, his yet-to-be-confirmed nominee to head the CIA, President Trump assured his audience: “I’m a person that very strongly believes in academics.” Furthermore, the President shares the genes of at least one “academic genius,” a blood relative. “I had an uncle who was a great professor at MIT for thirty-five years…Trust me I’m like a smart person.” That is the transcription I draw from the oral presentation. I think that the written form of this, should there ever have been one, would be: “I’m, like, a smart person,” in which the word like is entirely insignificant save as a signal of an unstudied inarticulateness now dignified by our press as “populism”. I am certainly not an academic genius nor even perhaps like a smart person, but I am an English professor (retired), and I shall risk my professional opinion that Mr. Trump’s spoken English is about that of the average fifth-grader of the current generation--among which group the habitual use of the meaningless like is, like, sad. Totally.
However, I must not succumb to spleen or jealousy. The point about this uncle, or rather the two points are (1) it’s all true--he really was a distinguished scientist and professor, and (2) he was an Uncle John. You can only imagine how exciting it is for me to hear the President of the United States praising an Uncle John college professor, and in a certain sense drawing from him the credentials that authenticate his own stupendous success. If only given the right opportunity and the right raw materials, who knows? Might not I also have been the inspiring mentor who—but soft! As the Duke of York says in Richard II: "Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle”. And forgive the Tuesday publication of this essay. I shall be otherwise engaged for the next several days.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
The final stage of our memorable trip of a few months ago began with catching a train bound for King’s Cross, London, at the coastal town of Dunbar in southeast Scotland. We found ourselves with a spare hour or so to take in some of the sites. I had not been there in more than fifty years and the chief mental association I had with the town, if I had one at all, was with the poet William Dunbar (1459?-1530?), a brilliant writer scarcely known today except among academic experts, who may have had connections with the place. I now discovered that the town was the birthplace of John Muir (1838-1914), the great American naturalist, and as we say today, environmentalist, and that his old family house on the High Street, from which his father operated a feed store, was now the “John Muir Birthplace” Museum run by the East Lothian Council.
The house is an old up-and-down framed thing with steep and awkward stairways. As is typical of so many houses in the old centers of British market towns the Muir house is built cheek by jowl to a roadway never intended for motor vehicles but long since overwhelmed by them. Visiting it requires the exercise of the mind’s eye no less than that of the body’s. We make something of a specialty of the museumized residences of long dead writers, some of which—those of Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Kipling being fairly recent and fresh in the memory—really can add an increment to the understanding of the written work. The holdings of the Muir House are modest but imaginatively deployed. It is not the Victoria and Albert, but as a place to wait for a train it was vastly superior to a station waiting room with uncomfortable benches and cracked cement floors.
In my experience a good museum visit is one that teaches you a little but whets your appetite to learn a lot more. That hour in Dunbar was an excellent visit. I knew a little bit about Muir, as most Americans must; and we are rather Low Church members of the Sierra Club (founded by Muir) among a few other “nature” organizations. Years ago I had read some pages of My First Summer in the Sierra, but I had no idea how Muir had gotten from East Lothian to the West Coast of America or when he had done it. Now I wanted to find out. Fortunately there is a Library of America volume (John Muir, Nature Writings) designed especially with me in mind, that begins with his charming short autobiography: The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913). Its opening sentence typifies the frankness of the man’s prose style even as it summarizes the plot of his most consequential life. “When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything that is wild, and all my life I’ve been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures.”
Muir’s father Daniel, the grain dealer, was a grim and inflexible Puritan of the sort whose version of Christ’s love was mediated by rawhide whips and hardwood paddles, freely administered in recompense for his wicked son’s proclivities toward long country rambles. In 1849, before John Muir had achieved his eleventh birthday, Daniel abruptly decided to emigrate to America and set off with his son in the family vanguard, with the mother and other children to follow when a property had been secured and readied. Daniel’s first thought had been Canada, but influenced by the fake news of a proposed grand canal linking the Lakes and the Gulf Coast, he went instead to Marquette County in the middle of Wisconsin, where he acquired a beautiful eighty-acre lakeside plot. There, John Muir later reflected, “I was set down in the midst of pure wildness where every object excited endless admiration and wonder.” From the agricultural point of view what every object chiefly excited was brutal labor, sometimes for sixteen hours a day. Does anyone still read Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth or Cather’s O, Pioneers? Perhaps the titles alone are enough to provide some hint of “immigrant life” on the plains.
I chose today’s antiquarian subject in part to avoid more obvious political topics that must dominate every American’s mind this week. But they have a way of intruding nonetheless. The radio has been on in the background, with occasional snatches of the Senate hearings for Ms. DeVos, the nominee for Secretary of Education, and of prolusions upon them by various political commentators, educational experts, and union officials. The horror! The absolutely bipartisan horror! What is it reasonable to ask of our public schools? In America John Muir’s formal education, achieved in provincial Scottish schools of the 1840s, went into a ten-year hiatus when he was twelve. But by that time he was a competent reader and writer of Standard English, and a fluent speaker of his native Northumberland dialect, sometimes called “Scots”. He knew quite a lot of Latin and French. His life’s work would incline toward practical technology and the natural sciences, but he had already inculcated a lifelong love for the beauty of language and literature—the plays of Shakespeare, the romantic narrative poems of Southey. Long pages he had committed to memory. He reports that he had the entire New Testament off by heart!
His was not the profile of a Goody Two-Shoes, however. Young Muir was as antinomian as any of his fellow reprobates, a schoolyard scrapper, a daredevil, risk-taker, and rule-breaker. And if ever there was one who “followed his bliss,” it was he. “With red-blooded playmates, wild as myself, I loved to wander in the fields to hear the birds sing, and along the seashore to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools among the rocks when the tide was low; and best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of the old Dunbar Castle when the sea and the sky, the waves and the clouds, were mingled together as one.”
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
As I write this I have not yet seen an estimate of the size of the television and radio audiences for President Obama’s Farewell Address, delivered last night in Chicago. I hope that it was very large. Apparently eighty million people viewed at least part of the first of the campaign “debates” between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, so that I suppose one might legitimately hope for something like a tenth of that. Though it may not be saying much it is still worth saying that there was a great deal more of substance in the President’s speech. One had the general impression of vast throngs from the twenty thousand enthusiasts in the live audience at the McCormick Place Convention Center, many of them young people who had waited in long lines in the freezing pre-dawn.
The event, beautifully staged as so many major political events must be these days, suffered from the cultural indeterminacy typical of a hybridity that conjoins the rock concert with the Roman forum. The President’s speech was prefaced by a pop rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Now the “Star-Spangled Banner” is our national anthem. That means, or should mean, that it is communal and corporate, not individual and expressive. The first-person pronouns of its lyrics are first-person plural. It is not an operatic aria. It would be a solecism to have the massed voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir go off on Che gelida manina from La Bohème. No less of a solecism is it to invite pop stars to indulge in tremolo riffs on “home of the braaaaaaaave.” Of course that it merely my opinion, and I have no illusion that it will ever cut much ice with the impressarios of the National Football League who, along with the organizers of various self-promotion events in Hollywood, seem to have determined the forms of national secular liturgies.
Such grumpy old fudy-dudyism is, however, about the worst thing I have to say about the speech. Its genre demanded certain things. The speaker had to present a rosy view of the accomplishments of his two Administrations. He had to express his gratitude to those who had elected and aided him while in office. And he had to claim some unique significance for actions carried out under the specific circumstances of recent history. But one can do those things more or less well, and I thought that all in all he did them very well, and in a fashion that exhibited articulateness, intelligence, forcefulness, amiability, civility, and that old-fashioned decency that is rapidly absenting itself from our brutal politics.
President Obama’s farewell address had a definite theme: democracy, more particularly American democracy. This is not an original theme—far from it. It could be described indeed as the classic theme of American presidential oratory. The theme is usually approached in terms of the novelty, the delicacy, the peculiarity, or the vulnerabily of an institution constantly to be tested. Such suggestion is powerfully present in Washington’s own Farewell Address. According to Lincoln at Gettysburg the enormous upheaval of the Civil War was a test of whether so unlikely a proposition as American democracy “could long endure”. Franklin Roosevelt returned to it time and again. President Obama was by no means blind to serious challenges to our American democratic consensus, but he was finally decisively optimistic. His optimism is founded his assessment of the finest cohorts of American youth. Having spent my own life working among such young people, I am happy to associate myself with his view.
There is a difference between a reflective optimist and a Pollyanna. Our outgoing President inspired me to consult the first presidential farewell address—Washington’s, in 1796, to which I have already alluded. There I find a good deal that is relevant to our own age of political bubbles, media wars, coastal elites, flyover country, and thirty-second attack ads. “In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union,” said President Washington, “it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”