Wednesday, August 24, 2016

American Personality Types



I am an admirer of David Brooks, one of the regular opinion writers for the New York Times.  He used to be the token “conservative” on that paper’s editorial page, but he is so disgusted with Donald Trump that he appears to have abandoned partisan representation and political advocacy altogether to become a one-man Greek chorus of generalized lamentation.  Though I frequently agree with Brooks, it is not actually his opinions that attract me.  I find there are more ideas per square column inch in one of his essays than in any other part of the paper.  Very often these are other people’s ideas—always scrupulously credited—gathered from his impressive weekly reading.  Many years ago a cynical senior colleague, anticipating my tenure review, gave me what he considered sound advice.  There are two kinds of professors, he said: those who read books and those who write books.  Neither the advice, nor the bizarre intellectual aberration in which it was based, escaped me.

            One of Brooks’s recent columns is entitled “Is Our Country as Good as Our Athletes Are? In it he confronts a widely shared and often articulated sense of “American malaise” with the outstanding success of America’s athletes in the Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro.  That our country faces repeated humiliations, that we are in economic decline, that we “don’t win anymore” are propositions central to Donald Trump’s campaign.  “Yet when you watch the Olympics, we don’t seem like some sad-sack country in terminal decline,” wrote Brooks.  “If anything, the coverage gets a little boring because we are always winning!  And the winners have such amazingly American stories and personality types (Biles, Ledecky, and, yes, Lochte).”

            Brooks’s essay was published, I believe, on August 19, by which time we knew, or could have known, some of the precise details of the  “amazingly American” personality type Ryan Lochte, the famous swimmer, exhibits.  After partying all night Lochte and some of his team-mates were returning to their billets in the Olympic Village when their cabbie stopped at a gas station to refuel.  The passengers took advantage of the pit stop to visit the toilet.  One or more of them exercised, noisily, the drunken frat-boy privilege of vandalizing bathrooms, breaking furnishings, and peeing on the results.  The armed security guards at the gas station detained the incontinent revelers.  There was the matter of reparations. Much of the episode was captured on closed-circuit television.


           The account of the gas-station stop given by Lochte—perhaps one should say accounts in recognition of the considerable narrative evolution—was that he and his mates had been robbed at gunpoint by criminals dressed in police uniforms.  The gunmen had relieved the swimmers of their wallets.  This was a bald-faced lie apparently invented by Lochte but, sad to say, supported by at least some of his team-mates.  It was also a gross, injurious insult to the Brazilian hosts of the games.  That American Olympians are world-class athletes is implicit in their having been chosen from large numbers of talented competitors to represent our country.  That they should also be world-class jerks and liars is a matter of individual ethical choice deeply shameful to any, should they still exist, so old-fashioned as to think there might be more to sportsmanship than winning.

            What about the politicians who propose to be our leaders?  Are they more the political equivalents of a Simone Biles or of a Ryan Lochte?  Donald Trump is such a fabulist that one hardly knows where to begin.  He got to know Vladimir Putin “very well,” though he later had to allow he had never actually met him.  He was an apparently unique eye-witness to the festival reaction of large numbers of Muslims in Jersey City as the Twin Towers crashed to the earth.  One of Mr. Lochte’s claims was that although one of the robber-cops put a gun to his head, he refused to “comply”.   Thus did he refute Wayne La Pierre.  The real answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with an--attitude.  So far as I know Mr. Trump has not sought to exemplify his personal courage with reports of his indifference to bad guys with guns, but it is surely only a matter of time.


            However, his adversary Hillary Clinton has stolen a march on him here.  By now her famous account of her dramatic arrival at Tuzla Airport in Bosnia has gained canonical status in the World Anthology of Greatest Fibs.  “I remember landing under sniper fire,” she said.  “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”  The ceremonial arrivals of famous visitors tend to attract even more elaborate video coverage than the bathrooms of Brazilian convenience stores.  What greeted Mrs. Clinton upon her arrival was a fawning welcoming committee including the obligatory schoolgirl with a bouquet of flowers.   Hillary Clinton might appropriately hang her head down, though not out of fear of sniper fire.


           Mr. Lochte eventually pleaded guilty to “over exaggeration,” but that was to misunderestimate the gravity of his offense.  He embarrassed our entire nation.  But we must get back to David Brooks’s implied question.  Are those who present themselves for presidential leadership as good as the athletes who present themselves as our representatives in sport?  One has to give the nod to the athletes.  Only some of them are liars.

           

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ralph Freedman


 Ralph Freedman (1920-2016)

           This week I have had to take time out from my garden, my heat-prostration, my grandchildren, my Netflix, and my scheduled writing to work on a “memorial minute” or short obituary essay about my recently deceased colleague, Ralph Freedman (1920-2016).  It is the custom of our faculty, and the faculties of many institutions, to remember our defunct colleagues in such fashion; and a fine custom it is.  Contemporary American culture is awash in cheap fame, celebrity, notoriety, and vulgar adulation.  It scrimps on respect for genuine cultural achievement and  licit admiration for the stewards of our spiritual treasury.

            Ralph Freedman was one of those stewards.  I did not know him particularly well.  We were friendly colleagues, certainly, but not close friends.  He deserves a better Boswell, but fell victim to his own longevity.  Stately old institutions, which may seem to the outside observer to move at the gait of exhausted turtles, actually move apace.  Since Ralph retired about thirty years ago, there are not many people around here who knew him personally.  Am I alone left to tell the tale?  He was one of the three original members of our Department of Comparative Literature.  The others were its founder Robert Fagles (d. 2008), the eminent translator of Homer, and Joseph Frank (d. 2013), the biographer of Dostoevsky.  I was already a professor of English when in the ‘Seventies I, with others, was invited to a shared appointment.  Ralph told me I had the one essential for success: a surname beginning with the letter F!

            I had my doubts about the solidity of the idea of “comparative” literature.  One cynical definition of “interdisciplinary studies” was “an English professor with a slide projector.”  In like manner I sometimes thought that a “comparatist” was a French professor who having read all of Balzac had read some Dickens as well.  But medieval European literature was radically “comparative” in a different way, and the new department offered me new teaching opportunities.  Medieval vernacular literature has the character of an iceberg.  Its submerged base, international Latin culture, is almost always as important as what rises into view.  Medieval literary education, the aim of which was to teach young boys to read, write, and declaim Latin, was rigorous, prescriptive, and fundamentally unchanging over long centuries.  When the national languages of Europe eventually emerged as possible vehicles of “serious” literary expression, a writer was likely to be self-conscious about choosing to use one.  Dante, whose Divine Comedy was a major step in the creation of the Italian literary language, wrote a whole book in defense of the vernacular language, but wrote it in Latin.  Chaucer, who appeared on the scene at a time when many conservative English aristocrats still operated in a French-speaking world, had quite consciously to decide whether to write in Latin, French, or English.  He also knew Italian literature to an impressive degree.

            So “comparatism” made sense to me as a medievalist.  Later I would come to appreciate the survival of a similar, quasi-medieval linguistic cosmopolitanism among my new modernist associates.  Professional colleagues come to know each other very well, and then again they may hardly know each other at all.  I knew Ralph as a cosmopolitan and polyglot expert in European Romanticism, with particularly impressive command of its German roots.  One does not too frequently hear Hölderlin cited on the question of academic calendars, but it is memorable when it happens.  I knew him—how to put this delicately?--as a charmingly flustered and challenged administrator of the graduate program, a man who almost seemed to revel in the faintly facetious stereotype of the absent-minded professor.   I was vaguely aware that he had had an “adventurous” youth, but only now, after his death, did I learn just how adventurous.  He was raised in Hamburg in a Jewish family that faced, and miraculously survived, the deadly hostility of the Nazi regime.  At nineteen he made his way to England.  This was in 1939, and just in the nick to time.  It is hard enough to be a writer at all.  Fate now decreed that he would have to write in English, though all that for a time was pushed aside by emergent occasion.  He soon made it across the North Atlantic despite the U-boats.  He began college at the University of Washington, became an American, became a front-line soldier in North Africa, in Sicily, and in the Italian push, became an intelligence “asset” in post-War Austria—the background to one of his two published novels.  He studied philosophy as a graduate student at Brown before landing in the graduate program in Comparative Literature at Yale.  His doctoral dissertation there would eventually lead to a study that can rightly be called famous: The Lyrical Novel.  He would go on to write numerous other important books, including well-received biographies of two giants of modern German literature, Rilke and Hesse.

            One should insult no man by suggesting that his bibliography is his life, but in an academic context it would be wrong to pass over its distinction.  He moved to Atlanta after leaving Princeton, and I saw him only once in the last three decades.  He told me he was considering writing up his memoirs, and I learned from some of the newspaper obituaries that he was in the process of doing so at the time of his death.  I hope they were left in publishable form.  He certainly deserves a better biographer than I, though my own most recent days are all the richer for the intentional remembering of him.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Rue Monsieur le Prince





I am a great admirer of Arthur Koestler, by which I mean the man’s writings rather than the man himself.  I consider him to be one of the major intellects of the last century, as well as one which exemplifies in a striking fashion modernity’s quest to preserve some space for immateriality and even transcendence in a world in which traditional religious belief has for so many intellectuals become impossible.  Several of his books seem to pursue this project, but especially The Roots of Coincidence (1972).  “Hard” scientists have been rather hard on this work; but to those who continue to believe that man does not live by bread alone, it is full of interest.

As for me, I continue to be struck by the number of “coincidences” or Jungian “synchronicities” that I run into in life.  Boethius long ago persuaded me that there is no such thing as chance, if by chance is meant an effect that has no cause.  This week’s essay begins with a confession: I am a lover of ghost stories.  It then moves on to an anecdote.  While my son Luke was visiting recently, we snuck away to one of our “secret” bookstores in south Jersey where I indulged myself in the transgression of a single purchase: an anthology previously unknown to me entitled Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural, compiled by Marvin Kaye.  Its table of contents is enough to remind one that the genre has been dear to many great writers, and that Koestler’s obsession with the uncanny had deep Victorian roots.

            There is in the Latin Quarter in Paris a small street, probably a quarter of a mile long, approximately linking the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Boulevard Saint-Michel.  Its charming name is the rue Monsieur le Prince, a reminder of the ancient mansion of the princes of Condé, a cadet branch of the reigning Bourbons, which once rose there in all its magnificence.

 an early Monsieur le Prince himself

For a few frigid weeks in the winter of 1962-1963 my wife and I lived in a cheap hotel in the rue Monsieur le Prince.  This was your grandmother’s Paris.  Cheap hotels were part of its still post-war dowdiness.  Richard Wright, who lived in the street immediately following the war, has written about it somewhere.  I went off each day to the (old) Bibliothèque Nationale where I consulted medieval manuscripts and kept warm.  First impressions being lasting, the “old” rue Monsieur le Prince will always be my “old” Paris.  We have good friends who live just on the other side of the Luxembourg Gardens, so I occasionally passed by the street over the years; but my next real visit was in 2010.  My daughter has just collected a prize and delivered a lecture at the Sorbonne.  I was included in the celebrative dinner following the event, the venue for which was a fancy restaurant in the rue Monsieur le Prince.  Everything in the rue Monsieur le Prince was now fancy—including your grandmother if she could afford to live there.  I sat next to the head honcho of the University of Coimbra in Portugal, and we talked about Luis de Camões.

By now it is over sixty years since my first visit to the rue Monsieur le Prince and more than five since my last visit.  Fanatical readers of this blog, should there be a couple, might remember that six weeks ago I wrote a piece about the oddball British architect Bligh Bond, a man who believed that fifteenth-century monks were communicating to him through the automatic writing of a spiritualist intermediary.  I included the information that Bond’s friend, the great American architect Ralph Adams Cram, believed every word of it.  Well, Cram happens to be a person who has had a significant influence on my cultural development.  His works on the Middle Ages—and in particular a beautiful little book called Walled Towns—infused in me a rather romantic and Chestertonian vision of medieval Europe that I eventually came to reject, but only long after it had hooked me on my life’s work.  Cram was a man of parts—architect, art historian, theologian, and upper-crust bon vivant.  I knew that he was also a “creative” writer, though I knew little of his creations.  I was unaware, for example, that in 1895, Cram published in Chicago a half a dozen tales of the supernatural under the title Black Spirits and White.  No less an authority than H. P. Lovecraft, in his influential essay on “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” had high praise for one of his stories.  In ‘The Dead Valley’ the eminent architect and mediaevalist Ralph Adams Cram achieves a memorably potent degree of vague regional horror through subtleties of atmosphere and description”.  But the story included in my new anthology is a different one: “No. 252 rue M. Le Prince”!

Despite the fact that a street so short as Monsieur le Prince is most unlikely to have addresses in the two hundreds, Cram’s narrator did spend one night in one of them in 1886.  That turned out to be enough.  Cram’s story is of the sub-genre “Things That Go Bump in the Night”.  One should never give away the whole plot of a supernatural tale, but I feel justified in giving you its flavor.  Suddenly a wet, icy mouth, like that of a dead cuttle-fish, shapeless, jelly-like, fell over mine.  The horror began slowly to draw my life from me, but, as enormous and shuddering folds of palpitating jelly swept sinuously around me, my will came back, my body awoke with the reaction of final fear, and I closed with the nameless death that enfolded me.  You get the picture.  And I got my third visit to the rue Monsieur le Prince.


R. A. Cram at the door of his private Gothic chapel in Sudbury MA

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Agricola Suburbanus




Despite all the annoying Turnpike Exit jokes, they call New Jersey the “Garden State” for a very good reason, the reason being the rich fertility of its soils.  Most people don’t think of the state as a particularly fluvial place, but in fact it is a network of medium and small waterways that have for eons been banking up flood plains obviously designed by God to be truck gardens.  The divine plan has not yet been entirely frustrated by “developers” hawking macmansions—only mostly frustrated.

            In my back garden the vegetables are on the march as though in audition for important roles in a Stephen King novel.  The tomatoes, somewhat stunted by a premature heat wave as they were being put in, are only now beginning to ripen.  Very few are presenting themselves as early candidates for even a red ribbon, but they do promise succulence.  The other ingredients of the ratatouille, however, and especially the squash, are astonishing in their profusion and in the speed with which the fruits appear and expand.  I put in two kinds, an ordinary green zucchini, and a yellow “summer” squash (both cucurbita pepo).  I always forget just how large these plants grow in rich soil, so that I now have considerable trouble treading among them to gather the harvest.  This must be done on a daily basis to get them at their young and tender best.  I will now also be harvesting the green peppers (capsicum anuum) and eggplant (solanum melongena) on more or less the same principle.


            Fruiting is all about the sexual reproduction of the plants, which in squash is done in a particularly spendthrift fashion, with each individual vine producing enough seed-filled fruit to produce, with agricultural help, a thousand offspring.  But agricultural intervention can arise from differing motives—as suggested by our phrase “nipped in the bud”.  We have only recently discovered just how delicious is the squash flower, very lightly battered and delicately sautéed: squash family planning with a gastronomic reward.  Of course every form of the squash is delicious—roasted, grilled, baked in casserole, blended into a scrumptious soup.  My young neighbor Anna, a high school sophomore, shared with me her great recipe for zucchini bread—if you can called a baked good with two cups of sugar in it anything but “cake,” that is.

            One of the peculiarities of this year’s growing season has been the combination of extremely hot, dry periods, and occasional downpours.  We got a real sousing on Saturday afternoon, when at least five inches of rain fell over a period of about three hours.  There were the usual phenomena of flash flooding in these parts—roads under water, cars drowned in underpasses, popping manhole lids, and the intermittent collapse of various parts of the electrical grid.  Wind had blown the metal cover off the top of our fireplace chimney, so that we got a gallon or two of sooty water oozing into the living room; but we were on the spot and combatted it successfully.  Later I received an email from the University Librarian with the alarming news that my office, which is in the library, was inundated, with a so-far undetermined loss of books and papers.  I went over and checked the office out the next day, but it was practically empty, most of the books having been removed to a special drying room (which sounded good) and the most badly damaged to “Conservation” (which didn’t).

I suspect the aberrant rainfall pattern accounts for the very poor performance of the wild raspberries this year.  We still have many jars of last year’s jam.  This year I haven’t been able to beat the birds to enough berries to make a single pie.  I went out for a final try just before dinner the day after the big rain.  There is an historically rich spot across the street, not fifty yards from my front door.  I thrashed about long enough to get wet and scratched before giving up.

What you lose on the roundabouts you make up for on the straightaways.  Returning the short distance from the berry canes empty handed, my pessimism confirmed, I had to cross before reaching the street a patch of moist greensward.   The grass, over which the University’s mowing machines had passed but a few days ago, was already in need of cutting once again.  In this grass I stumbled upon a scattering of small white blobs, so insignificant that I spotted them only when I was walking among them.  It was a colony of infant field mushrooms (agaricus campestris).  About half were still in the button stage.  Those that had opened had caps about the diameter of a nickel and the thickness of a dime.  Their gills, which in older specimens would have been a rich dark brown, were still a pastel pink.  They had probably sprung up that very dawn following the drenching.  Joan was just about to prepare the first course: sautéed zucchini flowers.  I was just in time to add the baby field mushrooms, fresh and fresher.  A great combination, for which I intend to file a patent.




Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Summer Visitors


two visiting grandchildren

The best part of the summer is rapidly approaching, the part during which the five youngest of our grandchildren are likely to be about the grandparental homestead, sometimes en masse and sometimes in discrete family groups.  The brevity of their infancy is underscored by the fact that our eldest grandchild, the college graduate, is now pursuing an exciting professional career on the West Coast.  This makes me especially conscious of the wonder of young childhood, and especially eager to attend it, to pay close attention to it, as it unrolls before my wondering eyes.  Of the many palpable blessings of retirement none is more prominent than its attendant emancipation from the awareness of having to make a living, the goad to “getting ahead,” whatever that absurd phrase might actually mean.

Just at this moment the two Montréalers, as we call them, are briefly with us.  They are actually on their way to South Carolina and their maternal grandparents.  They will travel with their mother, while their Dad, our son Luke, hangs out with us for a week and luxuriates in the anthropology holdings of the Firestone Library of Princeton University.  Then we’ll see the kids again for a day or two on their way back home.  By then our two “Washington Squarers” will also be here.  We hope, too, that a fifth, Ruby the Brooklynite, also somewhat daringly known as the Red Hooker, will be able to make an appearance during that time.

Though it has been a relatively brief time since we saw the Montréalers, the signs of their mental and physical growth are dramatic.  Hazel turned two fairly recently, just about the time I was turning eighty.  However I have not been able to observe the terribleness of her twoness, so much spoken of by her parents.  (The awfulness of eightyness is another matter, and on prominent display daily).  Her verbal skills have improved dramatically in the brief period of a couple of months, and to her increasing mastery of the spoken word she is adding a certain prowess in bel canto.  At her play-group she has been strangely indoctrinated by her Filipina minders, so that she arrived here burbling out a quite recognizable version of  “O, Canada!”.  Those are the only two words of the anthem she has so far mastered, and this means that she and her grandfather are at exactly the same level.  However, I am apparently wrong in believing that its tune is identical with that of “O Tannenbaum…”  She reacts adversely to my attempts without, however, being able to supply me with more positive guidance.  Her elder brother, John Henry, only days away from his fourth birthday, is now quite the lad.  He has a delightful temperament (most of the time) and a distinctive sense of style that manifests itself in a sailcloth fedora hat and a penchant for really bad Knock-Knock jokes—not that I wish to imply the possibility of a good Knock-Knock joke.  He now talks a blue streak, and in his conversation one finds many intimations of his two professorial parents.  Just the other day he correctly used the subjunctive in an introductory contrary-to-fact clause: “If I were…”

As somebody who spent many formative years out in the deep woods of the Ozarks I think of my current suburban circumstances as pretty unexciting and conventional.  But for the young children who visit us here the back of our house, which features a dense bamboo patch and opens onto several acres of dense woodland with a pleached path leading down to a lake, the place has all the remoteness of the little house on the prairie and the exoticism of Camp Olgagaloka.  And we have the wildlife to back it up.  Deer are abundant and likely to show up anywhere—especially at the fence line of my tomato patch.  Groundhogs—identified by John Henry as beavers (more Canadian brainwashing, I presume)--prefer to be inside the fence.  But there are also innumerable squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks.  Occasionally a fox appears, holding out its tail as stiff and unmoving as a hunting dog.  There are birds galore including some interesting and brilliantly colored ones.  If you step outside you couldn’t escape birdsong even if you wanted to.  Nocturnal raccoons make a mess of the garbage bins once or twice a month, and there is the odd opossum now and again. All of these creatures are for these children potential sources of a Wordsworthian infantile delight that confirms all my deepest religious instincts.  Amazingly, perhaps, their favorites are the two box turtles—Chloë and Hector—resident among the lush woodruff and impatiens pots of our home’s internal atrium.  John Henry and Hazel look for them the first thing in the morning and say goodnight in their direction as they head off for bed.


two resident turtles having a morning swim

 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Old Latin Mafia



            It is the occupation of scholars to read widely among books and essays read by very few other people in the preparation of their own studies destined to be read by even fewer.  This is not a cynical remark, let alone a bitter one.  But it is salubrious to have something like a sound assessment of the cosmic importance of what one is doing.  I embraced such a life with enthusiasm, and I continue to pursue it even now, ten years into retirement, at my own rather leisurely pace and according to my self-indulgent timetable.  Earlier this month I sent off the completed manuscript of a book about my favorite sixteenth-century Portuguese poet, leaving me free to move on with my work on monastic Latin poetry of the post-Carolingian period.  Keep your eyes on the list of best-sellers.

            Of course I do make a gesture at keeping up with more “relevant” matters.  I read stuff in the New Yorker, and sometimes in the New York Review of Books.  I am a faithful devourer of the daily Times, and most days I read an anthology of contentious current political commentary on RealClearPolitics.com.  But the truth is that my chances of finding something of really sustaining value in these venues is not particularly high.  The odds that I will find something captivating in any random run of old scholarly journals are better by a ratio of about eight to one.  In the course of my current work I just re-discovered such a gem, an essay by Walter Ong entitled “Latin Language Study as a Renaissance Puberty Rite.”*  I last read it forty years ago.

            Walter Ong (+2003) was an American Jesuit professor expert in the history of rhetorical theory and practice, particularly in the European Renaissance, and most particularly of all in the works of Petrus Ramus, a great scholar murdered in the infamous Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August, 1572.  In his essay on the study of Latin, Ong took an anthropological approach—quite an unusual move for a literary scholar at that time.  For more than a thousand years the chief business of primary education in Europe was to teach young boys to read, write, and speak Latin with such proficiency that, as slightly older boys, they could pursue higher education in that language.  The task was herculean, and the methods employed draconian.

            The process of achieving Latin proficiency was a combination of brutal hazing ordeal, practical training, initiation rite, and bonding experience.  It was vaguely like Marine boot camp on Parris Island, only several years longer in duration.  The male youth of some Amerindian tribes were required to dangle unflinching for long periods from flesh-hooks piercing their breasts before being admitted to the hunt.  Today we are told, certain gangs of criminal youths require their candidates for admission to commit a murder.  Such was the general vibe among Latin-learners.  When they emerged proficient they were members of a select guild, an “in” group.  The ability to toss off a Latin bon mot made you one of the chaps.  In the 1840s a British military commander in India, Charles James Napier, is alleged to have informed his superiors of his successful pacification of the region of Sind with a one-word message: “Peccavi.”** You had to be one of the chaps to get it, but then they were all chaps, the battle of Waterloo having been won, after all, on the playing fields of Eton.

            One incidental point made by Ong is the necessary connection between the teaching of Latin and corporal punishment: reading and writing and ‘rithmetic, taught to the tune of a hickory stick, indeed.  Part of the standard iconography of the medieval and Renaissance classroom is the master’s rod of correction or whip made of twigs.   Ælfric of Eynsham, an English abbot and schoolmaster at the end of the tenth century, wrote a little Latin primer in the form of a dialogue between master and pupil.  About the first question the master asks is “Are you willing to be beaten in order to learn Latin?”  The answer—admittedly only qualified in its enthusiasm—is yes.  “It is better to be beaten than not to know Latin.”

            This sort of thing went on pretty well for the next millennium.  A certain scene in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I first read as a freshman in college, is seared into my memory.  The presentation of the book’s protagonist, named Stephen Daedalus, is largely autobiographical, and many details obviously recall the author’s own experience of Irish Catholic education at the end of the nineteenth century.  The reason I remember one particular scene so vividly is that its principal victim, a school-chum of Stephen’s, is named Fleming.  The scene is a classroom.   Fleming is already being punished for poor work by being forced to kneel in the middle of the classroom when the Prefect of Studies, a kind of Jesuit Inspector-General, arrives impromptu.

The door opened quietly and closed. A quick whisper ran through the class: the prefect of studies. There was an instant of dead silence and then the loud crack of a pandybat on the last desk. Stephen's heart leapt up in fear.
—Any boys want flogging here, Father Arnall? cried the prefect of studies. Any lazy idle loafers that want flogging in this class?
He came to the middle of the class and saw Fleming on his knees.
—Hoho! he cried. Who is this boy? Why is he on his knees? What is your name, boy?
—Fleming, sir.
—Hoho, Fleming! An idler of course. I can see it in your eye. Why is he on his knees, Father Arnall?
—He wrote a bad Latin theme, Father Arnall said, and he missed all the questions in grammar.
—Of course he did! cried the prefect of studies, of course he did! A born idler! I can see it in the corner of his eye.
He banged his pandybat down on the desk and cried:
—Up, Fleming! Up, my boy!
Fleming stood up slowly.
—Hold out! cried the prefect of studies.
Fleming held out his hand. The pandybat came down on it with a loud smacking sound: one, two, three, four, five, six.
—Other hand!
The pandybat came down again in six loud quick smacks.
—Kneel down! cried the prefect of studies.
Fleming knelt down, squeezing his hands under his armpits, his face contorted with pain; but Stephen knew how hard his hands were because Fleming was always rubbing rosin into them. But perhaps he was in great pain for the noise of the pandybat was terrible. Stephen's heart was beating and fluttering.
—At your work, all of you! shouted the prefect of studies. We want no lazy idle loafers here, lazy idle little schemers. At your work, I tell you. Father Dolan will be in to see you every day. Father Dolan will be in tomorrow.



Then Stephen gets similar treatment.  At the time I knew precious little Latin.  Also, I didn’t have the slightest idea what a pandybat was, though the context suggested I was better off left in ignorance.

*Studies in Philology, volume 56 (1959): 103-124.
**Peccavi means “I have sinned”.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Solace by Anecdote


For those who love their country, a group that I believe includes the majority of my compatriots, we have fallen upon hard times.  The naively patriotic celebration of the Fourth of July characteristic of my years in elementary school is a thing of the barely memorable past; but most of us nonetheless have a benign awareness of a holiday that arrives with the really hot weather and legitimates if it doesn’t actually require firing up the backyard grill.  This year, however, the associations most likely to stay in the mind are those of racial tension, racial violence, and an endless outpouring of hasty opinion, ludicrously referred to as a “conversation”, that coheres only in the utter certainty of each contributor concerning the correctness of the views expressed.

Is the nation doomed to endless racial discord?  If your perspective is that of hour-to-hour, day-to-day, week-to-week, it might well seem so.  But education, and education’s important enabler, advancing age, might suggest something more hopeful.  Among the more politically incorrect attitudes one can express on an American college campus is that in the long run things have improved dramatically and are continuing to improve even now.  The thing is, which are you going to believe: “studies” by politically partisan sociologists or your own lying eyes?  If you elect to go with your own eyes you are of course going to be dependent on the “anecdotal” evidence of your personal experience, a social-scientific no-no.  Even so, as Galileo once remarked, anecdotally, eppur si muove.  My anecdote will concern my fiftieth high school reunion, which took place quite a while ago, in 2004.

            My years of public primary and secondary education were disrupted by my father’s peripatetic work, which took him for relatively short stays over wide swaths of the South and West.  In my junior year (1952-3) the family relocated, briefly, to a small oil refinery town in East Texas.  That is where I graduated from high school, though my family had already moved on again, and I was boarded with friends.  This town had a sizable black minority, with which I had practically no contact whatsoever.  The schools were racially segregated, and the black high school, separate and palpably unequal, was out of mind as well as out of sight.  Otherwise the place was pretty much like the “Anarene” of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, though a bit larger.  I hated it, and I loved it.

I graduated in the late spring of 1954.  The date that the Supreme Court ruled in the case of “Brown vs Board of Education” was May 17, 1954, three days before my eighteenth birthday.  The issue was hotly debated among my peers, and the decision approved of by but a few.  I went off to college in Tennessee, an act already culturally transgressive.  Within months I had fallen out of correspondence with my two or three closest high-school companions, people I would have thought would remain bosom friends for life, and who under less remorseless geographical circumstances almost certainly would have.  Every “now” has its “fierce urgency,” and never more so than in the years of youth, so crowded with novelty, challenge, and opportunity, and so bereft of steadying perspective.  One thing led to another.  I went abroad for further study.  I married a foreigner.  I began a family and a career “in the East”—like Jay Gatsby!  I never returned to Texas, except much later, to give lectures in urban academic settings.  But the long reach of the Class of ’54 Planning Committee tracked me down, and I had no hesitation in signing up for the Fiftieth Reunion.  I flew to Dallas and rented a car.

I had a ball, but I want to keep the focus on the racial theme.  The town had probably doubled in size.  There was a big new high school.  I could not even find my old house or church.  I remembered many, perhaps even most of the classmates who showed up; and I was forced to contemplate the unequal ways in which age ravages men and women.  There were a couple of professionally impressive classmates.  One had been the head of the Texas Wildlife Commission.  Another was married to the former lieutenant governor of the state!  But we were as lily-white a group as we had been when we stumbled across the stage in 1954, only maybe now calla lily gray.

Public secondary education in Texas is, generally speaking, an extension of the football team.  Naturally the reunion was built around the Homecoming game, and attendance at it was naturally de rigueur.  The Reunion Class had special seating, and we were repeatedly mentioned by the announcer on the loudspeaker.  I personally was singled out as “the only Rhodes Scholar to come out of Titus County”.  The stands went wild.  I’d be being disingenuous if I denied being tickled pink.

But I want to tell you about what was happening on the field.  What was happening on the field was the home team’s largely black backfield running, passing, and punting to the enthusiastic applause of a seriously interracial crowd.  Then there was the half-time “show”: a really challenged wind section and about three dozen high-stepping majorettes in satin and sequins, though mainly leg.  I could not fail to note that many of them seemed to be Latinas.  I don’t remember much of a Hispanic population in this place fifty years ago.  That seemed to have changed.  Fifty years earlier the ne plus ultra of social success and “popularity” for high-school males was prowess on the gridiron.  For high school females it was being in the cheerleaders’ peep show.  I saw no evidence that that had changed, but a lot else had.