Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Of pigs and prodigals

I have just finished a quick lunch after a pleasingly varied five-hour drive from Hamilton, New York, home to Colgate University, to Princeton, home to the Flemings among others. At Colgate I had given an informal lecture on materials from my new book The Anti-Communist Manifestos under the auspices of the Humanities program with which I had had a brief but most pleasant association when I taught at Colgate for a semester in the spring of 2008. Colgate is a wonderful school that reminds me very much of my own undergraduate alma mater, Sewanee. It is a place where the teaching of bright undergraduates is squarely in the center of the actual as well as the rhetorical agenda of the institution. The teaching ethos of the place is inescapable and infectious.

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

Not with a Blog, but a Twitter

As I begin to get some sense of an incipient and as yet inchoate readership for “Gladly Lerne”, I sense also the need to do some long-range thinking. I am genuinely grateful for such comments as that offered by Gerard a post or two ago—a suggestion, immediately adopted, on how to improve the blog’s visual readability—but I also conclude that many people are chary of offering public comment. This is not a conclusion based on clairvoyance. I have had numerous messages to my email boxes saying as much: “I don’t want to post this in public, but I’d like to suggest such-and-such.”

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.