Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Disavowal

broad expanses of white

The vow has fallen on hard times. About the only “vows” left are those in the phrase “marriage vows,” the increasingly metaphorical nature of which are daily demonstrated in the divorce courts. Good old-fashioned, extravagant, literal-minded vows—of the genre “The day that I blah blah blah….,” or “No daughter of mine blah blah blah…”—are now largely a matter of literary history. Some of these are funny, others less so. They can be amusing especially when they reverse the modern trend, and move from the metaphoric to the legalistic, such as Dorigen’s vow (in Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale”) that she will go to bed with the importunate Aurelius when the black rocks disappear from the coast of Brittainy. The actual meaning of this vow is, roughly, “Drop dead, creep!” By taking it literally Aurelius manages to keep the plot moving briskly.

Less amusing is the biblical account of Jephtha the Gileadite and his daughter (Judges, cap. 11), a story that does little to commend the primitive Hebrew concept of divinity, or for that matter of fatherhood. Jephtha was a mighty warrior who made the following deal with God. If God will let him win a battle against the children of Amnon, Jephtha vowed to sacrifice the first person he saw walking out of the door of his house after the victory. (Were this a freshman essay rather than Holy Writ I would probably write “Logic?” in the margin at this point.) He slaughtered the Amnonites, but was required to do the same to his only child when she came out of the door to congratulate him with a celebrative tambourine concert. He was probably counting on a redundant uncle or, at worst, his aging mother.

The technical term for this sort of thing was “rash vow,” and several will doubtless occur to you from folklore. The rash vow was a legal category under the Code of Justinian, and a theological category in the medieval casuistry of penance. The lawyers and the theologians were for once in perfect concord: it was bad to make a rash vow, but it was far worse to honor it. Exhibit number One: Jephtha the Gileadite.

One of many things I admire about my wife Joan is that even after all these years she is still on occasion capable of making a rash vow. More admirable yet is her ability to repent of it. Many years ago she made a rash vow that will strike most Americans, and probably even more Brits, as most peculiar. She vowed that she would never tread upon the soil of the State of Florida! The origins of the vow are a little obscure, but a childish distaste for Mickey Mouse, and by extension all things Disneyan, played a role. Yet more fatal was the corrosive effect of certain cultural stereotypes, which had simply seeped in around the edges of her consciousness.

Joan's old view of Florida


Joan's new view of Florida

So when Luke and his cara sposa (a) got married in July, (b) moved to Saint Petersburg in September, and (c) invited us to spend Christmas, she was presented, perhaps, with a momentary dilemma—but one quickly resolved in anti-Jephthan fashion. We were in Florida for Christmas with our children, and we had a ball. The only bad moment was literally the first. At the Tampa airport, as we stepped out of the boxed-in landing corridor, immediately facing us at close range were two blue-haired old ladies in wheelchairs! Joan deftly acknowledged one of the original grounds for her vow, but was able to move on. After that it was all smooth sailing.

bloguiste and boys

And “sailing” would seem to be the mot juste. We found our progeny very nicely settled in a waterfront condo near several of the world’s most famous beaches. One could look out from the living-room window to see a nearly endless flotilla of wisely invested tax breaks moving hither and yon in the lagoon. Everything was coming up roses. For the first time in perhaps a decade I actually beat Luke in a game of chess. Brilliant, if I do say so myself—and we won’t mention the follow-up matches. Several restaurant meals were memorable, even though they could not match the Christmas groaning board itself. We took in the Salvador Dali Museum, just about to move into its sumptuous new quarters.

life imitating artist

We feasted (according to the tolerant policy of eat-and-let-eat adopted in that domicile) on a choice of Tofurky du Roi or the roasted flesh of swine, followed by a coconut cake that was to die for. As the first vague and distant rumors of an East Coast blizzard reached our ears, we were investigating the habits of pelicans on the warm sands of Pass-a-Grille beach.

Our three-hour return flight to Newark was only slightly marred by the five hours of delay (especially since only three of those hours were actually spent strapped into our seats on a plane motionless on the tarmac). Returning to the cozy warmth of home base, we had the feeling of a vow well disavowed.

broad expanses of white

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas among the Disorganized

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29)

Last year I managed a reasonably thoughtful Christmas blog, and I had the intention to write another today. The legendary birthday of the savior of the world is a not unworthy subject, even if the Christmas festival is not, as various irate and harried defenders in the “War on Christmas” keep insisting, “the most important event of the Christian year”. Think about it for a minute. Everyone who has ever lived was born. The number who have risen from the dead is considerably smaller. So just wait until Easter. However, I am simply not prepared to write a thoughtful post about Christmas. It turns out, sadly, that an important requirement of thoughtfulness may be thought. I have been far too busy “getting ready” for Christmas to think about it.

The problem is a level of chronic disorganization guaranteed to achieve futility. Not far away there is an old Baptist church stranded by demographic change among the gas stations along Route One. It is one of those churches with a large announcement board on which the preacher advertises the titles of upcoming sermons. He had a great one a few years ago: Despite Inflation, Wages of Sin Still Death. That’s sort of the way it is with Disorganization and Futility.

It took me many years to realize what it was about Saint Paul I found so annoying. (I’m talking theology here, not geography). What was so annoying about him was that he was so much like my mother, and doubtless many other mothers. He was full of unsolicited and offensive observations, the offensiveness of which resided chiefly in their justice. “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it, for I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." [Romans, vii]

I know quite well how I want to live my scholarly life. Unfortunately I also know how I actually live it. I can even show you pictures. In the Philadelphia Museum of Art there is, among the Asian collections, a particularly spectacular exhibit. It is a reassembling of the actual study of a Chinese scholar, scribe, or clerk of the mid-Qing dynasty. It is a beautiful, uncluttered, light-filled room, a symphony of chaste, bare wood in various earth tones. Like my own study, it features a prominent long desk; but unlike my prominent long desk, that of the Qing scholar has upon it a single pristine scroll, together with the minimalist tools of the calligrapher’s art. This man was organized. You just know that the scroll he is about to write will be of Nobel Prize quality.

The good that I would

The Scholar's Study

The bad that I've had

Joan and I together achieved new levels of disorganization this past week. We were very interested (academically) in the lunar eclipse. On Sunday we talked, vaguely, of a plan to set the alarm for the middle of the night to get up and view it. But we didn’t quite get it together, and even as early as I arose the moon was again huge and full—beautiful, but uneclipsed. So on Monday we bemoaned each to the other the dread grip of a shared futility that so frequently frustrates our best intentions. Yesterday, Tuesday, our son Richard made a brief appearance to drop off his pickup. He is going for an extended trip to Viet Nam just after Christmas, and for some reason considers our backyard a safer parking lot than the streets of Red Hook. “Did you see the eclipse last night?” he asks. Not merely had we failed to see the eclipse. We even had failed not to see it on the right night!

It used to be that we sat around our blazing hearth to greet our far-flung children as they returned from various continents. But “the old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfils himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” Tomorrow morning we fly to Florida to be with our newly married son Luke and his wife Melanie. Even as I write, Richard, his Toyota truck tucked away, is somewhere in mid-flight toward that same destination. Katy, Zvi, Sophia, Lulu, and Cora are cavorting afar amid the Alpine snows.

For one of my hyperborean habits it’s a little hard to imagine a Christmas celebrated among the palm trees. Perhaps I might be able to do so by imagining the flight into Saint Petersburg, in the manner of a Fra Bartolomeo, as a Flight into Egypt. That was at least a vaguely cognate event.

Fra Bartolommeo, "Holy Family on Spring Break" (Getty Museum)

“God bless us all,” said Tiny Tim. And what I say to all my readers is “Merry (if you will pardon the expression) Christmas!” Should you fail to grasp the import of the parenthesis, you may be as retrograde as your bloguiste.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Memoirs from the Fourth Estate

As most of you know, this blog originated many years ago as an actual print op ed column in the Daily Princetonian. I was the first regular faculty columnist for the paper, and I treasure still a friendship with several of the editors for whom I worked. I am out of the swim of campus life, and I don’t read the paper on a daily basis; but occasionally I grab a free copy on my way out of my morning swim. I did so last blog day.

Dominating the front page is a story obscurely headed “Student groups look past hummus debate.” It’s on to the Baba Genoush debate, one presumes. The other top story is about close student elections, with the following lead: “In most of the races in this fall’s USG elections, challengers received two to three times fewer votes than winners.” Think about that sentence for a minute, and then make a quick estimate of the number of votes secured by the loser of a two-way race in which the winner got 500 votes.

I write this in affection, not censure; for I well remember my own travails as editor of my college paper, the Sewanee Purple. The Purple was in my day a mere weekly, and probably still is. My job as editor was to try to scrape up enough minimally plausible copy to fill out its pages, and especially its editorial page, for each issue. In short I shared the task of every other newspaper editor in the world, and with them usually failed. “All the news that’s fit to print” is actually best measured in teaspoons, not truckloads.

Copy deadline was, I think, Thursday. That gave the typesetters in the old press building a day to do the linotyping. We would come in on the weekends, usually late Sunday night, to do the composing. This meant carefully measuring the column inches of set type slugs, then actually devising and setting by hand the eighteen point headlines—usually in Caslon Old Face italic. From this period dates my earliest interest in hand presses and letterpress printing. There was also a great deal of “leading”—especially for the editorial page. Leading meant trying to disguise, with carefully disposed white space, the fact that we had insufficient copy to fill a page. The art of head-lining was also largely spatial—making the lines come out even--but we also went for the snappy and the alliterative.

My academic life was twice endangered by my journalistic activities. In my time a French married couple, both art historians whom I by pseudonym will call the Delandiers, joined the faculty under what was then a rather experimental arrangement. They shared a single faculty line, with Monsieur D teaching three-quarters time, and Madame D a quarter. Since then the shared appointment has in certain institutions become accepted as a take-it-or-leave-it administrative practice for retaining or even attracting professional couples in a tight job market. But it was new to us then and, moreover, news. I put my ace reporter on the case, and he wrote an interesting article in the same hard-hitting style as his celebrated three-column “Supply Store Parking Lot in Temporary Closure for Asphalt Repair” of the previous week.

Unfortunately, however, I had most unusually delegated the task of headline composition to a friend, a great man, alas, no longer living. I didn’t even see the final front page until I came upon some lewd jocks guffawing over it at breakfast:



Remember, this was more than fifty years ago, in a church college in Tennessee. The dean, who was big on decorum and in fact overused the very word, was sure he had unearthed a plot to overthrow both throne and altar in a single typographical sally. I pled innocence, and then the Fifth, since I wouldn’t name my buddy, who was already on Probation. I thought it helpful, though the dean did not, to suggest that the Delandiers, being French, were likely to take the broader view. (In fact, they did).

The Right Reverend Frank Alexander Juhan (1887-1967)

A second episode at first seemed likely to end my academic career before it had fairly begun, but actually turned out making me Too Big to Fail, so to speak. The Chancellor of the University at that time was the Right Reverend Frank Alexander Juhan, Bishop of Florida and Sewanee football hall-of-famer from the first decade of the last century. His great friend, and the college’s most generous benefactor, was Jesse Ball duPont. Mrs. duPont was an old style Southern aristocrat, as FFV* as they come, who claimed George Washington’s mother as her distant relative. Not of less significance to our story, she was the widow and heir of Alfred I. duPont, and a chief administrator of a very large philanthropic endowment. The duPonts had at some point removed from Delaware to Florida, and in her widowhood Mrs. duPont, a loyal daughter of the Church, had been very helpful in advancing the good works of the athletic bishop.

The bishop and the philanthropist sometimes visited Sewanee together, usually in a context (such as the dedication of yet another of Mrs. duPont’s gift buildings) likely to make news. On one such visit the Purple photographer got a lovely shot of the two standing together in admiration of a new (as I recall) athletic facility. Headlines were one of my editorial specialties, picture captions a second. We had just that week read for a class several poems by Robert Browning, including one that particularly caught my fancy, “Love Among the Ruins.” It’s a sort of Victorian version of “Ozymandias,” only much mellower. A passage in it seemed to me perfect as a caption for this photo: “And the monarch and his minions and his dames, viewed the games.” I did this with an innocence of intention I shall be prepared to defend before my Maker on the Last Day.

Mrs. Jesse Ball duPont (1884-1970)

At my fiftieth reunion, in 2008, a classmate presented me with a rare treasure, a pristine copy of the issue in which this appeared. Unfortunately I have put it somewhere so safe that I cannot at this moment retrieve it. Within the first hour of the paper’s distribution, the Director of Development (i.e., chief fund-raiser) saw a copy and panicked. He set about—at first single-handedly, then with the aid of his own office minions and dames—to gather up every copy on campus. (I believe the run was about a thousand). But by then several copies, escalating in value with the velocity of a Madoff stock, were in “private hands”—including those, unfortunately, of the dean. He called me in and, hesitating betwixt rack and strapado, established instead a kangaroo tribunal at which I was to appear the following day. I might have been rusticated, and that quite soon, were it not for the power of the vox populi.

Heretofore I had little evidence that my fellow students gave a tinker’s damn about the newspaper over which I and a few friends labored so assiduously in private camaraderie. But nothing so enhances the value of a commodity in the eye of the public as being told that they must under no circumstances have it. By noon the missing issue was an Issue. By the time of the evening meal it was a First Amendment Issue. There was a street march, with metaphoric torches and pitchforks, to the house of the Suppressor. He had to appear on his porch and explain himself to a potential lynch-mob. He explained that fund-raising is tricky, delicate business, and that it ill accords with undergraduate high-jinks. He agreed to pay for a complete new and amended edition. I did a plea-bargain in which the kangaroo hearing was cancelled in exchange for my letter of explanation to the bishop and the heiress. I was, for a day or two, the most famous newspaper editor in all of Middle Tennessee.

*First Families of Virginia.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Poles Apart--Also Polls and Pols

Daniel Wasserman (Boston Globe)

I awoke yesterday morning to the news that Barack Obama had caved on the “Bush tax cuts”. The headline in the Times, when it eventually arrived, did not speak of a presidential capitulation, but of his “Accord with the GOP”. I watch very little television. I got the news, as I get most of my political news, from an early morning survey of “Real Clear Politics.” This is a website that offers a reasonably complete anthology of the previous day’s punditry and video sound bites. In time one sees that it must have a “conservative” drift, but not an insidious one. Should it be the case that the only political opinions you ever want to hear are those of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, you actually could do that through Real Clear Politics.

Quite a few Democrats seem really sore about this deal, while some Republicans are praising the President’s new spirit of “cooperation”, apparently preferring that word to “cooptation”. Most intelligent observers of the country’s financial plight have long ago concluded that our dangerously indebted government must do two things: (1) spend less money, and (2) get more tax revenues. Now the president and congressional leaders have arrived at a plan that will spend more money and take in less. This is called bipartisanship.

I’m glad to see some bipartisanship, because like so many others I have been distressed by the country’s political polarization. I was so distressed, indeed, that last week I attended a public lecture on the Princeton campus on the subject of "The Polarization of American Politics." This was one of the annual Presidential Lectures (President Tilghman of Princeton, that is), which allow the local community to hear outstanding members of our own faculty. The lecturer was Woodrow Wilson School Professor Nolan McCarty, previously unknown to me. The lecture was based in, or at least related to, a recently published scholarly book*—a book I have not read, but hope to find time to read.

This lecture confirmed my impression that current American politics are highly polarized, but astonished me with its historical analysis and rather dazzled me with its ingeniously devised graphs and charts. It turns out that, setting aside a significant but aberrant period in the middle of the last century, American politics have almost always been highly polarized, and often more so than at present; that the polarization is not easily explained by most of the phenomena invoked to explain it (race gap, income gap, generation gap, geography gap, education gap); and that there is no reason to imagine that political polarization will soon or perhaps ever disappear.

Polarizations past

This set me to thinking. Like many others I was shocked when during the President’s State of the Union address a Republican representative from South Carolina could be heard to ejaculate, “You lie!” But was this really more “polarized,” I wondered, than the episode (1856) in which a Democratic representative from South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts bloody and senseless with a gold-headed gutta-percha cane on the floor of the Senate? If you want to hear about some real polarization, come to my state. In the first session of the Arkansas House of Representatives (1837), the Speaker killed one of his colleagues on the chamber floor with a Bowie knife (aka an “Arkansas toothpick”). At issue was the question of a bounty for wolf hides.

Why, then, do we share an impression of extreme polarization in contemporary American politics? I find my answer, which I realize may be only the answer of an English professor, in the inadequacy of our national political discourse, which specializes in vulgarity, triviality, exaggeration, gross partiality, gross simplification, and insipidity. Though the worst offenders are the politicians themselves, the poisonous discourse fills the throbbing circulatory system of the body of our “news” and “opinion” apparatus. In and of itself this situation, too, is hardly new, but it has in the past been moderated by the presence in the political arena of a few intellectual and moral giants of a strain now effectively sieved out by procedures of nomination and election.

Edmund Burke

This week my reading and writing have lingered on two figures from a crucial period of British political history: Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and William Hazlitt (1778-1830). The former was a famous politician, the latter a famous critic of politics, art, and literature. Though both are admired thinkers and writers, in certain aspects of intellectual profile the two could hardly have been more different. Burke is rightly regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern political conservatism. Hazlitt was a political radical in the true and noble sense of the term. The word radical derives from Latin radix, meaning a root. Radicals like Hazlitt—or Locke before him or Karl Marx after him—passionately sought to understand the deep and often hidden roots of human action and human community.

They were men of contiguous generations. The great event of the period they shared, the French Revolution, began in 1789 when Burke was sixty and Hazlitt still a boy. Concerning the Revolution they could be said to inhabit polar extremes. Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi could not be more polarized in their attitudes to the setting of income tax rates than were Burke and Hazlitt concerning the meaning of the French Revolution. What is more deplorable is that they could never be so intelligent, so substantial, or so eloquent either. Let me add a couple more categories that seem to me today sorely lacking: greatness of soul and spiritual generosity.

William Hazlitt (self-portrait, 1802)

Burke never had the occasion to call Hazlitt out in single combat, and that is rather a pity. It would have been a battle of Titans, but also, one instinctively feels, an uplifting one. When is the last time you heard something “uplifting” coming from the corridors of our Congress? Burke’s first published work was called A Vindication of Natural Society. It makes intellectual mincemeat of the ideas of Lord Bolingbroke, a rather shallow high-society “thinker” of the middle of the Eighteenth Century; but its technique is not invective or clichéd “talking points”. Its method is a demanding irony that flatters a reader with the suggestion that he might be intelligent enough to understand it. “How easie it is to call Rogue and Villain, and that wittily? But how hard to make a Man appear a Fool, a Blockhead, or a Knave, without using any of those opprobrious terms? To spare the grossness of the Names, and to do the thing yet more severely, is to draw a full Face, and to make the Nose and Cheeks stand out, and yet not to employ any depth of Shadowing.” That is Dryden in his sparkling Essay on Satire, insisting on the difference “betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body and leaves it standing in one place.”

On the other hand Hazlitt could hardly avoid the menacing ghost of Burke, which seemed so terrible an impediment to Reform to the English “progressives” of the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Many of the radical intellectuals of the age railed against him. In Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) the personal invective only occasionally simmers down from a full boil. The radical American poet Joel Barlow—perhaps more impressive for his radicalism than for his poetry—wrote thus:

"Oh Burke, degenerate slave! With grief and shame

The Muse indignant must repeat thy name…"

In common with most of us Hazlitt was drawn to like-minded friends. Hazlitt generally hung out with folks like Wollstonecraft and Barlow. Under these circumstances it is remarkable that he made the following judgment: “It has always been with me a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.” So far as true greats are concerned, it often does take one to know one.

*Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, Polarized America: The Dance of Political Ideology and Unequal Riches (MIT Press, 2006).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Weighing one's words

The public scales in the Dillon gymnasium as viewed from my locker


Photographic evidence of the shifting of tectonic plates

There is a unique convenience about the placement of my gymnasium locker, and it is this: it is situated along an aisle immediately next to the industrial or medical-sized scales provided for the gym's health-conscious clientele. It is not that I look forward to weighing myself, or have frequent opportunity to rejoice in the results of such activity. The scales are instead a most comforting geographical landmark. When I stumble groggily into the cavernous locker room in the early morning and start walking down its long corridor, animated only by the power of brute habit, the scales signal to me that it’s time to turn left, and that if I do so and keep walking, I’ll eventually find my own locker--or else walk into a wall beyond it. But this also means, of course, that as I am dressing after my swim and shower I cannot be unaware of people from time to time weighing themselves.

What has struck me over the years is that there is a definite repertoire of weighing styles, and that these styles are identifiable even from the partially occluded rear view afforded by the circumstances. Most of the six a.m. crowd are fairly serious jocks, and therefore I am a frequent witness of the Confident Style. They step right up on the platform with insouciance, quickly adjust the sliding weights, and confirm with satisfaction the unvarying perfection of their avoirdupoids. There is also a Timorous Style. These guys tip-toe onto the scales in the apparent but vain hope that the technique can circumvent the Law of Gravity. Not infrequently one witnesses episodes of the Litigious Style. Through body language and sometimes actual articulate speech obscene in content, the litigious weigher announces his diagnosis of the faultiness and unreliability of the apparatus, which must certainly be reported, and soon, to some vaguely denominated authority.

For probably obvious reasons the Monday after Thanksgiving was a big weigh-in day, and I had the opportunity to observe the whole stylistic register, including one not yet mentioned—the Resigned or Hang-Dog Style. The hang–dog weigher does not contest the laws of physics, but for the briefest moment, before shuffling off in hang-dog resignation, entertains the mad possibility of their momentary suspension on this one occasion.

On Monday I, too, stepped onto the scales. Now, while this blog aspires to the dignity of the truthful and the candid, it cannot stoop to the vulgar sensationalism of the tell all. This golden rule determines that I should not dwell on the dull, torpid numbers on the slide-bar, but should concentrate on the more lively and engaging aspects of my experience, which were of course philological. For the first time, apparently, I noticed that our gymnasium’s scale has a name, and a rather peculiar one. His name is DETECTO. With this observation, if I can put it this way, the scales fell from my eyes, if not from under my feet. I realized that the ruthlessness of this machine was actually its rooflessness.

For what detecto has to mean in Latin is “I remove the roof”. There obviously was a terrific old Indo-European root having to do with covering things up. This gave us eventually the Sanskrit sthághati and the Greek stégo. As with so many activities in life there are good and less good reasons for covering things up. For example, you might want to keep the rain out of your house (good). You might want to conceal a crime from the police (bad). Either way you were doing this *d/t-a/e-g/ch* thing. In Latin the verb was tegere, “to cover up”, with a past participle tectum, “thing covered up” or simply “covering”.

The thing most in need of covering up being your abode, it was natural that the word tectum came to mean “roof.” Indeed, the word could stand for the whole house, as when we speak of “a roof over my head”. When in doubt I always reach across my desk for Gustav Körting’s Lateinisch-romanisches Wörterbuch, where (at #9414) all the modern Romance versions are conveniently anthologized: tetto (Italian), teg-s (Provençal), toit (French), techo (Spanish), tecto, teito (Portuguese). All these techy-feelies are child’s play; less obvious perhaps is the common Indo-European ancestry of the non-Romance words Dach (German) and the nearly identical thatch (English).

English thatch, incidentally, illustrates the interesting tendency of words to move on in meaning from the generic to the specific—when they are not doing precisely the opposite, that is. Thus a thousand years ago in dismal Britain any roof covering was a thatch (and any roofer a Thatcher); but soon enough thatch meant specifically the artfully deployed vegetable stems and stalks that account for the essential cutesiness of Anne Hathaway’s cottage.


If you were fortunate enough to live in sunnier climes than those of the Tyneside or the Norfolk fens—as for example in Spain, Italy, or Languedoc, you covered your house not with twigs but with ceramic tiles, which as Latin tegulæ were actually the same thing, namely “roof”. Because a tegument or (annoyingly) an integument was any kind of sheathing, veiling, or prophylactic covering, as it still is in medical terminology and literary critical lingo. Think of it as body-thatch. It was inevitable therefore when modern paleontologists discovered the remains of a dinosaur that was not merely roofed, but tile-roofed, that wondrous beast must needs be the stegosaurus.

Naturally there is only one way to get to the bottom of all this, and that is to engage the services of somebody whose powers of penetration can blow the lid off this whole caper. That would be a de-roofer, or as old Julius used to say a de-tector: a private eye, a shamus. De-tectors are not without a certain thatch of their own, and it comes in two varieties.

The Sherlock


The Guy Noir

As for my friend Detecto at Dillon Gym, let him continue to keep his nose out of my uncovered business.


ADDENDUM on 12/02/2010

Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche announces with immoderate pride its inclusion in "The Top English Professor Blogs of the World"--or maybe it's "of central Jersey". Anyway, I got this e-mail badge, which I add to a rapidly burgeoning collection of prizes that includes not merely the ten-dollar (Monopoly money) "Second Prize in a Beauty Contest" mentioned in an earlier post but also the "Third Runner Up" ribbon in the Tractor Pull (youth division) of the Baxter County, Arkansas, County Fair in 1952.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Precious Life-Blood--or Dead Hand?

George Eliot (æt. 30, 1849/1850) by Louis-François d'Albert Durade

I have been home now for ten days, just about the time needed to reclaim and settle back into long-established patterns and habits. While I was in Paris this last time I particularly missed my morning swim, as the local and supremely convenient pool was for reasons no official could or at least would explain, closed until a “further notice” that never appeared. Finding and using one of many other municipal pools was a theoretical possibility; but I was not willing to pay the necessary price in time, travel, and above all in reconfiguring the whole shape of a workday to accommodate an ancillary desideratum. My father used to call such activity “building the house around the doorknob”—that is, making the greater cause subordinate to the lesser.

But there are doorknobs and doorknobs. I find myself at the earliest beginnings of a large project, a situation at once daunting and exhilarating. It is exhilarating because the fields of relevant inquiry open lush before me like the Great Plains at harvest time. In every direction I look I see the ripe grain practically begging to be gathered. It is daunting because I am far from sure I can pull it off. Yet more vexing is a hesitation yet more fundamental: should I try to pull it off?

Like most humanists of my generation I spend a few hours of every day sitting in a library surrounded by walls of books. I continue to think that the all-encompassing “electronic library” is largely hype, but that may just be another index of my increasing obsolescence. Though I often require the resources of large or specialized institutions, the library in which I most happily work is not surprisingly my own--modest of course, but carefully gathered, winnowed, and sculpted in accord with personal need, taste, and even (can I admit it?) aesthetic preference. Many of the scholarly books that form the physical cocoon in which I work are old, handsome, multi-volume sets of breath-taking erudition. All of them were at some point somebody’s “large project” into which untold hours of solitary work were poured. All of them are the products of a mode of industry known to a tiny guild but wholly foreign to the experience of the vast majority of humankind past and present. Most of them rest undisturbed on my shelves year after year. That actually is the fate of most “large projects.” And quite apart from the question of fate is the question of integrity of motive.

The cabinet of Dr. Faustus (by Rembrandt)


The bloguiste's lair (by Nikon Coolpix 4100)

Among the noblest statements in Milton’s Areopagitica is this: “A good book is the precious life-blood of the master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose for a life beyond.” That is inspiring, but doubts nag. What about the not quite so good books? What, God forbid, of the really terrible books?

My preliminary ruminations have sent me back to George Eliot's Middlemarch--one of a few special books I try to reread every decade or so. In an essay on Eliot Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Middlemarch as a “magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. I do not know the precise “imperfections” Woolf had in mind. For me the novel’s hugeness (800 pages), required by the lengthy development of subplots of questionable necessity to the major theme, is a difficulty. And it makes it hard for me to tell you, as I now do tell you, that your life will forever be the poorer without it. For is it ever a novel written for grown-ups! In fact you probably shouldn’t even try before, say, your thirtieth birthday.

The fifth book (i.e., long section) of Middlemarch is entitled “The Dead Hand,” and like so much else in this brilliant novel, the phrase reverberates with complex suggestion. In an earlier book the Rev. Edward Casaubon has learned that a serious cardiac condition, “fatty degeneration of the heart,” could at any moment claim his life, leaving unfinished the great work of scholarship in which he has invested many decades. “The Dead Hand” chronicles the emotional blackmail and manipulation he employs to attempt to wrest from his young wife Dorothea the promise that, should he die, she will continue the work and bring it to completion exactly along the lines he has dictated. The pattern of emotional coercion is paralleled by a legal coercion, for which the technical term is indeed mortmain (“dead hand”). As yet unbeknownst to his wife the jealous and petty-minded Casaubon has added a codicil to his will making the bequest of his substantial legacy to her contingent upon her not marrying in her widowhood the man she will in fact marry. Thus Casaubon seeks to control Dorothea from the grave, even as he has controlled her through the course of her constricted and increasingly unrewarding marriage.

The fifth book is primarily the story of Dorothea’s inner conflict. She is most reluctant to make the promise Casaubon so importunately seeks; for although she is powerfully moved by a sense of marital duty complicated by sentiments of affection and sympathy, she has little confidence in the scholarly project to which her husband has devoted his life. Indeed, she inwardly judges it to lack intellectual integrity. As every graduate student of English knows, Casaubon’s great work, unfinished and probably unfinishable, is called A Key to All Mythologies. This unwritten book, and what it represents, is also in a large and figurative sense a “dead hand”.

What is it? Casaubon’s proposed Key to All Mythologies is projected as a vast work of scholarship designed to defend and demonstrate the primacy of the Mosaic historiography of the Pentateuch in relation to all other surviving ancient Latin, Greek, and Semitic literary sources. Though we learn only bits and snatches of Casaubon’s method, it is clear that its two principal stress-bearing pillars are what we would today call linguistics and mythography. Casaubon will be concerned to demonstrate according to his linguistic science, and in particular the science of etymology, that all ancient cosmogonies eventually reveal a common source in the Hebrew of the Masoretic text. Here one assumption is that Hebrew was the original language, that spoken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In a similar fashion, larger narratives—such as, presumably, the myth of the Golden Age as found in Virgil and Ovid--must be distortions or distant reflexes of Pentateuch history. The purpose of Casaubon’s life work is the defense of the literal inerrancy of the Bible and the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch—a task that for thinking Christians had become most difficult by the 1830s (the time of the novel’s setting) and by 1870 (the time of its completion) impossible.

I spent several hours yesterday in the Rare Book Room of Firestone Library reading one of Casaubon’s intellectual models: Jacob Bryant (1715-1804), an Etonian and Cambridge don, author of an astonishing work entitled A New System, or an Analysis of Ancient Mythology—a huge, ornate Georgian flat tire obviously being reinvented for the early Victorian generation by Eliot’s Mr. Casaubon. In fact there is a dismissive allusion to it in Middlemarch itself (book ii, chapter 22). Will Ladislaw (Casaubon’s poor but brilliant cousin, who in the end marries his widow) alludes to “men like Bryant—men of the last century” whose books are as relevant to contemporary scriptural scholarship as the theories of Paracelsus are to modern chemistry. The article on Bryant in the Dictionary of National Biography is hardly less severe: “His research is remarkable, but he had no knowledge of oriental languages, and his system of etymology was puerile and misleading.”

Still the three fine, fat quarto volumes of his New System, bound in tree calf with its old gold stamping still bright and shining—how beautiful they look upon the shelf! So as I set out on my own next small embalming project, I wonder anxiously. Will it be “precious life-blood … treasured up on purpose for a life beyond” or merely a well preserved dead hand?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Eighty Percent Solution

Robert Goheen (1919-2008)

“Home,” says Frost, “is the place that when you go there, they have to take you in.” There are other slightly more upbeat definitions, such as that home is where even spitting rain on New Jersey Turnpike in rush hour can seem vaguely comforting in its familiarity. There is nothing vague, however, about the comfort and familiarity attendant upon the reunion of long-married couples; and I sat down with the greatest pleasure to a light supper of soup and salad.

My theory was to hit the ground running—or actually sitting, the posture more appropriate for a library—but I have fallen into the reverie of pleasant distraction. On Saturday I have to give a little after-dinner speech at a celebration marking the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of Wilson College, the first of the undergraduate residential colleges in Princeton University. I haven’t actually prepared the talk, but have enjoyed the leisure of preparing to prepare, so to speak.

In fact Wilson College, like many academic institutions, had several “foundings”. The one with which I was associated came in the fall of 1968, when for the first time a small number of freshmen accepted an invitation to join. The master then (Wilson’s first) was the late psychologist Julian Jaynes, author of the once-famous book entitled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It was Jaynes who had shepherded the Woodrow Wilson Society through its infancy and its transition in becoming Wilson College.

I became the second master just at the time that the anti-War protests were becoming serious, and from that period—especially the spring of 1970, with the Kent State massacre of early May—come some of the most vivid memories of my career. In this country an institution that is celebrating a semicentennial is usually considered venerable. My fear is that a person who has been associated with it for more than forty of its fifty years might have some claim to the same adjective.

Princeton actually has two alumni who became presidents of the United States. I’ve always thought it a little lame that so many things Princetonian are named after Woodrow Wilson, and so few after James Madison. When after a long interval I became Master of Wilson College for a second time in the 1980s I conspired with my friend and colleague Sean Wilentz to pretend that the Wilson involved was Edmund Wilson of the class of 1916, perhaps the greatest literary critic America has produced; but that never caught on. But if I had the chance to pick my own name today, I would call it Robert Goheen College, and Goheen is the real subject of this post.

Consider this a very tardy tribute to a much-admired mentor and friend. I was away from Princeton in the spring of 2008, when he died; and I could not even attend his memorial service. Bob Goheen was the President of Princeton University from 1957 until 1972. I really came to know him only after he left the presidency, and fully to appreciate his true greatness only in his later years, after his service as Ambassador to India. Goheen was as “old Princeton” as they come. He came out of a Presbyterian clerical family, and had taken both his B.A. and his Ph.D. here. He was an assistant professor of Classics at the time of his election. Everything in his background suggested that he would be a thoughtful guardian of the institution’s dearest traditions. How many could have guessed that he would transform it as he did?

For it was President Goheen who presided over the most monumental institutional changes of the twentieth century—and all of them for the good. These included putting the university irrevocably on its path to a nearly unique financial security, dramatically expanding the faculty and the “physical plant,” and charting an essentially new course for undergraduate life. It was in no easy or simply fashionable way that he came to espouse the innovation (which then seemed so radical) of the admission of women students. And so far as undergraduate residential life is concerned, he is the true father of the Princeton college system.

For a very particular, indeed eccentric reason I was struck by a single sentence in the impressive obituary published by the New York Times: “Dr. Goheen would eventually build or acquire 38 buildings, increasing the university’s indoor square footage by 80 percent.” It was the percentage that struck me, for it brought back to my mind the conversation in which he had recruited me to become the Master of Wilson. He invited me to lunch in the faculty club. I was still an assistant professor, and a one-on-one presidential luncheon in a the public dining room rather went to my head. I proceeded to give the president a little lecture on precisely what needed to be done to reform undergraduate social life. I did so with no small degree of certainty, which he tolerated with a polite patience, considering that he had been pondering the issues involved for several years and I for about two weeks. Then he said something I shall never forget. “You know, John, these are complicated questions, and reasonable people are of different minds about them. I’ve had to adopt a little rule of thumb: don’t ever be more than 80 percent right. It just isn’t seemly.”

When I survey what is passing for “political discourse” in our land these days, I hear an angry cacophony of one-hundred-percenters. No wonder their approval rating is seventeen percent.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Transitional Man

big transition: Camões has gone to his long house

Life is pretty much like essay writing. Once you’re into them, the paragraphs take care of themselves. It’s the transitions that are difficult. As a proposition that may be of dubious validity, but it’s style I am after, not substance. My model was Forrest Gump. I am attempting to develop an aphoristic style for a projected self-help book, and I am just practicing. Actually it is an instance of desperation being the mother of invention. I was just now having a tasty bowl of cereal and an interesting conversation with my delightful granddaughter Sophia when she innocently uttered a terrifying word: “Wednesday,” that is, today. Wednesday meant one thing for her—namely a somewhat relaxed start to the school day—and something quite different to me. What it meant to me was that until that moment it had escaped my attention that it was blog day.

Yet it all comes together nicely, for my even more-than-usual forgetfulness is an emblem of my transitional state. Transitions come in various sizes and colors. I am just about to leave Paris. That this is definitely a gray transition is authenticated by the weather, which has suddenly turned rather grim: cold, dark, wet. They have put the Christmas lights up in some of the public places, but not yet turned them on. There is always a certain amount of dreary schlepping about attendant upon arriving for or leaving after a lengthy stay, and I have a number of drab duties to perform before flying back to Newark next Monday.

Another transition is of a pleasant yellowish pastel hue. On Friday I completed the manuscript of the little book I have been writing, tentatively entitled Luis de Camões: the Poet as Scriptural Exegete. On Monday I sent it off for review by a prospective publisher. On Tuesday I returned to the Gulbenkian Library for a final time to say goodbye to its director, and especially to the two charming librarians whose cheerful expertise has on a daily basis eased my path. Such are the formalities of French professional life that it was only in parting that I learned their names. They both have the Christian name Isabel, like several other important women in my life, the fourteenth-century Plantagenet ancestors and kin of Henry the Navigator.

Until halfway through my bowl of granola this morning I was planning yet another transitional step, and I may get to it yet. I actually contemplated trying to write a page or two on my next project. I always feel better when I am starting something new to get a few words down on paper even if they are not destined to survive until the final product. I am under contract to write a book rather grandly entitled in my proposal The Dark Side of the Enlightenment. Talk about transitions!

Early in my career as a medievalist I became aware of and annoyed by a certain historical “narrative,” of nearly ubiquitous credit among the semi-educated, that might be called Gibbon’s Canard. It goes roughly like this. There was once a great Western Civilization in which people walked around in their bathrobes writing epic poems, building Parthenons and Coliseums and civilizing known worlds by imperial domination. That beautiful world came to an end when a cultural disaster (Christianity) and something called the Völkerwanderung (barbarian hordes running hither and thither) joined forces to create the Middle Ages, aka the Dark Ages, a bleak millennium of brutality, disease, ignorance, and superstition. Things began to get a little better eventually when one day Petrarch walked into a cave, found a pile of long-neglected manuscripts, and decided to start a Renaissance. But they only got good again when toward the end of the seventeenth century Newton published the Principia and only really good in the eighteenth century when Jean-Jacques Rousseau arrived on the scene and taught his friends and relations (most of whom in Rousseau’s case were his abandoned bastard children) how to have a New Sensibility.

This new age was called The Enlightenment.

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,

God said “Let Newton be!”—and all was light.

So wrote the eighteenth-century English poet, Alexander Pope.

This narrative is, shall we say, a little over-simplified. At first I found myself particularly aggrieved by popular uses of the word medieval as a term of disparagement, opprobrium, or contempt. I started making a collection of such usages as found in the popular press, especially the New York Times. My favorite (and I cannot now remember the specific sources) had to do with a man taken hostage by terrorists or kidnappers and kept blindfolded for a protracted period in an underfurnished urban apartment. The only food his captors gave him—ample, but apparently monotonous—was Chinese take-out. This treatment was described as “medieval”. Well, Marco Polo…Some readers may also remember a memorable scene in the film Pulp Fiction in which a really big, mean, black guy prepares to do violence on a really skinny, sicko white guy. The violence is unspecified, but as it required pliers and a blowtorch, it is also probably unpleasant, especially as introduced with the following threat: “I’ma get medieval on your ass.”

But I also started collecting an anthology of Enlightenment weirdness. I soon discovered that just as the witchcraft craze is more typical of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment periods than of its Middle Ages, so also were numerous other “medieval” superstitions, such as alchemy and astrology. If you are really interested in quackery, pseudo-science, and superstition, one of the best places to look is in the nooks and crannies of Enlightenment Paris. I am hoping that The Dark Side, if I can pull it off as a work of light-hearted erudition, might transform Gibbon’s Canard into Peking Duck. I may subtitle it “The Medievalist’s Revenge.” If I can pull it off, you will get to meet some of the following characters:

"Count" Alessandro Cagliostro (here presiding over a Masonic meeting, as imagined by the satirist Gillray) was a weirdo so outrageous that he could exist only in the Enlightenment...

Valentine Greatrakes the Stroker, whose miraculous cures discomfited the Enlightened...

Julie de Krüdener (as painted by Angelica Kauffmann), author of a best-selling sentimental novel, and a do-it-yourself mystic who may have helped a demented Swiss woman to crucify herself...