Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters

My last effort was more a phenomenon than a real blog posting. I had no computer with me during my recent trip to America, and scant time to have used it should I have had one. I was working from a rather dodgy PC in the public lobby of the hotel in which I was staying, so that I considered it a major feat to get anything up at all.

My visit had two parts. The first day was spent mainly at a beautiful independent school, the Hawken School, where I met with some individual classes and addressed a large school assembly on the topic “What Are the Humanities”. I thought that after all these years it was perhaps time I figured it out. There is a very great deal in American primary and secondary education to cause distress and alarm; but if you are inclined to pessimism, as I often am, a visit to a place like Hawken is most salutary. Quite apart from the impressive student body, the place has a visionary head of school, a faculty not merely committed to their students but to the actual subjects they teach to their students, and—quite as important as either of these—an active group of civic-minded parents deeply invested in the school’s success.

The next day was spent mainly with the chair of the art history department at Case Western Reserve University, the distinguished professor Edward Olszewski, my host for two delicious meals, and my guide around the fabulous Cleveland Museum of Art. Even with many of its galleries closed during a dramatic expansion of the facilities, it makes an overwhelming impression. Prof. Olszewski was also the man who introduced my lecture on “The Letter and the Spirit: Medieval Scriptural Exegesis and Pictorial Imagery in Medieval and Renaissance Art.” You undoubtedly know Leonardo’s “Madonna of the Rocks.” Everybody knows the painting. Ah, yes, but do you know what the rocks are, where they come from, and why they are there? If you don’t, you’ll want to hear this lecture.

The whole trip, though exhausting, was richly rewarding in cultural alimentation (as well as the more conventional mode of gastronomy) and in human fellowship. What I did not fully grasp until very late in my stay was the justification for my having been invited to make the visit in the first place. It was a sensational exemplification of the virtues of casting one’s bread upon the waters, as I shall explain in a moment. But I fear that what with the ravages of secular humanism and all that, there might be one or two of you out there who don’t know what bread-casting is all about.

My grandmother used to listen to a religious program on NBC radio when I was a child. (The idea of a religious broadcasting by one of the major networks would today seem extraordinary, but it was then quite common. I remember hearing President Franklin Roosevelt on the radio leading the entire nation in the Lord’s Prayer.) One evening, while I was trying to do something else, I was hearing rather than listening to the kind of uncontroversial and platitudinous preacher that the format encouraged. It was perhaps the once famous Norman Vincent Peale, whose specialty was the Good News as Good Vibe, lots of uplift. My grandmother’s own religion was definitely of the “No cross, no crown” school. Anyway with this guy, whoever he was, there was not much cross to a whole lot of crown. The gist of his sermon or inspirational talk was this: “Remember—a good deed is always a good investment.” He exemplified the fact that no good deed goes unrewarded with various anecdotes, and with repeated citations of the Bible text (Ecclesiastes 11:1) around which the whole sermon was built. “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.”

That was a text with which I was not unfamiliar, though it did puzzle me, as soggy, water-logged bread did not seem to me a highly desirable commodity, and, anyway, why go through the rigmarole of throwing it away so you can find it again? I have since learned from erudite Bible commentaries that what is probably being advocated is grain shipments, from which a good profit was reasonably to be expected—meaning that this Preacher of Plenty was right on!

In any event, there were repeated citations of “Cast your bread upon the waters...” Although different speakers or presenters came on the show each week, there was a permanent MC, whose unctuous attitudes and holy tones might have inspired Eliot’s great line about “the sapient sutlers of the Lord.” This guy introduced the program, and always brought it to an end by summarizing the evening’s message in a pithy phrase or two. On this particular night the announcer made a booboo so egregious that it actually showed up later in a collection of nationally broadcast malapropisms called “Pardon My Blooper”. After thanking the preacher for an inspiring message, he concluded by exhorting his national audience to put it into practice. “...and so, my friends, remember—‘Cast your broad upon the waters...This is the National Breadcasting Corporation’.”

Back to the main plot. I eventually discovered that the real reason I was having such a great time in Cleveland had to do with some long-forgotten bread-casting of my own. I was there, ostensibly, because I am an expert in medieval Christian iconography; but there was a more satisfying reason. Among the more substantial and civic-minded citizens of Cleveland is a family of whom the wife is a former Princeton undergraduate. I don’t mention her name lest even such meager publicity as this cause her embarrassment. This woman is a Hawken alumna and a Hawken parent. She is a busy wife and mother, and she is an outstanding art historian in training. The truth of the matter is that I do not remember teaching her at Princeton, or even the course in which I taught her. Fortunately from my point of view she was not so forgetful of me.

Bishop Berkeley famously asked about the tree falling in the forest, unseen by human eye, unheard by human ear. Wordsworth spoke of

....that best portion of a good man’s life /His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.

Berkeley’s answer was that God heard the tree fall. It was God’s unseen glance, indeed, that allowed the tree and every other thing to be. Esse est percipi. To be is to be perceived. And Wordsworth, though he felt forced to cast off the old biblical myths, was still writing within a providential world in which bread cast upon the waters might after many days be found again. One of the greatest joys of having been a teacher is the discovery that it’s all true.