Wednesday, September 30, 2009
In any event, this is probably as close to live blogging as I am likely ever to get. I am sitting in a lounge at Newark airport sipping cranberry juice watching other people play video games on their computers while they sip other stuff. Those few who are not tapping their computer keys are tapping their toes with that kind of nervous anticipation of people whose full-time job is to wait for something to happen, or somebody to arrive, or some mode of conveyance to be announced as “ready for boarding.” Some time ago our wonderful daughter Katy decided that her parents were no longer aging but positively aged and that, as a consequence, they should no longer travel tourist class on the large international carriers. She set out to investigate a number of “niche” airlines that made a specialty of “all business” flights at rates somewhat lower than the typical first-class cabins on the segregated routes.
She found something called “L’Avion”, and we greatly enjoyed that for a while. “L’Avion offered vastly comfortable seating half way between a divan and a dentist’s chair, plus lots of coddling by attentive, smartly presented staff members. On overnight flights sleep was not only possible; it was inescapable. The fares were higher than on the cattle cars, of course, but still not outrageous. It was a great experience. We wondered how “L’Avion” could make a go of it.
As it turned out they couldn’t. After a brief period this nice line began cutting its schedule. Indeed it turned out that one of the reservations we had for a transatlantic flight simply disappeared when all Thursday flights disappeared. Then “L’Avion” disappeared from the computer screen altogether. A few months later something called “Open Skies” appeared in the recently vacated space. We are waiting now for the “Open Skies” evening flight to Paris. There are a few differences. “L’Avion” was a dependency of Air France; “Open Skies” is a dependency of British Airways.
...dot, dot, dot...
and I am now on the plane, where I discover that only about a fifth of it is on L’Avion’s model. The plane is in fact another version of proletarians and aristocrats separated by about five hundred dollars on the ticket price. Part of that differential, the part that matters most to me, is in leg room, which goes, on a per-square inch basis, at about the rate of Manhattan real estate. But there seems also to be the feeling on the part of the staff that two or three times in an hour they must remind you in some alimentary way of your privileged status. The most recent reminder has been a hot, buttery croissant and a little pot of exquisite Swiss strawberry jelly.
...a few more dot, dot, dots...and here I am in Paris, where the initial efficiency has been stunning. We are into our gorgeous tiny new apartment on the avenue Suffren. After a most pleasant reunion luncheon with Katy, Zvi, and the two youngest of our gorgeous granddaughters (the eldest being occupied with a high level photography workshop over at the American University in Paris), I toddled the long block down toward the river to the municipal sports center “Emile Antoine”. There I purchased a carnet pour 10 entrées (tarif reduit) and intend to show up at the pool at seven tomorrow morning. And just to prove that I really am here today, I employ the old photograph-of-the-day’s-newspaper date beloved of Columbian terrorists and the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
I scorned his advice. I was a determined overachiever. In fact on most days I had usually overachieved before two or two-thirty in the afternoon. I got good grades. I got a silver cup proclaiming me among the better students of literature in the whole Sewanee class of 1958. This man got mediocre grades—though, infuriatingly enough, passing ones. He had not so much as a ceramic flowerpot to show how smart he was. Fast-forward half a century. Eventually, after many more pewter cups, I got a meager pension from the debauched holdings of the Teachers’ Insurance and Annuity Association and the College Retirement Equities Fund. This other guy, when he last surfaced, owned about a third of the state of North Carolina.
I might at least improve the hour by listing—not addressing, mind you, merely listing—some of the things I have to accomplish before I get on the airplane next Tuesday. I must write an ambitious lecture on “Scriptural Exegesis and Pictorial Imagery in Medieval and Renaissance Art.” As readers of my last post probably can divine, what I have in that line so far is a small collection of blurry pictures of pigs.
Being graded on a paper is a miserable experience; but there are experiences more miserable yet, such as assigning a grade to a paper. One of my former colleagues, who taught at Yale before he came to Princeton, told me that one of his own elder colleagues at that institution had made the paper-grading business bearable by limiting himself to but two grades and a single comment for all papers. His two grades, over which he often agonized in paroxysms of scrupulous indecision, were A- and B+. The written comment was invariably the same: “Some interesting ideas.” I thought retirement meant that my paper-grading days were over, but I find I must write an “expert” evaluation of a manuscript submitted to a scholarly journal. Writing evaluations of really terrific essays is easier. Writing evaluations of really horrible essays is yet easier. What is quite difficult is writing a helpful commentary on an essay that is almost good as is, but could be really terrific if only the author would rewrite it completely. In order to explain how this might be done, of course, I shall in effect have to do a complete rewrite myself.
Then there are several letters of recommendation for graduate school, law school, medical school, and business school. The liberal professions seem to me threatened by an entropic death brought about by a surfeit of evaluation; and the high cholesterol diet begins early, with the application process. I am rather unsure whether admissions committees actually read the letters I write, but their potential and perceived significance for the young and hopeful applicants is such that their author is required to take them very seriously indeed. It’s too bad in a way that they are all confidential, for many are masterpieces worthy of wide circulation. The Collected Letters of Recommendation of J. V. Fleming would certainly be the thickest of my various publications.
Those are just a few of the things I have to do before I leave, and they are as nothing in comparison with the domestic chores: garden, car insurance, root-and-branch search for overdue library books, pre-paying the property taxes, organizing medical prescriptions, etc., etc. I take some comfort in the example of the great Samuel Johnson, whose three hundredth birthday fell this month. Johnson is sometimes said to be England’s first professional man of letters—that is, he actually earned his living from his writing. That is not easy to do today, and it was practically impossible in eighteenth-century London. Johnson’s writing is extremely varied. The publication of his great dictionary of the English language was a Copernican event in the history of our culture. He has works of exemplary fiction that every educated person should read. (His Rasselas is in my opinion superior even to Voltaire’s brilliant Candide.) His Lives of the Poets—and especially the remarkable “Life of Savage”—established a mode of literary biography still vibrant today. But Johnson’s steady income came from his essays for the periodical press. In this capacity he faced definite, inflexible deadlines, and his mode of operation was inspiring. Ordinarily he only began writing his essay when the printer’s boy arrived on the doorstep to pick up the already overdue copy. Dr. Johnson—a blogger’s blogger!
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
One of my most prominent one-time graduate students, Prof. Lynn Staley, had invited me. Lynn is not just a professor. She is the Harrington and Shirley Drake Professor of the Humanities and Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the Department of English—which may explain why I prefer to call her Lynn. She was our domestic host for the visit—meaning that we were able to stay in her beautiful house, a gem of a characterful and tasteful place of the sort that New England villages and upstate hamlets seem to monopolize, rather than in the local hotel. Prof. Staley is among the more prominent literary medievalists of her generation, having published an imposing and varied series of important, innovative books, and all the time teaching within the context of labor-intensive college without graduate programs or a large research library. Anyone who has experienced family life has some sense for the particular quality of parental pride. The pride teachers take in their former students has a whiff of the familial, but it has another dimension, one absolutely unique—what might be called “cerebral affection”.
But I digress, and must return, or simply turn, to the iconography of pigs, a subject that plays a tangential role in the lecture on medieval imagery and scriptural exegesis mentioned in the last blog. There turn out to be rather more pigs in the Bible than you might imagine, but from the pictorial point of view the most important ones surely are those related to the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). This is one of Jesus’s all-star parables—right up there with the Good Samaritan. A wastrel younger son comes to his father, a wealthy farmer, and asks that he be given his inheritance early. I used to think this was an entirely contrived plot, but I know of at least two actual instances of the same thing among the families of my own conteporaries. This silly boy scoops up his share of the money and takes off for the Levantine equivalent of Las Vegas or Atlantic City, where he soon enough spends all his money on sloe gin and fast women, at which point of course he finds himself friendless, sad, sober, and sorry. The only work he can find is that of a migrant agricultural worker:“…and he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into the fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat; and no man gave unto him…”
I hope you know what happens next or that, if you should not, you will immediately repair the glaring literary lacuna by reading the fifteenth chapter of the gospel of Luke. The pig-feeding episode in the parable has been rendered in pictorial form by several important artists, including Albrecht Dürer—in this wonderful etching.
I grew up with pigs in Arkansas. The reason the famed University of Arkansas football team takes the name Razorbacks is that throughout the first decades of the twentieth century semi- wild razorback hogs (so named for their flat, trenchantly hirsuit dorsal construction) roamed and ravaged at will through the open range of the Ozark counties of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. They are a thing of the past, but if you want to know what they looked like, take a look at the Dürer etching. These are not docile porkers, but vicious feral beasts, hardly a generation removed from the lethal wild boars that were their ancestors. If I were like the Prodigal Son thrown among them, I would probably fall on my knees and pray for deliverance too.
Though it was my search for pigs that brought me to this picture, it is something else, a small vegetable detail, that gave me an “Ah-ha!” moment. When I was a kid, my aunts, like most of the local country people, planted in their gardens a particularly coarse and hardy variety of turnip. This was a very bitter-tasting thing, nearly the strength of horse-radish, to which it was no doubt related. You might put one of these things in a large pot of soup or stew, so long as it could be overwhelmed by more palatable ingredients; but it was not really grown for human consumption. It was the necessary final garnish to any bucket of slops fed to the pigs. There are many questions that children might ask but never do. I simply took it as a law of nature that the one necessary ingredient of pig-swill was a bitter turnip. If you have a magnifying glass handy take a look at the thing in the print just belong the Prodigal’s prone leg, the thing toward which a particularly vicious piglet is approaching with intent. It is a turnip, precisely of the species raised by my Aunt Mildred. I have been looking at my pictures in search of the “spiritual sense”. But here, in a quite literal detail, at first unnoticed and indeed hardly noticeable, is an evidence of what the historians and anthropologists call the longue durée of peasant culture: ancient Palestine imagined as early modern Europe, then still alive in the cultural backwaters of America.
I have one other Prodigal Son anecdote of possible interest. In the Sewanee of my day there was a famous priest, one Father Huske (the name is important), who performed his Anglo-Catholic missionary work among the mountain folk of the coves and hollows of the Cumberland Plateau in central Tennessee. One of our Sewanee professors had been in seminary with this formidable apostle, whose asceticism had become the occasion of a locally celebrated witticism. Huske, who was one of relatively small group of High Churchmen in his class, indulged in many traditional Catholic practices that some of his more evangelical classmates regarded as pure popery. One dietary point of his piety was that he would not eat flesh-meat on Fridays. Such abstemiousness, once de rigeur among Roman Catholics, has now practically disappeared. It was weakened by the tendency of the last Vatican Council, and given the death blow when Frank Perdue produced a chicken that no theologian in the Church was willing to classify as meat.
But in the late Forties, when Father Huske was still in seminary, the rule was in force, and this Anglican fellow traveler abided by it. Abstaining from the meat offered by the institutional kitchens was not always what you would call a sacrifice, but on one entirely untypical Friday the luncheon menu featured slabs of a delicious country ham. If you have ever eaten true southern country ham, you know that the adjective “delicious” is not unmerited. Young seminarian Huske, though tempted perhaps, declined this delicacy for the sake of his spiritual health, setting up for one of his classmates an immortal riposte. “Please pass the platter,” he said. “I fain would eat of the swine that the Huske refuseth.”
Sunday, September 13, 2009
One of the recurrent suches is that readers might appreciate postings made according to a regular schedule, as opposed to whenever I happen to get around to it. I shall adopt this excellent suggestion as well. From now on, I shall normally post weekly--every Wednesday. Do note the weasel word normally, so beloved of college catalogues and credit card agreements. Next Wednesday is already iffy, since I shall be spending a good chunk of it driving back from Colgate, where I shall be giving a talk on Tuesday.
In fact, the next couple of weeks will be action packed for les croulants Fleming, as they prepare to remove to Paris for several months. My first preparatory gesture, as you can see, is to pull out some dated and dusty French slang. During my first visits to France many years ago I noted that irreverent youths often referred to their parents as les croulants. The normal meaning of crouler is to crumble, collapse, fall apart, rot, or decay into ruin—so you get the picture. What was metaphoric a couple of decades ago now dangerously approaches the brink of the literal.
Before I was certain I would be spending the autumn in Paris—under auspices to be explained in a future post—I had accepted a flattering and prestigious invitation to give the annual Julius Fund lecture sponsored jointly by the Cleveland Art Museum and the Art History Department of Case Western Reserve University. The topic is one I have always want to approach in a broad-brushe fashion: “The Letter and the Spirit” Pictorial Imagery and Scriptural Exegesis in Medieval and Renaissance Art.”
This will mean that I must return briefly to America after being in Paris for only a fortnight. This level of jet setting in not within my normal range. The more immediate problem, however, is to be sure that I have my lecture well prepared before I leave Princeton and the fabulous resources of its art history library. It’s more or less on schedule. As usual in scholarship, plowing a new intellectual field has inevitably turned up some curiously shaped stones and even a few fossils. These are irrelevant to the straight furrows of my lecture, but they conceivably could stimulate some interest in a future post. We’ll see next time. It all depends on how much you are into the iconography of pigs.
Monday, September 7, 2009
In the Q&A following a public address he had described Republican legislators as assholes, immediately adding the statement, which he had just rendered redundant, that he himself could be an asshole. Even before a highly partisan audience in Berkeley he surely could have found a more appropriate body part: larynx, perhaps, windpipe, jawbone, or epiglottis, something to do with the mouthiness of those who so ardently love the sound of their own voices that they will say almost anything. I shall leave the fate of Mr. Jones to the partisan bloggers who seem, in nearly equal numbers, to be celebrating or lamenting his departure from the President’s administration. It is enough that he has answered for me a question left hanging from a committee meeting I attended nearly thirty-five years ago.
It was in fact my first meeting as a member of the Committee on Discipline, a committee composed of representatives of the student body, the faculty, and the administration, charged with hearing discipline cases that fell outside the purview of the Honor Committee, which deals with cheating. The case before us had to do with an episode of inebriated fisticuffs that had occurred in the wee hours of a Sunday morning at the corner of Prospect Avenue and Washington Road in Princeton, NJ. Two drunken students, one a lacrosse player and the other a hockey player had had an altercation.
These two guys, now sober and avoiding any eye contact with each other or any member of the committee, were hauled before the tribunal to testify. The hockey player had hit the lacrosse player so hard as to break his jaw in two places. This double fracture was apparently rather sensational from the osteopathic point of view, and played a major role in the testimony. Certainly the effect was dramatic. The lower half of the victim’s face was held together by a kind of wire birdcage. They both were men of few words, and fewer still grammatical ones; and the native inarticulateness of the victim was considerably exacerbated by interference from his auxiliary chin of metallic mesh. We strained to understand him, but the story did come out.
There are moments in life when one is led in a very short time to alter an apparently sound and fixed opinion. We all began with sympathy for the guy with the broken jaw and potential hostility for the guy who had broken it. Within about three minutes those valences had been exactly reversed. That was because the hockey player came across as a penitent delinquent while the lacrosse player was such a—well, an obnoxious boor. What had seemed an open-and-shut case suddenly seemed perhaps more complex, and one of our deans, who was then a wise young woman and is now a wiser yet middle-aged woman, started asking a few questions of the assailant.
“Tell me, Mr. X,” she said, “before Mr. Y. hit you, had there been any exchange of words?”
“Uhhhh,” said the wired man, barely intelligible through the mesh.
“What’s that?” asked the dean.
“Uhhh….guess so….maybe…yeah, I guess.”
“Did Mr. Y. say anything to you?”
Long pause, followed by “Uhh, can’t remember. Don’t think so.”
“Well, did you say anything to Mr. Y? Before he hit you, I mean.”
“Come again?” said the dean.
Really long pause. “Yeah….sure…ahhggr.”
“Well?” asked the dean, and when there was no response she added, “I mean, what exactly did you say to Mr. Y?”
Really, really long pause. “I said…” and here he struggled to make himself clear despite the prosthesis… “I said, 'ASSHOLE!'”
This had a dramatic effect on the elder members of the committee, though the students seemed to take it in stride.
“I wonder,” asked the dean, carefully suppressing any possible sarcasm of tone, “I wonder…Have you considered whether what you said might have had something to do with what he did?”
For the first time the wounded man seemed to fully engage with the proceedings. Certainly for the first time he gave evidence of a convincing sense of grievance. He had obviously been shocked and offended by the dean’s question. Speaking slowly to make himself clear he struggled to master his indignation. “What kind of a place would this be?” he asked. “I mean, what kind of a place would this be…if you got slugged every time you called somebody an asshole?” Mr. Jones’s experience has given me the answer that eluded the flabbergasted Discipline Committee all those decades ago. What kind of a place? It would perhaps be a slightly more civil kind of a place, that’s what.