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.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

and All the Other Stars

Bernard's vision of the Virgin: fra Lippo Lippi

Very often the subjects of these little essays published on a Wednesday morning are determined by something pressing on my mind on a Tuesday, and I suppose I probably ought at least occasionally to report on how that mini-emergency or passing fancy worked out.  We did get up to NYU for the opening of our son Rich’s exhibition on the “Lotería de la Migración” and found the panel discussion addressing it very illuminating.  Panel discussions are by no means always reliable or efficient instruments of pedagogy, but this one really did work.  This week’s Tuesday preoccupation is of a very different sort, one arising from what is not there.  For the last six weeks I have been trundling off each Tuesday to talk about Dante’s Paradiso with a bunch of really nice people, but that course is now finished.  At the breaking of the seventh seal, “there was silence in heaven for what seemed half an hour”.

The Paradiso is a very hard poem, and long before the sixth week everybody in the class knew it.  Most of the students, like the poet himself, were stretching their minds and their imaginations.  If ever there were poet or poem reaching for the stars that poet is Dante and that poem the Divine Comedy.  The Italian word for “stars” (stelle) is indeed the final word in all three of its major sections.  It is Dante’s final word, literally and figuratively, and that is entirely fitting.   Dante’s Paradiso is deeply, technically committed to astronomy.  That would be hard enough for a modern reader even were Dante’s astronomy our own, but it isn’t.  Dante’s astronomy is that of the ancient Ptolemaic system, that “discarded image” of which C. S. Lewis has written so brilliantly.  Dante himself expresses the impossibility of his task by invoking the ancient mathematical conundrum of “squaring the circle”.

“Here my exalted vision lost its power.  But now my will and my desire, like wheels revolving, with an even motion, were turning with the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.”  Has expressed poetic failure ever been more powerful or moving than in the thirty-third canto of the Paradiso?  For me this poem about a religious experience once became religious experience itself in a most extraordinary way.  Some years ago I was lucky enough to be invited by my friend Robert Hollander, one of the world’s premier Dante scholars, to be a spear-bearer in his summer seminars of the Princeton Dante Reunion—so called because its members are primarily alumni of several generations of his undergraduate Dante course.  The spectacular setting for this event was a thirteenth-century castle, tastefully and unextravagantly renovated as a small conference center, midway between Florence and Siena, not too far from Certaldo, Boccaccio’s hometown.

Hollander’s work as a Dante scholar has been lauded in Italy with the prizes, awards, ceremonial medals, magnificent lectureships, and honorary degrees that it deserves; and he is on familiar terms with all the greats and near greats of the Italian Dante industry.  One of these is the Oscar-winning movie star Roberto Benigni, who has made it a not unremunerated part of his life’s work to bring the national poet to his fellow citizens with a huge program of lectures, recitations, and videos called Tutto Dante.  Try to imagine an analogous cultural endeavor devoted to Herman Melville by, say, Brad Pitt.

During one of the summer sessions of the Hollander seminars devoted to the Paradiso, Mr. Benigni made a surprise dinner visit to the castle.  The domestic staff essentially went ape, and Benigni won my heart by the enthusiasm and proletarian bonhomie with which he had his photograph taken with every chambermaid, sous-chef, and groundskeeper in the place.  It was a lovely, soft Italian evening, and as twilight fell we dined in the castle courtyard al fresco, feasting on the simple but exquisite regional food that was the specialty of the place.  A small classical music group had been hired from Florence.  These were beautiful young people, a couple of them with old instruments.  After dinner, gathering our chairs into a semicircle on the baked and graveled courtyard, we formed an audience.  I cannot remember the particular pieces these delightful youngsters played, and in truth the standard probably fell somewhat short of Carnegie Hall or the Salle Pleyel; but in that mellow moment it sounded like a quintet of archangels.

Then it was announced that Mr. Benigni would “do something”.  What he did I shall not soon forget.  With candles still flickering on the abandoned dining tables, he rose in the gathering velvet gloom and began reciting—from memory, of course—the concluding thirty-third canto of the Paradiso.   This famously begins with Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin and the paradoxes of the Incarnation:  Virgine Madre, figlia del tuo figlio, umile e alta più che creatura  “Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son, more humble and exalted than any other creature…”  Few poems are more audacious—or more risky—but Dante pulls it off, and Benigni did too.  As he recited, a few marvelous Italian birds—swallows, swifts, house martins?—would swoop out of the darkness and into the faint penumbra of light.  Benigni at length reached the end of his recitation—the end of the canto, the end of the poem, and as it seemed to me for a moment, the end, period.  “But now my will and my desire, like wheels revolving with an even motion, were turning with the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.”  And at that final word stelle I looked up toward the perfectly timed first twinkling in the night sky.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Immigration Lottery

 Traditional Mexican "Lotería" Images

Tomorrow night I hope to make my way to Cooper Square in Manhattan, where our son Richard will be opening his exhibition entitled “Lotería de la Migración”.  I’ll explain a little in a moment, but first some necessary context.  Among the uglier developments of what I fear is a general deterioration of our national spiritual life is the waning of the American open-heartedness of my youth.  I sense an atrophying of generosity.  I have no other way of accounting for certain aspects of the tone of discussion of immigration.  God knows that American immigration policy is debatable, the first point of debate perhaps being about whether we even have one.  But the fecklessness of our elected politicians is more likely to be a symptom than a cause of the hardening of the American heart.

Richard Fleming's "Lotería de la Migración" Images

As he began his startlingly successful presidential campaign, Donald Trump had this to say.  “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best….They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us (sic). They’re bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime.  They’re rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people.”  For a moment ignore the substance and consider merely the tone, which is far from being either generous or open-hearted.  But substance counts too.  There are at least five million Mexicans illegally in this country.  The laws of sociology would suggest that in any human cohort so huge there will be some criminals, including I suppose some rapists.  But an American assumption should be that the vast majority, not a few afterthoughts among them, are “good people.”  Furthermore “Mexico” did not “send” them.  We are not talking about penal transportation to the antipodes in the eighteenth century.  Most of them came spurred by necessity and hope, the same engines that launched the "Mayflower" and a couple of hundred years later animated my Fleming ancestors to flee the blighted bogs of Ireland.  Furthermore their admiration for our country is so great that they will undergo nearly inconceivable difficulties and dangers to reach it and try to be a part of it.

            There is a popular Mexican card-and-board parlor game called “Lotería,” also known as “Mexican Bingo”.  It features a deck of fifty-four numbered cards, each with a brightly colored distinctive image.  On the back of each card there is a little verse or proverb relevant to the picture on the front.  There are also eight—the maximum number of possible players—five-by-eight placards or mini-boards on which sixteen of the card images have been randomly distributed in four rows of four each.  Each active player has one and, drawing cards in turn in regular rotation, hopes to be the first to fill a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal chain of four pictures with makeshift tokens.  BINGO!  It is a game of pure luck, without intellectual demands, but lots of fun.

            The pictures are an odd assortment: a bird, a fish, an umbrella, a tree, a crown, etc.  There are a few hints of the darker side of Mexican popular culture in such icons as “el diablito” (a small devil), a skull-and-crossbones, and a skeletal Grim Reaper.  These hints become much more detailed and concrete in “Migration Lottery,” the “game” that Richard has reimagined.  He has wonderfully captured the folk-art style of the traditional cards, but much of the iconography is now very pointedly related to the physical realities, dangers, and arbitrary vicissitudes of the journeys as actually undertaken by thousands of actual migrants.  For example, one of the traditional icons is “El Cantarito,” a ceramic water jug.  This has been “updated” to a thin plastic gallon milk container—the light but flimsy utensil of choice used to carry the water on which  a migrant crossing the arid borderlands may quite literally stake his life.  
"La Sed" (Thirst)

           Richard has explained his project in a succinct and informative on-line description that summarizes both its artistic and political dimensions.  I saw a sort of “preview” version of the exhibition on Governors Island some time ago.  It was very striking then, and I expect it to be even more so now.  I actually find its spirit to be not too far from that of Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales.  The comparison may seem strange—even off the wall, perhaps--to those who ignore the seriousness of Chaucer’s contrasting themes of “earnest” and “game,” the degree to which he finds in the incidents of a physical journey the template of moral life.  Our immigration policy may be a joke, but it is not a game—ludicrous, perhaps, but not exactly ludic.  Life’s lottery raises many profound questions, questions that in our pluralistic and divided society will be diversely posed and diversely answered.  For me the big question is this: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?”  Yes, that’s from the Bible.  You can look it up.

The opening of the exhibition “Lotería de la Migración and the Visual Languages of Advocacy” will be from 7 to 9pm on Thursday, April 19th, at the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics/ Institute for Public Knowledge of New York University on the fifth floor of 20 Cooper Square, New York City.  It will feature a panel discussion on the topic: “How do visual and textual languages speak to each other—and to us—about complex personal and political experience?” 
The exhibition will run through May 31st.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Minerva and the Dog

One day during the Easter holiday I watched my youngest granddaughter as, seated on the carpet, she finished the assembly of a kiddy jigsaw puzzle—that is, one with relatively few and distinctly large pieces.  She finished the job pretty quickly, but she had wrongly placed one piece early on, meaning that when she got to the final piece, it didn’t fit the last hole left.  Despite the fact that the earlier misplaced piece stuck out in a sore-thumby fashion, she did her best to jam the last remaining piece into a space not meant to receive it.  This she more or less successfully did at the negligible cost of a couple of semicircles of distressed cardboard.  She looked upon her work and saw that it was good.  Everything seemed to fit.  She had made it fit.  God created the human mind to make sense of things, even if that sense is spurious and contrived.  The results are sometimes amusing.  A good deal of the scholarly life is confidently pounding square pegs into round holes.

My stimulating weekend with experts on the music of the Hispanic Renaissance—previewed in my last post--set me to thinking about all this by way of a kind of textual chain reaction.  One of the most famous works of early Spanish literature is the Celestina, named for one of its central characters.  The Celestina, which styles itself as a tragi-comedy, is a dramatic cautionary tale of the consequences of unbridled sexual passion.  It was written by one Fernando de Rojas at the end of the fifteenth century and enjoyed huge popularity at home and abroad.  I first encountered it in graduate school in the English version of a learned translator of the seventeenth century named James Mabbe—or “Don Diego Puede-Ser” as he styled himself with a joke you’ll get (perhaps) if you know even a little Spanish.  Mr. Maybe’s publisher called the book The Spanish Bawd, as the woman named Celestina is a particularly memorable example of the stock character of the cackling old sexual procurer, go-between, or “madam” made famous by Ovid’s Dipsas and prominent in the Romance of the Rose.

There is some raunchy misogyny in Celestina/Spanish Bawd.  The anti-hero Calisto has fallen madly in love with innocent young Melibea—and I do mean madly.  As a dissuasive, his servant Sempronio hauls out a particularly pungent version of the “all women are sluts” argument, of which the following is one of the gentler parts.  Many ostensibly virtuous women, Mabbe says Sempronio says, “have basely prostituted themselves to the embracement of muleteers and stable grooms, suffering them to breath in their faces, with their unsavory breaths and to embosom them between their breasts.  And other some not ashamed to have companied with brute beasts.  Have you not heard of Pasiphae, who played the wanton with a bull?  And of Minerva, how she dallied with a dog?

Well, I had certainly heard of Pasiphae.  She is hardly obscure in Greco-Roman mythology, and is memorably treated by Ovid.  With the help of the famous artificer Daedalus, she found an imaginative way to mate with a Cretan bull, and the consequence was—the Minotaur!   But Minerva and a dog?  That seemed a little off, but it did say so right there in black and white.  Like my granddaughter I wanted all the pieces to fit, even if it involved bestiality on the part of the goddess of Wisdom, so I thought no more about it.  I packed it away in the cold storage section of my memory. 

One of the musical lectures I just heard referred to an early passage in the Celestina in which Calisto compares his disordered state of libido to that of an out of tune lute.  Afterward, in tracking down the passage in a Spanish text, it all came back.   I came upon the canine conundrum, which defrosted instantaneously.  There it was again: ¿No has leydo de Pasife con el toro, de Minerva con el can [dog] ?  “Haven’t you read of Pasiphae with the bull, of Minerva with the dog?”  Only this time it was in the footnotes of a learned scholarly edition in the original Spanish in which the editor pointed out that the text was absurd and had to be wrong, a printer’s blunder.  What Rojas must have alluded to was Minerva’s encounter not with a dog (un can) but with Vulcan, the ugly blacksmith god and cuckolded husband of Venus.  The Spanish compositor must have misread uulcan as elcan or uncan because he didn’t know any better.  James Mabbe didn’t know any better either nor, as it turned out, did John Fleming.  Minerva’s unwilling commerce with Vulcan, which obliquely eventuated in the birth of Erichthonius, inventor of the quadriga chariot, is a most obscure mythological event, but it is alluded to by Servius, the learned commentator on Virgil, and the Spanish humanist Fernando de Rojas knew about it.  He also knew that in legend Vulcan was so physically unattractive as perhaps to be commonly regarded as brutish.

I can date my reading of Mabbe’s Spanish Bawd pretty precisely.  It had to be in 1962.  That would mean that for fifty-six years I was lumbering around with the very old and very fake news of Minerva and the dog.  Thankfully it was in the deep freeze drawer of the synapses.  I can’t say I meditated on it much over the years.   But it does make me wonder just how many other mangled jigsaw pieces are resting there beside it.