Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Death on the Oria

The Oria on a good day

As Sunday advanced I began to experience the first vague awareness that blog day would soon arrive and that perhaps it would be wise  to give the matter some thought.  Some readers found last week’s effort just a tad cryptic, as I fully expected; I had my reasons, but I recognize that nonplussing one’s readers on a consistent basis might be poor policy.  So I determined that I would pursue a definite subject, if only such a thing would come to mind.  It didn’t exactly come to mind; it walked in the door.

                                                            Sofia Papaioannou


We just enjoyed a rather whirlwind visit from our daughter Katy, freshly returned from professional business in London and Paris.  Accompanying her was her great friend and colleague—who has become a friend of ours as well—Sofia Papaioanou.  Ms. Papaioanou is a well-known television personality in Greece who has hosted a number of highly rated programs.  Katy is among other things a professional historian of modern Greece who came to her love of its people and culture as Lord Byron had in  the days of Ali Pasha, by spiritual immersion.  Sofia Papaioanou and Katherine Fleming are the joint directors of a very ambitious oral history project in progress under the sponsorship of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.  The project, named Istorima, is sending historical reporters into every corner of the Greek countryside.  Their mission is to seek out and to record the memories of elderly citizens whose experience in many instances goes back to World War II and the Greek Time of Troubles that followed it.  The project serves other ends as well, such as offering employment to a large number of young people challenged by Greece’s recent economic difficulties and the dislocations of the pandemic; but in its substance it may be the largest national oral history project ever undertaken.


Sofia had a little oral history of her own to report.  She had recently returned from the Veneto in northern Italy where she was undertaking a historical mission that, in addition to being fascinating, practically begged to be a blog topic.  It involves an episode in the second World War.  Though no expert in the history of that conflict, I do consider myself pretty knowledgeable about it.  And since I had never heard of the Wreck of the Oria, it is possible you haven’t either.  It was the largest known single-ship maritime disaster in the long history—and I do mean long--of Mediterranean navigation.  It was also  a German war crime for a time more or less successfully hushed up.


When the European war began, Fascist Italy under Mussolini was allied with Hitler under the so-called “Pact of Steel”, but the Italian army was technically a “royal” one owing formal allegiance to King Victor Emmanuel III.  Large Italian forces battled the British in the deserts of North Africa.  The king had been strangely subservient to Mussolini, but with the (for Italy) disastrous Anglo-American assaults on Sicily and the Italian peninsula in 1943, the King removed Mussolini from power and supplanted him with a new prime minister, Badoglio.  (Mussolini was famously rescued from detention in a daring German commando raid ordered personally by Hitler.)  Italy officially but equivocally remained allied with the Nazis, but the Badoglio government obviously didn’t have their heart in it and secretly pursued the hope of a separate peace.  Most of the German top brass held a very low view of the Italian “fighting man”, whom they often openly classed somewhere between a coward and a traitor.  Large numbers of Italian soldiers scattered throughout the web of German occupation were now openly regarded as nuisances if not enemies.  This was the background for many disasters, one of which originated on the island of Rhodes.


Italy had come into open conflict with Greece in 1940.  On Rhodes, later held by the Germans, there was a significant presence of “royal” Italian army units.  With the reversal of Hitler’s fortunes in Italy, the Germans now treated this “allied” army of more than 4,000 as prisoners of war and crammed them onto an old British commercial ship, now named the Oria and the property of Scandinavian shippers, and sent them off in the direction of Piraeus, the port of Athens, on the Greek mainland a couple of hundred miles away, to be held in internment camps.  On February 12, 1944, the ship crashed against rocks near the tiny island of Patroklos, about sixty miles southeast from Athens, and very near the southernmost tip of the mainland.  The ship was inadequate and the crew possibly incompetent.  There were virtually no safety measures in place, and practically no safety equipment.  More than 4,000 men drowned, almost all of them Italian soldiers of low rank, many of them peasants from the Veneto.  This was a year after the German catastrophe at Stalingrad.  The Nazi officer corps had to know they were losing, and their deportment in enraged defeat was not more gentle than it had been in arrogant victory.  They behaved in the words of the secular law with “depraved indifference to human life.”  The families of the Italian victims in most instances knew only that a loved one had disappeared, God knew where to.  Yet so spectacular a disaster could not be hidden, as hundreds of bloated corpses washed up onto the sand beaches, rocky coves, and rough shingle of the Athenian peninsula.  The local Greeks had their own immediate German problem to deal with.  There was still a whole year before the Germans would be definitively defeated; but for the Greeks the end of one war was the beginning of another.  Yet the Greeks of that area never forgot.  They were not allowed to forget.  For years the detritus from the Oria and the humble artefacts abandoned by its doomed human cargo washed ashore in heavy weather.

Imagine being a child in the bleak winter of 1944 and finding dozens of the dead, hideously mangled or bloated,  washed up on the rocks and docks of your fishing hamlet.  Such reports were among the indelible youthful memories recalled after seventy-five years by wizened old men and toothless women and reported to the istorima historians.  Some of this fascinating testimony is already available on the English language version of the istorima site (

Ms. Papaioanou saw here rich historical material practically crying out for expansion in podcasts and television programs.  And in her mind, and the minds of some of her fellow historians, an idea was dawning that even now these seemingly forgotten dead might be remembered and honored.


Particularly numerous among the shallowly submerged artefacts were the Italians’ cheap, pot-like messkits.  They were common finds, and on the bottoms of several of them the names and villages of their wretched owners had been incised into the soft metal.  So now, two generations later Greek local historians (and humanitarians) took the lovely initiative, guided by the inscribed mess kits, of trying to seek out any possible identifiable living relatives or posterity of some of the peasant conscripts drowned seventy-nine years before.  In southern Europe that was not merely another time but a different age.  Sofia Papaioanou had but recently been on such a mission, and she gave a moving and heart-warming account of its reception.  The first problem the historians faced was the incredulity of contemporary Italians concerning the bona fides of the enterprise.  The youngest of the actual contemporaries of the drowned men had to be closer to a hundred than to eighty years old; yet there were some.  And though the oral memory of the “disappeared” had never faded from their villages, the whole enterprise—“oral historians,” television cameras, King Victor Emmanuel-- seemed to many of them incredible.  The historians were able to “return” three incised canteens.  They set up a meeting in the ancient little town of Cerea, between Padua and Verona.  It was in the heart of the agricultural landscape from which so many of the soldiers garrisoned on Rhodes Sofia had come.  Sofia expected to be meeting with two or three graybeards.  The photographs she showed us instead captured a sizeable room filled with an intergenerational crowd, many of them in best bib-and-tucker: the posterity and friends and relatives of the drowned men, the victims of an ancient myth. Perhaps a few of them were their actual direct posterity.  They treated the event with the somber dignity it so richly deserved, but also with a certain joyfulness.  The return of a battered tin pot may not be “restorative justice” as we usually think of it, but in the circumstances it was certainly a generous and inspirational act of fellow feeling and, indeed, of Christian charity, that both in its performance and its reception lets shine a shaft of light upon the darkness of the horrors of war.





Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Low Country High


Spanish moss (Beaufort, S. C.)


            According to journalistic reports, the recently completed Murdaugh trial, ending in the conviction of a prominent South Carolina lawyer for a double murder, “transfixed the nation.”  I was rather relieved to read that, because it offered me an increasingly rare opportunity to feel in synch with “the nation”.  I spent more time than I ought to have done following the case.  And having just read a banal and factually challenged  account of the matter by an on-the-spot New Yorker journalist deemed an expert, I feel reasonably qualified to have my own opinions.  But not to worry.  I don’t intend to share many of them with you.  I will share one.  I believe that the endless puzzlement over the murderer’s motives will remain unresolved so long as one believes that a mind narcoticized for a decade by opiates is likely to produce generally comprehensible “motives.”


            Much of the commentary in the northeastern press has had an anachronistic tinge to it, as though we were still in the Twenties (as in 1920s) and there were a particular grotesquerie to crime below the Mason and Dixon line.  I’m enough of a southerner to resent this baloney.  Never mind that the Son of Sam, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacey, and Ted Bundy, were not in fact good ole southern boys.  Over the years I have happened to know some particularly fine South Carolinians.  At the top of the list is one of our wonderful daughters-in-law, Melanie Dean.  But the list includes many former students and other friends.


            Indeed, one of the closest friends of my undergraduate years, DuPre Jones, was a native of Beaufort, where I visited several times over the years.  Beaufort is probably the closest town of any size near the scene of the murders, and it was mentioned from time to time in the testimony.  There are Beauforts in both of the Carolinas.  (The point of finesse here, apparently, is in a distinction of pronunciation.  The North Carolina Beaufort is Frenchier: BO-fort.  The South Carolina one is BEW-furt.)  At the time of my first visit we had both been reading a lot of Faulkner, and had recently shared an enthusiasm for Absalom! Absalom!  That novel is perhaps not the apogee of Faulknerian Gothic, but DuPre assured me that it was good preparation for understanding the culture of his hometown.  I thought the place was pretty cool.  It provided my first encounter with Spanish moss in abundance.  There’s a reason they call that part of the state the “low country”.  About half of the land is under water, and the rest seems aspiring to be.  The Marines at nearby Parris Island exploit this feature to train their recruits, drowning one now and again.  Alligators!  Quicksand!  Chinese balloons! 


            DuPre died of cancer about ten years ago.  I am sorry to say that we were not in frequent touch during his last two years.  Friendship is sometimes described as an art.  It can also be a duty which one can fulfill or neglect, and I fear I neglected this one at the end.  I have a hundred excuses, none of them sufficient to assuage a guilty conscience.  DuPre was a remarkable person who had a somewhat ragged life.  He liked to apply to our group of friends the striking phrase in Shelley’s “Adonais,” his lament for Keats: “The inheritors of unfulfill'd renown.”  That was perhaps a prescient self-diagnosis.  He was witty, brilliant, sardonic.  In his work life he was successively the librarian of the Washington Post and the New York Times—a newspaper librarian being crucial for researching articles, fact-checking, etc.  He loved serious cinema and wrote about it eloquently.  He is the author of an engaging pseudo-children’s book, The Adventures of Gremlin, which was illustrated by the famed Edward Gorey.  A kind of pre-post-modern Candide, it is still sought after by connoisseurs.  He was for a brief period the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature during one of the many failed efforts to revive that once illustrious journal.  He was complicated, with a complex personal life.  I knew both of his wives, and also one fairly long-term girlfriend, a Times reporter frequently by-lined for important stories on the front page.  Lovely women all.  But there was lots of other amatory drama in his private life of which I had only a vague awareness.  There seemed to be a missing gene on that front, or maybe an extra gene.  He got a very respectful obituary from a colleague working for his one-time employer, the New York Times, and someone qualified to appreciate the very high quality of his rare professional skills.  By now I am inured to the death of old friends, but Pre was one of the first to disappear, and the special sadness still remains.

The Adventures of Gremlin

            The Murdaugh trial raised all sorts of things in my mind.  The crimes for which Murdaugh was convicted, and I suppose I must believe justly convicted, challenge one’s concept of human personality.  Sociological and pharmacological commentaries do not get me much nearer to what St. Paul called “the mystery of iniquity”.  In In Memoriam Tennyson wrote,  “Oh yet we trust that somehow good/Will be the final goal of ill…”, possibly the silliest lines of a great poet who wrote too many of them.  But still….I now face a difficult transition in this essay because the chain Murdaugh, Beaufort, DuPre leads to a nice little episode, still in development, involving some members of the Jones family.  I suddenly felt the desire, even need, to write some kind of brief, decade-late and inadequate memorial of my friend, and to inform such surviving close relatives as I was aware of where they might read it.  However, many people, such as most sensible ones, do not like to have their names spread across the Internet in random fashion, even in friendly reports on obscure blogs; so I must speak obliquely.  I don’t want them being chased down by random Reddit sleuths.  Of course, I am sure they have no difficulty with queries that begin, “Hi!  You don’t know me, but I just wasted untold hours watching the trial of a psychopathic murderer and so felt the need to track down ‘Ardet’ Jones asap”.  Ordinarily I would regard the name Jones safe from the generally feeble abilities of the Redditeers on account of the overwhelming number of Joneses.  I had first thought of contacting DuPre’s elder brother, supposing him to be extant.  But this man, whom I think I once met in passing but do not know at all, has a given name so unusual that I wrongly believed it to be unique.  So in this short tale I assign to him the wholly manufactured monicker of “Ardet”, which has about the same level of plausibility as the actual name.  I was then intending to move on to his younger brother, a retired priest of reportedly notable abilities and joie de vivre.  There are ten thousand Tom, Dick, and Harry Joneses in America, but apparently only two actual “Ardet” Jones in the Internet world—one of them a house-building company in Cheshire, England.  I do very slightly know DuPre’s younger brother, the retired priest and one of the 20,600 LinkedIn Michael Joneses, and the next on the list.  


            Of the coded American listings for “Ardet” Jones there are only two, and since they are of the same person, you might as well say one.  But he appeared to be about the age of one of our own sons.  Ah, thought I, the son of the man I seek.  But no.  He’s the nephew of that guy, and the son of the aforementioned cleric.  Furthermore, he is a fellow alumnus of Sewanee and a teacher of English and American literature with an advanced degree from an institution at which I used to teach.  Degrees of separation dropped like flies.  He is now the headmaster of one of our distinguished cathedral schools.  My email inquiry to him (the headmaster) led to one from Fr. Jones to me, confirming that he (Jones the priest) was indeed the cadet brother of one “Ardet” Jones, still alive and frisky at a great age in a retirement community,  and the father of another (the English teacher.)  He (Jones the priest) generously promised to send me his novel, Dear Old Town, based I believe in a true crime event in Beaufort (the town) in the 1950s.  I am sure you are dazzled by my skill at describing complex matters with such pellucid clarity.  A lesser writer, Dickens say, would have you thoroughly confused by now.  These very pleasant developments may not wholly vindicate Tennyson; but they are surely good things that come in the aftermath of some perfectly terrible ones with which they have only vague geographical relation.





Wednesday, March 8, 2023



           Our son Luke is a professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of Montreal.  Since I didn’t know what a linguistic anthropologist was before I had one in the family, there is a chance that you don’t know either; so I shall explain briefly.  There are four broad subjects covered by most academic anthropology departments: archaeology, bioanthropology, linguistic anthropology, and social-cultural anthropology.  The last—Coming of Age in Samoa, and so forth--is what I used to think of as anthropology, period.  But significant speech is such an important characteristic of the human species that it, and the myriad human languages that govern it, provide large opportunities for study on their own.  Just at the moment Luke is encouraging me to devote an essay to the linguistic fallout of the French Revolution, when (in theory) all the old titles of address were scrapped for the single democratic citoyen(ne).  Part of his own very interesting research involves various kinds of large-scale linguistic indirection in such phenomena as personal honorifics, euphemisms, and markedly differing parallel registers of vocabulary based in familial and other social structures.  I think I will probably try something along those lines in the next few weeks, but I shall first require some actual library time to do so, and I am unlikely to be able to achieve that in the immediate future.  We have touched upon this topic obliquely before.  Luke and I are both chess players, and were once frequent adversaries—until he simply outdistanced me so conspicuously in skill as to make the exercise a little tedious.  But during that period I did read about the revolutionary effect on this hallowed game in which the two most important pieces were a king and a queen, and the three other major pieces (castle, knight, and bishop) all reflect a hierarchical, feudal organization of church and state.  When you abolished monarchy, you got chessmen in which the “king” was Jean-Jacques Rousseau!


            But a recent news item encourages me to deal with a particular instance of political linguistic interference that has stuck in my craw; and that is the barbarism LatinX.  I do not object to the invention of new words, but I do object to the invention of words that cannot be pronounced.  Conceivably one could say latinks, though I don’t why you would.  What people do say is trisyllabic: Latin-Ex, which if it meant anything at all would mean something very different from what I believe is intended.  The news item reported that hostility to “LatinX” was providing a rare instance of political bipartisan agreement.  Right-wingers objected to the overt political correctness of the neologism.  A group of left-leaning Democrats of Hispanic origin, on the other hand, objected to it for its attempt to pervert an essential characteristic of the Spanish language: namely, that like all the Romance languages, it is gendered.


            In what follows I limit myself entirely to linguistic analysis, eschewing all personal political opinion.  In contemporary American Spanish the word for a male of Hispanic descent is sometimes latino, that for a female latina.  The same adjective, in both of its forms, can of course be meaningfully applied to many nouns.  The capitalization of the word is arbitrary or conventional, and I am indifferent to it.  The uncapitalized form seems to me more efficient.  When I first started studying the German language, all its nouns were capitalized.  Linguistic authorities successfully transitioned away from that quickly and without much squawking.  The invented term LatinX has as its aim “gender equity,” in which the distinction male/female is extinguished.  That is, the X could be either-o or -a.  My first and stolid objection to LatinX is the redundancy.  It serves no purpose not already served by the adjective Latin: Latin rhythm, Latin lover, Latin piquancy, etc., without necessary suggestion of sexual differentiation.  If Anglo-Saxons exist, Latins must perforce exist.


            It is a characteristic of all the world’s major languages to strive for clarity and specificity, though some are much better at achieving it than others.  The ancient Stoic linguists advanced the argument that all words are irremediably ambiguous, and that trying to explicate them by the use of other words—the only means at our disposal—is “like bringing an unlighted candle into a darkened room.”  A fatal weakness for ambiguity was attached particularly to words written down as opposed to those spoken.  This is why Æneas begs the Cumaean Sibyl to deliver the news in oral rather than in written form.  As slightly modified by certain recent French literary theorists, the posterity of this nifty doctrine has been ravaging literary study for a few decades now.  Endemically ambiguous language can lead only to “indeterminacy”, a favorite term among Deconstructionists, whether it be used to describe artistic intention or simply the pitiful results of the debility of the human tongue.  It is not that there is nothing in the idea: there is, a little.  A good deal of artistic prose, and practically all poetry, exploits linguistic ambiguity on principle.  But as a general characteristic of language it is absurd, as Augustine insisted nearly two thousand years ago.  The general aims of ordinary speech and of formal communication are clarity and exactitude.  You are not hoping to applaud cunning ambiguity in the instructions on your medicine bottle or in the deed to your domicile.


            American English is adaptable and welcoming to sensible neologisms.  When in fairly recent times the long-honored distinction between Miss (an unmarried woman) and Mrs (a married woman, though sometimes a widow) was perceived by many to be a problem, a comprehensive generic substitute (Ms) was very widely adopted without much fuss.  It would be apparent to any student of social history that in the contemporary setting there are potentially significant invidious possibilities in the old distinction.   There was no such distinction for males, though the mystery word bachelor, which appeared fairly early (Chaucer’s Squire is a lusty bachelor, an energetic youth), crept in around the edges.  In early English there were many nouns which de facto existed in two forms, one masculine, the other feminine.  The male who produced bread was a baker.  A woman who did the same thing was a baxter.  Several such distinctions now exist only in surnames: Weaver and Webster, for instance.  One distinction that has recently proved troublesome is actor/actress.  The distinction has been judged oppressive and politically incorrect.  On other fronts the insertion of “gender identity” may seem gratuitous.  “Amelia Schackenfuss Becomes First Afro-Latvian Woman to Head Collinsville PTA.”


            At the present moment there appears to me to be political sensitivity and confusions  surrounding the linguistic signaling of sexual differentiation.  Let us not remove the lid from this can of worms just at the moment.  In general, surely, we should want our words to be as specific load-bearing as possible.  In languages still retaining significant gender categories in the nominal forms, this is pretty easy.  You don’t have to say “woman doctor” or “male nurse”, which I still hear all the time.  Efficiency would argue that Anglophones,  with an ungendered nominal system, ought to be chary about banishing terms of specifying distinction that we already have.  But we don’t want unnecessary ones like LatinX.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Seeing and Believing


On Friday, perhaps it was even Saturday, I had a telephone call from my son Luke in Montreal.  In the course of a sometimes whimsical conversation I asked him if he had read my  most recent blog post.  I was pretty sure what the answer would be, having long ago been advised by somebody who ought to know that “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”  I was right.  He had not read the post; but being a modern man and an adept multi-tasker he started reading it even as we spoke.  “Well,” he said, “there’s an egregious error in the first sentence.”  Alarmed, I then did a little multi-tasking of my own.  He was right!  There was a horrible jumble of repeated words in the very first line.  Since the burden of the paragraph was a complaint that Americans don’t pay enough attention to their language, this discovery was a double embarrassment.  Meanwhile a few hundred people had already read it, all of whom had been too polite to point out the blunder.


We say that seeing is believing, but it often works the other way around.  We see what we already believe, that is what we think we see, or in this instance wrote.  When we say, “Try to see this from my point of view,” we perhaps come close to acknowledging this.  How independent is our vision, actually?  Especially when we are seeing unexpected things.


As a poetry lover, I usually read a few poems during the week; and this week one that I reviewed is pretty famous, Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”  You may well know the poem.  Keats, who could not read classical Greek any more than most of us, came upon the English translation of the Odyssey by the learned Renaissance poet George Chapman (1616) in 1816.

Much have I traveled in the realms of gold

    And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

    Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

    That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;

    Yet never did I breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

    When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

    He stared at the Pacific—and all his men

Looked at each other with a wild surmise—

    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.


This is a poem about comparative gob-smacking discoveries: Hernan Cortez‘s New World discoveries and Keats’s literary discovery of Homeric epic.  Keats’s presentation is rather fanciful, but if poetry cannot be fanciful, I am not sure what actually would qualify.  Cortez never stood on a peak in Darien.  He entered what is now Mexico on the Atlantic side, naturally, and almost immediately found himself immersed in the desperate intrigues that would soon enough lead to the Spanish conquest of the indigenous Mexica.  Much later in his life he did make a memorable trip on which he came upon what is today the Gulf of California and the land that is Baja California.  The Gulf of California was long known as the Sea of Cortez, and still is in one of John Steinbeck’s most charming books.


Years ago I did quite a bit of research on Christopher Columbus, a figure mutating at Mach Four speed in our awakened history books.  For the famous Columbian Exhibition of 1892/3 he was a universal hero and a proto-Yankee business entrepreneur.  By the Quincentenary in 1992 he was a ruthless slaver and kidnapper and a kind of monstrous Typhoid Mary.  My objective view as a literary scholar is less portentous: Columbus was an amazing sailor and navigator, but a disappointingly dull travel writer.  Here he was in the Americas, seeing for the first time a world new to European eyes.  Yet the categories to which he assigned what he was seeing were mainly two: just like what we have in Castile and not like what we have in Castile.  He does report seeing some very strange sights, such as retrohumeral (back-to-front) and monocular men .  He of course could not possibly have seen them, but he was expecting to find them because he had read all about them in the ancient geographers (Pliny, Strabo, Ptolemy et al.) and medieval fabulists like Jean de Mandeville.  Remember: believing is seeing.


In 1992, when I was one of the curators of a large exhibition at the Library of Congress, I gathered together a significant library relating to the topic of Columbus’s voyage.  Just by chance, this week I had plucked from my bookshelves the classic work by the eminent historian and diplomat Miguel León-Portilla about The Ancient Mexicans*—meaning the pre-Columbian civilization Cortez encountered, commonly called the Aztec Empire.  Trying to find something in it that probably was in some other book—my memory is now rapidly deserting me—I stumbled on something highly relevant to Keats and Cortez.  If Keats compared his metaphoric literary cruise through Homer’s Aegean Sea to Cortez’s dazzling view from a peak in Darien, how had Cortez himself viewed things?

Bernal Diaz del Castillo

Keats’ imaginary panorama of the Pacific as viewed from a peak in Darien was perhaps as vivid in his imagination as the actual prospect would have been to stout Cortez’s corporal sight.  As it happens, there was a very good writer accompanying Cortez who recorded some of the things they actually saw.  This literary conquistador was Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who late in his life, and some years after the death of Cortez himself, published his famous True History of the Conquest of New Spain.  The small fleet of Cortez landed at Vera Cruz in February of 1519.  Cortez, who made a speech explicitly comparing himself to Julius Caesar at his point of no return, crossed his Rubicon by intentionally wrecking his ships.  Now retreat was physically impossible.  There was only one possible direction for the Spanish warriors: west along the Aztec-built highway to the Indian capital, Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), an amazing island conurbation of lakeside suburbs fronting a city of magnificent buildings.  In Columbian terms, this would have been very definitely not like what we have in Castile.  How must the first sight of the distant city have affected these Spaniards, plotting conquest while outnumbered a thousand to one, sweating in their iron suits upon their magical steeds?  Bernal Diaz del Castillo tells us.   “It seemed like those magical things that are reported in the Book of Amadís…Some of our soldiers said of what they saw that they must be dreaming….”

The Aztec Capital in an early map

            The work to which Bernal refers is the Amadís de Gaula, an extravagant Iberian prose romance that was the runaway secular best-seller of the early period of printing, though its obscure origins go back at least to the fourteenth century.  Anything that can happen to a hero of romance, and many things that could not happen, occur in this amazing book.  The practically unbounded character of its fabulousness was made famous by Cervantes.  It was Don Quixote’s favorite work, and its inspiration is everywhere to be seen in the novel of which the deluded old hidalgo is the eponymous hero.  In other words, it was for readers in the sixteenth century the apogee of the fantastic and the fictional.  Keats, when he seeks to memorialize a supreme encounter with the literary imagination, invokes as a parallel an imagined historical event in the record  of European discoveries.  Bernal Diaz del Castillo, when he wants to emphasize the transcendental nature of an actual historical event, invokes a popular work of romantic fable.  Such is the power of versatile poetry as it mediates the fascinating terrain between seeing and believing.





*Miguel León Portilla, Los antigos mexicanos a través de sus crónicas y cantares (México: Fondo de cultura económica, 5th ed, 1989).






Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Lots of Words



            Every American is born to a rich endowment which for most of us, sad to say, remains largely undervalued, ignored, and uncultivated through the course of our lives.  I refer to our native inheritance of the English language.  English is the world’s most important language.  This is not a boast or an aesthetic judgment but a simple cultural, political, and economic fact.  Since cultural, political, and economic realities change over time, this linguistic reality may change in time.  But it has held true for much longer than the lifetime of anyone reading this essay and is likely to remain true into the foreseeable future.  It is nearly criminal that so many Americans know so very little about the nature and history of this marvelous gift.  I am tempted to write a few little pieces on this topic off and on over the coming months.


            Language is more than words, but words are a good place to start an appreciation of the genius of evolved English.  To say that we have lots of them is an understatement—or even possibly litotes.  The cultural guardians of the French language have been ferocious in preserving what they regard as its purity and correctness, trying to nip in the bud incipient invasions from the likes of le week-end.  The English language, on the other hand, and especially American English, which now calls the shots, is a magpie tongue.  We have no difficutly at all with fin-de-siècle.  Sounds classy.  We beg, borrow, or steal all the words we can.  That is one reason why the English lexicon (vocabulary, word-hoard) is so much richer than the French.  This statement, too, is merely statistical.  Line up the Oxford English Dictionary and the Grand Robert side to side and you’ll see what I am talking about.


For a language to be a major borrower, it has to have neighbors who force words upon it or who have words based in things it wants or need to borrow.  That is, vocabulary growth is often the product of vigorous cultural exchange brought about by contact, be that military, missionary, or commercial.  The British Isles in the period 500 to 1500 reveal a particularly rich and complex linguistic development.  Its ancient population of Celtic-speakers was overwhelmed by Continental invaders speaking various related Germanic dialects and largely physically expelled from what we now think of as England.  A substantial Celtic-speaking population in Wales and a tiny, vestigial one in northern Scotland, remain to this day.  Cornish, another Celtic tongue, once continuous with the Breton tongue along the French western coast in Brittany, and spoken in the southwest of England, became effectively extinct in the eighteenth century.  In England itself there were in cultural competition significantly different  dialectical versions of English, with that of Wessex (what might be call the Middle Southwest of England) eventually becoming a kind of cultural standard.  


exchanging adjectives

Over several early centuries, especially in the north and in coast regions, there were repeated military migrations (that is, invasions) from bellicose people who in the history books often get lumped together as “Vikings”, who spoke various versions of Scandinavian Germanic.  The English of the north of England is to this very day replete with Scandinavian “loan words”.  From Old Norse alone we get such common words as awkward, bag, club, die, egg, flag…and so on through all the rest of the letters of the alphabet.  But English was barely being consolidated in the British Isles when a much more disastrous invasion overwhelmed the land: the Norman Conquest.  The Normans (Northmen) were yesteryear’s Vikings whose Scandinavian (Germanic) dialects had over time been overwhelmed by the French (Romance) speakers they had conquered.  The French-speaking Norman invaders of England occupied practically all the high offices of church and state, so that a comparatively small French -speaking upper-class lorded it over a much larger English-speaking lower class.  By the time this was settling out in the age of Chaucer (late fourteenth century), English was emerging triumphant, with its old Germanic vocabulary richly expanded with a huge trove of French words.  The animal that gave you wool could be a sheep or a mutton.  The sky might be blue or azure.  Thus English “naturalized” a very large number of French words while retaining their older Germanic equivalents.  There was another large infusion of new vocabulary in the Renaissance, this one engineered by scholars who invented thousands of high-brow and technical terms (much of the language of medicine, for example) on the basis of Greek and Latin models.  Shakespeare and other writers sometimes make fun of the pedantic excesses of some of these “inkhorn terms”.


Almost all cultural exchange leads to linguistic borrowing, as people encounter new foods, new geographical features, new social structures, new and different situations.  Beginning in the sixteenth century British sea power, which went practically everywhere, returned to its little island with a linguistic bonanza as copious and eclectic as the anthropological artefacts in the Pitt-Rivers museum.  British settlers in America, surrounded by a new topography, a new flora, a new fauna, and a large variety of indigenous people speaking a variety of languages that described them, developed English versions of hundreds of Indian words.  Quite similar was the experience of other English-speaking colonials in many other parts of the world.


Very soon, probably even before 1800, the structural distinctions of American English began to appear: flashy, transgressive, careless, democratic.  Americans seemed eager to apply their penchant for superlatives to their language, to press words beyond the obvious.  H. L. Mencken, author of The American Language, still a classic, has many interesting remarks on this subject.  When an Englishman made a drink composed of whisky and soda water, he called it a “Whisky and Soda.”  Really.  The same drink in America had to be at the very least a “high ball”,  with local variations.  Call it a “Cincinnati Sidewinder” if you feel the urge.  Some of our greatest unsung poets were start-up etymologists.  In the days when I taught Old English I used to give my students the following challenge.  Let’s pick a weird word from our reading in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  (One highly successful choice, I remember, was wifcuthu, a dirty word describing the activity of some uncouth chieftan when shacked up with a woman.)  The idea was simply to  start using the chosen word, in appropriate context but without further definition or explanation, in casual conversation.  The goal was to introduce and “jump start” the word into the campus vocabulary.  We often say what we hear other people saying, whether we actually know what it means or not.  When I was quite young, I wrote a Valentine for my teacher.  “Will you be my Valentine?  Can you be my concubine.”  I had no idea what a concubine was, of course; but it sounded like a great word.  Abraham, Solomon, David, and some Levite in the Bible were into concubines, so I knew it had to be all good.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Eagle Scouting

Eagles of Mercer County NJ


According to the weather experts in the press, central New Jersey recently endured a significant meteorological event.  Apparently the very low temperatures we experienced—two or three nights when the mercury got only to a few degrees Fahrenheit above zero—were the coldest in recorded history.  And recorded history is now more than a century.  I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that, but it got as cold as I can remember during the sixty years we have lived here.  The chill was very brief, however, and was swiftly followed by what seemed like premonitions of spring.  

Sandhill crane

Monday morning was indeed nearly spring-like.  I got up feeling quite perky, and while still at the breakfast table I resolved that I would do something passing for an adventure to celebrate—take a walk down to the lake along the pleached paths in the backwoods rather than what in the cold has become my humdrum normal route, mostly on macadam and concrete sidewalks of the side of our house facing civilization.  What Joan had been reading aloud over the cream of wheat was a charming op-ed essay by the Nashville columnist Margaret Renkl, wearing her naturalist rather than her political hat, about her visit to an Alabama nature reserve where large flocks of Sandhill cranes were beginning to break up and start North.  This brought to my mind our own local avian celebrities, a mated pair of bald eagles, although I knew that actually searching for them was a fool’s errand.  They are still in the general area, but they moved on from our lakeside tree about two years ago.  I know that I am deceiving myself when I pretend that I might be seeing them in very distant circling turkey vultures; but so much of the best in life rests on self-deception.  So I walked down to the lake, and a fair way along the riparian path, full of manufactured expectation.  It was sunny, and in the occasional open patch where protracted sunlight could do its work,even warm.  There were very few birds of even the commonest species in sight, though a fair amount of (to me) unidentifiable song came to my ears from the distant bare trees beyond my sight-line.  What I discovered , rather to my alarm, was that masses of daffodils, many of them the offspring of my own lakeside plantings,  were trying to show, and some crocuses were already out.  It is too early for this by the old norms.  Late February will almost certainly feature more deep chill.  I doubt that daffodils will be killed, but their eventual appearance could be weakened.


            I have a particular yen for “our eagle”, who for all I know is by now OurEagle 2.0. or higher.  Many years ago this eagle used to make occasional visits to a dying tree at the extreme bottom of our own back yard.  On occasion we would see him perched there near its top , but he was frequently first drawn to our attention by audio-visuals of a thrilling kind.  Sitting in our glass-walled sitting room we would sometimes hear the distinctive whoosing of his huge wings circling the house.  On sunny days the huge shadow of those same wings would flash like an intermittent  visual Morse code across the lawn and even the living room walls.  He seemed to check us out before every visit.  One morning when I went into the yard early I was astonished to see, about ten yards into the lawn, a very large and heavy fish.  Here was piscatorial mystery.  The fish had been decapitated neatly by some sharp blade held by a human hand, but it had not been gutted.  It had to have been the prize catch of some fisherman at the lake docks or canal lock, and snatched from an unattended hamper and transported here by the eagle.  Why the eagle  had to drop it is guess work.  As I say, the fish was quite heavy, but these birds are powerful.  I want think it had been intentionally dropped by eagle, a fisherman’s house gift for an old friend.  Lox!  Imagine that, a Jewish eagle.  For a mad moment I considered making it my breakfast, but unfortunately the fish looked almost as old as the friend.   In one of the passages I remember most vividly from Audubon, he describes his patient but productive espionage session in the clefts of the rock walls encasing the Ohio River trying to spy out a nesting pair of eagles.  Patience paid off.  After a long wait, he spotted a magnificent parent bird, obviously headed for a nest with young out of his peeping sight.  There was a large, whole fish impaled in its talons.


            Yet not seeing much bird life, and certainly no eagles, indirectly expanded my knowledge of the species of the Sandhill crane.  Ms. Renkl’s essay was strong on lyrical interpretation.  She is a fine writer.  But we got a lot more ornithological substance in a phone conversation with our son Richard.  Rich is an amazing bird guy—I mean, seriously.  According to some actual official record kept by some actual recognized official, Rich is the Number Two birder in Brooklyn.  This achievement is quite impressive to his parents.  Yes, I know that the “Second Prize in a Beauty Contest” is an embarrassment in Monopoly, and its ten bucks an insult.  And yes, I know, Julius Caesar said that he would rather be the Number One guy in Aups than the Number Two guy in Rome.  (Aups is an obscure village in Aquitania—today roughly the south of France, and one of the tres partes into which Caesar famously declared that Omnia Gallia divisa est.)   Aups was even more obscure two thousand years ago, when Julius passed through.  But I’m not talking about little places like Aups or ancient Rome.  I am talking about Brooklyn, population two-and-half million!



            Richard told us that the persistent changes in our weather patterns are already beginning to be reflected in our fauna no less than in our flora.  Among the species which are pushing eastward and northward are the Sandhills.  Their natural habitat is the freshwater marsh, and their greatest parade grounds are still on the Platte River in Nebraska, where their great show—around half a million of them—is usually in March.  But Rich tells us that there are now many reports of Sandhill colonies in the mid-Atlantic states, including New Jersey.  We still have quite a bit of wetland that hasn’t been blacktopped, though it’s going fast.  So it is conceivable that Ms. Renkl may someday have to start traveling north rather than south to find the huge flocks.  Who knows?  Now if we could only come up with even one mating pair of Passenger Pigeons…