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?


  1. What do you think changed, Professor Fleming?

    Was it how graduate education is done? How faculty committees hire, or select their colleagues for tenure?

    Too much competition, or not enough?

    Or was it just the inevitable result of one age passing, and a new one beginning?

  2. Are you familiar with the Trouve Tout du Livre in the tiny village of Le Somail on the Canal du Midi? Its owners converted an old 10,000 square-foot wine cellar into a bookstore and offer for sale some 50,000 volumes of rare and second-hand books. It's open year-round, except Nov. 15-30, and has an online

    PBL of

  3. Where's the brief addendum where you come full circle and explain your exit strategy and how you will get those books that are slowly filling the shelves back "home"?