Wednesday, May 19, 2010

History Is For the Birds

"My heart in hiding stirred for a bird"....But what bird?

I spent a rather wakeful night in New York, made somewhat more tolerable by the news that came with the dawn. The Specter is no longer haunting America. This development, according to the newscaster, was “historic”. Though I could savor it as news, it seemed rather tasteless as history. I’ve always liked my history to be aged for a couple of weeks before decanting. Still, the tension between the here and now and the then and there is enervating. George Gissing took as an epigraph of one of his books a quotation said to be from Jules Michelet—I have never found the original source—in which the great French historian supposedly reflected on his life in these sad terms: J'ai passé à côté du monde, et j'ai pris l'histoire pour la vie. I would translate, loosely, “I passed by the world on the other side, and I mistook history for life.” This must seem a rather terrifying possibility to any scholar like myself who has spent so many years immersed in books and in the exhausting and uncertain attempt to imagine the human life of the past. When in doubt, put your nose into a book; and that’s what I did on the ride home. I happened to have with me the first volume of William Boulton’s The Amusement of Old London (1901). That’s real history and, as usual, it did connect with real life.

A nice feature of our house—for which we prepay with winter fuel bills—is a long wall of glass along the south side, looking down through our garden to the field and woods beyond. On rare occasion now and again, in bright sunlight, a baffled bird will try to fly through the glass. The shock must always be rude and painful; two days ago it proved fatal for the beautiful specimen above, whose little corpse I found as I stepped out into the yard. I was headed for some chore, and I set the bird aside for a decent Christian burial at a later date. We couldn’t identify it, and a friend suggested that I make a photographic record. So I call upon my ornithological readership for help. It will no doubt be child's play for any bird-spotter. My son Rich could do it in a second, but I doubt that he is reading this blog, busy as he is with scouring the second-hand bookshops for a replacement copy of Julia Ward Howe’s Trip to Cuba (1860), for which the Firestone Library is once again billing me.

The death of this bird bothered me a lot, and this is in some ways surprising. I grew up in the country. Everybody hunted, including me. I never was a “sport” hunter, but in my time I killed and consumed, without a second thought, a large number of squirrels, rabbits, and quail. After half a century of watching a thousand tame squirrels prance about the Princeton campus, that all seems like a dream; but to this day I am nonplussed by what I will call the eastern, liberal inability to “get” what the agrarian Battle of the Second Amendment is really about, which is the default conservatism of human community. One of my culture heroes, the early anthropologist E. B. Tylor, summed it all up in a single magisterial sentence: “Most things that exist in the world exist for the reason that they once existed.” The hunters and the gatherers have been around for a very long time. Once on a family holiday in Spain, while staying in a village, we experienced a freak hailstorm of brief duration but considerable ferocity. In the minute after its abrupt end all the villagers rushed into the fields in search of zonked birds, which they brought back, many of them still weakly flapping, in their disgusting variety (sparrows, crows, magpies, etc.) as table delicacies. These people would have eaten my dead bird with gusto, and probably shot it with even more.


All this came to mind as I perused the first two chapters of Boulton. From the first I learned that the most popular and profitable public London entertainments from the Restoration through the Georgian period were various exhibitions of orchestrated cruelty to animals: dog fights, cock fights, bear- and bull-baiting. These spectacles, most of which took place in the unelevating venue of Hockley in the Hole, slightly eclipsed in their popularity even human gladiatorial combat, non-lethal but sanguinary. The baiting generally involved setting ferocious dogs upon chained or tethered bulls or bears. Another favorite sport involved igniting powerful firecrackers that had been affixed to large animals. Some “events” consisted of nothing more inventive than a group of men beating or hacking a brute to death in the middle of an arena. Two days a week—Mondays and Thursdays—had regularly schedule baitings.

Bear-baiting: the stalls for gentry

And who, exactly, enjoyed such “sport,” already more than a century old as the Age of Reason came into full bloom? The answer would seem to be—everybody! I have always been a great admirer of Queen Elizabeth I. She had a lot going for her. She could speak Latin. She translated Boethius. She was a patron of the arts. And of course she was the “head” of my church—“insofar as the law of Christ allows”—and a considerable theologian. (She came up with the best definition of transubstantiation on record). She was also big on the bulls and the bears—and I am not referring to the stock market. “The Queen herself was a great connoisseur in the sport,” writes Boulton; “so much so, that she deprecated the competition of the playhouses, and issued orders from the Privy Council forbidding the acting of plays on Thursdays, the chosen day for the bear-baitings at Bankside.” Eat your heart out, Will Shakespeare!

Jean-Baptiste Greuze: sentiment

In 1763, in Paris, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, the great master of “sentiment” exhibited among other celebrated paintings his “Girl Mourning Her Dead Bird”. In that same year there flourished in Paris at least a dozen well patronized cockpits. Many of the capital’s leading citizens undoubtedly enjoyed both exhibitions. Now that is historic.