Wednesday, December 4, 2019
Around here it is all about “The Crown”, the terrific metonymic television series about Queen Elizabeth II recently launched into its third season. It is brilliantly made, with superb acting by many people, including conspicuously Olivia Colman as the Queen. (Claire Foy, who played the younger Elizabeth in the first two season, was also excellent.) It is fully deserving of binge treatment, and if left to myself I would have probably finished off the series in a day; but that is not my spouse’s style. The strict rationing is probably good for me, and certainly keeps Buckingham Palace in my unconscious thoughts throughout long days.
Queens au pair
This third series has a certain amount of particular interest for me. It begins with the first premiership of Harold Wilson, immediately following my own years in Oxford. I vividly remember many of the events its portrays, which are in my mind associated with the beginning years of my professional career. Furthermore Wilson himself was a Jesus College man, certainly the college’s most prominent political alumnus, and he showed up there from time to time. Also, it occurs to me that Ms. Colman somewhat resembles my mother in one of her distinctive facial expressions. This invites me to participate in all the oedipal scenes involving Prince Charles a little more authentically.
PM Harold Wilson at the site of the Aberfan disaster
My enthusiasm for this show involves a kind of inner betrayal. I have always been somewhat annoyed at the common American fascination with royalty and decayed aristocracy. The enthusiasm of the Founders of our nation for republicanism was directly proportional to their loathing of hereditary monarchy. But a decade had not passed until we were busy creating an ersatz aristocracy of our own, and we have never stopped. Think of all the seedy European bluebloods who infect the pages of Henry James novels. Lord Grantham of recent “Downton Abbey” celebrity, is presented as a sympathetic character when in fact he is a jumped-up fortune hunter on Lend-Lease life support. Once upon a time in this country Wallis Simpson was more admired by American women than Helen Keller. But still…
I once personally met the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh. I believe it must have been exactly sixty years ago, when we were all younger, and when Americans were a little rarer in Britain and consequently somewhat less despised. It was in a reception line; the Queen merely gave us a wan smile, but the Duke made a conceivably witty remark concerning the inadequacy of British heating.
As a medievalist, I have to say that English majesty has been somewhat wanting over the centuries. It is mainly downhill after King Alfred, a man of fine moral character, whom any humanist must admire for his emphasis on education. I also want to give high marks to Edward the Confessor, Henry V, Henry VIII, Elizabeth, Victoria, and George VI. Needless to say, recognition of achievement is not in every instance synonymous with approbation of moral character. But the incidence of royal mediocrity is quite high, as immortalized by Byron’s line about George III: “A better farmer ne’er brushed dew from lawn.”
It is quite odd, of course, to be watching an historical drama about people who are still alive and, if not quite kicking, at least still experiencing the motion of the molecules. The actual Crown today is in one of its periodic states of crisis. The Royals got a pretty good run out of their latest dynastic wedding, but now the bloom seems to be fading from the bush so far as Meagan Markle is concerned. It seems not to have taken her very long to have exhausted her historical role as multicultural specimen and to have discovered that Buckingham Palace is not really much fun for a Valley Girl. The Duke is ninety-eight and retiring, the Queen ninety-three and tiring; but everybody loves her to death and is understandably worried by the prospect of her moving on. Prince Charles, entering his eighth decade of humiliation, a good deal of it elective, has decided at last to engage the full force of his septuagenarian vim and vigor. Unfortunately one of the first tasks he must take in hand is sorting out his truly disgraceful younger brother Andrew. Andrew was never a really close friend of Jeffrey Epstein, he tells us in a widely viewed interview that redefined moral opacity. He seldom stayed in one of Epstein’s palatial homesteads more than three times a year. And as for the woman who insists that he repeatedly bedded her when she was seventeen years old, it is all an inexplicable fabrication. The photograph of him with his arm around her waist? Photoshopped.
Since it’s a classic he-said-she said situation, we must perhaps give him the benefit of the lout. But the fact is that she said it under oath and caution of perjury, and one is likely to arrive at a certain conclusion in pectore. The whole episode is as sordid as it can be. Its supporting co-star is Ghislaine Maxwell, tycoon’s daughter, socialite, dear friend of the Prince, best friend and lover of Jeffrey Epstein, and the most notable go-between or female pimp since Ovid’s Dipsas. Dante’s Venedico Caccianemico is pursued through the Malebolge by “horned demons armed with heavy scourges”. Ghislaine Maxwell’s pursuers are BBC reporters with microphones and video cameras. That’s part of what is called changing social mores It is no longer possible to pursue Jeffrey Epstein, hanged in his jail cell unhousele’d, disappointed, unaneled and, apparently, widely unknown. Among the cast of hundreds who barely knew him are Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Prince Philip is now under orders to keep such a low profile that, were it not for his Adam’s apple, he would have no profile at all. One of my favorite and probably spurious “quotations”—it has been attributed to many people from Gladstone to anonymous society matrons—involves a Victorian spectator’s reaction to a performance of Anthony and Cleopatra: “How very different from the home life of our own dear Queen!” So one looks forward to the television treatment of all this in season eight or ten, but in the meantime it’s a real headache for the real Crown.
Wednesday, November 27, 2019
Bergman's "Seventh Seal : Sir Antonius Block (white)-0 G. Reaper (black) +1
Among the many pleasures I anticipate for our forthcoming family Thanksgiving festival are a couple of chess games with our younger son, who is coming down from Montreal to spend a few days. I am a halfway decent chess player and he a good one. Neither of us is really good—meaning having achieved the official level of mastership; but we are fairly evenly matched—meaning that every now and then I am allowed to win. We have been playing since he was a lad and have enjoyed our contests over many years.
Life is a trip, a journey into the unknown, a pilgrimage. Life is a cabaret, my friend, also a bitch and more rarely a beach. Sometimes our poets are more discouraging yet. For Shakespeare, famously, we simply play out our lives. “All the world’s a stage,” says Jacques in As Your Like It, “
Chaucer is our first major poet to whom was can assign a name, and his first major poem, usually called the “Book of the Duchess,” is an elegy for his great lady, Blanche of Lancaster, who died of the plague in 1368. In it her sorrowing widower, John of Gaunt, is allegorized as a Black Knight. Blanche, of course, is French for “white”; so you can see where this is going. Fortune checkmates the Black Knight by capturing the knight’s queen, or fers, to use the word derived from Persian then in use by French-speakers. This is all quite incoherent, of course, since the black and white pieces are adversaries. But in none of the several surviving medieval chess books does actual chess successfully compete with moral allegory. Philidor, the father of modern chess theory in the middle of the eighteenth century, joked that his sons played chess as though it were a game of chance, the outcome of which is determined by caprice rather than by skill and strategy. That seems to be the actual operating principle of the medieval chess moralists.
chess board, Paris, Bibliothèque National, MS fr. 9197
The biggest of the medieval chess poems known to me—and I do mean big—is a French work generally called
The greatest of early American chess moralists was Benjamin Franklin. For a revolutionary, Franklin preached an awful lot of standard bourgeois morality of the “healthy, wealthy, and wise” sort that is so prominent in Poor Richard’s Almanack. Among his minor works is a sententious short essay entitled “Morals of Chess”. In it he writes thus: “The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement….For life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and evil events, that are in some degree the effects of prudence or the want of it.” Specifically, chess has four special lessons to teach. The first is foresight—anticipating the results of your moves. The second is circumspection—keeping in mind the whole arena in which you are acting. The third is being sure to play strictly by the rules, “as the game thereby becomes more the image of human life, and particularly of war.” But the fourth lesson is the most important: “We learn by chess the habit of not being discouraged by present appearances in the state of affairs, the habit of hoping for a favorable change, and that of persevering in the search for resources.” This injunction must have been particularly useful to Franklin during the Revolution and his sometimes difficult assignments as our ambassador to France. But I doubt that he ever had to try to honor it, as I had to, while being mauled by his teen-aged son.
A happy Thanksgiving to all those esteemed readers who celebrate this holiday.
*in French, naturally, but lavishly illustrated
A happy Thanksgiving to all those esteemed readers who celebrate this holiday.
*in French, naturally, but lavishly illustrated
Wednesday, November 20, 2019
I have never quite understood boredom, by which I suppose I must mean extended periods of boredom, as opposed to the fleeting experience of a bad lecture or a committee meeting. For the most part life has been a Heracletian fire, full of crackling rapid movement that has left me wondering what comes next. Even retirement itself, which I expected to devolve in some pastel monochrome, has already been punctuated by a series of vivid, not to say garish episodes—some of them, admittedly, of the sort I could do without—that have been anything but boring. No doubt this in part arises from the fact that aging makes many intrinsically simple and ordinary things rather complex and extraordinary, and consequently their achievement more notable. In the twenty-third canto of the Inferno Dante conjures up a procession of the Hypocrites. These damned souls can move only at snail’s pace, burdened down as they are with cloaks, flashy on the exterior, but actually lined with lead. Perhaps I can find a more positive analogy in the sight of some of our young college athletes in training, burdened with heavy backpacks as they run up and down the long ranks of seats in the football stadium. In any event, I feel leaden a good deal of the time. When locomotion itself becomes a kind of ordeal, simply showing up can be an adventure.
On Monday night we went to a remarkable musical event in the University chapel—a performance of Georgian folk music by the Ensemble Basiani, the Georgian State Vocal Ensemble. This was a male choir, thirteen strong, all dressed in traditional ethnic finery, sort of decorated black soutanes, over very elegant high black boots in supple leather. The singing, which included both religious and secular songs, was amazing. Only a few pieces included some kind of minimal instrumental accompaniment; the main instruments were deep, powerful male voices. Georgian folk music is characterized by a lot of orchestrated noise—shouting, clapping, and a very distinctive kind of yodeling, sometimes supplemented by dance.
But the seemingly mundane tasks of getting to and from the venue were slightly more than routine. It was, in the immortal words of Bulwer-Lytton, a dark and stormy night, fraught with possible geriatric anxieties. Driving visibility was poor; finding a parking spot demanded competition and an adrenaline flow. Triumph in that arena left us still with a bit of a walk through a cold rain. I was armed, but insufficiently; I couldn’t get my five-dollar umbrella open. Every few steps of the way we would be overtaken by lither juniors. This process was repeated in the return trip to the parking lot. Now if age is daily presenting you with an anthology of petty quotidian reminders of your incremental geezerdom, it is only fair that it offer also some contrasting compensations. It does that marvelously by giving you grandchildren. A grandchild is not simply a child at one remove, or a smaller version of their own parents. A grandchild is a unique blessing, a living symbol of vital continuity, a tolerant and ever-surprising companion, a rewarding student and so bounteous a fount of frank and uncomplicated affection, however undeserved, as to repair a souring view of human nature.
We have six grandchildren, five lovely girls and the most delightful little chap you will ever meet--all geniuses of course, all faster than a speeding bullet, each more powerful than a locomotive, and every single one able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. Furthermore, you have to bear in mind that buildings are now considerably taller than in the heyday of Superman! Admittedly, the oldest “girl” is in her mid-twenties, beautiful and brainy, and a high-powered executive in New York. But do not press me as to what, exactly, it is that she executes. It’s one of these techie “platform” things that, so far as I understand, empowers other platforms. In my mind it must be similar to Garrison Keillor’s National Organization of Organizations. What really keeps me on my toes, I just realized, is not kefir or yoga; it is grandparenthood. In a healthy familial setting grandchildren are like works of art as written about in Eliot’s great essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” They recapitulate a respected cultural inheritance while applying, modifying, and expanding it through individual personality and experience. They are teachers as well as learners.
The youngest of the grandkids, also female, has only arrived at the beginning of her schooling, though she already radiates an executive aura. Four of them live in New York, and the other two not so very much further away, in Montreal. We see the New Yorkers very frequently and the Montrealers perhaps too seldom but still not infrequently. We are rapidly coming up to Thanksgiving, which will involve the usual stuff-and-groan contest, and for a New York kid a leafy New Jersey back garden opening on a sylvan path to Lake Carnegie is as good as Camp Gitche Gumee any day. All the grandkids will be there save Lulu who on her own initiative is spending a (high school) junior semester is Marseille in order to keep up with her French. But I could feel her sitting next to me at the Basiani concert. For right in the middle of it the golden youth of the Princeton University Glee Club briefly claimed the stage (i.e., the cathedral-like chancel steps) for a couple of beautiful numbers. The talented director of this group, Gabriel Crouch, wrote thus in the Program Notes: “…[W]e’ve never come so close to a tradition which makes our own feel so…adolescent.” According to Chaucer’s Miller, an exponent of the generational war, “Youthe and elde is often at debaat.” But on Monday night youth and elde were in harmony, or at least sweet and fulfilling complement.
The ancient music of these Caucasian singers had another special balm for my geezerdom. We were sitting in the second row of the nave, which, as the first row had been left empty, was in effect the very front. I don’t know how large a Georgian expat community there is in central Jersey, but judging from the friendly personal exchanges between singers and audience members I’d say quite a few. There is a subsidiary entrance to the chapel at the chancel level on its east side. During an applause pause midway through, a group of three sodden late comers came in: a middle-aged woman, a very ancient woman in a wheelchair, and what I must describe as an ecclesiastical Gerontius. They came to the front row immediately in front of us. The man, though not in full ecclesiastical regalia, was obviously of some high order of Orthodox Christian episcopacy, in the autocephalous Church of Georgia. His beard, though not quite so long as his full-length cassock, was perfectly proportioned to it. He wore an elaborately embroidered tall, flat cap that puts to shame the one I bought in the Istanbul market. He carried a beautiful stick, half cane and half crosier, topped with a large metal ornament in a material I took to be gold. He was probably not much if at all older than I am, but he radiated the aura of Blake’s Ancient of Days. He also radiated an unfeigned “child-like” joy for the music both of his foot-stamping, hand-clapping compatriots and the sober reticence of the American teen-agers in the Glee Club. In that moment neither walking sticks nor wheel chairs seemed a very big deal.
Wednesday, November 13, 2019
Retirement is something you have to feel your way into. It took me about a decade to realize its principal point for my life: that there is precious little that I am actually obliged to do. I realize that I spent a professional career largely defined by deadlines, due dates, and the prompt appearance at duly scheduled meetings. Furthermore, I felt obliged, in order to “keep up” with my field to read a lot of poorly conceived and poorly written scholarship that dispirited rather than enlightened me. Just as I shall never have to grade another final examination, I shall never have to read another book on Queering the Quest or Questing the Queer? Artistic Obfuscation of the Sexual Subject in the “Chivalric” Poems of Reinhardt von Eisenbach. I can spend my time reading Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” which is how I spent some happy hours during the last week. Talk about multicultural! Anyway, the unfortunate feeling of pressing obligation made its unwelcome though thankfully brief return last week. This is how it came about.
Ten years ago I published a book, The Anti-Communist Manifestos, in which I studied the political and cultural impact in the United States and in France of four best-selling books of anti-Communist tendency. Probably the least known of the four—although it had been the best-selling book in America in 1941—was Out of the Night by Jan Valtin (the pseudonym of a German sailor named Richard Krebs). I hope it is not immodest to say that my book has played a role in animating a certain scholarly interest in Valtin/Krebs, a rather mysterious figure who claimed to have been a Communist espionage agent and who was accused by some enemies of being a Gestapo agent. Together with one of the leading French historians of Communism, Guillaume Bourgeois of the University of Poitiers, I had planned to help organize an international scholarly conference devoted to him. Serious illness has for the last year somewhat curtailed my activities, however, and I am unable just for the moment to travel to France to participate in my “own” conference. Bummer.
But Guillaume had the idea that I might at least be present as some kind of spectral presence on a screen; I could send a short contribution by video. In my professorial life I had naturally given video-recorded lectures many times. But always I had behind me the technical resources of a university’s Audio-Visual Department or of the private corporation that was paying for the lectures. Now I had to try to come up with something on very short notice. I didn’t think my phone, even if I could miraculously learn how to use it, was the right tool for the right job. How fortunate for me then that my elder son Richard is a sound-recording engineer, and indeed one of the best in the trade. Sound engineers are not of course the same as videographers, but the two work together and complement each other. As luck would have it Rich was briefly between assignments in distant parts and proved his filial affection by agreeing to help me out even at the expense of upending his family plans. So I am grateful not only to him, but to a wonderful daughter-in-law and granddaughter, who tolerated the disturbance.
So on Monday afternoon Rich arrived at my house lugging a large, heavy, stoutly built box containing the state-of-the-art video camera he had borrowed from a brother in the trade. Taken from this box and assembled, it was one of the most magnificent pieces of techie equipment I had ever seen. Rich told me that it costs $50,000, of which the lens accounts for four-fifths. I hope that this was hyperbole, but fear it probably wasn’t. When it comes to a borrower or a lender being, I am a flat-out Polonian. My mind was haunted by memories of the Maupassant short story of the lost borrowed necklace. I was glad to get definitive word that Rich got the precious instrument safely back to Brooklyn.
I had spent so much energy fretting about how it might be possible to produce a video in forty-eight hours that I had given practically no thought to what I would actually say should we be able to find the necessary equipment. But I did have a couple of hours to sit and think about it, and I was able to jot down a few notes, gather a few show-and-tell items, and stretch out a rather minimalist youtube presentation to nearly half an hour. The big question about Out of the Night, which must remain the fundamental written text for any study of Krebs, involves its historical reliability. It was presented to the public as straight autobiography, but I have had to conclude that it is largely a work of fiction. Like many novels it is enriched by the author’s personal experience, but as an “historical document”—the category to which its author and publisher assigned it in 1940—it doesn’t come close to passing the smell test. One of the Irish bishops is supposed to have remarked of Gulliver’s Travels, at the time of its publication, that there were parts of the work he could not fully credit. Let us say I have a similar reaction to Valtin’s book, though that is far from the reaction of many of its readers. I pursued this theme, along with a couple of others, in my little talk; and although in the video my son Rich was not able to transform his paternal pig’s ear into a silk purse, he did come up with something surprisingly plausible. What a great guy!
Wednesday, November 6, 2019
The catch phrase “Publish or perish” is perhaps heard less frequently in the digital age than it once was, but one of the anxieties of younger scholars is the necessity of finding a press willing to publish their work. I sometimes try to comfort such people by putting things into historical perspective. The modern author, it is true, must find a publisher; the medieval author’s first task was to find a dispensable sheep. Earlier periods of book production are much on my mind just at the moment because of a recent happy experience.
Last Sunday saw the annual Dinner of the Friends of the Princeton University, a group to which I have belonged and in which I have played various small roles for many years. There are not too many joint causes that are so uncomplicatedly benign as support of research libraries. One classic definition of the role of universities—the preservation of old knowledge and the creation of new—would be difficult to pursue without well tended libraries. It is true that we are experiencing a dramatic revolution in “print culture” generally, one that is driven by rapidly changing digital technology. This is a dynamic process, not easily predictable, and it is uncertain where or when we shall emerge from it. I recently met my first young literature professor who makes it a point of pride to own no actual physical books. I think he’s nuts, but he may represent the shape of a future in which the word “librarian” is as likely to invoke ideas of computer science and of artificial intelligence as of Bodoni bold and card files. Our group of Friends includes scholars, students, antiquarians, connoisseurs and collectors, print historians, and digital nerds in several categories.
Such diversity of bibliographical expertise presented me with a problem in my modest role of trying to help the leader of our group secure an engaging after-dinner speaker for our annual banquet. Perhaps I should say it would have presented me with a problem were it not for my good luck in having been friends for the last half century with Robert Darnton. Darnton, one of the great historians of the Enlightenment and the Revolution was my long-time colleague here before he was lured away by Harvard to be the director of their library system, a task to which he devoted the last decade of his official working life before his recent retirement. In the meantime, among his prodigious scholarly production that has been recognized with prizes and awards too numerous to mention, are several important works dealing with book history, the history of printing and of publishing, and in general the many roles played by books and writers in the creation of the modern intellectual world. You can see a bit of what he has been up to by visiting a fascinating website he has created.
Wednesday, October 30, 2019
Willa Cather (1873-1947)
At last I find occasion for a “trigger warning”. Though I aim at “general interest” in this blog, I must indulge myself from time in a rather “academic” post. Such a time has come, so if this is not your sort of thing I suggest you follow Chaucer’s advice and simply turn to another page. What is “literature”? The question is more difficult than it might appear. Among the dictionary definitions is “printed material,” any printed material. The best literature on septic tanks recommends plastic baffles. More commonly the word implies a positive aesthetic judgment. Literature means writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent universal interest. For me, a work of literature is traditional—meaning that it is aware of earlier written works with which it engages in a spirit of respect or competitive contestation without recognition of which a reader must necessarily have but a limited view of the work. Thus practically all of Roman literature imitated earlier Greek “models”. Dante in his Commedia is “imitating” Virgil, who at the literal level is the pilgrim’s guide for most of the poem. And Dante obviously “influences” the many writers of Renaissance epic.
This past week I have read for the first time a number of the early stories of Willa Cather. By any just reckoning Cather is one of our greatest twentieth-century writers. I was particularly impressed by her story “‘A Death in the Desert,’” published in 1903. To this story I shall in a moment return, but I must first note that I find a decisive shift in her writing after the first World War, especially in the great novels My Ántonia (1918) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). These are novels still clearly linked to a classical tradition, and by the time of her death in 1947 she had fallen somewhat into eclipse. It is one of the ironies of the perversity of current academic fashion that her critical reputation was reanimated by an unwarranted attention to her lesbianism. The obviously more important wellsprings of her art, which I have rarely seen mentioned, were classicism (she was a Latin teacher) and Christianity (she was a fully engaged practitioner and active member of the Episcopal Church in its frontier outpost of Red Cloud, Nebraska.) But when it comes to English departments, one must these days be content with what scraps are on offer.
Perhaps the most important character in “’A Death in the Desert’” is a famous and deeply self-absorbed American composer named Adriance Hilgarde, who makes no direct appearance in it. Adriance, who has had a great success in Europe and is on the verge of a crowning triumph in Paris, has a much more ordinary brother, Everett, who so annoyingly resembles Adriance in physical appearance that Everett is constantly being mistaken for him. There is a third major character, Katharine Gaylord, an aging singer, a very old associate of the Hilgarde brothers. Katharine is dying of tuberculosis in a ranch house in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where (following the standard medical advice of that age) she has retreated in the vain hope of regaining her health. As the story begins, Everett, one of those nice guys who always finishes last, travels from the East by train to the wilds of the West to comfort the doomed woman. Her dying is protracted, and the two share many intimate conversations. She recounts her hopeless and unrequited love for the Olympian composer. “It was not the first time that [Everett’s] duty had been to comfort, as best he could, one of the broken things his brother’s imperious speed had cast aside and forgotten.” Everett in turn, rendered incautious by the pathos of the moment, confesses his own long-standing passion for Katharine—a revelation that startles, indeed shocks her. Then she does die, and Everett, as he is departing Cheyenne is mistaken for his brother by a visiting German singer with whom he crosses paths in the train station. Now that is about as Henry James as you can get without being Henry James. Indeed, a valid criticism of the early Cather is its excessive “Jamesianism”. But James is not the only great writer with whom Cather engages.
She puts the title of the story in quotation marks because it is an actual quotation. It is the title of a (once) well-known poem by Robert Browning. Browning is among our hardest and most philosophical poets. That is probably why he is so little read today. Few of his dramatic monologues are simple, and this one is no exception. But his death in the desert is that of Saint John the Evangelist, the last living literary eye-witness of the ministry of Jesus Christ. What will become of Christian faith when the last personal witness of the Christ-life is gone? Among the complex issues the poem raises are questions of truth, the authority of written texts, and grounds for belief. I believe that for Browning, one of the prominent issues he had in mind was the nature of Scriptural authority, a subject that had among intellectuals been pretty well revolutionized—to the dismay of many conventional Christian believers--by the so-called “Higher Criticism” of the nineteenth century. Cather’s story is not a theological treatise, but it explores the relationship of art (in this instance, music) and truth in a manner in which James and John strangely cooperate. I suspect that no one ever reads a serious writer “completely,” but it is always worth the try. And, certainly, there is as much danger of over-reading a subtle work than of under-reading it.
A major theme in Henry James is the spiritual freshness of the new American character in the context of the ambiguous sophistication of the old European societies. So far has the world moved on since 1881 (publication of Portrait of a Lady), say, that the idea of the comparative spiritual wholesomeness of Americaness may seem mind-boggling. But it is was major theme of our early national literature, elaborating the ancient subject of the moral superiority of simple, rural life to the dangerous sophistication of urban cosmopolitanism. But the drab, dreary, and often sinister side of supposedly heroic pioneer life, and the small- town legacy of that life, likewise became an important American topic. You see it famously in Sherwood Anderson, much admired by Cather. Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize on the strength of it. It is pretty much the essence of southern Gothic in parts of Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers. It is not infrequent in Cather herself, and conspicuously in The Troll Garden, the early collection of short stories that included “’A Death in the Desert’”.
Willa Cather was not merely a great writer, but a conscious creator of literature as I defined it at the beginning of this short essay. The title of “’A Death in the Desert’” is, I suspect, a lapidary ornament. The masons who built the great medieval cathedrals sometimes placed beautiful stone ornamentation in parts of the building invisible to those who worshiped in it. The idea, I think, was that God could and did see it. It was a kind of redundant luxury, a work of pious artistic supererogation. No reader needs to see the meaning of Browning to her sad story—presuming it really is there--but if you do see it, it is likely to increase the already opulent pleasure of the reading experience.
Wednesday, October 23, 2019
I first heard the word “elite” in a somewhat unusual context. My Aunt Heartz always seemed to me an exotic figure. Before the War she had spent time in the Philippines with her military husband, and her house was filled with rattan furniture. She also had a portable typewriter in which she took pride. One of its most desirable features was that it was an elite, not a pica. That was long before I had any technical knowledge of type and printing, but this elite typewriter produced text in approximately ten point, whereas the more standard office model pica was twelve point. What elite meant to my aunt was something like stylish or elegant—definitely superior, a cut above.
Well, I have heard a great deal more about the words elite (adjective and noun) and elitism in the years since then. Much of it has been censorious. That is probably because I spent upwards of half a century teaching at one of the world’s most elite universities listening to my administrators and colleagues gas on about how terrible elitism is. So let me say a few words in its defense.
People do not want to be “elitists” for good reason. They do not want to be stuck-up snobs, reveling in their supposed superiority to supposed inferiors. We want to be egalitarians—believers in the proposition put forward in our Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal.* That all are “equal” is a very nice thought, but the moment one expresses it, one must realize the ways in which it is not true as well as those in which it is. The equality of “all men” will not be found in their height, weight, physical dexterity, mental acuity or other accidental features, which in their composite entirety tend to define what we think of as individual identity or “personality”. We mean that all men have ethical and political equality, that all have “equal protection under the law,” and (if we are religious) that all have certain rights endowed by God. That is the essence of the matter. When Robbie Burns writes “My love is like a red, red rose,” he is not trying to convince us that his girlfriend is bright vermillion of hue or that sharp spines protrude from her limbs. No, he is claiming that she shares the essential aesthetic and moral attributes of “rosiness,” whatever they may be.
It may be impossible to impose effective economic coherence upon the egalitarian ideal. The radical anarchist claim that that is the case cannot be refuted by reference to any known political system in today’s world, certainly. Modern democracies have done a poor to fair-to-middling job at best, but they have been able to achieve even this only on the basis of elitism—that is, on some form or another of representative government. The English word elite is very easily traced through its immediate French source to its Latin origins. Elite means elected, chosen, picked If you exercise any conscious sense of preference in the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the friends you make, the partner you marry, indeed if you make any choice among plural possible options, you are practicing elitism.
All this is to say that you are being discriminating or practicing discrimination, another word likely to cause anxiety to many well-meaning people and therefore one perhaps deserving a brief philological mini-lecture of its own. Discrimination involves making a judgment or decision in relation to alternative possibilities. One such distinction is between guilt and innocence. Our word crime derives from the idea that a fact has been ascertained by a certain kind of discrimination or judgement. But discrimination can be practiced on the basis of both sound and unsound criteria, and those judged unsound have changed dramatically in the age of democracy. It is the fear (and history) of using unsound criteria that spooks many people today. For effective purposes the word discrimination as it is mainly used in your newspaper refers to racial discrimination. Usually it is a fairly easy empirical matter to discriminate between a man and a woman, and between a black person and a white one. But that discrimination is a matter of personal identity which, according to our Constitution, is politically irrelevant. Though it has been very different in the not distant past, race-based discrimination is now legally authorized only in various “affirmative action” programs, where its operations are often highly opaque and contested. In such programs, incidentally, the elitist program is often even more articulate than it is elsewhere.
It is probably too late to save the word elitism or to use it in a benign sense. Not too many words can survive the suffix ism. There might yet be hope for discrimination, which is, from a certain point of view, the method as well as the goal of all education. The cultivation of discriminating taste, the discriminating consumer, a discriminating mind—all these are still positive concepts for most of us. The value of discrimination is not limited to the purely aesthetic realm—concluding that King Lear is more worthy of your sustained attention than a Harlequin romance. It is discrimination that advances our civilization in the material and practical realms as well. The engineer who is expert in the strength of materials will discriminate between pre-stressed concrete and braided steel cables by applying expert knowledge to a specific situation. Just as we would avoid shoddy construction materials in building our houses we should strive to avoid shoddy thinking. And there’s another most interesting word, shoddy. Its principal meaning as a noun was woolen stuff made from picking apart old rags. The adjective soon followed. It is akin to tawdry, the kind of stuff you could pick up cheap at Saint Audrey’s fair on October 17, the late medieval version of the Dollar General Store. If we do not want our minds to be cluttered with the shoddy and the tawdry we are forced to become elitists through the operations of discrimination.
*And as an elitist, I am impatient of the philological ignorance than cannot recognize in this eighteenth-century usage the generic sense of all men as human kind.