Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Comparatively Speaking

People surprised by the demand for literary command performance react in different ways. Chaucer’s Pardoner, called upon to tell a tale and at least affecting the need for inspiration, turns to alcohol to warm himself up for a splendid sermon on the evils of drink. The pub sign of the Middle Ages was often a large wreath or garland hung from a pole. It was called a “bush” or an “ale-stake”. Seeing one just ahead of them on the road, the Pardoner agrees to tell a tale.
Fourteenth-century English public house with "bush" or ale-stake

“But first,” quod he, “here at this ale-stake

I wol both drinke, and eten of a cake.

... I must thinke

Upon some honest thing, while that I drinke.

Fortunately or unfortunately I gave up drinking corny ale (the Pardoner’s poison of choice) long ago, but I tend to swallow a lot of water when swimming, and that turns out to be just as good for inspirational purposes. I’m sure you are following this effortlessly, but I shall nevertheless explain in more detail.

Let’s be frank. Your bloguiste is in some disarray. Joan is in the south of France at some kind of string quartet boot camp. I fly to France myself a week from today. I have been dealing with the aftermath of a cyclone and various other domestic matters. Mainly, though, I’ve been working like a dog, presumably a Labrador (get it?, get it?), to finish a book. Other matters have vacated my mind. One night I even forgot to eat—and for me, that’s serious distraction.

Early this morning I opened my email to find, among other things, a very nice note from an eminent former colleague and friend with whom I had been long out of touch. Her note was a delightful surprise, but it packed an unintended wallop. In it she kindly alluded to reading “Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche”. With a feeling akin to that of remembering, in the down time of the security line at Newark Airport, that you failed to turn the oven off before you rushed out your house, I realized that today is Wednesday. Wednesday is blog day. Oh, stercus.

All was not lost, however. My early morning swim still awaited me. In theory one could drown in the pool, but the more realistic lethal threat comes from the boredom. The boredom can be neutralized, however, by using the time to think, and especially to think about writing projects underway. One often glimpses through the fog of the goggles the word one has been searching for, or the perfect path to a troubling paragraph transition. I didn’t know how good it would be in providing an actual subject to write about, but I was willing to give it a try. I began by trying to reconstruct my thoughts where I left them after yesterday morning’s sixtieth lap.

There were two of them--thoughts, I mean. The first concerned some proof sheets in hand for an essay I had written about Louis Fischer. The second had to do with unlikely or inequitable literary comparison. In a very witty ode (III, 26) Horace compares an aging lover who is throwing in the erotic towel, so to speak, with a superannuated soldier who abandons his weapons. The old lover’s weapon has been his barbiton (lyre or guitar) used in the execution of his love poems. He hangs this up on the wall of a temple of Venus, the goddess he has served. In a most astonishing and brilliant way “my” poet of the moment, Luis de Camões, fuses this image with the psalmist’s famous lines about the Hebrew captives in Babylon: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows in the midst thereof we hung up our instruments…” (Psalm 136[7]: 1-2). I realized that in this odd collocation lay a blog topic, or at least an anecdote.

Louis Fischer (1896-1970)

Q: Who was Louis Fischer? A: a famous political journalist and Soviet expert who ended his career in Princeton, and whose papers are in the archives of the library. He is often regarded as a Great Man, though I tend to take a dim view of his decade-long useful idiocy as a Stalinist toady. In that regard he makes a few appearances in my Anti-Communist Manifestos. Useful idiocy, while not a requirement for appointment to our Woodrow Wilson School, has rarely proved to be an obstacle; and in the late Sixties Louis Fischer was a Great Man right here on the Princeton campus. He was also a friend of an unambiguously Great Man at the Institute for Advanced Study—George Kennan.

Svetlana Alliluyeva

In 1967 Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter, “defected” to the United States. Soon thereafter she came to Princeton, primarily under the sponsorship of Ambassador Kennan. She became friendly, briefly, with Fischer, thirty years her senior. This is not the Drudge Report, and I say no more. You need to be introduced to but one more character, and then we can move on to the anecdote. That person is the beautiful, colorful, wonderful and much lamented one-time mayor of Princeton, the late Barbara Sigmund. Mayor Sigmund came from a famous political family. Her father was Hale Boggs, Democrat of Louisiana, and majority leader of the House of Representatives. Her sister is Cokie Roberts, the eminent journalist and pundit.

Hale Boggs (1914-1972)

On Tuesday, August 27, 1968, in Chicago, the Democratic Party began what was probably the most disastrous political convention in history. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had both been murdered earlier in the year. Protest against the Vietnam War was widespread and often ferocious. Bearing the gavel for many of the televised parts of the event was the estimable Democratic leader of the House, Hale Boggs. Mayor Daley’s police and left-wing rioters battled in the streets.

The actual nomination of the heir presumptive, Hubert Humphrey, was to take place on Wednesday night, August 28. One of the Princeton Russia experts, of whom there were many, thought it would be a very good idea to have a party that night to watch the coronation on television. To it he invited many eminences and a couple of obscure assistant professors. The eminences included Fischer, Kennan, Barbara Sigmund and Svetlana Alliluyeva, the idea being that while sipping Chablis and munching carrot sticks Svetlana would be able to watch some real Democracy in Action.

Chicago: 28 August 1968, "The whole world is watching"

As the evening got going the television cameras divided their time more or less evenly between the interior and the exterior of the convention hall. In the interior the venerable Hale Boggs droned on in his folksy bayou tones, recognizing the delegate from the Great State of This, and complimenting the gentlelady from the Great State of That. Then the cameras would move to the street outside, where the storm troopers were beating the stercus out of an assortment of hippies, yippies, SDSers, and the inevitable unlucky people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was what you might call bad press, a poor show for Democracy, and especially the Democratic part thereof. The demonstrators on the screen were screaming, "The whole world is watching!" Certainly our little part of it was. The sipping and nibbling ceased; all eyes turned to the television set. Barbara Sigmund began to complain in voluble tones that it was unfair of the newscasters to suggest by the alteration of their images that there was some connection between her innocent father and the mayhem in front of the Hilton.

“They’re going to blame it on daddy,” she said. She repeated the phrase a couple of times more. “Blame it on daddy….blame it on daddy…” Then, remembering the party’s distinguished guest, she turned to Svetlana and said, “But I guess you know all about that, huh, honey?” Svetlana said nothing, but her mien was eloquent. If lèse-majesté were still on the statute books, here was an open-and-shut case. Imagine comparing the crimes of the great Stalin with a little bit of police brutality in Chicago! It would be like comparing the Hebrew captives of Babylon with some over-the-hill Roman guitar plucker.

As Cicero once remarked when he found himself in a difficult blog-spot: "If I had had more time, this would have been a shorter letter."