Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My Week With Conrad

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

            Last week we drove to New Haven, where we became part of a small, surprise dinner party honoring a close friend on his seventy-fifth birthday.  The memorable meal,  featuring succulent chicken and lamb, was supplied by a restaurateur-caterer with a mobile barbecue pit towed behind his SUV.  We had a great time, spent the night with our friends, and made a leisurely start on the return drive next morning.  But I am an inveterate early morning riser and, as usual when I am an overnight guest in someone’s home, I found myself with a good two or three predawn hours on my own.  I addressed them in the usual manner, by taking an interesting-looking title from a shelf of books: an anthology of spy stories.

            In this anthology were two pieces I had already read, and now reread with pleasure, by two authors I hold in the highest esteem: sections from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) and Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down (1966).  Both of those books deal with revolutionary terrorism and police repression in pre-Revolutionary Russia.  West’s explicitly fictionalizes one of the most extraordinary facts in the history of espionage: the fact that a double agent named Yevno Azef was at the same time an organizer of social-revolutionary terror against the Czarist regime and a highly placed counter-terror agent of the Okhrana, the Czarist secret police.

            The effect of this early morning reading was the typical effect of most good reading: I wanted to do more of it.  Without attempting any description of my circuitous mental processes, I shall go immediately to their product.  I returned to Princeton determined to take up one of the few important Conrad novels I had never broached—Under Western Eyes (1911)—and I did so at the first convenient moment.  I have had a delighted several days.  It has been a while since I was reading something so pleasurable that I felt the need to ration the reading, as one might the eating of a fine piece of chocolate, lest I too quickly finish it.

            People have reading habits just as they have habits of other kinds.   I once had a friend whose mode of reading a novel I found most peculiar, especially since he had been an English major in college.  His principal aim, so far as I could tell, was to read the book as fast as possible.  His first move was to ascertain the number of pages.  He would then make a silent and tentative commitment to the first five percent of it—for a four-hundred-page book the first twenty pages.  At that point he had another chance.  He could either chuck the project or make a solemn commitment to finish it to the last page.  The arrangement was sort of like that of the religious novice under provisional vows faced at a certain point with the awesome choice of accepting or declining a life commitment.  But even when committed to a whole novel he allowed himself a major time-saving reading practice.  He would skip all parts “between quotation marks”—that is, all directly reported speech.  He reckoned that in general dialogue did very little to advance narrative.

            In the edition I own--the collected edition of the 1920s-- Under Western Eyes is 380-pages long; but if I applied to it the “quotation marks canon” it would instantly become a longish short story.  It is absolutely full of Russian revolutionaries and sentimentalists, and although they do enough to keep a plot of sorts going, what they mainly do is talk…and talk some more.  “In this book,” Conrad wrote to his friend Edward Garnett, husband of the famous translator of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, “I am concerned with nothing but ideas, to the exclusion of everything else.”  The ideas are thick on the ground, and major characters are tireless in enunciating them.  The unfortunately unreliable narrator is an ex-pat Brit in Geneva, where there may have been a few native-born Swiss people in residence at the fin de siècle, though it seems unlikely.  This man, a hell of a talker himself, is a “professor of languages” like me, except much more in demand, because most of the talkers wouldn’t dream of attending the salon of Madame de S---- without at a minimum perfect English, French, German, and Russian under their epiglottises.  (The book itself, fortunately, stays mainly in the impressive English of its Polish author.)  As the title might imply, a major theme of the book is the difficult if not impossible challenge presented to the “western” liberal mind by the opulent barbarism of Czarist autocracy.  A popular book of my Cold War youth was entitled Why They Behave Like Russians.  Its author must have been a reader of Conrad.

            When Conrad published Under Western Eyes in 1911 readers likely brought to mind the pseudo- or semi-revolution of 1905; but from a slightly later perspective it is likely to seem prescient with regard to the Bolshevik coup of 1917 and the huge cataclysm of the Great War of which it was an episode.  Just at this moment certain aspects seem quite contemporary.  When we speak of the “timelessness” of a fine book it is rarely because we think it free of time’s bonds, but because those bonds seem to become ever more elastic.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Origen of Alexandria

            We had an excellent though more than usually exhausting Easter Festival.  The beautiful, protracted Vigil service began in the dark of night and ended with dawn fully broken on a day that would prove so hot and sunny that we actually had to make recourse to the air conditioning for the first time this year.  Soon after a delicious breakfast of crêpes prepared by daughter-in-law Melanie we unleashed the two littlest ones into the back garden is search of the sixty eggs—a third of which were real eggs--that I had “hidden” while their backs were turned.  The ‘teenagers have miraculously transformed from egg-hunters to child-watchers.  There is no joy more genuine than that of a young child discovering a puce plastic ovoid resting in a hammock.  The day held all the pleasures and awkward moments of large, multi-generational family gatherings attended by people of differing but definite opinions, and we fell into bed happy but dead tired.

            In the midst of this I had effectively suppressed all niggling thoughts of the imminence of blog day--given it not a thought.  I therefore was inclined to regard it as divine intervention when on Monday I was surprised in my electronic in-box by a message from a fellow medievalist and occasional correspondent, Manu Radhakrishnan, recently of Princeton and now a research fellow at the Austrian Institute for Medieval Research, including an interesting poem and an interesting suggestion concerning it.  The poem, by the well-known American Cistercian monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is entitled “Origen”*; the surprising suggestion was that I might write a blog essay about it.  I don’t know all that much about Origen, an early Church father (first half of the third century).  I know maybe a little more about Thomas Merton, though not enough ever to have read this poem before.  But I have enough sense to attend to oracles.

Thomas Merton, monk and poet

            Origen, an Alexandrian intellectual, ascetic, and theologian, was a brilliant and original thinker.  His first enemies, the Egyptian monks, were on the whole a know-nothing bunch, heroic in their abstemiousness but innocent of liberal thought.  Origen was not merely philosophical.  He was an actual philosopher who for a time hung out with other philosophers.  This shocked some of the monks.  He also had an infinitely optimistic view of the Creator and Redeemer of the world, and hoped that in time a love that was infinite would empty hell.  That was a huge theological no-no.  In the century after his death, then at various intervals throughout the Middle Ages, small-minded men repeatedly convicted him of heresy—heresy being, in Fleming’s definition, “the side that loses”.

            Thomas Merton, though a monk of the strict Cistercian observance, was mentally more akin to Origen than to Saint Simon Stylites.  His poem is a theological appreciation of the man’s genius, and a selective history of the Church’s repeated but happily failed attempts to rid itself of him.  Most of the poet’s references would require elaborate footnotes to clarify, but one of them may already be familiar.   Merton speaks of Origen’s “heroic mistake—the wild operation”, an episode that captured the imagination of medieval readers, and rather staggers that of the modern undergraduate.  In the nineteenth chapter of the gospel of Matthew Jesus offers some tough advice to a would-be disciple seeking moral perfection: sell everything you have, and give the proceeds to the poor.  His advice concerning sex was even more unsettling than that about material possessions.  “There are those…who have made of themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of God’s sake.  Let him who can accept it, accept it.”  Origen, who wanted to minister to some nuns without falling into dangerous temptation, accepted it.  He was a great allegorist, but here he slipped painfully into literalism.

 self-making of a eunuch (Comme Origenes se osta les genitoires)

            Though the self-righteous did their best over the centuries to cleanse the world of Origen’s writings, their best was not very good.  I have in my library a small format edition of his surviving works in twenty-five volumes (Berlin, 1831-1848).  He wrote in Greek, of course, but many of his works survive only in their early Latin translations.  The particular interest of these volumes to me is that they once were the property of Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924), author of the magisterial Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages (1895), one of the great and enduring works of Victorian historical scholarship.  Bookplates record his donation of them to Ripon Hall, a major theological seminary.  I bought them for a song, or at most an oratorio, from a second-hand dealer.  Rashdall was a great expert on Greek philosophy, and a liberal Anglican theologian and social thinker of considerable influence in his time.  You can see why Origen would have been his man.  I cannot pretend to have worked my way through the vast edition of Origen, but Rashdall himself pretty clearly did so.  Nearly every page has one or two pencil underlinings, and the narrow margins are crowded with tiny, tidy pencil notes of explication, appreciation, dissent, or philological inquiry—all reminders to the modern scholar that there were once giants in the earth of Academe, giants like Origen and Rashdall.

*“Origen”, by Thomas Merton  (text courtesy of Dr. Manu Radhakrishnan)

His sin was to speak first
Among mutes. Learning
Was heresy. A great Abbot
Flung his books in the Nile.
Philosophy destroyed him.
Yet when the smoke of fallen cities
Drifted over the Roman sea
From Gaul to Sicily, Rufinus
Awake in his Italian room
Lit this mad lighthouse, beatus
Ignis amoris
, for the whole West.

All who admired him gave him names
Of gems or metals:-- “Adamant.” Jerome
Said his guts were brass;
But having started with this pretty
Word he changed, another time,
To Hatred.
And the Greeks destroyed their jewel
For “Frightful blasphemy”
Since he had said hell-fire
Would at last go out,
And all the damned repent.

(Whores, heretics,” said Bede,
Otherwise a gentle thinker.
“All the crowd of the wicked,
Even the devil with his regiments
Go free in this detestable opinion.”)

To the same hell was Origen then sent
By various pontiffs
To try the truth of his own doctrine.
Yet saints had visions of him
Saying he “did not suffer so much”:
He had “erred out of love.”
Mechtilde of Magdeburg knew him altogether pardoned
(Though this was still secret
The Curia not having been informed).

As for his heroic mistake—the wild operation
Though brusque, was admitted practical
Fornicationem efficacissime fugiens.

In the end, the medieval West
Would not renounce him. All antagonists,
Bernards and Abelards together, met in this
One madness for the sweet poison
Of compassion in this man
Who thought he heard all beings
From stars to stones, angels to elements, alive
Crying for the Redeemer with a live grief.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Ascent of Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux, nicknamed the “Giant of Provence,” is a big mountain in a part of the south of France where it seems rather out of place.  It is as though Whoever laid out the Alps later discovered there was one Alp left over and jettisoned it more or less randomly and all on its lonesome onto the inland plain above Marseille and Avignon.  No mountain ought to be where this one is, especially such a tall and imposing one.  Its name, “Windy,” is apt, as air currents swirl around its summit frequently and with significant force.  It has a considerable literary and athletic history.  In 1968 we lived in a rustic paradise on the edge of the small town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, nearby.  Ostensibly I was doing research at the Musée Calvet in Avignon, but it was the time of the Great Strike or Mini-Revolution, and we had to exercise flexibility and improvise somewhat.


The mountain’s athletic reputation is rather sinister.  At some point the organizers of the most famous bicycle race in the world, the Tour de France, deciding that their grueling event was insufficiently hellish, added a slog up Mont Ventoux to the official course.  I am not sufficiently schooled in the lore of the velodrome to tell you exactly when that was, but it was all the chatter of Vaucluse when we arrived there.  It seems that in the previous year, 1967, a well-known British cyclist named Tom Simpson had dropped dead on the steep upgrade.  A post-mortem examination suggested that ingested alcohol and amphetamine tablets had contributed to this sad result, but Ventoux itself played a major part, justifying its new appellation contrôlée of “Killer Mountain.”

There is now in situ a kind of shrine to Mr. Simpson, established by pious members of the cycling fraternity, but it is not the only, or even the most important historical memorial to famous ascenders.  At the foot of the mountain there stands (or stood) a monument erected by the Touring Club de France in honor of the famous medieval writer Francis Petrarch (1304-1374), lauded as the world’s “first alpinist”.  Petrarch, whom I love for all sorts of endearing medieval qualities, is beloved by many others for his alleged demonstration of a “modern sensibility,” one manifestation of which was his decision to climb a tall mountain just for the hell of it or, alternatively, because it was there.
Petrarch celebrating Arbor Day

Well, Petrarch did indeed write an elaborate Latin letter, addressed to his friend and confessor, the Augustinian hermit Dionysius of Borgo San Sepulchro, describing his ascent of Mont Ventoux.  It is a spiritually uplifting cock-and-bull story, though people who go for the modern sensibility part seem to be able to swallow it.  The fact that the letter’s supposed recipient was long dead at the time Petrarch wrote it is only one of several  reasons I regard it as fiction.

Petrarch’s story is the following.  He had retreated in a spirit of lay asceticism to a remote place in the Provençal sticks, the Fontaine de Vaucluse, which is in fact the source of the river Sorgue.  (This part is true).  Having decided he would climb Mont Ventoux, he began wracking his brain in search of the perfect climbing partner.  The nearest village, Malaucène, had an official population of eight, which included two old women and one lame dog, so there was not much on offer there.  (This part I made up.)  He finally remembered his brother Gherardo, a monk and a spiritual athlete: the ideal Sherpa.  Oh, yes, very important, and I almost forgot.  During the climb Petrarch will have in his pocket a small-format edition of the Confessions of Saint Augustine, given to him by friar Dionysius.  It is at this point, if not before, that the wise reader, however modern his sensibility, should tumble to the fact that Petrarch is having him on.  I don’t know whether Petrarch was the first alpinist, but he remains to this day the most allegorical alpinist.

The climb begins.  Brother Gherardo takes off up the steep path like an arrow from the bow.  Petrarch wanders around laterally for a while before eventually discovering that he has actually been descending—a good trick, when you are at the base of a mountain.  Quite clearly, in Petrarch’s epistle, progress in climbing the mountain is so closely bound up with progress in the spiritual life of ascetic practice that there is not a denarius’s worth of difference between them.  All you need to comprehend this is the feeblest vestige of medieval sensibility.  But Petrarch finally does get to the top, long awaited by his monkish brother, and looks out at the magnificent view.  To that magnificence I, who reached the summit in a Citroën Deux-Chevaux, can attest.  Petrarch then remembers the Augustine in his pocket, and opens it at random, his eyes falling by chance upon the following passage: And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.  So if you want to climb, go easy on the alcohol, and skip the amphetamines altogether. Know thyself!  Nosce teipsum. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Nice Guy Finishes First

Jim Magnuson

The years bridging the Sixties and the Seventies, which were turbulent ones on many American college campuses, were for me full of fun, adventure, and expansive experience in my role as the young master of an undergraduate residential college in my university.  Several of the students I came to know well then have become life-long friends.  But no friend of that Golden Age came to mean more to me and my family than did the writer James Magnuson, who spent part of that period in Princeton on a writing fellowship and for a time was the official “Playwright in Residence” of Wilson College.  Jim and, later, his wonderful wife Hester, then later still two splendid Magnuson offspring, have been enriching our lives for many years.  Friends so close have naturally popped up from time to time in my blog essays, but the gravity of the moment demands that I write one in which Magnuson is the subject.

For we just returned from a weekend on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin where we participated in the festivities marking Jim’s retirement from the University, where he has been the Director of the James A. Michener Center for Writers for more than two decades.  Literary fashions are fickle, and reputations fleeting.  Nonetheless almost everybody will recognize the name of James Michener (1907-1997), an extraordinarily prolific, popular, and (in the present context by no means least relevantly) financially successful writer of the post-War years.  Without him my generation would have been bereft of hearing Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin singing “Some Enchanted Evening,” but the country is even more deeply in his debt.  Mr. Michener donated many millions for several important cultural and educational endeavors.  One of these, the James A. Michener Center for Writers, has allowed the University of Texas to develop and maintain one of the nation’s premier programs for the Master of Fine Arts in Writing.

James A. Michener (1907-1997)

Money can enable a promising academic program, but it cannot achieve its success.  Success also requires vision and the rather mysterious quality of “leadership,” a thing not always boisterous or self-asserting.  Writing of the art of the great sculptor Pygmalion, Ovid dropped a wonderful line: ars adeo latet arte sua, “with his art he conceals his art.”  I deduce that Jim’s palpably effective leadership of the Michener Center has often been of the self-concealing sort.

We attended two major evening events.  At the first, an informal outdoor barbecue dinner held in the warm twilight of a Texas spring evening, a series of old students and colleagues spoke movingly about what Jim’s professional example, his generosity of spirit, his unfailing good humor, and his personal and professional wisdom had meant to a whole generation of aspiring young poets and fiction writers.  We heard more of the same at a second dinner, closer to the lines of the state banquet, where the guest list appeared to bend more in the direction of faculty colleagues and old personal and professional friends from many venues, distinguished deans, institutional trustees, benefactors and well-wishers from the amazingly rich cultural scene that is contemporary Austin.  In the testimonial remarks there was wide stylistic diversity but an underlying and unifying harmony.  An intruding alien who knew nothing about universities, writing, or writers might have mistaken the event for the culminating episode of a reality show called World’s Nicest Man.

Of course since it marked the retirement of the Director of a Writing Center, there was certain eavesdropped chatter in the room of books forthcoming, prizes runnered-up, movie contracts likely, publisher’s advances advanced, who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out.  Even in the purest of academies professional schools value professional success, of which there has been much on display at the Michener Center during the Magnuson years.  But it is only in Alice’s Wonderland that all must have prizes.  I was impressed by my brief conversations with several students unlikely to achieve authorial fame but conscious of the independent values of the study and practice of writing itself.   They cherished Magnuson for his wise and good-humored guidance, advice, encouragement and perhaps above all his example of perseverance in the hard, inglorious, sometimes tedious loyalty to the craft of writing.  As my author, Chaucer, puts it: The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne 

In his own lovely after-dinner remarks, Jim quoted a (to me) rather mysterious obiter dictum of Henry James about serious writers: "We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have.  Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.  The rest is the madness of art."  It was not the first time I have known him to invoke this gnomic gem.  Should you wish to sample Jim's own substantial body of work as a novelist over half a century, you could do worse than begin with something fairly recent, Famous Writers I Have Known (Norton, 2014).  To encourage you in this direction, I direct you to a brief radio review of the book on NPR.  In Famous Writers you will find Henry James again, and in a somewhat startling context.  At the satirical level, the book shares something of the genius of Randall Jarrell's classic academic novel Pictures from an Institution, but since it is set in a (wholly imaginary) Writing Program in Texas we learn a lot about the (probably actual) ambience in which its author labored for so many years.  It was our honor to be present at the honoring of so fine a friend, so fine a man.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Voices of the Page

Every stage of life brings new pleasures along with its new challenges, even senectitude, which on the whole is more on the challenging side.  One of the pleasures of a financially adequate retirement is that it allows us to play at a doll’s house version of being Patrons of the Arts.  We are officially designated Friends of most museums within a hundred-mile radius, and we give token financial support to numerous other cultural and educational institutions.  On Friday night we attended a local fundraiser for People and Stories/Gente y Cuentos, a group that “believes in the power of literature to change lives”—a mission statement most literature professors can get behind.

            For us this fundraiser was not hard duty.  It began with a low-key supper party given by a board member, a delightful friend who is also a superb cook, the other guests being amiable and interesting conversationalists.  Then it was off to the Nassau Club for further socializing and a reading by Richard Ford, a prize-winning author of considerable eminence, and a very nice fellow to boot.  He’s the right man for the job in more ways that one.  He has a fine southern voice, strong and audible but not domineering.  I knew about his niceness first hand, as I had a few encounters with him many years ago when he was settled in Princeton for a while.  And even though a crowded fund-raiser was hardly the occasion to puff at the embers of a tenuous acquaintance lapsed for at least three decades, I could inwardly bask in something of the satisfaction of the man in that Browning poem who “once saw Shelley plain.” 

 Richard Ford, writer and reader

            I happen to be a lover of the short story, which is naturally the genre of choice for “People and Stories,” and I had correctly anticipated that we would hear a couple of good ones.  In fact we heard precisely two: one by John Cheever, the other by Ford himself.  There was a salient connection between them.  They shared a title (“Reunion”) appropriate for their shared narrative situation and setting, a brief meeting of two men in Grand Central Station.  In Cheever the principal characters are father and son.  The narrator is Charlie, the teen-aged son, a child of divorce, who by pre-arrangement is meeting up for lunch with his long-absent father during a fortuitous layover between trains.  Ford’s story is both a beautiful homage to Cheever and a free-standing gem on its own.  And how classical, and how literary is that!   Everybody knows what “writing” is, but not everyone knows about “literature”.  Literature is artistic writing consciously engaging with other artistic writing, as Virgil engaged Homer, Dante engaged Virgil, Milton engaged Dante, and most English poets since have bobbed about in Milton’s wake.  In Ford’s “Reunion” the Grand Central encounter is a chance one between two men of middle years, their first meeting since in an indeterminate but not distant past the discovery of the Narrator’s adulterous affair with Man Two’s wife had precipitated unseemly fisticuffs, marital dissolution, and (possibly, but only possibly) increments in self-knowledge.

            There is probably general agreement that Cheever is one of the all-time great masters of the short story.  I certainly think so, even if I hold that John Updike is even greater.  It took me a while to warm to either of them.  Their cognate fictional social worlds of the East Coast bourgeoisie, as circumscribed as the world of Jane Austen and to me equally foreign, was hard for me to credit until I had absorbed a few years of encountering their offspring in Princeton classrooms and taken out my own subscription to the New Yorker.  Cheever and Updike are both gone, but not forgotten.  I have the Library of America editions of both on my shelves.

John Cheever (1912-1982)

            Many centuries ago even private reading was done aloud, and early writers sometimes call words “the voices of the page”.  Almost any good piece of writing is magnified by being read aloud.  Dramatic literature demands it.  Our literature was born in orality, the word spoken or sung, the word heard and engaged. Modern technology is perhaps returning us to a bardic culture in which recitation is scarcely subordinated to composition.  My wife, a voracious reader, does her reading mainly through earbuds.

            What happens in Cheever’s “Reunion”?  Practically nothing, and a very great deal.  A young lad who barely knows his father, yet yearns for connection to him, has a ninety-minute opportunity for connection between his trains in and out of the city.  The father will treat him to lunch.  But though they enter four different restaurants, there is no lunch.  What there is is a display of the father’s character so appalling, so awful, and so economical that the embarrassed reader learns in three pages what would require ten pages of discursus to lay out.  This is mostly achieved through the invented spoken words of one character. The mother never appears, but you intuitively grasp the essence of the marriage and the inevitability of the divorce.  You don’t even need to be told by the young narrator what in fact you are told in the story’s first and final lines: “that was the last time I saw my father.”

Though I did not remember having read Cheever’s “Reunion” before, I had a dim sense of déjà vu—or was it entendu?—while listening to Ford read.  When I went to the Internet in search of a text, I discovered a possible explanation.  There is actually a New Yorker podcast of Ford reading the story.  In fact, I take it he has made something of a set piece out of tandem public readings of the two “Reunions”.  You don’t need to take my word for it.  You can hear it for yourself.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Strings That Bind

The Takacs Quartet

I am perhaps too taken with accidental cultural congruences, and too eager to impose a nonexistent meaning upon them.  But I pass on the following anecdote for what it is worth.  The Princeton University Concerts, which under the leadership of a dynamic young woman named Marna Seltzer have in recent years reached a new level of imaginative excellence, has this season sponsored an extraordinary treat for local music lovers.  The Concert Committee brought to our community the superb Takacs String Quartet, who gave public performances of all of the Beethoven quartets.  I had to miss a few, but I was at the final two sessions last week to hear five of them—an extraordinary experience.

About the same time I quite accidentally re-encountered in my reading an old acquaintance, Joseph Blanco White (1775-1841), author of a poem now hardly known but highly praised in its day.  Coleridge is supposed to have said that it was the finest sonnet in our tongue.

Mysterious Night! when our first parent knew
Thee from report divine, and heard thy name,
Did he not tremble for this lovely frame,
This glorious canopy of light and blue?
Yet 'neath a curtain of translucent dew,
Bathed in the rays of the great setting flame,
Hesperus with the host of heaven came,
And lo! Creation widened in man's view.
Who could have thought such darkness lay concealed
Within thy beams, O Sun! or who could find,
Whilst fly and leaf and insect stood revealed,
That to such countless orbs thou mad'st us blind!
Why do we then shun Death with anxious strife?
If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?


 Joseph Blanco White
         Now this man Blanco White was quite remarkable.  He had been born in Seville in 1775 and raised in a Hiberno-Spanish enclave of persecuted Irish Roman Catholic exiles.  His mercantile father, whose surname was White, added the Castilian doublet.  The brilliant son Joseph, or José Maria, was raised as a Spaniard.  The Church offered the best chance to pursue education, and he became a priest.  However, he inwardly revolted against the stultifying neo-Scholasticism and ignorant authoritarianism of Iberian Catholicism as typified by the Inquisition.  Along with a few free-thinking clerical friends, he had gained access to some forbidden books by French Enlightenment writers.  When opportunity arose (in the chaos of the Napoleonic invasions and Peninsular War) he fled to England in 1810.

            In England Blanco White became an object of sympathetic fascination, a man whose exotic background, intellectual abilities, and personal amiability alike won him influential friends and patrons.  He slowly came to embrace Anglicanism in a minimalist, nearly Unitarian form, and he was invited into the conclaves of the learned.  In particular, he was taken into the senior common room of Oriel College, Oxford, where he never felt at home but became friends with several of the intellectual movers and shakers of the age.  Most importantly, perhaps, he became intimate with Richard Whately, the logician.  Whately eventually became the (Anglican) archbishop of Dublin, meaning that Blanco White could return to the homeland of his Romanist forebears as a Protestant chaplain!  He eventually lapsed, or perhaps relapsed, into effective agnosticism, and repented of whatever mild claims for “Transcendence” might be lurking in his famous sonnet “To Night”.

            Now Oriel College, in the 1830s, was the chief seedbed of the Oxford Movement (sometimes called the Catholic Revival) in the Church of England.   The Established Church of the eighteenth century has been characterized as “the Tory Party at prayer” and “an admirable extension of the Police Force”.  The Oxford Movement effectively shifted the Church’s center of gravity in the direction of a recovered pre-Reformation sacramentalism and liturgical seriousness and away from evangelicalism on the one hand and mere civil religion on the other.

               Blanco White met Whately at Oriel, but his greatest friend there (for a while) was the young John Henry Newman, later (1879) “Cardinal” Newman, and later still (2010) the “Blessed” J. H. Newman.  Another close associate was Thomas Mozley, Newman’s one-time student and intimate friend, who late in his life published Reminiscences, Chiefly of Oriel, and the Oxford Movement (1882), wherein I discovered the following fascinating information.  Blanco White was a keen violinist and an enthusiast for Beethoven, who had died only in 1827.  Newman had played the violin since he was a boy.  According to Mozley “Blanco White would seem to have thoroughly initiated Mr. Newman into the mysteries of Beethoven.”  Before Newman converted to Rome, he converted to Bonn.

 John Henry Cardinal Newman (portrait by Millais)

               Mozley continues: “…but one person, I remember, played Beethoven as no one else, Blanco White. I don't know how he learned the violin, but he would seem to have inherited a tradition as to the method of playing him [Beethoven]….Night after night anyone walking in the silence of Merton Lane might hear his continual attempts to surmount some little difficulty, returning to it again and again like Philomel to her vain regrets….”  With Reinagle, an Oxford musician, “Newman and Blanco White had frequent trios at the latter's lodgings, where I was all the audience.... Most interesting was it to contrast Blanco White's excited and indeed agitated countenance with Newman's sphinx-like immobility, as the latter drew long rich notes with a steady hand."  Thus for a season Beethoven joined in concert the most famous  Roman Catholic convert in England with its most celebrated apostate.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Purgatory Postponed

            Yesterday, before the Northeast Corridor shut down quailing in anticipation of a major blizzard, I was supposed to teach the second scheduled class in a six-week course on the Purgatorio of Dante Alighieri.  I shall hope to be able to get around to that next week. The venue is the Evergreen Forum, which is an admirable local “continuing education” institution encouraged by the Princeton Senior Center and mainly organized by highly competent volunteers.  My less reverent name is “Geezer College,” as most of the students are approaching my own age, and a few have already reached it.  Though it has courses—indeed an impressive array of them—it is a college without degrees or credits.

            Dante’s Divine Comedy is indispensable but not easy.  The meaning of divine in the title is theological.  As for comedy, that is an obsolete literary term for a narrative depicting a happy triumph over difficult and dangerous circumstances.  Of the more usual modern sense of absurdity or risibility there is little in Dante; but he does tell the story of a man who starts out in danger, fear, darkness and ignorance and ends up enlightened in awesome joy and a sea of dazzling photons.

            The poem’s structure is careful.  It has three long sections of roughly equal length devoted to the “kingdoms” of hell, purgatory, and heaven.  These sections are called in Italian cantiche (singular cantica).  Each cantica is divided into smaller divisions called cantos, averaging about a hundred and forty lines each.  The total number of cantos is 100: 34 in Inferno, 33 each in Purgatorio and Paradiso.  If we regard the very first canto as a kind of general introduction to the whole poem, a plausible accommodation, you find a wonderful tidiness of both trinitarian and centuple structure.

            I am often asked to identify my “favorite” cantica.  Certainly the Inferno is easiest of approach.  It is the logical place to begin the poem and by far the best known part among the general educatied population.  I am actually of the opinion that the three cantiche ascend in greatness as the pilgrim-narrator himself ascends.  Moral aspiration is often talked about in medieval texts in terms of a tripartite hierarchy.  Think of the “three lives” as personified in Piers Plowman: Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best.  That would mean that Paradiso is the “greatest,” but it still might not answer the question about “favorite”.

            Oversimplifying madly I think of the distinctive genius of the Inferno to be its geographies, that of Purgatorio its people, and that of Paradiso its ideas; but that is probably a personal idiosyncrasy.  Physical setting, human character, and extraordinary ideas are everywhere throughout the whole poem.  There is, however, one way in which the Purgatorio is imaginatively distinctive.  The descent into the Underworld is one of the “conventions” of the classical epic.  Even if Dante had not amazed us by importing Virgil as the second or third most important character in the Commedia, there’s plenty of textual evidence that the sixth book of the Aeneid (in which the hero visits the underworld) was ever in the Italian poet’s mind as he wrote.  Furthermore, visions of Heaven, though not quite a dime a dozen, are very common in Christian monastic literature, where they often derive from the “vision” of the Heavenly City in the Apocalypse, the final book of the Christian Bible.  So here, too, Dante had an established tradition to follow or to knowingly depart from.  But when it came to Purgatory, he was pretty much flying solo.

            The doctrine of Purgatory is not biblical, nor did it emerge as a consensus in the early Church.  The medievalist Jacques Le Goff, in a book called The Birth of Purgatory, dates it no earlier than the late twelfth century—that is, less than a century before Dante was born.  We may regard the doctrine as a requirement of developments in high medieval theories of the penitential economy, the practical system of salvation through the sacrament of penance.  Though salvation was open to all, most human lives—with the exception of those of a few heroically saintly ascetics—were so sullied that no soul could expect to move from deathbed to the presence of God without first getting in spiritual shape in a penitential Boot Camp.  What would this look like?  Dante’s imagination never failed him.  He saw a mountain with an ascending spiral ramp, the circling of which contracted the higher the pilgrim ascended.  You might say that as things got harder, they got easier, somewhat in the fashion of a cardiac stress test.  The mountain culminated not in a sharp peak but in a small plateau—upon which rested the Garden of Eden!  Many readers are probably familiar with the painting in the cathedral at Florence in which Domenico de Michelino gives a visual rendition of the Mount of Purgatorio from the early fifteenth century.  Joni Mitchell did something similar in song nearly five hundred years later: “…and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden..."