Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Admirable Crichton


 He knew it all

          On the assumption that my views of the Ferguson grand jury or the resignation of the Secretary of Defense would command about as much enthusiasm among my readership as those of the anointed punditocracy have stimulated in me, I shall take up the compelling subject of the Admirable Crichton.  If you have heard of the Admirable Crichton at all, which may be unlikely, it is probably in connection with J. M. Barrie’s once-famous play of that name (1903).  The Admirable Crichton is an imaginative satire on the theme of the British class system, sort of a combination of Downton Abbey and Lord of the Flies.  It is rather brilliant, but now probably hopelessly “dated”.

            Barrie’s “Crichton” is an imaginary butler in the stately home of a limousine liberal peer, the Earl of Loam; but his name alludes to an actual if shadowy historical figure of the sixteenth century, the Scotch polymath James Crichton (ca. 1560- ca. 1583).  Youthful genius too soon cut down is one of cultural history’s recurrent tragic themes.  Think of John Keats, “one whose Name was writ in Water,” dead of consumption at twenty-five.  Closer in spirit to the original Admirable Crichton, and indeed a probable biographical model, was the great Renaissance occultist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), although he made it all the way to thirty.  Pico knew everything there was to know, and so did the Admirable Crichton.  The laudatory adjective must be understood in the sense of the Latin admirabilis—that which inspires wonder, something marvelous.

            Young James came of good stock.  His mother was a Stuart of the Stuarts, and his father was for a time under the reign of Queen Mary the Lord Advocate of Scotland.  The youngster studied the trivium at Perth before going on to take a precocious baccalaureate degree at Saint Andrew’s.  At the age of eight Crichton’s eloquence in his native vernacular was compared with that of Demosthenes and Cicero.  By fifteen he knew “perfectly” Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic (presumably classical), and Syriac; and commanded native conversational fluency in Spanish, French, Italian, “Dutch”, (i.e., German, Deutsch), Flemish, and, oh, “Sclavonian”.

            That was the mere beginning of Crichton’s admirableness.  He was also a champion athlete, a horseman, a fencer, a dancer, a singer of rare voice, and the master of most known wind and string instruments.  His St. Andrews professor, Rutherford, a noted Aristotelian commentator, judged him to be one of the leading philosophers of the era.

            The cultural ties between Scotland and France were particularly strong, and it was quite natural that the adolescent Crichton, having sucked Scottish erudition dry, should move on to the College of Navarre at the University of Paris.  Here the young Scotsman cut a broad swath, though according to his jealous fellows his arenas of greatest activity were the taberna and the lupanar, rather than the lecture hall.  Young Crichton did like the ladies, who in turn found him most--admirable.

            Unfortunately our sole source for the more dramatic episodes in Crichton’s short life is Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie, the mad philologist and English translator of Rabelais.  This worthy is given to exaggeration and even, perhaps, fabrication; but I reckon we can credit at least sixty percent of his testimony.   I am now in a stage of life when I know less and less about more and more.  How attractive to me seems the age of the Renaissance, when aspiration to universal and encyclopedic knowledge was at least plausible.  Crichton decided to emulate a famous feat of Pico della Mirandola’s.   He had posters printed up declaring that on a day six weeks hence, at nine in the morning, in the main hall of the College of Navarre, he intended to present himself to dispute with all comers all questions put to him regarding any subject.  He had these put up on all the appropriate notice boards and church doors, before disappearing into the red light district to prepare himself for the contest.  His adversaries had to quit laughing when on the appointed day Crichton appeared as advertised and bested the greatest local experts in grammar, mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy, logic, and theology.

            The Crichton Show, having conquered Paris, moved next to the Italian peninsula.  The young Scot performed memorable feats of academic disputation first in Rome and then in Venice.  There he became fast friends with the famous scholar-printer Aldus Munitius, who is a credible witness to some of his more amazing intellectual performances.  One of his specialties was the off-the-cuff invention of Latin hexameter verse suitable for any emergent occasion—Virgiian Stand-Up, so to speak.

Rigoletto: not so funny

            It is perhaps ironic that the Admirable Crichton met his death at the hands of his own tutorial pupil Vincenzo da Gonzaga, the son of the Duke of Mantua, a spoiled wastrel who was nearly his own age and perhaps also his unsuccessful rival in love.  One night during Carnival Crichton was set upon in the streets of Mantua by four masked youths.  Very Italian this, and very Renaissance: you may remember the street brawl in Romeo and Juliet.  Or you have seen Rigoletto?  With superb sword play Crichton disarmed them all and forced them to show their faces.  One of them, their leader indeed, turned out to be Vincenzo!  Thinking then that it was all a jest, Crichton surrendered his own sword to him in semi-mock obeisance.  Vincenzo, drunk and humiliated in front of his friends, took it and ran him through.  I suppose there are less noble ways of passing from this vale of tears than being killed by a jealous lover; but this brute Vincenzo was as Awful as Crichton was Admirable.  There is textual uncertainty whether the Admirable Crichton was twenty-two or thirty-two when a rapier blade went through his liver.  Either way, it seems an awful shame, and a great waste of admirabilitas.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Penelope Fitzgerald, Morrisian

The current number of the New York Review of Books* has an important article about the English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald.  A major contemporary writer who started publishing her fiction at the age of sixty would be an object of interest under any circumstances, all the more so with the recent appearance of an engaging biography by a major literary scholar, Hermione Lee of Oxford.  We know a little bit about this.  In a recent post I mentioned some of the excellent lectures we heard at the Oxford “Meeting Minds” conference in September.  One I didn’t mention was Hermione Lee’s account of the subject of her book—an account sufficiently engaging to induce Joan to buy a signed copy afterwards.  Explaining the further dimensions of her interest will require digression.

One day in 1975 I was in the office of my late friend and colleague Carlos Baker.  As we chatted, he was “going through his mail,” meaning setting a few things aside for later attention and throwing rather more things directly into the wastebasket after the briefest of glances.  One of the pieces that fluttered unheeded toward the circular file caught my printer’s eye.  It was a piece of two-color work on high quality paper, obviously letterpress.  I dived for it and retrieved it.

It was an announcement by the William Morris Society of Great Britain of their intention to appoint a Resident Fellow of the Center in Kelmscott House, Morris’s old “town” residence in Hammersmith, London.  The duties of the Fellow would be vaguely to “supervise work” and to give a series of several seminars on some aspect of William Morris’s life and work.  The emoluments would be (1) free housing for fellow and fellow’s family in elegant Georgian mansion on the Thames, and (2) an honorarium of £1000.  The deadline for receipt of applications was, as I remember, about a week away.
Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, viewed from the Thames

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  Any amateur printer knows something about Morris.  I also knew a little about the Victorian interest in the Middle Ages.  So, I sat down and in about as much time as I now spend on a blog essay, wrote up a barely plausible proposal for a series of seminars on “Morris and Medievalism.”  I suspect that my proposal was successful because it was the only proposal, but I don’t second-guess Providence.  Thus came about one of the happiest years of our family life, and one that had a formative influence on our two older (and then only) children.

The life we knew at Kelmscott House would supply the matter for a dozen blog essays and probably a substantial comic novel.  The house was indeed an elegant Georgian mansion, but it was in a semi-ruinous state.  Its maintenance requirements far outstripped the resources of the underfunded William Morris Society, which may explain why its trustees not too much later sold it to Faye Dunaway!  The William Morris Society itself was a barely stable compound of William Morris enthusiasts, including Communists, book arts people, fantasy literature fans, and little old ladies who loved “Willow Leaf” wallpaper.  There were several other Morrisian and pseudo-Morrisian students living in various parts of the house, and an odd couple of ancient family retainers of “the Stevensons”, the previous freeholders, squatted unseen but not unsensed in the bowels of the cellar.  But my subject today is Penelope Fitzgerald.

Morris had set up the Kelmscott Press in the large cellar floor of the house, and it was there that the immortal edition of Chaucer was produced.  Morris’s friend, the great book-binder T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, lived next door.  Sir Emery Walker the typographer was right around the corner.  But that was then.  Now there was practically nothing left of the press except for one of the original Albions and a few banks of commercial foundry type.  This was enough, however, for me to be able to offer to the public a short course in elementary techniques of letterpress—thus satisfying the “supervise work” clause of my fellowship.
The typography shop, Kelmscott House, circa 1975

A housewifely type named Penelope Fitzgerald showed up at my seminars.  It was probably good that one could not tell from her timid manner that she had just published a biography of Morris’s great friend Burne-Jones and that she almost certainly knew more about my topic than I did.  It was only when she appeared for the sparsely attended printing “lessons” that we got to know her a bit.  I say “a bit” because we were wholly unaware of various important things happening in her life just as our paths crossed.  According to Lee’s biography 1976 was the year her husband died (we never heard word of a husband) and that she began the rampage of fiction writing that would make her posthumously famous.

I think there is still extant somewhere in my vast but sadly undisciplined “archives” one copy of my handsome little brochure entitled Morris & Mediaevalism, a Bibliography, printed by me and Penelope Fitzgerald at Kelmscott House.  Supposing I could ever locate this item, and supposing that people might credit my account of its origins—both probably suppositions “contrary to fact” in legal lingo—it might be worth a little money.  It would be worth far more, though, as a souvenir of our brief friendship with the bright, odd, self-effacing lady who would before too long command a major literary biography by one of England’s most distinguished literary scholars.

*Alan Hollinghurst, “The Victory of Penelope Fitzgerald”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Madisonian Musings

The American Philosophical Society, with atmospherics

         I had a most enjoyable experience this past weekend as a guest speaker at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.  This venerable academy, the nation’s premier intellectual “club”, was founded by Benjamin Franklin and other worthies in 1743.  In its early years practically all the great names of the Revolution and nascent Republic were members.  Jefferson was president of the Society at the same time he was President of the United States.  The APS has a beautiful building in Philadelphia Old City, just a stone’s throw from Carpenters’ Hall, the venue of the meeting of the first Continental Congress.  The Academy maintains an important library with many unique holdings.  One area of special strength is American Indian history and culture in the period of the first two centuries of European contact.  The society’s Latin motto is Nullo Discrimine, from a line in the first book of Virgil’s Æneid in which Dido, Queen of Carthage (“Tyria”), welcomes the sea-born foreign refugees from Troy: “Trojan and Tyrian shall be treated by me with no distinction”.

            Philosophy had a rather capacious meaning in the eighteenth century, and the Society defines its purpose broadly as “promoting useful knowledge.”  Such knowledge is of many kinds, and the several talks were somewhat disparate in character, with topics including the physiology of gustation, the history of cookbooks, Sephardic music in Brooklyn, and early protocols for making treaties with Indians.  Useful knowledge can also be aesthetic.  There was a poetry reading by Rosanna Warren of the University of Chicago.  Three young string players from the Curtis Institute of Music performed Mozart’s “Divertimento” in E-flat major (K. 563).  There is not a lot of music for string trios, and this was the first time I had heard this marvelous piece live.

            The penultimate talk—my own being the very last—was by Jack Rakove, an American historian from Stanford, among whose many achievements is the edition of the Writings of James Madison for the Library of America.  His provocative title was “James Madison’s Dilemma—and Ours”.  Oversimplifying only grossly, the shared dilemma is what to do about an aging constitution, and the solution is to change it.  Rakove was speaking four days after a national election that had in unequal proportions anesthetized and electrified the nation and continues to monopolize journalistic punditry; yet so clear was his intellectual focus on the subject at hand that by no wink or nod did he reveal his personal political preferences.  He did, when questioned, suggest what he regards as fairly obvious imperfections in the Constitution.  One of them was the electoral college, which can defeat the fundamental democratic principle of voting equality.  A second was life tenure in the Federal judiciary, instituted to preserve the judiciary from politicization and now guaranteeing that political motivation plays a prominent if not principal role in judicial nominations and confirmations.

            For probably obvious reasons James Madison is the Favorite Founding Father on my campus.  We call him “the first Princeton graduate student.”  After taking his baccalaureate degree here in 1771, he stayed on for some post-graduate study under John Witherspoon, college president and Signer of the Declaration.  Nonetheless, I realized in a flash that I have read too little Madison.  Both he and Jefferson (among others) fully recognized the experimental element of the republican venture and assumed that Americans would learn from their experience and act upon it.  That means they would change the Constitution when it needed changing.  Jefferson at one point seems to suggest that the document should be rewritten every twenty years or so.  Contemporary America seems to regard it as an untouchable sacred text.  I have a theory about this: the pseudo-sacrality of the Constitution has waxed as the sacrality of the Bible has waned.  But never mind.

 Statue of John Witherspoon on the Princeton campus

            When I got home I fetched my Madison down from the shelf and poked about a bit.  Very soon I came to the following.  In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, dated from Philadelphia on March 27, 1780, Madison expresses his alarming opinion that at no previous moment of the Revolution has the situation been more dire.  “Among the various conjunctures of alarm and distress:…Our army threatened with an immediate alternative of disbanding or living on free quarter, the public treasury empty; public credit exhausted…Congress complaining of the extortion of the people, the people of the improvidence of Congress, and the army of both; our affairs requiring the most mature & systematic measures, and the urgency of occasions admitting only of temporizing expedients, and those expedients generating new difficulties.”  Although this makes mere “gridlock” sound venial, it would be difficult to characterize the American government’s performance of the last several years more succinctly than does that final phrase.   But Madison himself tops it with this zinger: “Congress from a defect of adequate Statesmen more likely to fall into wrong measures and of less weight to enforce right ones…”

            I ask you in all candor, and entirely without partisan inflection, whether you can point to any member of Congress whom you would identify as a Statesman, let alone an “adequate” one?  The population of the United States is now roughly a hundred times what it was in 1780.  The voting franchise has been hugely expanded since that time.  What we now count as the first Congress didn’t meet until 1789.  How is it to be explained, then, that in and around this pathetic group of Continental congressionals of whom Madison is complaining there were probably twenty undoubted Statesmen?  On the other hand, no current member of Congress is a slave-holder, either.  The only Africans covered by Nullo discrimine, unfortunately, were Carthaginians.   So there is gain, and there is loss.        

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ruby's Hallowe'en

The most effective licensing procedure is self-licensing, so I am granting myself permission to indulge in an unapologetic essay in paedolatry—a neologism conveniently covered by the same license.  It means “kiddie-worship”, of course.  Given the number and adorability of my grandchildren, and in light of the remarkable restraint I have exercised in slobbering over them in public, I have commissioned myself to write a little essay about Ruby Dixon Fleming’s first active Hallowe’en at the age of one year and eleven months.

            Ruby appareled herself—one could hardly use the word disguise—as Ms. Liberty, the “mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.” Ruby is on intimate terms with the real Ms. Liberty, a near neighbor who brazenly rises next that part of the “golden shore” of New York harbor a scant distance from the Dixon Fleming household on Coffey Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn.  Ruby had set out with a splendid torch of “imprisoned lightning” crafted of tissue paper and a flashlight by her cunning mother; but she set it aside in the excitement of her first candy-grab.  This was her initiation to Hallowe’en, and she may not have fully grasped the finer points of theory, such as that one gathers one’s treats from the house-residents rather than from the paper sacks of the other kids.

Some of us need no mask to scare little kids

            Your average gray, straight, male Episcopalian geriatric who owns two suits and speaks in, like, complete sentences may at first feel a little self-conscious when dropped among the young and the hip of waterfront Brooklyn.  I have the impression some of these people may not have voted for Mitt Romney.  But Hallowe’en on Coffey Street dissipated my secretly held worries that they constitute a potentially revolutionary force intent on undermining the Establishment.  The thing is, if you own or are buying a house in Brooklyn today, you are the Establishment.  Once one moves beyond the first impression born of possibly odd attire, a more family-friendly, community minded set of real estate stake-holders would be hard to find in the dullest suburb of Houston.

         Variations on a theme   / the splitting headache

        Indeed they probably would not be found there at all, because Red Hook has preserved (or created anew) a vital sense of neighborhood from the rapidly vanishing American past.  The anodyne anonymity of suburbia is definitely not the vibe.  Still, nobody seems to know just who organized the Trick-or-Treating.  Photocopied notices simply appeared announcing that traditional Hollowe’en activities for very young Red Hookers would concentrate on three blocks of one of the neighborhood’s longest unbroken residential stretches  (including by chance Ruby’s own house) between five and five-thirty.  If you build it, they will come.  I haven’t seen a critical mass of trick-or-treaters at my house in Princeton in about twenty years.  We’re lucky to get a pitiable trickle, but there in Brooklyn a tide of kids in the toddler to pre-teen range, together with at least an equal number of parents and other supervisory adults, ebbed and flowed along the street in carnivalesque spirit.  The costumes, including those of many of the elders, were great.   There were sidewalk highjinks galore.  Mikhail Bakhtine would have approved, but so would T. S. Eliot.  Here was a richly imaginative event exhibiting the union of “tradition and the individual talent,” skillfully orchestrated chaos riotously fun and at the same time comfortably safe and wholesome.   And to think that the star of the whole show was our own blond-haired, blue-eyed, torchless Lady Liberty!

Lazarus breaks free, crosses finish line 

  Weird White Female seeks freshly manufactured Monster for possible matrimony   
 I was not present to see another recent manifestation of the Red Hook spirit.  But Rich and Katie provided me with some photos.  Two years ago the neighbors would have been able to celebrate Hallowe’en only in rowboats or diving bells.  In the wake of Hurricane Sandy (29 October 2012) the whole place was prime “Section A”, among the hardest-hit sections of the city—under water and actually under order of evacuation by Mayor Bloomberg.  This year, to mark the second anniversary of their spunky civic comeback, the locals mounted a spirited allegorical pageant, the Barnacle Parade, in which the grimacing villain Sandi was once again bested by the super-hero Sanito, as I would name the personification of the New York Sanitation Department, the city’s unexpected saviors two years ago.  I don’t know whether there were any literary scholars on the Parade’s planning committee, but there may well have been.  Perhaps Red Hook will be the cradle of the Next Big Thing in Theater.  It was exactly such secularized “morality plays” in the late Renaissance that ended up giving us Shakespeare!
 The Barnacle Parade: Sanito versus Sandi

            For dear Ruby and the other youngsters of her neighborhood the Hallowe’en highjinks on Coffey Street in 2014 may become a part of that substratum of childhood memory that, depending upon its positive or negative thrust, goes so far to vindicate Wordsworth's claim that “the Child is the Father to the Man”.  Surely these will be memories of delight.  But even happy memories come in different shades and tones.  So long as our English language and its literature live on, genuine glimpses of the old Christian culture will not be entirely expunged.  What does the word “Hallowe’en” mean?  It means “All Hallows Eve”.   Hallowe’en is the vigil of the Feast of All the Saints (Old English Hallows, as in “hallowed halls” or “this hallowed ground”), a day of reverent remembrance.  All Saints’ day is November 1st, and it is followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2nd--a generalized memorial of all the dead.  In several European cultures, including the Castilian imported to the Hispanic New World, All Souls’ Day (Día de los muertos) became the more prominent of the two.  I just saw a newspaper article about the complicating influence of Hallowe’en on the traditional Mexican customs of the Día de los muertos.  Sitting there on a Brooklyn stoop, passing out Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups from a rapidly depleting basket in my lap, I missed none of the fun.  Yet my mind did turn intermittently to some of the faithful departed, and especially my grandparents James and Cora Louise, Samuel and Dell, as I hope that Ruby’s, seventy years hence, might turn for a moment to memories of her grandparents.

Photo credits to Ambrogio Bergognone, Katie Dixon, Rich Fleming, and Joan Fleming 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Texting Women

Richard de Fournival, a learned French author of the fourteenth century, says in the preface to one of his works that there are two ways of teaching and learning, by word (parole) and by image (painture).  Certainly one of the most engaging aspects of many medieval books is the relationship between their words and their images.  Another way of thinking about the relationship is that of text and context--what goes "with the text".  My own doctoral dissertation studied that relationship in scores of manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose—a book read by practically everybody in the Middle Ages, and by practically nobody today.

I have been thinking about the marriage of parole and painture for a somewhat whimsical reason.  In the past couple of weeks as I return to a new and more intensive routine of research and writing, I have moved out of my home study and back into the library, where I still have an office.  There are gains and there are losses in this move.  I’ve had to give up the leisurely spousal sharing of coffee and newspaper, and the pleasing option of being able step away from my desk at will and out into the beautiful autumn landscape forty yards away.  On the other hand I am now surrounded by millions rather than mere hundreds of books, and since there is nothing else to do than read or write, I tend to get more accomplished.

Still one has to get up now and again for calls of nature or simply to move the molecules a bit.  Throughout the day I take five-minute mini-walks through the miles of open stacks in the Firestone Library, sometimes plucking from a shelf some random book that catches my eye.  Last week I found myself reading up in odd moments on the Klondike Gold Rush and the British naval action against the French fleet at Mers el Kebir in 1940.  Those are two different subjects in case you are groping for the elusive connection.

  ISTI MIRANT STELLAM : "These guys are looking at the star"

On Monday the book I picked up from some oversize shelves was more along my beaten path: the elaborate coffee table edition of the Bayeux Tapestry by David M. Wilson (New York: Knopf, 1985).  This book has very large color photographs of every inch of the tapestry, which is many inches (it is sixty eight meters long).  As you undoubtedly know the tapestry, which is named for the Norman town in which it has been preserved, is a huge eleventh-century embroidery that delineates in image and in word the background and history of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the triumph of the Norman Duke William, the death of the English King Harold.  I perhaps should say it provides a version of these events as determined by a Norman propagandist.  History is written by the victors, and in this instance the victors have needled the vanquished in a particularly brilliant way.

The glory of the tapestry is undoubtedly its pictorial wealth, particularly in the many scenes dealing with battle and seafaring.  The astronomical phenomenon now known as Halley’s Comet appeared in the skies of 1066, and it was of course later taken as the presage of some great disaster or triumph, depending upon the side of the Channel from which it had been viewed.  It is recorded in the tapestry.  But there is also a running written text.  The large majuscules of its simple sentences suggest the Dick and Jane genre—or in this instance the Ricardus et Joanna, as it is in very easy Latin.

It’s a Man’s World that the tapestry depicts, but it is to women that we are indebted for possessing it.  There is elegance in the union of pictorial and narrative meaning in this textile, for the word text, like textile, derives from the Latin word texere, to weave (past participle textus).  A story is a cloth of words.  We still talk about spinning a yarn, and there are other verbal memories of the connection.  We may lose the thread of some complicated story.  The literal meaning of clew (clue) is thread, a filament to be followed from confusion to resolution, as Theseus followed Ariadne’s thread out of the labyrinth, or as Sherlock Holmes follows it to the solution of the crime.

Weaving was women’s work, and there are many literary examples of female textual/textile cleverness.   A famous classical instance will readily come to mind: the ruse devised by Penelope, wife of Ulysses, long-absent and presumed dead by many, to keep her suitors at bay.  Penelope has no desire to remarry, but under pressure she promises to become available when she finishes weaving the elaborate tapestry on which she is engaged.  After hours, and out of sight of the slavering aspirants, however, she picks apart each day’s work, so that the project never advances.  Eventually her long-absent husband Ulysses returns and deals harshly with his would-be successors to the conjugal bed.

A second example, much gorier, is the legend of Philomela (the nightingale) from Ovid.  Philomela was brutally raped by King Tereus, the husband of her sister Procne.  He was supposed to be fetching her home by sea for a family reunion.  Attempting to cover up the crime, Tereus then has Philomela’s tongue ripped from her mouth so that she will not be able to report the crime to her sister.  However Philomela is able to convey the necessary information to Procne in a wordless text, an X-rated, historiated tapestry.  Procne wrought a revenge upon her husband too hideous to report in a family blog—and of course way beyond my own weaving skills.

Philomela's Loom of Doom : Sir Edward Burne-Jones

But the great weavers of the late Middle Ages, I take some pride in reporting, were the Flemings.  Most people’s favorite character in Chaucer is probably the Wife of Bath, than whom a more textual lady would be hard to find, as she is made up, quilt-like, of brilliantly recycled and recombined squares from the Bible, Ovid, and Jean de Meun.  One of the first things we learn about her is her textile prowess:
Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt   [talent]
She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt. 

Ypres and Ghent were two of the great wool centers of the Flemish heartland.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On the Death of David Greenglass

Ethel Rosenberg with her brother, David Greenglass, in better days

David Greenglass died last summer at the age of 92, but the sleuths from the New York Times found out about it only last week.  He had been living for the last half century in deep obscurity under a false name.  His actual name will mean little to most of my readers, but he will be remembered by future American historians at a level at least one above the footnote.  A footnote was the best I myself could do for him in The Anti-Communist Manifestos (p. 355n).
            David Greenglass was the younger brother of Ethel Rosenberg, who with her husband Julius was electrocuted at Sing Sing on June 19, 1953.  The Rosenbergs had been convicted of treasonous espionage for transmitting to Soviet agents stolen information containing “the secret of the atomic bomb.”  The source of the documents was actually Greenglass, a spy working as a machinist at the top secret atomic installation in Los Alamos, NM.  There was plenty of evidence to convict Julius Rosenberg.  But Greenglass and his wife Ruth sealed Ethel’s fate as well with testimony claiming that she played an active conspiratorial role by creating with a typewriter a fair copy of some of information supplied by her brother.  For their cooperation David was given a comparatively short prison sentence and Ruth escaped without doing time at all.

            All four were Communists, actual Communists, with a shared background in a fascinating, vanished world: that of the politically radical intellectual and working-class Jewish life of New York in the Thirties.  Many on the left regarded the Rosenbergs as innocent victims of Cold War hysteria and the Greenglasses as lying turncoats.  It was an article of faith among Western Communists that the Rosenbergs had been framed.  For most of them this was a sincere belief, not a cynical pose.  As the execution date neared there were protest demonstrations in several American cities.  In Europe, especially France and Italy, the protests were huge.
            What can we say now, with certainty, probability, or even plausible possibility?  Leaving aside the propriety of capital punishment, we can begin with the fact that there was no such thing as the secret of the atomic bomb, and it is at least uncertain that David’s crude sketch of the implosion lens was of practical use to the Russians.  Intention is something else.  Julius was certainly a Soviet agent and a spy.  So was David, a gung-ho American Communist of the most naïve sort, who dissimulated his way through an incompetent security screening, but then did his level best to convert his fellow workers at Los Alamos to the Soviet cause!  (The Keystone Cops dimension of our security services is a hallowed tradition).  Ethel was certainly an ideologically committed Stalinist and almost certainly an active conspirator in the spy ring; but it is likely that the government prosecutors went after her primarily in a futile attempt to secure a confession from her husband.  It is quite possible, as was his much later claim, that David’s direct testimony about her was perjured.  He may have sacrificed his sister to save his wife--if Ruth was the one who really sat at the typewriter.  It is possible, therefore, that Ethel was wrongly convicted—which is different from being innocent of the crime of which she was charged.
            The term “historical climate” is a rather vague one, but historical climates do exist, even if they can usually be described only in retrospect and then with only partial accuracy.  I had already entered my teenage years when first the Chambers-Hiss affair and then the Rosenberg trial devolved.  I had strong political interests, and I followed them avidly.  But they now seem nearly as distant and elusive as the ecclesiastical politics of Tudor England.  I say “ecclesiastical” with intent, for I have discovered that the historiography of the Cold War often reveals a kind of theological superstructure usually associated with faith communities.
            My book The Anti-Communist Manifestos (2009) had accidental beginnings.  I had taught and admired Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and I stumbled upon “Jan Valtin” and Out of the Night by the merest chance.  I began to see that there had been a genuine literary dimension to those Cold War Years which were the dawn of my personal political consciousness.  That was a perception likely to intrigue any literature professor, but I never would have written the book save for another encounter with the Zeitgeist of 1950.  In April of 2007 NYU hosted a one-day conference on the theme “Alger Hiss and History”.  I set off to this conference with the humility of a pupil rather than the confidence of a professor.
            The venue for the series of talks was the large auditorium of the Law School on Washington Square South.  This is a big room, and it was mostly full.  I began to get the drift of things when the keynote speaker turned out to be Victor Navasky, former editor of the Nation magazine, a journal that spent approximately half a century arguing Hiss’s innocence and demanding his vindication.  As the day wore on I came to realize that of the four hundred people in that room, three hundred and ninety of them were sincerely convinced of Hiss’s innocence!  To hold any other view was closer to political criminality than mere stupidity.  And like trees planted by the water, they would not be moved.
            I then knew that I had to write a book.  This not because I thought I had any new information or insight about Alger Hiss or Whittaker Chambers.  I was and am convinced of Hiss’s espionage and his perjury, but so by now was practically everybody else—aside, that is, from the demographic wildly overrepresented in the NYU Law School auditorium.  But I was now fascinated by the puzzling fact that a whole generation of western intellectuals—tens of thousands in Europe, but thousands here in America too—could have become true believers in the Soviet sham, and its full-throated supporters.  I never came up with a comprehensive explanation, though I had fun looking for one.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Backwoods Ingenuity

I don’t watch much television per se, not enough certainly to justify my monthly cable bill; but I do catch up with certain things streaming on Netflix: programs about honey badgers, how to build an ancient Egyptian chariot, that sort of thing.  A couple of weeks ago I chanced upon something called “Hillbilly Blood,” a Discovery Channel series featuring the doings of a couple of highly resourceful fellows who live off the grid and off the land in the boondocks of western North Carolina, practicing what might be called Extreme Self-Reliance--in convenient, hour-long episodes.  They know every plant, medicinal or noxious, in the Appalachian forest, and they gladly consume insect protein that would make city-dwellers gag.  They do stuff like making hunting bows out of old truck springs and arrows out of short lengths of rebar.

Spencer and Eugene messing about

            The program’s premise is of course pretty hokey, and the two protagonists, who are very attractive and plausible fellows, now and again jump the shark.  In one episode, short of cash as usual, they go into the woods, build an ingenious makeshift placer sluice and a water-powered pump, and start washing creek gravel in search of emeralds and rubies.  Quite soon they find a stone worth eight grand.  That might encourage you or me to continue; but they immediately decamp to go back home to their routine subsistence activities and a few chews on shards of venison jerky.

            But on the whole I found “Hillbilly Blood” terrific, a sort of televised version of the old Foxfire books, or perhaps a dramatization of Eric Sloane’s Little Book of Early American Know-How.  Its main message—the independence of mountain folk as evidenced in their competence, skill, and invention—resonates with the experience of my Ozark boyhood.  I knew lots of guys like Eugene and Spencer, beginning with my father and his two brothers, my uncles John and Wayne.  They built the house in which we lived, beginning not with milled lumber but with cedar trees felled by crosscut saw, raised much of the food we ate, and seldom saw a day pass without fixing some antique machine with spit and baling wire.
another of Sloane's captivating books

            My father was a great man, and one of the finest I have ever known.  Unlike the television “hillbillies” he had no principled aversion to remunerated work, and during the decade following the War he dragged me and my siblings to work sites through most of the southwestern states, including three different places in California alone.  But we were always returning to Arkansas for greater and shorter periods, and wherever we were he seemed to try to live, however impractically, as though he were still in some deep woods.  And he always had one essential quality which is not particularly showcased on “Hillbilly Blood” but was characteristic of many of the country people I knew as a child.  I’ll call it spirituality.

            My Dad reported the following story.  There was in a remote corner of our farm a long-abandoned homestead of which the most obvious relic was a large and unusually deep root cellar.  We were seldom there, but in it my uncles stored some fencing materials used for occasional repairs needed in that sector.  One day, when my father was there alone, he rather purposelessly stepped down the narrow stairwell into the murk of this dim place.  A loud rattle made known to him that he had just walked very near to, or perhaps even over, a snake which, looking back now toward the back-lighted steps, on which it was curled, he could see was very large, malignly aroused, and positioned between him and his only route of egress.  By inexplicable fortuity there was lying on the dirt floor of the dugout cellar, barely visible, a cleft stick with a small, even fork at its end.  With this he was able ingeniously to pinion the snake’s hissing head against one of the stone steps, holding it fixed, with its long tail flailing wildly, while he stomped it to death with the heel of his heavy work boots.  All in a day’s work.

            It was not this episode itself, which was less dramatic than many in his life, that impressed me as a child, so much as the humble and matter-of-fact mode of its telling.  He told it as a story against himself, as an indictment of a culpable carelessness.  When asked by my brother what he did when he saw the snake, he answered thus: “I looked around for the stick.”  He did not say “a stick” but “the stick”, and the drift was very clear to me even at the age of ten.  In a situation of considerable danger, there was no question in his mind but that Providence would provide a solution.  All he had to do was use his wits and find it.  He then quoted some lines of poetry that, I much later learned, were from the third verse of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.  That is pretty hard-core!  Who knows the third verse of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”?

“I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
 ‘As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal’;
Let the hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel!”