Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Friends in Provence





Salernernes (Var): one side of the town square

Salernes is a sizeable village in the middle of the Var about fifteen miles west of Draguignan, perhaps fifty miles above St.-Tropez on the coast and twenty-five or so south of the Regional Park of Verdon, with its gorges and waterways.  It is a pleasant, active village, but by no means remarkable or “touristy”.  It was there that Joan and I spent our cloudless week away from Princeton.  We were staying at the country house of our friend Andrew, who has been in our lives since the late 1950s, when we were all at Oxford together.  We were a party of eight.  Andrew’s friend Lee, like Andrew himself recently widowed, was both an old work colleague and long-time family friend.  She is a witty lady of considerable professional accomplishment, with a house on the Riviera in nearby Grasse.  Getting to know her a bit more deeply was one of the pleasures of the week.  There were two other couples.  The husbands had been my classmates at Jesus College, though I had really known only one of them at the time.  I remember him as a brilliant mathematician, though I now learned he actually took his degree in physics.  His wife, Leslie, we had met on a previous occasion; in her professional life in England, she has been deeply involved with issues of domestic violence, and was a mine of information and informed opinion about the social challenges in today’s Britain,
sun-drenched breakfast, with our host on the right

Andrew’s French house I would describe as magnificent but not grand.  Beginning as a rather modest farmer’s cottage a couple of hundred years back, it has been expanded, widened, and heightened by succeeding generations into a sprawling elegance of bedrooms adequate for a large family and many friends..  To my eye it is beautifully proportioned and architecturally unified.  There is a great old farm kitchen, and a newer large “living room”, rarely used, with a huge hearth.  There are splendid amenities for the young and the active: a swimming pool and a tennis court.  But given the superb early autumn weather of Provence, we practically lived al fresco on the paved patio that runs along the whole house front, and looks down on an ever-changing view of a steep drop-off, with near and less near hills behind it.  You are on the edge of the village, but the experience is of deep and usually silent country.  There were three main communal activities: talking, reading, and eating.  Meals required a minimum of two hours each.  Breakfasts were pure indulgence: buttery croissants still warm from the baker’s, and tartines made from crispy fresh baguettes and sinful French preserves.  The major meals: abundant fresh vegetables, a variety of transgressive patés, high quality cuts of meat and fish.  Any cheese you could think of, all accompanied, if you wished, by the fine but apparently “unpretentious” local wines.  I would describe these days as “blissful,” were it not for the fact that the medical difficulties I brought with me from America, though ameliorated, did not vanish and in fact considerably constrained my activities.
view from the breakfast table

Conversation was incessant, and ranged in style from the old college bull session to the discontinuous dialog of a Chekov play aspiring to be Plato’s Symposium.  While politics was by no means  our only topic, it inevitably loomed large during that particular week.  It was a huge relief to me, as an American, that among this group of Brits the peculiarities of Trump ran a distant second to the trials and tribulations of the British Parliament and the new Prime Minister.  But the idea that the British intelligentsia are uniformly appalled by the results of their Referendum—theological bedrock in the American liberal press—was knocked in the head by this group, who held diverse opinions with (I believe) a majority of Leavers.  There was, however, nearly perfect transatlantic agreement on the inadequacy of our elected legislators.
'This lime-tree bower, my prison'

Andrew has a well-stocked summer-house library—mainly modern history and thousand-page biographies, but also some classic fiction.  He himself was marching rapidly through Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge.  His collection of Antony Beevor’s splendid military histories seems nearly complete, and I grazed happily on the one I had not yet read—The Ardennes.  It was there that my Uncle Wayne had had a tank blown out from under him.  But I had brought reading of my own—more of the Roman history and historical fiction discussed in a recent post.  I am still hot on the trail of Cicero—the “historical” Cicero and the imagined Cicero, to the degree there is any difference between the two.

There are friendships, and then there are friendships.  How many of them date back six decades, sometimes dormant for years at a time yet continuing to mature across vast distances of space and experience, of long marriage, of professional striving, of the intense demands and vicissitudes of raising a family?  The answer to that is: precious few. Boosting my morale was not our host’s only motive in setting up this house party, but it was manifestly a principal one.  That was a humbling realization.  And with it I suddenly realized the relevance of my accidental reading program to the meditation on friendship that occupied so many of my thoughts during the week.  For Cicero wrote a famous philosophical dialogue on the question of friendship (Lælius, 706/44 BC) shortly before his death.  It is in fact the only work of Cicero I have studied carefully or written about in the scholarly press.   In the twelfth century is was given a brilliant Christian “update” by one of my gurus, Ælred of Rievaulx, a beautiful soul and a master of Latin hardly less formidable than Cicero himself.  This revision—stressing spiritual friendship—was in turn translated into French by Jean de Meun, who also used its ideas with great subtlety in the Roman de la Rose.  I had written about all this years before.

Cicero defines friendship as “nothing else than perfect mental accord concerning all things divine and human, shared in benevolence and tenderness.”*  He regarded it as the second greatest gift of the divine powers—wisdom alone holding a higher place.  I had lots of time to think about all this on the flight home.  We have happily entered the phase of self-coddling and had booked business-class flights.  One really could stretch out and relax, provided only that you could first figure out the obscure hieroglyphic symbols of the control panel of the lounge beds—no mean feat.  Perhaps classical wisdom will continue to elude me.  But classical friendship I have indeed known.



*Est autem amicitia nihil aliud, nisi omnium divinarum humanarumque rerum cum benevolentia et caritate summa consensio.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Rural Gore



 
On the case: Chief Inspector Barnaby and sidekick Sergeant Jones


I must begin by announcing a week’s intermission in the blog, which I shall hope to reanimate on September 11.  We are about to fly to the south of France for a week of restorative hanging out with very old friends.  Such a prospect can never be anything but pleasing though I do have to register in my current circumstances some small degree of apprehension about the travel, my mode these days being rather slow and creaky.

            For the past week or so I have been feeling so valetudinarian, indeed, that I have shamefully little to report by way of achievement.  What with infirmity and an ever expanding realization of the extent of the mess that continues to be American politics, I have mainly sought escape and a surcease of sorrows in the “free” Netflix available through my computer.  I have immersed myself in an apparently endless British detective series—“Midsomer Murders.”  I am generally late in learning about these things, and my many hip readers doubtless already know all about it.  But it is in my opinion very well done, and it satisfies my own requirements for an enjoyable murder mystery.  The first of these is that there is not the slightest possibility of taking the murder part (usually several murders per episode) very seriously, any more than one can take the plot of the medieval pastourelle seriously.  Content is merely the necessary implication of style.  Secondly, the episodes are seriously long—roughly an hour and a quarter—so that I generally nod off for a moment or two, and I am never smart enough to figure out who did it.  And when I do find out who did it, I still am never sure why.

            The series, which is very well written and for the most part very well acted, gains most of its power through cognitive dissonance.  Midsomer is an imaginary British county in southern England (think Oxfordshire).  Its county town, Corston, is presumably some version of Banbury or Swindon; and the place is thick with the most beautiful ye-olde, Costwoldy  English villages the Tourist Board can come up with, each replete with a fine old church, a sixteenth-century manor house, thatched cottages and domestic gardens to die for.  There is always at least one great pub (pre-pinball), and pleached alleys, meandering streams and old canals, and absolutely gorgeous stonework everywhere.  This idyllic time-warped landscape is populated by a mixed population of Angela Thirkell characters, some really nasty vestiges of the old ruling class who have adopted very contemporary vices, and little old ladies galore.  These folks regularly bump each other off at an average rate of three per hour--by blade, rope, water, poison, farm machines, asphyxiation, explosion, fire, and (default mayhem) blunt force trauma to the head.  There are quite a few more or less conventional gunshot deaths, usually by birdshot fired at close range from muskets first used at the Battle of Marston Moor.  In one of the more macabre episodes two victims are actually guillotined during the filming of The Scarlet Pimpernel in the courtyard of a baronial mansion in the village of Midsomer Magna.  It is typical of the work’s delightful surrealism that everybody in the film’s cast, including the pensioners imported as extras from the Old People’s Home to form a chorus of oppressed peasants, treat the first beheading as roughly as important as an extra’s sprained ankle.  Nobody bats an eye.  The usual motives are sex and money, but in very kinky versions of each; some of the killers are simply crazy as coots.  Character stereotypes walk shamelessly at will through the episodes: the concealed bastard heir, the grizzled village hermit, weird, obsessive hobbyists.  That portion of the Anglican clergy (of either sex) who are not actually the murderer themselves take clerical fuddy-duddyism to levels not to be found even in Trollope.  

 Convener of the Women's Institute, Midsomer Noxia

            The director has a great time with “conventions”.  There is an amiable old forensic pathologist, George, and nearly every episode features the obligatory scene in which the chief detective arrives on the scene to find George and his mates, all of them decked out in nifty little blue plastic jump suits suggesting they ought to be in “Star Wars”, discussing the peculiarities of some atrocious wound or the surprising contents of the defunct’s GI tract, which may or may not include a revelatory flash disk.  This being a British show, much is made of class distinctions.  The CID officers get all the glory.  The regular coppers, referred to as the “uniforms,” are numerous but silent; they also serve who only stand and wait—and, of course, endlessly and obscurely rummage around the outdoor crime scenes with long poles, occasionally scoring an old candy wrapper.      


 Alexander Pope's Tower, Stanton Harcourt, Oxon.

             I don’t recognize any of the villages, though I probably should.  Sixty years past I spent a fair amount of time cycling around such places in the environs of Oxford.  There was a charming village (at least in memory) called Great Tew.  It witnessed the apex of my brief but spectacular cricket career.   There I hit a ball so far into the woods, baseball style, that they never found it.  Another timeless beauty spot was the village of Stanton Harcourt.  It has a connection with the poet Alexander Pope, who was a friend of the lord of the manor, who loaned him a romantic tower in which to work away at his translations of Homer.  A curious and tragic incident took place on the estate about that time.  A betrothed couple of agricultural workers, having sought refuge beneath a large tree in a sudden rain shower, were killed by a lightning strike.  Pope wrote a conventional moralistic squib about the incident, which can be found in his complete works.  To his friend Mary Wortley Montague he wrote something a little naughtier:

Here lie two poor lovers, who had the mishap
Tho’ very chaste people, to die of a clap.
There have been several electrocutions in the “Midsomer Murders”, but as yet no orchestrated lightning.
                                                                                                                                                                 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Off to College


A few nights ago we had the pleasure of sharing a dinner with out next door neighbors, a delightful family who are a a never-failing source of unobtrusive cheerfulness and helpfulness.  Though I never anticipated it, like so much else in my recent life, we have become the “elderly couple next door.” And when that happens to you, and it will, you will be very lucky if the moral equivalent of the Woods are living next to you.  These are the kind of people who surreptitiously dig out your driveway for you on an icy day, and who never complain about the mess out around your garbage bins.  The specific occasion, at least ostensibly, was to honor Anna, the daughter, one of the nicer young women on earth, who graduated from Princeton High School in the early summer and was just about to leave home for New Orleans, where she is entering the freshman class of Tulane University.

She couldn’t know it, but going off to New Orleans filled with youthful enthusiasm was an experience which I myself had shared, an experience recalled with sharp detail as we listened to her talk of her exciting plans.  For it was in New Orleans that I myself set off on one of the several mysterious glide paths of my life.  Around Thanksgiving of 1958 I traveled to Little Rock for the state interviews of the annual Rhodes Scholarship selection.  I was then a senior in college rather than a fresh high-school graduate, but, as I say, this was 1958, and in “emotional age” I probably lagged by some distance the sophistications of a current graduate of Princeton High.  At the interview there were, I seem to remember, about a dozen of us, all of us pumped up, apprehensive, doing our level best to project a aura of nonchalance.  It was pretty obvious to me that I didn’t have a chance.  Candidates included the Razorback football captain, the Amory Blain of the hills and hollows, and a personage of semi-divine stature in the State of Arkansas, as well as a guy from Harvard who was supposed to have already filed three industrial patents.  Nonetheless the next day I was sent on to the “District” in New Orleans, my fellow state finalist being neither the quarterback nor the inventor but an up-and-coming politician and an all-state string player in the Youth Orchestra.  Very nice guy.  There is modesty.  There is false modesty.  And then there is simple incomprehensible good luck.  I was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship!  I celebrated with the Committee and the other district winners at a blowout meal at a sumptuous New Orleans restaurant.

That was still nearly a year before I would be graduating from college and actually heading for England, but I was suddenly being cascaded with good wishes and startling opportunities, mostly from strangers.  The senior senator from Arkansas at that time, J. William Fulbright, was one of the more complicated southern politicians of mid-century.  He was an erudite redneck, a segregationist, anti-McCarthyite internationalist and (I believe until this very day) the longest-serving Chairman of the Senate Committee on International Affairs;  a former Rhodes Scholar, a former president of the University of Arkansas, and a great believer in the value of international education.  Hundreds if not thousands of Fulbright Scholars have benefited from his vision.  I had never met the man, nor indeed laid eyes upon him.  Though I had no reason to know it, he took a special interest in Arkansas Rhodes Scholars.  Ten years later he would play a not insignificant role in advancing the career of Bill Clinton.  In those days, or for all I know still in these, senators enjoyed among their perks the gift of various “patronage” government jobs—remnants of the spoils system of one of his spiritual predecessors, Andrew Jackson.

Fulbright got me a well remunerated summer sinecure that allowed me to spend the summer following my graduation in Washington, where I lived with a group of friends and classmates from Sewanee.  I was a clerk in the Senate Document Room.  Computer technology has undoubtedly changed things, but at that time every piece of legislation working its way through either legislative house was repeatedly reprinted in its latest form for distribution to congressional staffers, lobbyists, and other interested parties.  I got paid what seemed like a lot of money to stuff interoffice envelopes with tear-sheets of the latest amendment to S. 356 or HR Res 193 or whatever, then drop them into a mail chute or wait for some staffer babe to pick them up personally on the run.  Only occasionally was the work demanding.  The Senate Document Room was approximately twenty yards from the door of the public gallery of the Senate, and we spent a lot of time watching “business” being conducted on the Senate Floor.  This experience was educational but also disillusioning.  My first conscious awareness of what would be the Viet Nam crisis came in one of these sessions.  Lyndon Johnson wandered over to Bill Knowland, the minority leader in the Senate,  and in a voice quite audible to me in the gallery explained to him his take on the problem of Viet Nam.  “They’re all Buddhists,” he said, pronouncing the syllable Bud as though it were the beer.  “All they want to do is fuck and pray.”  Ah, there were giants in the earth in those days!  Was this the same floor from which Daniel Webster had belted out his famous “Second Reply to Hayne”?

And then one day toward the end of the summer, just as I was preparing to pack up my belongings and head home briefly before actually setting off for Oxford, I experienced another little vignette that has stuck with me through the years.  It was a very hot, sultry Washington late morning, and I was sweating heavily in obligatory coat and tie as I negotiated the difficult pedestrian semicircles on the way down from the Capitol.  A golden tanned fellow in an open necked shirt and an open red convertible, blowsy blonde next to him in the front seat, actually slowed down to let me dart to safety.  He gave me a big wide smile and an indulgent wave of his hand.  It was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, junior senator from the state of Massachusetts.  There was already a lot of buzz.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

English Take-Over?


In the Sunday “Weekly Review” of the Times there was an engaging essay about the state of the English language in the international arena.   It author is Pamela Druckerman, one of the paper’s contribution opinion writers, and its title is “Parlez-Vous Anglais?  Yes, of Course.”  I am usually glad to have that response to that particular question when I pose it, but Ms. Druckerman has sniffed out some cultural angst in it.  For the article’s sub-headed summary is this: “Europeans speaking perfect English sounds like good news for native speakers, but it may also be a threat.”  Well, the Times’s op-ed page is full of threats unknown in previous generations, or even in previous weeks.  When I was a kid, peanuts were an occasional treat at the ball game or the County Fair.  They now require red alerts from the school nurse, prophylactic inhalers and a hot line.  And who am I to doubt that the world daily becomes a more dangerous place?  Still, the idea that the continuing growth of the English language as an international medium of communication is a “threat” puzzles me in the extreme.  In fact, it is a development to which I can see no down side.

Articulate speech is the critical feature of human existence in the animal world.  In many of our great myth systems the destruction of a supposed original universal speech (think Tower of Babel) is a disaster to be remedied only by miraculous restoration (think Pentecost).  So great has been the felt need for a universal medium of linguistic communication that there have been many attempts to create one ab novo; but even the best known example,  Esperanto, caught on about as well as spiritualist table-rapping, and mainly with the same crowd.  The re-creation of spoken Hebrew worked out better than a slightly earlier effort to re-classiicize Greek, but such efforts have not created a world language.

Ms. Druckerman sees several tines on the  forked  “threat” of the spreading use of “good” English among the world’s non-native speakers of that language, two of which I find most curious and, if I may say so, culpably Americo-centric  The first is that if the Croats and Tamils all start talking with each other with the fluency of a Clifton Fadiman, Americans, who are notoriously bad about learning languages already will more or less give up altogether and thus be clueless when the foreigners retreat to their own gobblebygook.  “If all we know is English we won’t know what the rest of the world is saying about us.”   If this is a problem, it is caused not by the establishment of a de facto universal language but by the shockingly deficient system of public education in this country.  And unless one is brain dead, one knows perfectly well what they are saying about us.  Unfortunately.

The second threat appears to be economic.  If everybody in the world speaks really good English, English-language institutions of higher education will spring up everywhere from the Gobi Desert to the Mato Grosso, and students will choose to go there instead of here because the education will be of equal quality but cost much less.  There are already significant institutions of higher education conducting their business in flexible and fluent educated English throughout the “non-English” world, and there are bound to be many, many more.  What this actually suggests to me is that the world greatly admires our colleges and universities, but suspects that it is possible to offer quality education without forty-two highly compensated deans of diversity and a procurement officer specializing in the soft toys needed to add comfort to the “safe spaces” to which American students must retreat when traumatized by the naked “cultural appropriation” of a student Hallowe’en party at which fellow students showed up in sombreros, lederhosen, or conical witch-hats.  I am being a little provocative here, perhaps, and a little parodic, but only a little.  

Several of our current presidential candidates are rightly railing against a cost crisis in American higher education that leaves in its wake bankrupt parents or deeply indebted graduates or both—the proposed solutions being debt forgiveness and “free college”.  But if the biggest financial institution in the country (i.e., the government) decides that it is going to start lending money at apparently advantageous rates to people to go to college, people are going to borrow that money with sub-prime enthusiasm just as surely as they will “buy” a McMansion on the same terms.  Fly-by-night institutions will spring up like on-line fungi and fiercely chase after those bucks.  Not all of them are diploma mills, just most of them.  Study software engineering or “hospitality studies” today and pay for it tomorrow.  Nor, I am embarrassed to say, have the fly-by-day institutions such as those I have been associated with during my career been loath to waddle up to the trough.  The nearly obscene rise in costs at our colleges and universities has many causes, but prominent among them is a huge expansion of administrative costs in the creation of student services of dubious relevance to academic goals or outcomes.

How I tire of drivel about “cultural appropriation,” incidentally.  Culture is mainly appropriation, and no aspect of culture has been more appropriative than language.  An important aspect of the genius of English is the voraciousness and generosity of its appropriation.  Beginning as a German dialect of limited lexicon spoken by King Alfred’s ancestors halfway through the first millennium, English took on thousands of words from the Scandinavian stock, often at the point of a spear, other thousands of standard Latin words relating to the church (kirk, ecclesia), political administration, the law, and the arts and sciences of all kinds.  After the Norman invasion it swallowed the Viking version of emerging French more or less whole.  In the Renaissance, learned men consciously imposed another vast round of Latin from that language’s more erudite level.  Medical men mainly went for the Greek.

English is gradually taking on the role once played in western culture by Latin, but now on a global scale constantly reinforced by the ubiquitous and instantaneous reach of the Internet.  Consider the state of learning in Europe in the millennium between 500 and 1500 of the Christian era.   At the beginning of that period Latin, the old language of the decaying imperial power, was still a vital and palpitating language of important cultural elites.  In the fluent and learned form used by Jerome and Augustine, it reflected the rhetorical practices and literary achievements of the Augustan age.  While never ceasing to develop to some extent as a living language, it became largely frozen in time.  We call it, curiously, a “dead” language, but it’s hard to do that if you have read the Policraticus of John of Salisbury (twelfth century) or the letters of Petrarch (fourteenth) or the Principia Mathematica of Newton (seventeenth).  The language was far from dead.  It just didn’t have any native speakers, with the exception perhaps of a few juvenile oblates in monasteries who had arrived so young as to have forgotten their infantile babbling in Saxon or Basque.

               It became the stable “father tongue” of a Europe in which there were a couple of dozen constantly evolving mother tongues, only some of which (the so-called Romance languages) actually derived from “classical” Latin.  It is a wonderful experience to be able to communicate with fluency and effect in a tongue not native with another person doing the same thing.  Through the Enlightenment a scholar in Prague could and did have copious technical and literary communication with a scholar in Aberdeen.  Their commonly acquired language was the real “level playing field”—rather as championship athletic contests are often played on grounds that is the home turf of neither team.

            The deeper historical causes of the current primacy of English are of course rather political and brutal, but that is a completely different story.  The “fact on the ground” is that if you want to have a decent material life in today’s world—and most people do—it is a palpable advantage to be able speak, read, and write the English language well.  And I am not at all offended when I see a photograph of a cane-cutter in Mozambique wearing a Yankees hat.  Good for him.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Grandeur That Was Rome




As is well known good books and good friends go well together, and one of my oldest friends recently put me onto some really good books.  The old friend is a Sewanee classmate from the class of 1958—meaning a friend of more than six decades.  Not everyone likes to see his name even in distinguished public places, but I can with semi-discretion identify him as Maurice and tell you that, like me, he spent a long career as a professor of literature.  He is a highly cultivated and well-read man.  The books are a set of historical novels by the English writer Robert Harris.  Harris’s titles have sold millions and received just and widespread praise, but I had never heard of him.  Too deeply immersed in medieval arcana, no doubt.  His fiction has an extraordinary range, but a favorite subject is ancient Rome.  After a somewhat febrile start in which I began in scattershot fashion reading episodically in four or five of his books, I’ve settled into a reasonably logical plan: working through Imperium, the first volume of a trilogy devoted to an imaginary biography of the Roman politician and writer Cicero.  Harris’s brilliant idea is to present the book as the biography written by Tiro, one of the roughly fifty slaves in Cicero’s household.  It is a known fact that this man became Cicero’s tutor, friend, and amanuensis; but there is still a lot for Harris to imagine and exploit.

 Marcus Tullius Cicero

            Imperium in its broad Latin sense means “the supreme administrative power, in Rome exercised by…certain magistrates and provincial governors.”  Cicero was aiming for the consulship, and he got there.  The first section of Imperium deals with the historical incident that really put him on the Roman political map—his prosecution of Gaius Verres, the governor of Sicily.  Our current crop of “tough prosecutors” running for the Presidency might learn a trick or two here.  Then again our contemporary corrupt politicians, even in some of the more sensational kleptocracies of Africa, are pikers when compared with the more accomplished despots of Antiquity.  Verres was cruel and ruthless.  He was a thief, a liar, an extortionist, and a mass murderer.  Lecherous as a goat, he simply took any woman he wanted.  He was a connoisseur of fine art, which he plundered shamelessly both from private individuals and from temples and civic buildings.  Nor were all of this man’s evil deeds primarily of a private nature.  Sicily was the breadbasket of proletarian Rome.  Through his avarice he managed to reduce wheat shipments from the island roughly by half.  Yet since he was liberal in dispensing bribes from his vast fortune, and since most of the noble Romans were all too bribable, Cicero looked forward to no slam-dunk.  He triumphed on the basis of an amazingly thorough criminal investigation, brilliant courtroom strategy, and his usual unmatched speaking ability.  I should also mention his eye for the main chance.  We are not dealing with Atticus Finch here.

            Harris’s gripping presentation of this trial emboldened me to do something rash.  I actually went to my bookshelves, where I have a pretty complete set of the Mondadori edition of Cicero’s short individual works, and have been reading around in the fifth book of second part of Cicero’s address as supposedly prepared for his flaky jurors.  Yes, in major Roman trials, the prosecutor usually had an opening statement a few days long followed by the real stuff, which could take rather longer.   Those parts were called the first and second actiones.  Verres indeed hoped to run out the clock and get a new judge, but Cicero outsmarted him.  Ordinarily you don’t simply pick up a forensic gem by Cicero and start reading it as though it were a true crime novel, but I almost felt I could do so after reading Imperium.



            I also felt I needed a broader context, and for that I turned to the relevant volume of my English translation of Theodor Mommsen’s classic History of Rome.  I try to forgive myself for failing to keep up with current books on the basis of having read some very good old ones.  Mommsen was an extraordinary scholar and a great writer, one of very few non-fiction writers to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1902).  The translator of my edition, William Dickson, was a Presbyterian divine, classicist and librarian with the sonorous English chops of Mommsen himself.

Mommsen loved his subject, and he knew, as all good historians do, that the past must first be judged by the standards of its own creation.  Indeed, a proper and objective understanding of those standards is among the historian’s most difficult tasks.  But the cruelty of the ancient world was hardly less notable than its grandeur.  It was necessary for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to foster a fantasy of the ancient Roman state, which was built actually upon the grossest forms of oppression and slavery.  The word “republic” has for us a noble ring, but it has generally proved a grotesquely hollow one from Cicero to Nicolae Ceaușescu.  Harris the novelist gets inside this system, neither masking nor sensationalizing it.  His hero, which is to say the hero of the slave-savant Tiro, Cicero, is fully of it.  Here is Mommsen’s summary of the moral state of Roman society roughly around the time of Cicero’s march to the consulship:  “…morality and family life were treated as antiquated things among all ranks of society.  To be poor was not merely the sorest disgrace and the worst crime, but the only disgrace and the only crime: for money the statesman sold the state, and the burgess sold his freedom; the post of the office and the vote of the juryman were to be had for money; for money the lady of quality surrendered her person as well as the common courtesan; falsifying of documents and perjuries had become so common that in a popular poet of this age an oath is called ‘the plaster for debts.’  Men had forgotten what honesty was; a person who refused a bribe was regarded not as an upright man but as a personal foe.”*

Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903)

The view of most of us about the fall of Rome, supposing that we had one, is probably some form of the thesis of the great work of Gibbon in the eighteenth century.  Gibbon was not unaware of the internal corruption, but for him the real villains were external barbarism and the rise of Christianity, for him symbiotic plagues.  But there is another, and from my own historical perspective, a sounder one, summarized in an obscure technical essay I came across years ago.  One of the problems of aging, alas,  is the dulling of memory.  I often remember something I have read, but forget where I read it.  In any event believe it was the great Dominican classicist André-Jean  Festugière who pointed out that the doctrine of radical Christian love “revolutionized a world that Socrates and Cicero had barely touched”.  Be this as it may, the period of acute imperial decay chronicled in Gibbon’s own brilliant prose antedates that period.  That it can be so brilliantly reimagined by Robert Harris is rather thrilling.  Even for a principled historical novelist, who tries to honor established fact, the heart of invention remains imagination.  So I am on to further volumes.


*Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, trans. W. P. Dickson (London, 1894), vol. v, 390.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Dirty Money?




            Two recent news items have come together in my mind and forced me to think about the idea of filthy lucre.  The first is actually an anecdotal report from a friend of mine who recently spent some leisure time in Greece.  Through a friend of a friend she was invited to join a crowd of the glitterati for a day or two’s island-hopping aboard a huge and expensive yacht belonging to an international celebrity.  Among their hops was an island where an even richer guy has developed a commercial playground offering a kind of permanent “spring break” venue for Euroyouth: a sort of Coney Island as designed by the Magus—thousands of scantily clad, boozed up kids “dancing” in a shallow pool.  The second episode, this one prominent in the press, was the effort by protestors to force the Louvre to remove the name Sackler from the wing of the museum the Sackler family largely financed.  Some of the Sacklers, who have been huge philanthropic donors, especially to museums, have amassed a fortune in the pharmaceutical business on the sales of Oxycontin.

            Is there such a thing as “dirty money”?  The term “filthy lucre” is after all biblical.  Milton called gold the “precious bane,” or poison.  There is a long history of very rich people with troubled consciences trying to make symbolic restitution through charitable bequests.  This practice has undoubtedly on more than one occasion been encouraged by the charitable recipients.  One of the great gems of Italian Gothic art is the Arena Chapel in Padua, famous for its Giotto frescos.  This building is also known as the Scrovegni Chapel.  The Scrovegni family was alleged to have made its fortune out of usury.  Usury was the lending of money at interest.  Though now called “the American way of life”, it was regarded in the thirteenth-century dawn of contemporary banking practice as a horrible sin.  It is believed that a Scrovegni heir undertook the chapel project in hope of expiation of the sins of his sire.  The Franciscans, whose iconography provides the decorative scheme of the chapel, were particularly ferocious in their denunciation of usury.  Somewhat later in the fourteenth century Chaucer’s venal friar encourages money gifts as actual evidence of repentance.  “For unto a povre ordre for to yive”—thus does the poet ventriloquize the friar’s thoughts—“is signe that a man is well yshryve”.  There is a very fine Victorian church in a small city in the southern English Midlands.  It has a proper ecclesiastical dedication to some saint or other, but it is known locally as “Phipp’s Fire Escape”, Phipps being a local beer baron who had bankrolled the new building in response to charges from Temperance agitators that he was largely responsible for the scourge of working-class alcoholism in the area. 

filthy lucre in an old Dutch misericord


            At least two distinct questions are raised by these anecdotes.  One of them—can financial contributions to worthy causes expiate the unworthy means by which the money was accrued?—is a theological question I lack the competence, no less than the inclination, to approach.  The second, fully relevant even in our relentlessly secular age, is this: Is there such a thing as dirty money?  This seems to me by no means a question easy to answer.  We might begin in the manner of Aquinas by arguing that there must be dirty money since, in the account of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, the ecclesiastical authorities refused to accept for the Temple treasury the thirty pieces of silver thrown down by the repentant Judas because it was “the price of blood”—literally the statutory financial recompense for manslaughter.  The consensus of early philosophers and theologians alike, however, was that things, inanimate objects, were morally indifferent.  A knife could be used to cut a loaf of bread or to cut a man’s throat—the morality of the action was determined by the use to which the knife was put and the human volition animating that use.  The ecclesiastical authorities who would not put “the price of blood” into the Temple treasury were willing to use it to purchase land for the burial of paupers.

            Here the examples of my opening paragraph become relevant.  I presume that neither yacht owners, nor playground developers, nor the manufacturers of Oxycontin have done anything illegal.  But whereas the most conspicuous private consumption of the super-rich elicits at worst private disgust, the public philanthropy of the Sacklers becomes the occasion of international protest.  As an avid museum-goer, one of whose favorite venues is the Sackler Museum of Asian Art in Washington, I am extremely grateful to be able to see, along with any other interested art lovers, beautiful things that I would never have the opportunity to see were they to be monopolized by rich collectors.  The Sacklers could have spent that money on a yacht or a Greek island, or probably a small flotilla of yachts and a small archipelago, for their own private use and enjoyment.  There would have been no protestors in Paris, or, I dare say, anywhere else.  The public use to which they put a large chunk of their private fortune seems to me unequivocally to be preferred, from the moral point of view, to any number of private uses they could have chosen.

An unpleasant thought from the Scrovegni Chapel


            There were huge intellectual changes between the time of the Scrovegnis and the beer baron Phipps.  But even in Victorian times many people believed in a version of the Last Judgment, and acted upon that belief.  They sought a “fire escape” through conspicuous public good works.  By the time of Jay Gatsby,  one of our earlier and distinctively American start-up legends for whom a strange romantic yearning has replaced traditional morality, protocols of social snobbery might make one eager to conceal the sources of one’s wealth, even if they were legal.  "I was in the drug business and then I was in the oil business. But I'm not in either one now."  Still I find it hard to credit the idea of dirty money.  I have a few twenty dollar bills in my wallet.  I have no idea whether their last temporary users were stick-up men or sex traffickers.  Obviously, I hope not, for aesthetic reasons if no others, but the bank-notes themselves are indifferent tokens in a conventional sign system.  They have no moral status independent of the use to which I put them.        

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Arkansas Toothpick Test


Earlier in the year, the legislature of my home state passed a resolution making it official.  The Bowie knife is the official state knife of Arkansas.  I actually didn’t know that there were official state knives, but in this instance the legislative effort was fully justified.  The nickname of the Bowie knife has for at least a century and a half been “an Arkansas toothpick.”  In 1837, at a session of the House, in the middle of a debate concerning the taxation of wolf pelts, the Speaker stepped down from the podium and, using this implement, stabbed a fellow representative to death.  While one can hardly take pride in such history, one can and must find some comfort.  When I hear about “unparalleled political polarization” or “unprecedented refusal to seek legislative compromise,” I can subject the evidence to the Arkansas Toothpick Test.  So far nothing that has happened or not happened in the admittedly disgraceful 115th and 116th Congresses—public approval ratings ranging between nine and thirteen percent—has passed the Toothpick Test.

I try to apply the Toothpick Test also to the increasingly numerous incidents of supposed “constitutional crisis” in our political reports.  We are in that huge swath of the North American continent that is just emerging from a ferocious heat wave, and I had for a couple of days a slight viral something or other that I dare not offend by taking lightly.  Luke and his two kids, accompanied by their older cousin Cora, left for Montreal Saturday morning, and enabled by General Motors refrigeration engineers, reached their destination safely before nightfall.  Settling into a Sunday indolence I dignified as therapeutic, I spent a long while reading the “Weekly Review” section of the Times.  Almost all of the actual Op-Ed pages are taken up with blistering denunciations of President Trump and/or the entire Republican Party.  There is nothing very new here, and that is the point.  The New York Times, by any rational judgment one of the world’s great newspapers, has become as partisan, repetitive, and fulminating as all the rest of the national press.  The Times is of course “left.”  Many other voices are on the “right”.  They shout at, and about, each other.  The PBS “News Hour” sort of continues its brave façade of impartiality, but with increasing difficulty.

I have discovered that there is a great deal of chatter on the Internet concerning the question of civil war--whether one is possible in current America, whether it has not already begun.  Not all of the chatter is entirely loony.  Our actual Civil War of the 1860s, which was by no means without its ideological complexities, was motivated with a certain clarity.  It was sectional and closely related to the distinctive economies of North and South and in particular the southern agrarian economy and the institution of slavery that enabled it.  A very large part of the wealth of the southern states was in human property.  The Framers of the Constitution had notoriously attempted to accommodate the institution of slavery without exactly enshrining it.  Political unity, however attenuated, was a goal so desired as to enable a kind of cosmic wishful thinking, from which one might say we have not yet entirely broken free even today.

The comparative clarity of 1860 is gone today.  Today’s war-gamers generally speak of Blues and Reds, but these groups are by no means identical to our two main political parties which, we are forced to note, have in a sense exchanged valences from the Old Days.  The differences between the groups are still to a degree regional, but by no means cleanly so.  Economic, social, educational, and cultural disparities and divergences play a major role. The role of race, so prominent in popular rhetoric, is actually rather opaque.  The salient differences between 1860 and now are dramatic, and include the following.  Our populated territory is now huge.  Its population is huge.  It is also about eighty percent urbanized.  Comparatively few Americans today have any direct role in their own food production.  There is a vast armory—hundreds of millions of guns—distributed among the population.  All sections of the country are dependent upon cooperation with others, but this is particularly true of the cities, which in gross generalization tend in their political organization to the Blue, often dark Blue.  Were there (God forbid!) an actual new civil war, such factors could preclude organized armies in uniforms and most other things we think of when we think “war”—most but the horrors, that is.  And they reveal large advantages for the Reds.

Several political commentators have spoken of a metaphorical “civil war” already underway.  But the violent political discourse of past few years has invited even some of my intelligent and knowledgeable compatriots to imagine not metaphors but frightful realities.  I should have thought that one 1858 was sufficient for our nation.   The Impossible, it appears, perhaps isn’t after all.  We are perhaps closer to the discourse of the Arkansas Toothpick than I had imagined.  Toothpicks remind me that today’s unpleasantnesses begin with an early dental appointment; but just as soon as I get back I intend to watch the appearance of Mr. Mueller before his congressional inquisitors.  On PBS.
.