Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Materia Medica

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day has proved to be very busy without any of the accomplishment that should be the reward of being busy. From the point of view of developing good “blog experience” it has been a disaster. Perhaps this is the week to deal with the inevitable topic of French medicine.

Following the American news from Paris is no easy task. The filter of the French newspapers casts most things transatlantic in a rather sallow light, and the (mainly American) Internet “news” sites threaten to give triviality a bad name. Yahoo “news” is generally unable to decide whether the more important story should be impending bankruptcy of the nation or the traffic violations of some starlet I have never heard of. Nonetheless I followed the meandering course of the “health care” bill with some attention and probably as much comprehension as anybody else—and in particular the senators—who has little actual idea as to what is in the bill. Its passage is neither the end of the republic as we have known it nor a glorious moment in humanity’s slow ascent from the quagmire of necessity to the fruited plain of grace—the two options apparently offered by senators McConnell and Reid respectively—but we all can surely agree that the process by which it has been achieved is a vivid emblem of our sad and seriously dangerous state of governmental dysfunction.

Inevitably the American “health care debate” has been the occasion of a good deal of journalistic comparison of the medical “models” (the preferred French term) of the United States and France. A similar comparative interest has several times been expressed privately, by French friends or acquaintances. Michael Moore’s Sicko, which offered a view of French medicine nearly as complimentary as its account of the American scene was critical, has not surprisingly enjoyed a certain smug approbation in this country. I have a generally dim view of Mr. Moore, not to mention of French smugness; but the messengers of unwelcome truth are not infrequently obnoxious.

The HEGP, or Hôpital Européen Geogres Pompidou. The most important word is the E-word, which differentiates this institution from...

The political ordeal we are experiencing in America at the moment really doesn’t have much to do with “medical care” per se. It is a question, rather, of the economics of medical care. It does seem likely that the new bill will significantly increase the number of Americans who have some level of medical insurance. That is, the bill will indeed have an effect on the financing of medical care. Its effect on actual medical care itself is a subject of speculation, but there is good reason to worry. Since I am not an expert in the economics of medicine I can but offer comparative comment, anecdotally of course, on medical care itself.

My extensive experience with American medicine has been, in a single word, good. During my entire working life I had access to “employer-provided” medical insurance that was adequate for me and my family, and I was living in places served by numerous general practitioners and specialists. My experience with Medicare I would have to describe as excellent, especially since it has been supplemented by a reasonably priced private policy that has left me with a maximal worst case liability of ten percent. As for my actual family doctor—Dr. Y. H. of the Princeton Medical Group—she is superb. She is superb once you get to her, that is, but getting to her involves infiltrating a wall of “helpers” about as porous as the front line of the Notre Dame football team.

...the HAP, or Hôpital Americain de Paris. Five medicos in search of a patient...

Two years ago, while in Paris, I developed what I experienced as a generalized malaise accompanied by shortness of breath. After a while it dawned on me that it was connected with the sensation of an irregular heartbeat. It was in fact the onset of atrial fibrillation, although I did not know that at the time. My daughter, quite concerned, turned to the Internet to find a cardiologist in our arrondissement—which happens to house the Hôpital Georges Pompidou. (In France, many of the academic specialists split their hours of consultation between private and hospital offices.) This man (Dr. E.) was able to meet me at the hospital on the following day, but that was not the first unusual aspect of the experience. When my daughter phoned him, he himself answered the phone. The only thing disturbing in an otherwise wholly positive experience was that he insisted on speaking English. He had spent some months at the Mass General in Boston, and his English was pretty good—just not quite good enough to keep him from petrifying me. “I zink I know what is wrong with you,” he said, after a brief tour of the stethescope. “Your hert, your hert iz not working any more.” He then pumped a horse-syringe full of some liquid blood-thinner into me, to hold me until I could get to a pharmacy for my own supply—all of which was a temporary precaution until the orally administered Coumadine could begin to take effect in a few days. To be absolutely sure that his diagnosis was sound he sent me immediately (meaning within a few hours) to another hospital where a friend of his (Dr. B.), another alumnus of Mass General and this time the owner of a fine Boston accent, recorded an echo cardiogram. Dr. E. then saw me for two more extensive follow-up visits in which he outlined for me the practical meaning of atrial fibrillation, which would require either the permanent re-establishment of a normal rhythm (not easily done) or a continuing pharmacological course of small doses of rat poison. For four extended consultations, including several electro-cardiograms and an echo cardiagam, the fee was three hundred euros, which I paid in cash, without any formal billing procedure, though I was supplied with the receipts that probably would have worked for at least partial Medicare reimbursement, had I thought it worth the while to face the American bureaucratic hassle of seeking it.

I’ve had two other occasions to visit the office of a general practitioner. Each resolved the problem that had led me to seek a doctor’s help and prescribed effective medicine. Each charged me seventy euros for the visit, again paid in cash, and without the hassle of elaborate forms, bills with malfunctioning return envelopes, and the other stuff I have become inured to at home. I had to see one other specialist, a urologist—my ailments all being, alas, age and gender specific. This man is another academic expert, and he was a bit more expensive—120 euros. This man did have a receptionist, but she played no part beyond the decorative in my medical transaction. An amusing feature of our encounter was that I concluded he must have seen me before. By curious chance his son took a Ph.D. at Princeton a few years ago, and the father attended the Commencement ceremony, at which I must have been the chief marshal! He told me how impressed he was that all the seniors were able to understand the Latin of the salutatory address! So, you can fool some of the people some of the time.

Prescription drugs are delivered free of a purchase charge to French residents who possess the indispensable carte vitale—a sort of combination social security and medical insurance document that is the “Open, Sesame” of the socialized French “model”. I have no such card, of course, nor do I merit it by paying the taxes that actually pay for the medicine. But since the over-the-counter cost of drugs here is seldom so much as a quarter of the American price, this hasn’t been an issue either.

My experience allows two other observations. The first is that French pharmacists are trained to a high level. Many ordinary Frenchmen turn with confidence to the pharmacist for colds and sniffles and routine aches and pains. I suspect that some of the people in the always crowded waiting room at the Princeton Medical Center could usefully do the same thing. The second is the private testing laboratories, which are numerous throughout Paris, offer a cheaper and certainly greatly more convenient way of accomplishing routine blood tests and urine scans than is generally available in America. At least in my experience the contrast with a couple of Quest labs I visited in America, where the sullen staff seemed only marginally competent, could hardly be more dramatic.

And on that note, a happy New Year to all!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas

My blog is intended for a general readership, but I cannot always suppress my parochial particularities. I hope that whatever holiday you celebrate will be a happy one. If you celebrate none at all, let that abstention be no less happy. But Christmas has always been a big thing in my life, and I cannot pass over it without comment. As my friend Geoffrey said in another context, if you don't like this post, turn over the page until you find one you like better.The historical origins of our iconography of Christmas—snowmen, jingle bells, Yule logs, etc.—are capricious. How did Christmas come to fall in December? Easy: traditional chronology plus observed obstetrics. Otherwise the ripening grain would be an apter Christmas symbol than the pinecone. You may be unaware what time of year, exactly, God created the heavens and the earth; but medieval people had no doubts at all. Chaucer writes of “...the monthe in which the world bigan, /that highte March, whan God first maked man...” This business about the year beginning on January first is simply reinstituted paganism, secular humanism run amuck. Think about what the word “September” must mean. I am at the moment reading in the autobiography of George Sand and was delighted to find in one of her legal documents of 1848 the month abbreviated thus: 7bre. September is the seventh month by God’s reckoning.

These people also knew two other things: first, that God would have made the New Adam at the same season he made the Old Adam, and, second, that it takes nine months for a baby to gestate. In the beginning was the Word; and a child conceived at the beginning will come to term in December. The next bit of historical whismy was that by the high Middle Ages, when people began to pay a little attention to Christmas, Christendom was much more west and north than it was south and east. Hence Christmas cold, Christmas snow.

So it seems appropriate that the days leading up to Christmas have been very cold in Paris. Actually that means only a few degrees below freezing, but it was enough to halt the EuroStar. Overwhelming the mainly symbolic heating arrangements in our apartment was child’s play compared with that feat. There was a little snow, and since the Parisians have no idea what to do with it, it was soon trampled into slush which, when frozen overnight, makes the sidewalks treacherous, especially in the dark, which descends about five in the afternoon and is with us until eight in the morning.

Thus just as the frenzy of the pre-Christmas rush threatens to overwhelm, meteorological conditions have encouraged something very different, slowing down a bit. I find that coerced inactivity is seldom very productive. Sitting for three or four hours in a plastic bucket seat in an airport waiting for a long-delayed flight is my idea of penal servitude, and probably the kind the Constitution calls “cruel and unusual”. But this week I have found myself unwontedly reflective. What I have been reflecting about would not be easy to explain. In one of the fine old Prayer Book phrases it is “all the blessings of this life”. One of the most conspicuous of present blessings is our Paris church home, Trinity Cathedral, aka the “American Cathedral in Paris”.

Trinity Cathedral is a George Edmund Street building, and therefore necessarily gorgeous. Street was one of the great neo-Gothic architects, the peer of the American Ralph Adams Cram, architect of the Princeton Chapel. It was built in the late nineteenth century by the kind of expat Episcopalians you read about in Henry James or, even better, in Edith Wharton, who herself represented the strain in its purest form—upper-crust, cultivated, and moneyed. Such characteristics were perhaps prerequisites for people like Christopher Newman in The American, who could hang out endlessly being thwarted by the odious relatives of Claire de Cintré. A few days ago in the Carnavelet Museum I saw a painting by Jean Béraud dating from 1890 and therefore prior to the dictatorship of internal combustion, showing the street in front of the Cathedral filled with the carriages arriving to fetch the parishioners after Christmas morning service. Unfortunately I can find no photograph of it. There is in it, I think, a hint of the satire more blatantly present in the better-known “The Bourgeois’s Outing”?

This church of expatriates really became a French national treasure at the time of the Great War and the temporary euphoria of the post-Armistice period, no doubt the apogee of Franco-American amity in the twentieth century. You may be surprised to learn that Hemingway and Gertrude Stein were not the only Americans in Paris in the Twenties and Thirties; and quite a few of the others went to church. The Cathedral was the center of culturally and socially elite networks not unlike those of the great New York parishes (especially Trinity and St. Thomas) with which it has historic connections.

Today it has perhaps lost the social cachet it enjoyed in the belle époque, but it has gained something far more precious: social purpose. Its ambitious music program makes it an important contributor to the Parisian cultural scene. Its "Service of Lessons and Carols," which I attended last week, was packed with music enthusiasts. Its work among the poor and the needy—Jesus himself said that “you will always have the poor,” and I can assure you that the European social model has abolished neither poverty nor need—is impressive. There is a strong youth program. And the really little kids just put on the most tolerable of all the Christmas pageants I have ever sat through—a number that is large and positive. Not that the belle époque has entirely vanished, mind you. At Christmas Eve Eucharist two years ago one of the lay readers was Olivia de Havilland. Yes, that would be the Olivia de Havilland who with Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable was one of the stars in the film of Gone With the Wind (1939). [Christmas Eve update: she's still doing it.]

There are many interesting decorations and memorials in and around the church. Among the most intriguing is this replica of the famous Black Madonna of Czestochowa, the national icon of Poland. It was placed in the church in fulfillment of a vow made by a Polish soldier, and it typifies the international and ecumenical flavor of the congregation.

But my experience of it has been chiefly that of a vibrant spiritual community. It has an excellent educational program, and we became swept up in it immediately. But most impressive is the nature of the congregation. Every shade of Anglican is to be found there—and by “shade” I refer both to skin pigment and theological opinion. There must be some nation of the earth that goes unrepresented, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you which that is. Many members are long-term American expatriates; but there are also many French members. There is a fairly serious attempt at bi-lingualism. Many others are like us, migratory birds, short-termers who are nonetheless encouraged and enabled to make quick and bonding friendships.

Though the role of the clergy is too often exaggerated in assessing the nature of Christian community, it surely does not hurt that the Cathedral has two superb full-time priests and an apparently never-failing succession of interesting visitors. The quality of the preaching—the consistent quality--is really extraordinary. I have spent much of my life studying medieval friars, but the first time I ever heard Meister Eckhart quoted from the pulpit was last Sunday. The Dean had found a passage in Eckhart—actually a medieval commonplace, but beautifully expressed by the Dominican mystic—that sums up the whole truth about Christmas. It is not a truth likely to be popular with the Israeli Tourist Board or the hawkers of souvenirs in the plaza in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but it is finally very comforting. That truth is that it doesn’t really matter very much when and where Jesus was actually born, whether in stable or cave, whether in “the bleak midwinter” of December or the dog days of August. The obviously mythic accounts of the gospels present a cosmic event, not the necessary data for a form required of the Bureau of Vital Statistics. No, what really matters is where Christ will next be born. Meister Eckhart knew that place must be within the hearts of those who would follow him.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Libraries and Heaven

Instead of writing these silly weekly blogs I ought to take up some large and imposing essay of the kind that makes its way into the unread anthologies in the unvisited bibliographies of oversubscribed doctoral seminars in our literature departments. I already have a title, and lack only the essay to go with it. The title would be “Liminality and the (B)other: The Role of the Literature Professor in the Age of Obama”. That’s a nearly perfect title for the kind of academic essay that makes a professor famous, and for two reasons. In the first place it is entirely meaningless, and in the second the one part of it that verges in the direction of comprehensibility, the Age of Obama part, has absolutely nothing to do with the subject.

The problem, though, is not in finding a title. The problem is in the role of the Literature Professor. I ought to know; I’ve been one for upwards of half a century. If an English professor should go to a cocktail party attended mainly by non-professors—something that occasionally does happen—there is one question he fears but can never evade: “And tell me, what is it that you do?” I sometimes try to pass myself off as a mortician or a periodontist, but if I feel brave enough I come right out and say it: “Well, actually, I’m an English professor.” I continue to believe that there is no shame in that admission, but I do dread the inevitable reply: “Oh, I’d better watch my grammar!” Naturally the only rational response to this remark is a cringe.

For the fact of the matter is that most of my fellow citizens seem to believe that the role of my profession is to invigilate the language of the nation. This belief is nearly criminally naïve. Anyone who spends half an hour with a television set listening to our political leaders, or half an hour reading our journalists, should know for a fact that nobody is invigilating the nation’s language. Under these circumstances I thought it of conceivable general interest to explain what it is that a scholar actually does do.

That’s quite simple: a scholar reads, and a scholar writes, and a scholar teaches. In retirement I have somewhat withdrawn from the teaching part, but I continue to read and to write. Given the subject matter that most interests me, the Christian cultures of pre-modern Europe, this means that I am forced to hang out in some of the most gorgeous places on earth—libraries. The project I am engaged in just at the moment—a little book about Luís de Camões, the great Portuguese poet of the sixteenth century—has brought me to a particularly exquisite one.

It is true that the various kinds of “electronic resources,” for which the “Internet” is sometimes the abbreviated code, have greatly aided the work of the scholar. For some, such as the imaginary author of my imaginary essay, they seem to have precluded the need for books altogether. But I’m still addicted not merely to the printed word, but to the sights and smells and sounds of the places where the printed word has been archived by skilled and loving professionals who join technical expertise with greatness of soul. That is why on most mornings I take off as soon as possible for the library of the Fondation Calouste Gulbekian.

The name of Calouste Gulbenkian will be a household word to almost anybody who has done serious work on the culture of Portugal or that of any of the diverse and widely scattered places, from the upper Rio Negro to East Timor, touched by the amazing dynamism of Portuguese expansion in the early modern period. If you suspect that “Gulbenkian” doesn’t sound particularly Portuguese, you’d be right. He was an Armenian by origin, an exile by fate, a diplomat by hobby, an entrepreneur extraordinare by native capacity, and by choice one of the world’s great philanthropists, a Levantine J. D. Rockefeller. He rewarded his adopted homeland of Portugal with the gift of one of world’s truly fabulous art collections; and the foundation bearing his name continues to enrich the world of learning and culture today.

The Paris operation of the Gulbenkian Foundation is housed in a sumptuous hôtel particulier or as we would probably say a mansion on the Avenue de Iéna very near the Étoile. For out-of-towners I will say that that is a good address. The vibe of the place is very much that of, say, the Frick Collection or the Morgan Library in New York, but with the Robber Baron excess constrained by a certain Ottoman mesure. There is a great deal of activity in this building, the meaning of much of which I have yet to divine. There are recital halls. There are lecture rooms. Academic conferences are constantly in progress. There is a lot of gallery space full, at the moment, of seductive botanical paintings by Lourdes Castro. There is a large theater I must pass by, and in it there seems to be flashing upon the screen a never-ending postmodern slide show.

The actual library, at the top of a fabulous marble staircase, is small and jewel-like, a single long room with a fine old table in its center. At either end of the room is a desk where sits one of the highly competent and friendly librarians. Just at the door are the two computer stations, as discreet as such things can be, that give the scholar immediate access not merely to the Gulbenkian catalogue but to the catalogues of the great libraries of the world and even (groan!) to one’s e-mail. The room is girdled in towering glazed cases, at least fifteen feet high, full of beautiful leather editions of every reference book yet devised by the Lusitanian brain. Thick, ancient walnut shelves support rank upon rank of gilded leather: the Lendas of India of Gaspar Correa, Fortunato de Almeida’s Historia de Portugal in six volumes, the fifteen gleaming volumes of the Corpo Diplomatico Portuguez.

Doubtless these volumes are from time to time visited by aging scholars like myself. They sure make impressive stage properties. Most of the small clientele, however, is young; their interests appear to be the current journals, the theater scene in Lisbon, the Brazilian economic miracle, and political developments in lusophone Africa. The large bulk of the holdings are in some repository, invisible but obviously proximate. You fill out a little fiche in the usual European manner; but most unusually you get the book within two minutes.

Luís de Camões occupies the place in Luso-Brazilian culture occupied by Dante in Italy, Shakespeare in England, and Michael Jackson in the United States. When I first wrote a letter of inquiry to the head librarian, Mme Darbord, she responded that the library housed a Camões collection très important. That is putting the matter rather modestly. I have yet to find anything about Camões that the library doesn’t have, or which the charming librarians do not supply with a smile.

Libraries have always had a special allure for me, midway between the spiritual and the erotic. I have not until recently started wondering seriously about my residence in the afterlife, but if there’s no room for me in Dante’s eagle’s eye, something like the Gulbenkian reading room will be just fine, thank you very much. This is one of those libraries in which people still speak in hushed voices. There is always something tonic about the “library whisper”; but whispering in Portuguese, full of sibilants that defy the anatomy of the human tongue, takes it to an altogether new level. There you are, reading this great stuff, bathed in light reflected off polished wood and ancient leather, as a faint, lilting swish-swash burbles in the distance. Ah, stay the passing moment--it is so fair!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ecce quam bonum

The idea that I could bring all my racing thoughts and impressions into a synthesis within a few days was a fantasy, but here's a first shot. As I said last time, we did a lot for being less than a week in Israel: about as much of Jerusalem as a pedestrian can cram into a full and energetic day; other wonderful biblical spots (En Kareem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethsaida among them); impressive archaeological sites (Qumran, the Herodion, Beth Shean or Scythopolis, Gamla, crusader castles); much beautiful scenery, sometimes surprising set in counterpoint to the littered streets and drab, even squalid houses and workshops in many of the villages.


But the impressions left by architecture and landscape, vivid as they were, are probably less provocative than those left by a very superficial exposure to the Israeli human community, or rather communities, the plural form being necessary here. My visit to Israel began with a Sabbath meal at the apartment of Zvi’s parents, David and Tikva. My wonderfully hospitable hosts cut through the language barrier with a blizzard of food. Alimentary surfeit, indeed, was the defining characteristic of the three family meals I shared with them. One of these was a big party that included and celebrated the circumcision of a babe I never saw—though I did hear him at one point. Zvi explained the ceremony of this event—and indeed the ceremony of most Jewish festivities—as boiling down to three propositions. (1) They tried to kill us. (2) They failed. (3) So, let’s eat.

Any thoughtful Christian will admire Judaism for its existential claims on the quotidian life of the Jew. Religious practice and ritual, however relaxed or apparently casual in its execution, is the habitual companion of family life. Religious concepts are thus inextricably linked to the wholesome and loving relationships of the family. The shared meal of the Christians, the Eucharist, surrendered to symbolism and allegory many centuries ago. We believe that it “feeds” us spiritually, but nobody walks away from the table licking his chops. There is an old joke about the perfectly round, thinly pressed wafers still used in most churches: it’s easier to believe that they are the body of Christ than that they are bread. Very different indeed is a family Shabbat meal. If you are into the liturgical aspect, it has as much anyone could wish for, but it also has a loaf of real bread. An agnostic can have a fine time at a Shabbat meal; he is unlikely to go to High Mass for either the sociability or the gastronomy.

But what is a source of unity in one sphere may not be a source of unity in all spheres. By pure coincidence just a few days before flying to Tel Aviv I got an email from my old friend Steve White, who from time to time posts comments on this blog. Unbeknownst to me he had just visited Israel himself. He reported complex and tentative reactions, as I myself do, but he did have a large sense of divisions, separations, compartmentalizations. I have to say I shared it. I was prepared for a huge “Arab-Israeli Conflict,” of which there is indeed much evidence subtle and blatant. I was less prepared for the “Israeli-Israeli Conflict”.

The Israeli-Israeli Conflict would seem to be grounded in the unresolved paradox of the “Jewish State”. What, exactly, does that mean?—which is another way of asking, “What does it mean to be a Jew?—a topic endless scrutinized in the religious courts. The political division between left and right seems at least as acute as that in America, and that’s really saying something. Furthermore, and even more markedly than in America, this division usually has religious overtones. There is a marked division, made spectacularly visible on any Saturday, between more and less observant Jews. There is a sense of marked social distinction (essentially racial in character) between Ashkenazi and Sephardic. There is a large and influential section of Israelis that is hardly “religious” at all. The intellectuals of the academy, for instance, seem hardly distinguishable from their counterparts at the Sorbonne or UCLA. There is now a large population of Russian “Jews” in Israel—so large that one is everywhere confronted with Russian-language signs, books and brochures, television programs. I put the word “Jews” in quotation marks only because most of them are not religious at all and never were, their Jewishness having been determined by political aberrations of the old Soviet state, and their emigration determined by the more ordinary economic and social motives that have determined the movement of peoples for centuries. To be sure, there are at any moment large numbers of religious Russians in Israeli. They are Christian pilgrims, and you will find them in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, kissing the stone on which the body of Jesus Christ is alleged to have been placed.

However it may strike an outsider like myself, none of this seems particularly odd to Israelis. One of my favorite psalms, and probably the absolute favorite of the medieval monks whom I have studied for so many years, is the Ecce quam bonum! (Vulgate 132): "Oh what a good and joyful thing it is for brethren to dwell in unity!" Barack Obama’s election campaign was founded in a rhetoric of inclusiveness and a kind of transcendent national unity—entirely abandoned in the actual political practice of his administration, but what else in new?—that could appeal at least to the lip service we pay to the legend stamped on our coins, E pluribus unum. I had the sense that Israelis, perhaps unwisely, had settled into their separations.

The most dramatic of my limited experiences along these lines came with my solo visit to Bethlehem. From the religious point of view this was for me one of the highpoints. I didn’t have the sense of the money-changers actually having taken over the control of the temple as I did with some of the more familiar Christian sites in Jerusalem. My timing was perfect, as I was able to participate in a Greek Eucharist in the old church, with its stone door built intentionally low to discourage the Burgundian knights from entering on horseback, as was their wont. (Re-read the opening scene in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.) This was swiftly followed by an Arabic Roman Catholic mass, also deeply spiritual, in the slightly newer church built against is north wall. On the same trip I visited the Herodion (a forbidding Roman era fortress atop a bleak mountain, still in the process of excavation), and the supposed site of the Annunciation, where there is now a pleasant modern church. Medieval pilgrimage sites were the original theme parks, and many of those in western Europe were copied from models in Palestine. I already knew about the “Holy House" that had been constructed at Walsingham in East Anglia, and I was glad to see the original.

But Bethlehem is in the West Bank, and to get there involves going through a check-point. David and Zvi drove me out there, but then I was one my own. I had naively assumed that a check-point would look something like the proctors’ kiosk where you must stop for a smiley chat as you enter the Princeton campus by car. The Bethlehem check-point is a huge metal thing, at least a square block in size, all covered and encased in extra-heavy gauge mesh. The vibe as I experienced it was half cattle auction corral, half spooky subway too late at night for comfort. Getting through to the Palestinian side was no problem. Facilis decensus Averni. On the other side, as promised, were many taxi drivers, all functionally Anglophone. I don’t know if there is an actual protocol that the Christians get the Christians, but my guy was Christian, with a brother who ran a nice Christian gift shop, which was a nobler place than many to pay my required tribute.

The famous Wall is absolutely formidable. My guy had a line on it, probably the textbook Palestinian line. “They take down the wall in Berlin. They put it up again here.” I did not think it condign to point out the differing functions of the two walls, as I understood them; nor did I comment upon my impression of a concomitant and dramatically sharp decrease in West Bank suicide bombers. The situation is hideous enough, however it comes about. I also saw several settlements. Once again my expectations were contradicted. What you see looking back toward Jerusalem from the Herodion is not a few campers with pup tents and an Israeli flag. What you see is a huge complex of well built and expensive apartment houses flooding down the hillside with all the elegance and opulence of the real estate on the slopes of the East Bay. To “remove” this settlement would be more or less like “removing” Berkeley Hills, and about as senseless. But here, controverted in the most violent and unaccommodating language, are emblems of an apparently non-negotiable separation.


Although Sunday observance kept me from getting into a few Christian sites in the afternoon (such as the “John theBaptist” church at En Kareem), the day has no particular significance for Jews or Muslims. It was a workday in Jerusalem, a bustling one, and by the time I got back to the checkpoint late in the morning there were literally hundreds of people milling about, waiting to get through the very slow-moving security process. The concept of the line (as in queue) seems to be unknown in Arab society—as also at Paris bus stops, but that’s another issue. So you had this large mass of people in a kind of football scrum, heading obscurely for some funnel. Most of them were regulars, naturally, but the first problem faced by a novice like myself was to try to figure out where the funnel was. I could see the exit turnstiles (like New York subway turnstiles, only with locks), electrically controlled remotely by the invisible guards in their booths on the other side. The green light would flash on for a few seconds, and a few people would rush through. Then the light would go red, and stay red for five minutes or more.

Eventually my height came to my rescue, so that I could see the direction I needed to head, and what buxom ladies in headscarves I had to trample on to do so. I have to say that I was a little scared, and that I abandoned my gentlemanly instincts. But these were people who needed to get somewhere, probably to work. Many of them were visibly madder than hell. There were shoving matches. There was an incipient fistfight when a guy tried to jump over (as opposed to walk around) the final metal barrier. I have often thought that commuting to work by car or train must be hell. If I had to do this every day to get to work, I’d—well, I’m not sure what I’d do, but I can see that it wouldn’t make me particularly friendly to the people opening and closing the turnstiles.

Back in the early days of the “Arab-Israeli Conflict” the Texan Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House, made a suggestion that revealed a certain cultural naïveté. “Why can’t the two sides just get together,” he asked in apparently sincere puzzlement, “and settle this thing in a good Christian fashion?” Maybe it’s time to revive that program. As soon as the sects that have been warring in in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the last thousand years can agree on which Christians should get the job.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Guide for the Perplexed

I rather rashly implied in my last posting that I might put something up today about my trip to Israel. However, I must once again temporize. It isn’t simply that the flight from Tel Aviv arrived in Paris only last night, leaving me to attempt, somewhat half-heartedly, to resume something of a writing schedule this morning. The real problem is that the trip was so overwhelming, in so many ways, that it is going to take me a few days to sort out even my initial thoughts. There is no education like travel; and the problem with education, as we all know, is that it so gratuitously disturbs perfectly good and settled opinions. It will be quite annoying to me, at my age and stage of pontification, to have to go back and completely rethink the State of Israel. I’d just as soon go back and try to rethink the Principia Mathematica. I’ll probably have to do that, though let’s postpone it for a week or two. Israel, I mean. Newton may take a whole month.

On one thing, however, my opinion is clear and informed, and that is the quality of the guidance I had during my trip. The great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote a famous book that is usually rendered in English as The Guide to the Perplexed. Well, I was certainly many times perplexed on my journey, so that I was particularly happy to have as my personal guide a modern Jewish philosopher. I refer to my son-in-law, Professor Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, a professor of world history at New York University. Two years ago I found among my Christmas presents a slim envelope that contained a kind of promissory note. It was a coupon, valid for one extended guided tour of the Holy Land, signed by Zvi. This past week I cashed it in.


ZVI BEN-DOR BENITE from the Mount of Olives

It would not be easy to have found a more determined or knowledgeable guide. In the first place, he is a native Israeli. In the second place he is an historian. In the third place his special fields of interest are in comparative religious history. It doesn’t hurt that he is a native speaker of both Hebrew and Arabic, or that his brother-in-law is among the elite group of highly trained tourist guides officially credentialed by the State. Those two collaborated for hours, putting together a custom-made itinerary that ministered to my own desiderata: pre-historical and ancient archaeology, biblical geography (especially that associated with the life and ministry of Jesus), the archaeology of the Crusades, and, finally, natural history and geology.

Zvi is a trained Sinologist, and his first book (The Dao of Muhammed: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China deals with Islam in China—a topic so hip and current as to threaten to mask the deep learning he poured into the book. But it is his very recent book that is most relevant to our tour. It is called The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History (Oxford, 2009), and it is among the more amazing (and sometime amusing) works of erudition I could possibly recommend—which, obviously, I am now doing. (I do so at greater length in the reviews section of the website.) There was more than one occasion on which I felt thoroughly lost, as for example, when searching for our B&B in a jumbled Druse village where the streets have no names and the houses no numbers. This proved no problem for Zvi. He simply stopped a guy coming out of shop with a large bag of chickpeas. He was, of course, the mayor of the place, and while I don't think he confused me with one of his constituents, the natural politician in him did come out; and he led us by two-car convoy to the place we needed to find. After all the guy who found the lost tribes--all ten of them--is unlikely to be fazed by an undocumented hostelry.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Living High off the Hog

“Gladly Lerne, Glady Teche” is threatening to turn into another travelblogue. In principle I cannot object to this development. Travel is among the most authentic of learning experiences, and it certainly offers any teacher unparalleled opportunities. But this blog has pretensions of redeeming intellectual purpose transcending yet another candid shot of Madge and me at the beach. (And don’t be confused, alarmed, or hopeful. “Madge” comes from a Thurber cartoon, or somewhere.) Yet again I must share a word or two about this week’s travels and warn you that next Wednesday I shall be computerless, happily exploring the Holy Land under the guidance of my son-in-law Zvi. I’ll hope to post something on Friday, December 4.

Joan and I just had a wonderful three days in and around the village of Salernes (Var), in the south, where we visited our old friends Andrew and Edith Seth. There is something uniquely precious about old friends. Andrew reminded me, as he tossed a piece of an ancient tree limb into the hearth, of a wonderful apothegm of old Francis Bacon: “Old wood is best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read. “

The adjective “old” here refers of course to the friendship, not the friends. We have all known each other since our Oxford days half a century ago. We have known each other longer than we have been married, and there are not many who fall into that category. Andrew and I were at Jesus College together and even, as I recall, successive presidents of the Junior Common Room. I’ve been trailing ever since. Andrew went on to become the CEO of Unilever (GB); I went on to become one of the world’s pre-eminent experts on medieval Franciscan literature. Therein in revealed the salient sociological distinction between people who own houses in the south of France and people who have friends who own houses in the south of France.

We didn’t do a whole lot except hang out, walk a little, and sit around the fire reading books. The Seths have a sensible rule about the seashore—don’t go anywhere near it between April and August. Since it was November, however, we took a delightful little spin over to Saint-Tropez. (I’m trying to sound casual.) It was a beautiful day, with a sparkle everywhere. Andrew tells me that there are two kinds of people in Saint-Tropez—the haves, and the have-yachts. The latter are so numerous that from the main jetty one cannot actually see the bay, the view toward which is entirely blocked by skyscraping pleasure-craft with Cayman Island registrations. As to the famous swimming beaches of Saint-Tropez, where rock stars and rusticating politicians party through the night on the Quatorze Juillet—ah, there it was a different story! The Seth Doctrine proved its worth. We had the beaches entirely to ourselves. In fact, here’s a picture of Madge and me on the beach at Saint-Tropez. Actually, come to look a little closer, that would be Andrew, Joan, and Edith on the beach. I must have been holding the camera.

We then puttered over to Sainte-Maxime and a fine latish lunch (healthy salads for the ladies, moules marinières for the old Jesuits). Old friends, old books, old wine—but as fresh as fresh can be on the moules front.

I do have a serious episode to explore—the discovery and exploitation of the beautiful library of the Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian in its fabulous palazzo in the rue de Iéna. But you know about me and libraries. It will take a whole blog to do justice to this topic. In the meantime I’ll try to sneak a few shots of the library interior—and even better, of the librarians.

But as we are all facing the Thanksgiving ordeal tomorrow, I had perhaps best close with gastronomy. Last night, when our number-one son Richard arrived from Munich to celebrate Thanksgiving before moving on the next day to give a talk at the British Academy, Joan and I wanted to treat him to dinner. As there are only about two hundred thousand great restaurants in our immediate neighborhood, Rich thought it best for to schlep halfway across town to one of his favorite haunts, the Verre Volé, over on the edge of the Canal Saint-Martin near the Place de la République. There is a kind of Parisian bistro too hip even to be “discovered” by hippest of Anglophone food critics writing for airlines magazines, and this was one of them. It’s run by young people—cheerful, smiling, friendly, easy-going young people. They must have got their restaurant license by mistake. One of the guys wears a sweatshirt that says “Muhammed Ali”. (Another guy simply looks like Muhammed Ali). The place, which has room for maybe fifteen people, is encased in bottles of “organic” wine. They do all the cooking on a glorified hot plate. They offer you a choice of about three things that they decided to cook that night. In short, very cool. So, what to eat?

There is a reason that such useful expressions as “the gravy-train” and “porkbarrel spending” play such an important role in the political lexicon. Pork is by its very nature yummy and transgressive, and of all gravies pork gravy is the yummiest and greasiest. Anybody who grew up in the country knows this; and despite the fact that there is precious little country left, the memory of a vanished agrarian simplicity continues to command the depleted metaphoric vocabulary and the annoying moral theology of our politicians. Pork is precisely what the American people want from their elected representatives. Try for a moment to imagine a reforming president threatening to veto a bill “until every last bit of falafel has been cut out of it.” Perhaps you remember, as I do, Barak Obama, Man of the People, sympathizing with the electors of Iowa over the cresting price of—arugula! Let me ask you this: how much arugula would it take to secure Senator Landrieu’s vote on an important piece of legislation? You know there is not enough arugula in the world to do that. Some measley millions in pork, on the other hand—a done deal!

When you have really made a meal for yourself, what is the phrase you use to describe the experience? Well, I’ll tell you the phrase you don’t use. You don’t say, “Boy did I ever yoghurt out!” No, the correct term is pig out. Such porcine thoughts arise not merely because I am a Razorback but because half of my family keeps kosher, often making me the beneficiary of a diet delicious and salubrious, but definitely porkless. Hence I tend to make the most of such opportunities as may arise to eat as the other half eats. Well, among the four entrées (actually reduced to three by the time we came to order) was something called “carne de cochon”. Carne de cochon? How gastronomically incorrect can you be? Well, the name tells it all. Gross and glorious. I do have one suggestion for the restauranteurs. I think that every gourmand ordering this dish might conveniently be supplied with a three by five card. On the one side might be printed a brief reminder about the basic chops for the Heimmlich Manoeuver. On the other side would be a blank prescription, awaiting only a qualified medical signature, for Lipitor.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dutch Painting Triathlon

It has been a week of major developments in the Fifteenth Arrondissement, as we prosecuted a cultural triathlon that leaves me nearly too exhausted to get on a train in the morning—as our madcap pace requires—to go south to the Var to hang out for the week-end with our dear friends from Oxford days, Andrew and Edith Seth. In the middle of the week, at the invitation of Nick Chriss, we had a luncheon visit to the École de la Légion d’Honneur at Saint-Denis. Nick, who is one of the friends we have made at the American Cathedral, teaches English there. The school is among the great cultural and architectural treasures of France. It is a girls’ school, founded by Napoleon to provide an education for the daughters—and especially the female orphans, of whom his activities guaranteed a continuing abundance—of his most trusted lieutenants. The school takes the adjective “elite” to an altogether new level. To be considered for admission a girl must be the daughter or granddaughter of a légionnaire. And that’s the Légion d’Honneur, not the French Foreign Legion. The school was created atop and amidst the remains of the medieval monastery attached to the cathedral. The dining hall in which we lunched with a table-full of intermediate students of English was the old monastic refectory. The school buildings have managed to include, as well, a good bit of the original cloister plan.

Bright and early the next morning it was off to the Gare du Nord to catch a comfortable and speedy train to the Netherlands. The mission here was to give an after-dinner talk to the assembled Princeton Club of the Netherlands, meeting in the Hague. Our delightful host was Henk Gajentaan, a retired Dutch diplomat of ambassadorial rank, who awaited us on the train platform in an orange-and-black scarf of the kind normally donned only for the P-rade. The dinner took place, and so did the talk. The Princeton Club of the Netherlands has the distinction of being the most erudite such group I have yet encountered. But there was an entirely different high point to our visit, for Henk had arranged a special treat for us.
Some years ago one of my professional colleagues was a professor of politics, Leon Gordenker, a Dutchman eminent for his work on the United Nations and other international organizations. I had a friendly acquaintance with him, but his daughter Emilie actually became real friends with both of our two elder children. She was fixed in my mind as a smiley, freckled, bicycle-riding teen-ager. Well, there have been certain developments in the last quarter century of which I was not entirely aware. Emilie Gordenker went to Yale, where she studied Russian. Then she spent some time in the world of New York fashion and design. After a while, she did a Ph.D. at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, with a dissertation on the great Anthony Van Dyck,
portrait- painter to the stars. She then became one of the curators at the National Gallery of Scotland. But now she is the director of the famous Mauritshuis in the Hague, a museum that is itself an exquisite museum piece, and that holds one of the world’s greatest collections of Dutch and Flemish art, including more famous Rembrandts than you can shake a stick at. (And, yes, I know—that number is very small, unless you want to be carted off to jail. It’s a figure of speech.) Ordinarily you have to be the queen of Sweden to get a personal tour of the Mauritshuis from its
Emilie Gordenker and Dutch painting (left); the Queen of Sweden and Somebody Else (center & right)
director, but Emilie made an exception for the aging parents of her old school chums. Actually this was my second directorial tour. I once happened to be in the National Gallery in London when I came upon Sir Kenneth Clark in the course of giving a private little tour to three friends. I shamelessly followed them, always pretending to be looking at something in the vague vicinity of the painting before which they had halted, but actually eavesdropping. I could hear every word that the great Sir Kenneth uttered, and they were roughly as follows. "I like this one." "I really like this one." "I've never much cared for this one." "It sort of grows on you, don't you think?" Etc., etc. Emilie Gordenker's erudite but sparkling comments were of an altogether different sort, rather like a really fine seminar presentation.
The heady dose of the seventeenth century at the Mauritshuis should have been enough for any man, but you must recall that in my day job I am a medievalist. As it happened there was at that very moment, and hardly an hour away by train, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of the paintings of Rogier van der Weyden and his extensive atelier. This was in the fine little city of Louvain, site of one of Europe's great universities, and a famous center of international medieval studies. It has a special personal interest as the old stomping grounds of one of my distinguished graduate students, Professor Stefan vander Elst, now in California. I should probably say "the former Louvain". The Flemish language police have taken over in recent years, and the place is definitely Leuven, not Louvain. No exceptions are made even for Flemings who don’t speak Flemish. Like some other mysterious towns one encounters, Leuven has a vast train station, seemingly out of proportion with the modest size of the place. It is as though half of Grand Central had been plonked down in, say, Trenton, though in other regards that pairing doesn’t leap to mind. Nonetheless its numerous tracks and platforms seem in a constant state of bustle, and we were assured that there were so many trains each hour going to Brussels that it was hardly worth trying to fine tune our return.
The town itself has many lovely parts, and I would one day like to spend a whole day or two there. On this occasion we had timed tickets and didn't dawdle on our way to the spectacular and recently completed town museum. My expectations could not have been higher, nor more fully met. I had been made just a tiny bit skeptical by the Internet advertising. They had labeled the show something like "Rogier van der Weyden--Master of the Passions". This was a play on words, and indeed on ideas. Many of Rogier's paintings find their subject matter in the Passion of Christ--Crucifixions, Depositions, Pietàs. But in a much more general sense he and his followers bring a new and powerful sense of human emotion to the whole repertory of Gothic art. Perhaps the most haunting half-line in world literature is Virgil's Sunt lacrimæ rerum. If you want to know what the "tears of things" look like in pigment rather than poetry, Rogier is
your man.The exposition, though inexhaustible, was exhausting. One can consume only so much caviar and champagne. I bought the lavish huge, heavy expensive catalogue, but I have yet to cut into the shrink-wrap. I am going to have to wait at least another week, until I have been able to tame the experience in my memory and imagination. But then I hope to study is closely. From the purely stylistic point of view Rogier--along with Jan Van Eyck and one or two others--most closely approximates the Gothic vision as I find it in the medieval writers I most admire--Dante, parts of Boccaccio, the Chaucer of the Canterbury Tales, the Pearl-poet. One of the books that got me started on my own life's work was Panofsky's still magnificent Early Netherlandish Painting. In the last few days I saw many beautiful things that I had previously known only from that book.
We still hadn't quite finished the art marathon. There is yet another amazing exhibition of Dutch painting on, right here in Paris--"L'Age d'Or Hollandais"--with several score of the finest items from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This was a more athletic event, since the Pinacothèque had sold far too many tickets for each time slot, and since your average Parisian museum-hopper is likely to be, well, assertive. The little earphone-guide things are now causing serious mischief, as they guarantee that there will be a rugby scrum around every major piece on display. Here my sheer body mass, so often an encumbrance or an embarrassment, was my friend. There's more, such as my discovery of a wonderful pictorial anti-Franciscan satire by one of the Saftlevens, but I am beginning to feel like one of those American aesthetes in early Henry James novels. You, on the other hand, may be feeling like the reader of a late Henry James novel. Either way, it's time for me to quit.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Addendum: "The Venetian Rivals"

Here is a brief addendum to yesterday's post. A young friend in Princeton, James Wilentz, supervises the very classy site "Old Masters--New Perspectives". Its purpose it to provide such current information about the work of the Great Masters of European painting as may be of interest or use to art lovers, art historians, and art dealers. He invited me to review the "Venetian Rivals" show that was originally mounted in Boston and is now at the Louvre.

You can read the review here, before going on to the more pleasant task of exploring of James Wilentz's unusual site.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Golden Oldies of Erudition

When my daughter made a short visit to our apartment the other day, I noted that her first and instinctive act was a furtive check of the bookshelves. She was not surveying titles, just shelf space. Our very classy modern glass bookshelves, of which there are seven visible (I don’t count four more possible wooden shelves hidden within a closet) have of course begun to fill up. She commented upon that fact, declaring it to be “good,” though with hesitant tone that disclosed an inner worry. All my intimates think I have too many books. Saint Augustine could imagine a life without love no easier than he could imagine a life without oxygen. I feel that way about books, which indeed have become yet more valuable to me as the amatory and the pulmonary systems face the onslaughts of senility.

Most things in Paris are pretty terrific, but one thing that isn’t is the book market. There is an actual law that makes inflexible the price of new books sold in shops, and even has been able to negotiate only the most piddling discounts. Hence shopping for new books lacks all sense of adventure, let alone suspense. And since the general vibe emanating from bookshop assistants—that should be “assistants”—is that they don’t give un bon n’importe quoi as to whether they have the book you want or not, book shopping doesn’t encourage enthusiasm. The bookstalls on the quais, needless to say, are now but the memory of a memory of a tourist gimmick.

The second hand market is bad in two ways. There isn’t a lot of volume or variety, and what there is is way overpriced by American standards. The biggest outdoor second-hand market in Paris is in “my” arrondissement, the Fifteenth, though a still good hike away, over in Georges Brassens Park. On Saturdays there is probably about a half acre of tables. The first thing that becomes clear is that the briskest high-end action involves antique leather-bound sets (mainly ecclesiastical in nature) being purchased for purposes of interior decoration. And we are supposed to be the Philistines! My plan, insofar as I have had one, is to try to expand, slowly, my collection of Pléiade editions. So far I have balked at the prices—usually a minimum of 40 euros for a volume not in top-notch shape. I did find one guy selling the multiple volumes (eighteen, I think) of Balzac’s Comédie humaine for 220 euros. I might go for that when I next have a lecture honorarium to spare. I can’t imagine that the books won’t still be available. I did find one bargain in a bricolage stall: four volumes, from a broken set of probably a dozen, of the works of Joseph de Maistre, beautifully gold-stamped on the front covers with the mark of the long defunct Jesuit College of the Immaculate Conception, Vaugirard, a mark I have more than once encountered in the world’s great libraries.

I’ve done a little on the Internet. of course lists French and other European dealers, and I’ve gotten a few things. I got a paper edition of Madame de Staël’s Delphine, almost certainly from the nineteenth century, but still uncut in its foxing covers. I dipped into it, but I don’t quite have the stomach for a 600-page epistolary novel that relates to my next project. My current project, the Sobolos rios of Luis de Camões forced me to order expensive items from England and Italy (half of the expense, incidentally, in postal costs). To my amazement I learn that it is usually cheaper to buy from American Abebook dealers, even with transatlantic postage! In this manner I discovered an old friend.

When I first joined the Princeton English Department in 1965 there were within its senior faculty a group of old geezers who would sit of a morning in the little departmental library drinking coffee, talking about how literary studies were heading for hell in a hand-basket. One of them assiduously studied the obituaries in the Times, occasionally emitting a sort of sotto voce rasping chuckle: “Heh-heh-heh! Younger than I am!” I was in my blind and farouche youth, and I pitied those old farts with a condescension that now mortifies me. For indeed literary study did go to hell in a hand-basket, and I morphed into one of them; but by then I could apologize only to their tombs.

There was a time when many professors of literature were erudite. I don’t mean clever, hip, flashy, or brilliant. I mean erudite—as in, they knew an awful lot. This was true of my most memorable undergraduate teachers, some of whom had probably never published a word themselves; but it was true in spades of the great scholars in the country’s leading institutions. There were people of truly amazing learning all over the country teaching Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Keats, George Eliot—you name it, they had read it. Unless they had written it, that is.

One such scholar among hundreds was Herschel Baker of Harvard. I never laid eyes on the man. I know nothing about him in a personal way, whether he was tall or short, nice or nasty. But I have read his books. The one I remembered most vividly, because I read it most recently, was a magisterial biography of Hazlitt, probably from the early sixties. I think his real field was probably Renaissance literature. The book of his that blew me away as a graduate student was The Dignity of Man: Studies in the Persistence of an Idea. You won’t find a book like that being published today, and I am not alluding to the politically incorrect title. This book tells you everything that anybody ever thought, said, or wrote about human nature and the composition of the human mind, body, or spirit, between the age of Plato and that of Martin Luther. And, believe me, they wrote a lot. Herschel Baker had read it all.

In one of the poems I am writing about there is a reference to “my three souls”. I remembered dimly, that this was one of the thousand things in Baker’s book—a book not to be found, so far as I could discover, in all the realm of France! So I ordered a copy through Abebooks from a small-town shop in Indiana. One of the signs of our national cultural decline is that most of the books of this sort I buy have been discarded by the desperate or clueless libraries of our institutions of higher learning. Well, Emerson College’s loss was Fleming’s gain.

The three souls—and how could I have forgotten?—were of course the vegetable soul, the sensitive soul (divided between concupiscible and irascible faculties), and the rational soul. Baker answered my query in about thirty seconds, but by then he had me hooked. I had to read the whole book through. What a romp. Here’s a typical paragraph: “The vital spirits rise from the heart to the brain—always, it seems, by something conveniently called ‘secret channels’—and are finally distilled for the third time into animal spirits. These are ‘more excellent than the other and before the rest in dignity.’ As Pierre Charron, the friend of Montaigne put it, the vital spirits are ‘raised’ by the arteries to the brain, where they are ‘concocted and reconcocted, elaborated and made subtile by the help of the multiplicity of small Arteries, as fillets diversely woven and interlaced, by many turnings and windings, like a labyrinth of double net’.” How can you spend good money on Foucault after you have read something like that?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Inbound, from the Internet

If life is what happens in the meantime, I have had a week of living large. We arrived in Paris more than a month ago, but my first fortnight here was occupied mainly with preparing a lecture that I was obliged to give in Cleveland in the middle of October. Regular readers will know about that pleasant event, but they will know, too, that it took a full week counting travel and recuperation time. So in my mind's eye I didn't settle down to what you might call serious work until the beginning of last week. In this context "serious work" has a technical connotation that may not resonate with all readers. Strange to say, some folks just aren't into sixteenth-century Portuguese religious poetry. Serious work, you see, means the composition of a monograph about Sobolos rios que vão, an extraordinary poem by Luis de Camões.
What I Should Have Been Working On

Furthermore, this meant that, turning my back on my recent and exhilarating flirtation with trade publishing, I was returning to a level of scholarship so recondite as to make even my great work on asyndectic parataxis in the Lesser Ambigua of Maximus the Confessor seem vulgar and popularizing. A reputation for true obscurantism is easier to talk about that to achieve, and I refuse to give mine up without a struggle. I did make some progress, meaning I got some pages written; but I had not reckoned on the operation of the Michael Corleone Theorem: "Just when I think I am out, they pull you back in."

What I Was Actually Working On

Before I had left America, in fact a goodly time before I had left America, I had recorded a CSPAN interview about The Anti-Communist Manifestos. This was sort of fun, if somewhat ersatz. The recording took place in a small room in the mid-town high rise campus of Pace University. Around the room were light boxes hoked up with photographs as a fake Manhattan skyline. I hadn’t exactly forgotten about the interview, but I had long since given up expecting its imminent airing—which would in any event be rather academic to me here in Paris. Hence I was taken by surprise by its appearance. I don’t think I did too badly, considering the fact that nobody told me that if I wanted to make eye contact with my television audience I’d have to look at an imaginary spot about two feet above the head of the person I was actually talking to. You might like to see it. Your time will be only slightly more squandered than if you drove out to the mall to watch the Sears truck unload. You can see it here. Or if by any unhappy chance you have not been introduced to my son Richard’s wonderful blog “A Brooklynite on the Ice,” you can dispatch two nerds with one groan by watching it there. Rich has me sandwiched in between Michelle Obama’s sweet-potato and some unclaimed Hallowe’en sweets. You appreciate the unifying leitmotif: sweetness.

I learned about its appearance from a small avalanche of emails. The scholar may often be unsure of whether he in fact has any audience at all. You spend several years researching a learned book, and a couple more years writing it. Add two more years, if you are lucky, for the process of publication. Then maybe after two more a couple of people will write condescending reviews of a page or two, the gist of which is the following: “B+. What this guy should have said...what I would have said...”, etc. But almost anything posted on the Internet is likely to get nearly instantaneous response.

One group of messages is from former students. Any teacher is always thrilled to hear from a former student—even if the communication is a disguised request for a letter of recommendation. A professor of literature is going to be particularly thrilled to hear from former students who listen to or watch programs about literature—especially when (as was the circumstance here) they seem to be doing this in precious moments stolen from their day jobs running the world. I also heard from quite a few B+ types. “Didn’t you mean Germany one time when you said Russia?” Er, yes, sorry. “Did I hear you say that Hiss was convicted of treason? It was perjury.” Well, I don’t think that I said treason, but if I did that was a mistake, because it was perjury, though of course the perjury was a mere emblem of the espionage on which the statute of limitations had expired, and yadayada yad.

One guy (and this was more like D- than B+) went on the warpath about a passing remark made in the book—but certainly not in the interview—about Dalton Trumbo. Now, look. Dalton Trumbo wore very cool hats. Dalton Trumbo may have been a good screen-writer. Dalton Trumbo may have been screwed by HUAC. Dalton Trumbo may still be a Hollywood darling and the subject of a recent hagiographic offering by PBS. But I am here to tell you that Dalton Trumbo was also a Communist acolyte of Joseph Stalin, a denier of the gulag, and a maligner of truth-tellers like Koestler and Kravchenko. He was in short a useful idiot member of the American Communist Party. But I digress...

Among the most poignant messages I received were several from people, mostly of advancing years, for whom the content of my book had vivid associations, often through family members. A man about my age wrote to me from rural New England with an extraordinary story. He is of Finnish-American descent, and he has in his possession, and allowed me to see, three autobiographical essays by relatives or friends of his parents’ generation—American survivors of the gulag! Actually there are quite a few books by or about American “zeks”—the Russian slang acronym for political prisoners. Three of the ones that impressed me most are Alexander Dolgun’s Story, Walter Ciszek’s With God in Russia, and Robert Robinson’s Red on Black. This last touches on the multiply ironic histories of blacks who tried to escape American racism by going to the USSR.

One community that certainly needs its own historian—and I hope my correspondent might be he—is the large group of Finnish-Americans who, abandoning their little farms and the idling factories of the Midwest, took off for the Soviet Union in the early Depression years. Some were members of the Communist Party. Others were enthusiasts of the socialist vision. Still others were simply naïve members of a tight-knit ethic community that had been sold a bill of goods. By the thousands these idealistic immigrants—in common with non-Russians from a hundred nations, including a very large contingent from Finland itself—got caught up in the grinding machine that was Stalin’s gulag. That they were innocent of the crimes for which they were punished is perhaps too banal a point to make. One of the essayists (a woman) reports that her NKVD tormentors actually said to her, “If out of a hundred people we arrest, one is truly guilty, we are doing a good job!”

All three of the essays I have seen are written in a kind of rusty and faulty English miraculously remembered after fifty years of torment. The literary quality is that you would expect of someone with a few years' elementary education in a Michigan school house of the 1920s or 30s. But they are enough to make the very stones weep, and I hope they make it into print. The world is tired of bad news. We all want a respite from misery. In the Canterbury Tales the Monk’s contribution is a sad litany of de casibus tragedies beginning with Lucifer and Adam and coming down practically to the “present day” with Count Ugolino of Pisa, ever memorable from Dante’s Inferno. At last the Knight, tiring of the unceasing woe, interrupts the Monk and cuts him off:

“Hoo!” quod the Knyght, “good sire, namoore of this!.../ for litel hevynesse / Is right ynough to muche folk, I gesse.”

Yes, I guess so too. But as I told my correspondent, a world that is prepared to forget its Trails of Tears, its Armenian genocides, its Holomadors and its Holocausts, its Rwandan massacres—that is a world condemned to experience them again.