Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dead Letters

We had a wonderful family Christmas of the sort I would wish for all my readers.  The smaller ones have now departed with their larger adherents in tow; and quiet has once again descended upon my study, where I sit with all my Christmas loot tidily arranged on a composing stone behind me.  It’s back to serious work.  Well, semi-serious.  I’m trying to write about the cultural background of Valérie (1803), an epistolary novel by Julie de Krüdener.

The bloguiste’s assembled Christmas loot.  The recurrent gastronomic motif may seem compromising, but less so than the usual multiple bottles of Listerine and sticks of underarm deodorant.  Top prize goes to my two little Kosher-keeping granddaughters Lulu and Cora, who somewhere came up with a convincing facsimile of my favorite French pork sausage in chocolate.

I’d be surprised if you had ever heard of Madame de Krüdener.  She was at first a friend and later a literary rival of Mme de Staël, the more famous author of the more famous epistolary novel Delphine.    (I must say that I prefer Valérie to Delphine if for no other reason than that the scholarly edition of the former is exactly eight hundred page shorter than the scholarly edition of the latter.) But the form of the epistolary novel itself you surely know.  It is a narrative deployed in fictional letters supposedly written by, or to, or about the fictional characters.  The epistolary form was particular important in the novel’s eighteenth-century youth, when it enjoyed famous practitioners.  Richardson’s early blockbusters Pamela and Clarissa are in epistolary form.  In France there are famous letter-novels by Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Chodleros de Laclos.  Goethe’s Werther is epistolary.
            Well, the thing is this: a few days before Christmas I got a letter.  It was not an annotated Christmas card, but a real letter, written on real paper folded within a real, stamped envelope and really delivered to my house by Mike the letter-carrier.  It was personal, substantial, thoughtful, well written, full of interesting and surprising news and ideas.  Since not everyone welcomes even such publicity as is commanded by an obscure professorial blog, I shall identify the letter’s sender no more precisely than to say that I knew him forty years ago as an undergraduate crowned with the success of a brilliant student career and radiant with promise—meaning, incredibly, that this golden youth of memory must now be sixty years old!  Widely interspersed episodes of contact over the decades gave me distant glimpses both of remarkable professional achievements and challenging dislocations, but we have essentially been out of touch.  
As he kindly mentions an awareness of my blog, he may read this.  If so, he should know that I intend to answer the letter properly in the next few days.  In the meantime, its mere existence has crystallized in my mind a cultural apprehension vaguely forming over the past many years: the demise, the very sad demise, of the personal letter.
The chief reason there were so many epistolary novels in the eighteenth century is that the entire culture was epistolary. People who could read and write—meaning all of polite society, and large swaths not so polite—read and wrote letters. Hence if art is truly an imitation of life, as our classical criticism tells us, nothing could be more artistic than an epistolary novel.
The contribution of our great letter-writers has been enormous.  Just here on my own shelves I have twelve elegant tomes of Madame de Sévigné (seventeenth century) and nine much thicker volumes of Horace Walpole (eighteenth).  The first six volumes of the Pléiade edition of the letters of Voltaire, which take him only to the age of 65 (he died at 84, pen in hand) and are all I can afford for the moment, come in at about 10,000 pages on bible paper in an eight-point font.  Altogether we have more than 20,000 of his letters, written around the edges of what we usually think of as his “work”.

 Action: Gerard ter Borch the Younger (1671-1681)

The tradition carried on into the Victorian era and beyond.  Think of all the wonderful Life and Letters of nineteenth-century figures.  By no means is all of this material is highbrow in nature.  One of the first extensive English letter collections we have (the Paston Letters from fifteenth-century East Anglia) is as full of grubby bourgeois concerns as anything imagined by Balzac or Trollope.  Many viewers of Ken Burns’s justly famous television series on The Civil War have been struck by one feature of its documentation—namely the informal letters written by soldiers on either side of the conflict, and generally addressed to distant family members at home.  Many of these men were private soldiers of modest social station and limited formal education, raised on farms in Indiana or Tennessee.  What is likely to seem extraordinary to us is that so many of them wrote with such competence, and often enough with elegance and even eloquence.  It might be possible to draw from this evidence postulates potentially useful for such theorists of American education as the hapless Arnie Duncan, but the point here is an historical one.  These men were the late inheritors of a culture in which competence in letter-writing was among the fundamentals of literacy.

Reaction: Jan Vermeer (1632-1635)

All this is vanishing, if not in fact long-since vanished.  The great age of letter-writing was enabled by material innovation (cheap rag paper, ink producible in quanity, the metallic quill, improved carriage wheels, a regular postal service, and various other things rarely brought to mind), and it is being abandoned by material innovation.  I very much doubt that our cultivated progeny will find pleasure in The Collected Email of Jonathan Franzen, Tom Robbins’s Greatest Tweets or The Cell Phone Records of Tama Janowitz—not even if read on a Kindle.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Impressions of Christmas

Long ago in the late Sixties I became the Master of Wilson College at Princeton.  The grandiose title was more misleading than most.  Wilson College was a monument of social engineering, an “alternative” residential and dining facility designed by college administrators for students who rejected, with greater or lesser political vehemence, the old system of private, selective dining clubs on Prospect Street, a relic of the age of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Wilson College was a club, that is, for people who hated clubs.  Being its Master was roughly like being the Chief Whip of the International Anarchist Congress. 
Several of the most enriching relationships of my life date from that period, which witnessed large strides in the more unconventional aspects of my education, including some practical ones.  For instance: we mounted numerous “events,” many of which we advertised with printed posters.  Printing costs were shockingly high.  Some students suggested we make posters ourselves in the sadly underused University typography studio.  The rest is history.  I became hooked on letterpress printing—its history, its products, and above all its practice.

A Vandercook Proving Machine with a poster-sized form on its bed

For my birthday in 1970 my wife bought me a very imaginative gift: a sixteen hundred pound flatbed Vandercook press (proving machine).  She had found this, by methods unrevealed, at what I must describe as a printing equipment morgue in Camden, New Jersey.  If this place was not a Mafia front, its proprietors deserved to be prosecuted for false pretenses.  They cannot possibly have made a living from selling the superannuated machinery occupying a couple of acres of New Jersey urban blight.  But that was not my problem.  My problem was that I had to take a truck down to Camden, load the press, transport it, and then get it up the front stairs of a large Victorian house on University Place, Princeton.
The great age of the Vandercook Press overlapped with the origins of commercial offset lithography.  The Vandercook Proving Machine was designed to produce a single very high quality sheet that could then be photographed.  My particularly beautiful press had been retired probably about 1955, since which time it had been gathering dust in Mr. Carbone’s warehouse.  With an act of terminal piety its operator had run the roller unprotected over the last form to be worked on—a somewhat ghoulish ecclesiastical poster, perfectly preserved on the ancient make-ready:
Thus began our Pilgrim Press.  And as one thing leads to another, I spent the next decade or so expanding its holdings: four more presses, several tons of old foundry type, gorgeous old printing cabinets and composing stones, and a large quantity of the miscellaneous beautiful old steel, brass, and polished wood implements that were the accoutrements of letterpress printing.   I do most of my printing these days on one of two identical, superbly maintained 14” Chandler and Price clam-shell jobbing presses.
A Chandler and Price clamshell press

The history of our printing adventures, the last chapter of which has not yet been written, might on another occasion make an appropriate subject of a weekly essay.  I raise it now in the context of wishing a very happy holiday season to all my readers.  There seems to be a surprisingly large number of them, surprisingly scattered across the globe.  I cannot send each of you one of my printed greetings cards; but please be assured of my best wishes.  The holiday I celebrate is the Nativity of Our Lord, commonly known as Christmas; and therefore I send you Christmas greetings.  For you it may be Hannukah, the Solstice, or simply the midwinter semester break.  Whatever it may be, let it be for you filled with peace and plenty.  Our world is sufficiently needy to absorb the most ecumenical spectrum of benign wishes.  So whether your thing be Baskerville or Bodoni, God bless you.
The annual Printing of the Christmas Card falls somewhere between a ritual and an ordeal in this household.  The ordeal part is entirely a function of my sloth.  There is no reason, in principle, why a Christmas card could not be printed in the leisure of a summer afternoon.  Certainly nothing would forbid its being printed on a sunny Saturday in October.  In fact, however, the Iron Law of Procrastination determines that the project cannot even be begun before December 15.  Otherwise it cannot compete with all the other postponed non-negotiable Christmas preparations—getting the tree, excavating in the crawl-space for the decorative lights, baking the cookies, cutting the firewood, et caetera.  I do have a fallback position.  Years ago I had a line etching made from a Renaissance woodcut of Saint Anthony Abbot, alias Anthony of the Desert.  This able ascetic is most helpful to procrastinating printers, among others, for his feast day is January 17.  Even when I default on Christmas, I can usually get a card done by then.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Up the Educational Creek, Without Paddle

Get ready for a long, grumpy,  boring political screed, because there’s this lady Julianna Smoot, keeps writing to me about my dinner with Barack.  No kidding!  That’s what she calls him—Barack.  There’s another message in my email box this morning: “John--Have you been thinking about who you'd bring to the next Dinner with Barack?”  Well, I hadn’t been, but now that I do, I’d like to bring my mother, except that she died thirty years ago.  But he could sure use her advice, even from the grave, especially if she brought along my old copy of Paddle to the Sea.

The advice would concern education, one of the President’s supposed priorities as articulated recently in a long and important speech.  The genre was primarily that of a campaign manifesto, and the venue for its delivery—always carefully premeditated in today’s political world—was of course symbolic.  The setting was the town of Osawatamie, Kansas, where Theodore Roosevelt had made an important campaign speech a century earlier.  In the absurd journalistic word-fad of the moment the press tells us that he was “channeling” Roosevelt.  (You may recall Jesus’s “channeling” of Moses in the Sermon on the Mount.)  The specific site was an auditorium in a public high school, a venue that underscored one of the President’s most important themes: the relationship between individual and national economic success and the quality of American education.  To this general subject he devoted seven paragraphs, about a thousand words, which for purposes of readers’ convenience I have reproduced below exactly as I find them in the official White House transcript.

I am neither a public figure nor an expert in public policy.  I have, however, spent much of my life trying to improve my own education, and my entire professional life encouraging the education of young Americans.  So I have some considered ideas on the subject.
The President said some things very much worth saying.  America needs a much larger work force skilled in mathematics and fundamental science, and in the applied sciences of engineering. (¶ 2.)  The country needs more good school teachers (¶ 1.)  He deplored the empirical fact that for the past generation so many of “the best and the brightest” among college graduates have made a beeline from the Commencement celebrations to Wall Street (¶ 2.)  But the punch line of the “education” section of the speech is the president’s claim of a long-term need to make unspecified “investments” in American public education—meaning increased federal spending for education—to be secured by increased taxes on rich people  (¶ 5) and the short-term need to suppress individual Social Security payments, aka the “payroll tax”, for an additional year (¶ 7). 
How pathetic is this?  Forget the simple rhetorical legerdemain that suggests a non-existent link between a “payroll tax holiday” and the improvement of education—approximating the current Republican union of a Canadian pipeline and the continuation of welfare checks for the unemployed.  Move directly to the political prevarication.  Of this there are many varieties, the crude variety of the lie direct being relatively rare.  As Orwell pointed out in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” the most insidious form is linguistic abuse; and in this form President Obama is no less expert than his adversaries. 
Consider his concept of investments—meaning my tax dollars at work.  The usual definition of an investment is an outlay of money against a hope of income or profit.   If I buy a quart of milk for my family’s breakfast for a dollar I am bearing an expense, a portion of what we call the cost of living, not making an investment.  If buy a common stock I am.   I shall have to continue to spend money on food indefinitely, but I shall continue to make stock market investments only so long as experience convinces me of their wisdom.  If after five years a quart of milk costs two dollars but my stock is still worth only a dollar I will not consider that I have made a wise investment.  The tax-funded federal educational expenses that President Obama insists on calling “investments” have roughly doubled since 1970.  During that time the demonstrated abilities of American schoolchildren to handle the basic skills of literacy have remained essentially static.  But as we live in anything but a static world their skills, when compared with those of their little Finnish and Korean competitors in other parts of the world, are actually less satisfactory than they were in 1970.
One of the main reason lots of people are unemployed is not because there is no work to be done but because they don’t know enough and/or are insufficiently motivated to do anything worth even $7.25 an hour to the people who might hire them.  Large numbers dropped out of school as soon as they could.  Many others possess a high-school diploma that cannot be trusted to certify so much as functional literacy.  Lots of them have a “work ethic” less easy to detect than radiation from outer space.
A subtle form of political prevarication—practiced ecumenically by our “leaders” of all stripes—is to talk very earnestly about the wrong problem.   Allegedly inadequate resources in the public schools is the wrong problem.  The chief cause of public school debility and its inevitably dire economic repercussions is the continuing degradation of the American family.  Long before education can happen in a school, however opulently “invested,” it has to be prepared for in a home.  There need to be adults in this home who can and do speak in complete sentences featuring the occasional disyllable, who have real conversations around a shared dinner table, who show their love for their kids by taking them to the public library at least as often as they do to Macdonalds, who show that they recognize the importance of reading and writing by doing a little themselves.  Such parents insist that their children work hard and if necessarily long on their homework, and demand professional competence from the public educational authorities.  It is not President Obama’s fault that these things are not happening; but it is his fault to pretend that our educational crisis stems from insufficient “investment”.
Here’s the educational investment my parents made in 1941, when I was five years old.  It was a pretty good investment, as for $1.95 it secured me a life-time of well-paid work.  They bought me a brand-new book entitled Paddle to the Sea.  This book, beautifully illustrated, tells the story of a Canadian Indian boy who lives on Lake Nipigon in Ontario.  He carves and decorates a miniature canoe, complete with its figure of a paddler, naming the figure Paddle-to-the-Sea.  The young boy puts the carved boat into a snow bank whence, in the spring thaw, it washes down from rivulet to branch to creek to river and, eventually, to Lake Superior.   Over a long period punctuated by dozens of fascinating adventures Paddle-to-the-Sea makes it all the way through the Saint Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean. 
For Depression-era parents of slender means two bucks was not entirely negligible, but their capital expenditure counted as nothing in comparison with their educational investment.  My mother, my father, and my Uncle John—none of whom had a college degree--each spent long hours teaching me to read this book.  My Aunt Mildred (a school-teacher) also chipped in.  The words, difficult as they were, were the easiest part.  Just beyond them lay vast horizons of geography, forestry, navigation, climatology, hydrology, and several other academic abstractions for which I would not for years know so much as the names.  My parents didn’t just tell me that such things were important.  They loved me enough to show me. 
Paddle to the Sea, which is still in print, won a Caldicott Medal in 1942 and became a big seller.  This means that copies of the first edition are still easily found on eBay.  Now and again I buy one, which inevitably is soon loaned or given away.

Artwork from Paddle to the Sea by Holling Holling (1941)

1. But we need to meet the moment.  We've got to up our game.  We need to remember that we can only do that together.  It starts by making education a national mission -- a national mission.  (Applause.)  Government and businesses, parents and citizens.  In this economy, a higher education is the surest route to the middle class.  The unemployment rate for Americans with a college degree or more is about half the national average.  And their incomes are twice as high as those who don't have a high school diploma.  Which means we shouldn't be laying off good teachers right now -- we should be hiring them.  (Applause.)  We shouldn't be expecting less of our schools –- we should be demanding more.  (Applause.)  We shouldn't be making it harder to afford college -- we should be a country where everyone has a chance to go and doesn't rack up $100,000 of debt just because they went.  (Applause.)

2. In today's innovation economy, we also need a world-class commitment to science and research, the next generation of high-tech manufacturing.  Our factories and our workers shouldn't be idle.  We should be giving people the chance to get new skills and training at community colleges so they can learn how to make wind turbines and semiconductors and high-powered batteries.  And by the way, if we don't have an economy that's built on bubbles and financial speculation, our best and brightest won't all gravitate towards careers in banking and finance.  (Applause.)   Because if we want an economy that's built to last, we need more of those young people in science and engineering.  (Applause.)  This country should not be known for bad debt and phony profits. We should be known for creating and selling products all around the world that are stamped with three proud words:  Made in America.  (Applause.)  

3. Today, manufacturers and other companies are setting up shop in the places with the best infrastructure to ship their products, move their workers, communicate with the rest of the world.  And that's why the over one million construction workers who lost their jobs when the housing market collapsed, they shouldn't be sitting at home with nothing to do.  They should be rebuilding our roads and our bridges, laying down faster railroads and broadband, modernizing our schools -- (applause) -- all the things other countries are already doing to attract good jobs and businesses to their shores.

4. Yes, business, and not government, will always be the primary generator of good jobs with incomes that lift people into the middle class and keep them there.  But as a nation, we've always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed.  (Applause.)  And historically, that hasn't been a partisan idea. Franklin Roosevelt worked with Democrats and Republicans to give veterans of World War II -- including my grandfather, Stanley Dunham -- the chance to go to college on the G.I. Bill.  It was a Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower, a proud son of Kansas -- (applause) -- who started the Interstate Highway System, and doubled down on science and research to stay ahead of the Soviets.  

5. Of course, those productive investments cost money.  They're not free.  And so we've also paid for these investments by asking everybody to do their fair share.  Look, if we had unlimited resources, no one would ever have to pay any taxes and we would never have to cut any spending.  But we don't have unlimited resources.  And so we have to set priorities.  If we want a strong middle class, then our tax code must reflect our values.  We have to make choices.  

6. Today that choice is very clear.  To reduce our deficit, I've already signed nearly $1 trillion of spending cuts into law and I've proposed trillions more, including reforms that would lower the cost of Medicare and Medicaid.  (Applause.) 

7. But in order to structurally close the deficit, get our fiscal house in order, we have to decide what our priorities are. Now, most immediately, short term, we need to extend a payroll tax cut that's set to expire at the end of this month.  (Applause.)  If we don't do that, 160 million Americans, including most of the people here, will see their taxes go up by an average of $1,000 starting in January and it would badly weaken our recovery.  That's the short term.   

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Uncle Rick


 Richard N. Fleming (æt. 70) with bloguiste brother in Las Cruces, N.M.; photo by Richard A. Fleming

We have just returned from Las Cruces, New Mexico, where we had gone for a family event, a birthday party for my brother Rick.  Participating in the celebration of the seventieth birthday of one’s “baby brother” would hardly be an emotionless experience under any circumstances; but in this instance the emotion was for me a kind of tidal wave. 
The famous opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, endlessly quoted, is one of the few false notes that great writer ever struck.  “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  No doubt life would be less confusing if it submitted graciously to aphorisms, but it rarely does.  Family life is simply the most often observed paradigm of social life altogether, and thus necessarily a mix and a spectrum, rather than an essence.  And my experience, at least, is that joy is far more various than misery, which tends to the monochrome.   
The long weekend of Rick’s birthday would merit an essay of its own, but for me the emotional complications arose from overwhelming feelings of mutability that almost always attend revisiting after long absence a half-forgotten geography.  I was revisiting events shared with my “baby brother” years ago.

 Las Cruces, New Mexico, with the Organ Mountains in the distance

Las Cruces is a small city in south-central New Mexico, perhaps an hour north of El Paso.  It is set in a beautiful desert at the base of a small but dramatic eruption of mountains, called the Organs, their jagged columns having suggested to some early poetic viewers a rank of pipes in a pipe organ.  It is the home of an old land-grant college, New Mexico A&M, now New Mexico State University.  The vast White Sands Missile Range is nearby.   Since I last saw the place nearly three decades ago, it has suffered hideously from highway construction and strip mall development.  The density of big box stores and franchise restaurants seems extreme even for the undisciplined sprawl of the Southwest.  There has also been a boom (and bust) in domestic construction, much of it faux-adobe and “Poor Man’s Santa Fe.”
Rick owns a modest house in a modest “older” (meaning in context 1950s) neighborhood.  It once belonged to our elder brother Peter, now deceased. My father and mother moved there with Rick about 1970, following the first of my Dad’s strokes.  The move was, I think, a mistake, though who am I to say?  My Dad had grown up in New Mexico in the 1920s, when it had only recently been admitted to the union, and there was still some real wildness in the West, as opposed to nostalgic make-believe.  What he now found was a “Sun Belt” slowly filling up, as it seemed to him, with obese retirees in split-level homes, gun nuts, and religious fanatics, with a certain amount of overlap in categories.
He never got better.  Instead he got worse, much worse, as three more strokes rendered him first speechless, then nearly motionless.  When my mother died in 1979 he began saying goodbye to the world.  I last saw him a few weeks before his death in 1980.  He was in a hospital room, taped, tied, and tubed up in grotesque medical indignity.  I have to believe he knew that I was there.  Behind all the apparatus of life support a window perfectly framed as for a calendar a sharp view of the sun-drenched Organ Mountains against a clear blue sky.  To walk out of that room required of me an act of “infinite resignation;” but that remark may need some explication.
On a visit a few years earlier I had taken my Dad, severely limited of speech but to a degree ambulatory, to a meeting of his “stroke club”—a gathering of survivors of cerebral hemorrhages, two or three dozen fellows (if there were women clubbers, I cannot remember them), awkwardly “interacting” beneath the fluorescent glare of the industrial lighting in some cavernous cinder-block church hall.  All of them were visibly damaged, many more damaged even than my father, some wholly aphasic, some in wheelchairs, two or three of them registering that lifeless animation—there is such a thing—that makes you recoil from some of Goya’s Caprichos.
Very few experiences are entirely lacking an educational dimension, but what I was expecting to be a lesson in pity soon enough turned to one in humility.  My Dad “introduced” me to one of his special friends, a high-school dropout, a former truck driver, now a ward of the social services.  This man could speak clearly, though agonizingly slowly. 
Where was I from? he asked.  “Princeton, New Jersey.”  This answer seemed to excite him unduly.  Did I know the Princeton University Press?  Well, I had actually published my first book there, but of what conceivable interest could this fact be to such a man?  So I told him I knew where it was.  “Well,” he said, “you gotta go there.  They’re starting a complete new edition of Kierkegaard…complete…”  He already had several volumes of the classic Walter Lowrie translation.  Indeed, his chief motive for survival in his difficult world seemed to be the hope of resolving to his mind’s satisfaction the conundrums of Fear and Trembling.  “But I know I never will.   That man is a deep thinker, I mean deep…”
“Deep” hardly touches it.  What Fear and Trembling is ostensibly “about” is the willingness of Abraham to kill his own son Isaac at God’s command.  On my campus, placed at a corner of the chapel on one of the main paths to the library, is George Segal’s sculptural rendition of the scene.

 George Segal (1924-2000), "Abraham and Isaac," on the Princeton University campus

Kent State University: 4 May 1970

This had actually been commissioned to commemorate the murder of several students at Kent State University by some panicky members of the Ohio National Guard in May, 1970.  The theme of the father killing the son was perhaps obvious, but Segal’s expression of it proved too painful and political for the taxpayers of Ohio.  What would it take for the father to plunge that knife into the son’s breast?   That is the question Kierkegaard asks, and his answer is infinite resignation.  “Infinite resignation,” says Kierkegaard, writing beneath the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio, “is the last stage before faith, so that anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in infinite resignation do I become conscious of my eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.... Precisely because resignation is antecedent, faith is no esthetic emotion but something far higher; it is not the spontaneous inclination of the heart but the paradox of 'existence'.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Inclusive Language

 Émile Littré: 
¡No pasarán!

Every writer has their cross to bear.  I say that because after offering token resistance, English teachers throughout the North American continent have had to abandon the defense of the generic masculine singular pronoun as used by such classic writers as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Katherine Anne Porter—need I go on?  So as grotesque as their may be, it beats endlessly repeated his or her.  “Every dog has his or her day”?  All this is a necessary tribute to what is called “inclusive language”.  Being a fairly modern sort of a fellow I am all in favor of inclusive language except, perhaps, when unleashed upon the repertoire of great sacred music.
Fortunately our own native tongue, English, and especially American English, is inclusive by long habit, indeed one might say exuberantly inclusive.  In this it differs dramatically from an exclusive language like French.  I was reminded of this while reading a characteristically interesting post on one of the blogs I follow, “A French Education.”  Its author, P. B. Lecron, reminds us that “The French take protection and preservation of their language seriously, so seriously that a commission specialized in terminology and neologisms maintains an inventory of and oversees the introduction of new words officially admitted into the language.”
France is a great nation, and its contributions to world culture are dazzling.  But every now and again the French come up with something that gives one pause: the revolutionary Committee on Public Safety, let us say, or the Dreyfus Affair, or Jean-Paul Sartre.  Somewhere along that spectrum of dubiety one would have to place the institution of the French Language Police.
 Le Robert, from the bloguiste's library

Language is somewhat like war.  (What isn’t?)  The Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s famous formula for military success was to “get there first with the most”.  I just conducted a scientific experiment, and discovered the following.  The French lexicon comes in at about fourteen inches.  The English lexicon comes in at about thirty-seven inches.  We just have more words, and I mean way more words, than anybody else.  This richness of the English vocabulary is not the product of committee deliberations in which some graybeards vote on whether or not one can say weekend or fin de siècle.  No.  This is America.  You can say whatever the hell you please.  If it jives, it thrives.  If not, not.  You can stick that in your cybercarnet.
OED, from the bloguiste's library

Imagine that Archbishop Stigand had been able to chair a committee to sniff out neologisms immediately following the piratical Norman invasion of 1066.  Old English was a well developed Germanic language, and it had serviceable words for most things that a peasant—I mean of course a churl--came across in the course of the day.  There was a nice compact one for the animal that goes moo-moo.  It was cú, “cow”.  The committee could have nixed beef.  The oink-oink animal already had two words: swín and *picga.  Surely we didn’t need yet another, (ugh!) pork? But a great language is not some tender seedling that needs to be preserved under artificial light in a hothouse.  The idea that it needs “protection and preservation” by a committee is funny, facetious, hilarious, not to mention drôle.  
 Archbishop Stigand: too busy for words

The way to grow a great language is to let it go with the flow. Anybody who has read Beowulf even in translation knows that there were four hundred and twelve English words meaning guys who run around with spears, swords, lances, and bucklers maiming and killing each other.  But a truly inclusive language knows no limits.  So we glommed onto some more, including the Norman warrior.  (This was before some earlier Parisian committee decided to banish W from the French language, where in the old Norman texts it played such a noble role.)
Nothing is more important in such a society as that of early England than what we now call “homeland security”.  Primitive Germanic clearly had several perfectly good words for a fortified place.  Among them was the word that developed into the suffix –burg in High German (Hamburg, etc.) and in modern English –bury (Canterbury, Salisbury, etc.)  What Canterbury meant was “the fortified place in Kent”. 
One of the Latin words for a fortified place was castellum.  The obvious English reflex is castle, and we find place-names with -castle in them, with or with actual castles, all over England.  But in France castellum first became castel, then chateau.  But since in a feudal world a castle is a conspicuous example of real property, the word came to mean other kinds of property as well, goods and livestock.  The English word chattels denotes the former, while cattle denotes the latter.  But of course many of the folks building the castles in England were still speaking French when they did so, and we get the characteristic French ch in Chester (and many others).  West Chester PA is simply the town west of Chester PA, but Westchester County NY derives eventually from an English castle that was, in relation to some other fixed point, west.  Today you can butcher one of your cattle, turn it into steak Chateaubriand, and wash it down nicely with a couple of glasses of a chateau-bottled vintage—and not for a moment realize the circle of linguistic tautology in which you are swirling.  And there’s no committee to stop us.

 Old Castle and New Castle.  You tell me which is which.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Esse est percipi

            Most of my readers are probably familiar, vaguely, with the name of George Berkeley.  Berkeley (1685-1753) was a philosophical Anglican bishop who developed an odd metaphysical theory summed up by the Latin maxim esse est percipi—“to be is to be perceived.”  If your scholastic Latin is getting rusty you may prefer to recall the problem of the tree falling in the remote and uninhabited forest.  Since no one is there to see it or hear it fall, since indeed no one will ever know the slightest thing about this putative tree, is it even possible to say that the tree has ever existed?
The Right Reverend George Berkeley

            This argument fascinated me in Philosophy 101 half a century ago.  Much longer ago than that it seems to have infuriated my culture hero Sam Johnson who, kicking away a small stone that lay on his path, said “Thus I refute Berkeley”—a remark I find more baffling than “Esse est percipi,” actually.
            Berkeley was laying the groundwork for his religious metaphysics, of course.  What guaranteed the existence of the universe, in his view, was its constant perception by the mind of God. 
Berkeley’s hypothesis makes various appearances in English literature.  I seem to remember it, for example, in the opening chapter of The Longest Journey, to my mind the best of E. M. Forster’s novels, which would have to mean that it is very good indeed.  Nor should we forget the contribution of Monsignor Ronald Knox, a clerical wit of an earlier generation, who wrote a splendid limerick on the theme.
There was a young man who said "God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there's no one about in the quad.

Brilliant, but perhaps upstaged by its anonymous riposte:

Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by
--Yours faithfully,

Well, anybody who ever writes anything and sends it out alone in search of a public is likely to face a certain amount of Berkeleian anxiety.  Maybe God knows about it, but does anybody else?
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
That of course is Thomas Gray, another formidable eighteenth-century English gent, in one of the great and gloomy poems of our tongue, the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”.  We know that Keats wanted a single simple inscription on his tombstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”  But what about under water, those “dark unfathom’d caves of ocean”?  Have I spent my professional life reforesting a remote and unvisited wilderness?
            My first “major” publication, which cost me months of work, was a long essay on the Old English poem usually called “The Dream of the Rood”.  It was published in 1966 in an obscure but erudite Jesuit-edited journal called Traditio.  According to my argument, which I am still prepared to entertain, “The Dream of the Rood” is not merely a poem written in a monastic milieu—that seems obvious—but a poem allegorically about the monastic life.  My essay received the usual academic guerdon.  It was “cited”.  It “appeared” in bibliographies.  Do not indict me for undue cynicism if I tell you that neither of those facts is in itself convincing evidence that anybody ever read it.
Thomas Merton, O. Cist.

            Well.  One of the great Anglo-American religious writers of the last century was Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, and the author of The Seven Storey Mountain and other influential books.  I read a couple of them in my youth; but I never met him, nor indeed knew much about him.  A few years ago I did have one strange “encounter,” when I was in the early stages of writing The Anti-Communist Manifestos.  Thomas Merton, it turns out, was an undergraduate at Columbia right in the middle of the Red Decade.  He knew Lionel Trilling slightly and was a kind of protégé of Mark Van Doren, one of the famous English professors of his age (yes, there are some) and a mentor to various literary eminences.  During this period Merton very briefly participated in the Columbia cell of the Young Communist League.  It turned out that the cell for which he was destined was of another sort.
            In 1968 Merton died by electrocution in a freak accident in Bangkok, where he was participating in an ecumenical meeting with Zen Buddhists. I read about it in the press.  That may have been my last conscious thought about Thomas Merton until about two years ago.  I was at the concluding “social hour” of some large academic conference, wearing the obligatory name-tag, and desperately trying to fight my way through to the hors d’oeuvres.  The guy next to me says, “You’re not the John Fleming who wrote about the ‘Dream of the Rood’ by any chance?”
            The very same.  Well, he explained, he was writing a biography of Thomas Merton.  And?  Well, he had read all of Merton’s private diaries, which apparently are housed in a large archive of Mertoniana at Bellarmine University in Louisville.  One of the last entries in the last of the extant notebooks preserves the careful notes he was making on an essay that had caught his fancy: John V. Fleming’s “The ‘Dream of the Rood’ and Anglo-Saxon Monasticism.”  One of the most famous monks of the twentieth century had been reading my article about monastic life just before he died!

The opening section of the "Dream of the Rood" in its unique text in the Vercelli Book.  How an Anglo-Saxon vernacular manuscript ended up in northern Italy is an unsolved mystery.  My guess is that it had been in the possession of a dying English pilgrim.  The poem begins with the majuscule letter: HWæt, ic swefna cyst secgan wille... "Listen!  I shall tell you the best of dreams..."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reading the Leaves

It seems to be generally true that people in the autumn of life respond with sharpening attention to the annual coming of the autumn of the year.   Such at least is my own experience and that of others with whom I have spoken.  What might be called the incremental poignancy of the autumnal is neither surprising nor necessarily lugubrious, but it is somber and arresting.  It demands its high seriousness.  Keats wrote his famous “Ode to Autumn” when he was, I think, twenty-four years old.  Can one imagine how much richer yet it might have been could he have written it at seventy-four?  But of course for Keats twenty-four was autumn, and late autumn at that.  He knew it.  That is why he could say in another great poem that he had “been half in love with easeful death,” even as in this one he can eroticize Autumn herself as a woman in the willing oblivion of a narcotic sleep, death’s simulacrum:
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies….

            Read the whole of the Ode to Autumn.  You will find in it a remarkable density of perfectly chosen images, with one strange lacuna.  Keats says nothing about leaves.  In the parts of the world I know best, Autumn is all about leaves.  The Fall of the Year is a leaf-fall.  But the fall is preceded by the turn—the transformation of the green of life into the yellow and red hues of a slow-motion immolation.  Dante envisioned the Beatific Vision as an ocean of photons.  But by then he had been strenuously prepared by Beatrice.  Most of us would find that sea of light impossible to bear, but I can imagine walking on a leaf-strew path in the waning autumnal sunlight filtered through the glowing canopy of a deciduous copse.

 The path from the back of our house: without Beatrice, the best you can hope for

            A scholar is likely to have another wistful association with leaves.  The Latin word for leaf was folium, from which we get our English foliage.  But long ago that word folium took on an extended meaning.  It meant a piece of writing material, a sheet of paper or of parchment, a page of a book.  When one leafs through a book, one is idly turning its pages.  To turn over a new leaf is to make a new beginning.  Chaucer in a mock warning to prudes that they might be shocked by the Miller’s Tale, advises them thus: “Turne over the leef and chese another tale…”  (This is advice, however, to be followed only by those who are willing to miss the second funniest line in world literature.)

            In the early periods of printing, important books were made from large sheets of paper folded a single time in the center to make a signature of four pages, two on the front and two on the back of the sheet.  That was called printing in folio.  Think Gutenberg Bible or the First Folio of Shakespeare.  (If you are slow off the mark, think Second Folio of Shakespeare).  Fold the sheet again; the pages will be smaller but you will have twice as many of them.  That was printing in quarto, and it was still plenty big.  Most books you have read will have been printed in octavo—three folds of the big sheet, sixteen pages of text.  No matter what the format the printing was always done on single large sheets, meaning that the printer had to take care to get the pages in the right place.  The reader had some work to do, too, cutting the pages open so they could be turned one at a time.

            The folium as writing surface was not entirely metaphorical.  At the dawn of written history all sorts of materials were used—bones, bark, wood, animal membrane, and of course leaves.  One leaf-writer of note was the all-knowing Cumaean Sybil, among the most famous prophetesses of ancient legend.  Her leaf of choice, Varro tells us, was the fibrous palm.  Her sooth-saying gift was honored by the later Christians, for whom she was the precursor of the prophet-king of Israel.    The great Latin poem about the Last Day, probably written by Thomas of Celano, biographer of Saint Francis, begins thus:

Dies iræ! Dies illa                                    [Day of wrath!  That day
Solvet sæclum in favilla:                        will dissolve the world in ashes,
Teste David cum Sibylla!                        as David testifies along with the Sibyl!]

Michaelangelo's Sibyl: Oh, sweet mama, treetop tall, won't you kindly turn your damper down.

The Sibyl knew everything there was to know, and she wrote it all down on her leaves.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that as a librarian—excuse me, I meant of course Information Technology person—she was a nightmare.  Neither storage nor retrieval was her thing.  She simply tossed her prophecies down anywhere in her vast and drafty cave, where Nature soon enough did to them what she does to all fallen, brittle leaves—blew and beat them into powdered compost.  The search for a needle in a haystack is child’s play compared with the search for truth in a pile of leaf mold.

This is why Helenus, the friend of Æneas, has advised the hero to seek the Sybil’s revelation in spoken rather than in written form.  And so he wisely does.
                                          Foliis tantum e carmina manda,
                                    Ne turbata volent rapidis ludibria ventis;
                                    Ipsa canas oro. [Æneid, vi. 74-76]
“Only do not commit your verses to the leaves, lest they fly about, the sport of strong winds.  I beg you to speak them yourself.”
Jan Breughel's Sibyl: The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind...

A scholar spends a lifetime raking up neat piles of leaves, but don’t count on the Sibyl to guard them for posterity.  She is too heedless, too oblivious.  She, too, is drowsed with the fume of poppies.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Shifting Signifiers, or Signs of the Times

Omnis doctrina vel res vel signa est, sed res per signa discuntur.
                        Augustine De Doctrina Christiniana

At the beginning of his brilliant essay on the principles of interpretation Saint Augustine says that “All teaching concerns either things or signs; but we learn about things by means of signs.” Human language is a system of signs essential for social interaction and especially for learning and teaching.

Augustine loves binary distinctions, and he now makes one with regard to signs themselves. There are two kinds, natural signs and conventional signs.  Think of the signs of fire.  If you see a plume of smoke rising on the horizon, you know that there is also fire.  Smoke is a natural sign of fire.  Smoke always “means” fire, and smoke means fire everywhere on earth.  But what about the word f-i-r-e?  The word is also a sign for the thing fire, but not a natural sign.  It is a conventional sign, agreed upon by social compact.  It is a sign that would have meant nothing to Augustine himself.  The sign f-i-r-e did not exist in the year 400, and even its hypothetical primitive Germanic ancestor would never have entered his Mediterranean ear.  To signal the thing fire to Augustine you would have to use Augustine’s conventions rather than those of Hrothgar.  You would have to say ignis.

In a very famous Supreme Court case (Schenck, 1919) Oliver Wendell Holmes opined that “falsely to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” was not constitutionally protected speech--not in the face of a "clear and present danger".  But you could probably shout “ignis!” with relative impunity even at a Senior Citizens’ Matinee at the Classic.  I may think that the decline of Latin is a clear and present danger, but I doubt that the Supreme Court would.

A little Greek lad who hears the word b-e-t-a will see one thing in his mind,  the little Roman boy another.   The disyllable beta does not by laws of nature mean anything.  It is not a natural, but a conventional sign. me...

No conventional sign can mean anything until you sign onto the convention.  Think of the monosyllable g-i-f-t.  A gift is a desirable thing, at least in Anglophone regions.  It is less so in Germany, unless you positively grock on potassium cyanide or Zyklon-B.  What this means is that if somebody gives you a gift, hope that it is in Boston rather than Berlin.

BOSTON         or

Augustine was trying to prepare people to approach the Bible in some other spirit than that of a Rorschach test.  My purpose in this post is very different, though I will in passing commend Augustine’s essay to the alarmingly large number of my fellow Bible-readers who seem to think that the Word of God is English, subspecies Jacobean.

 ...all Greek to me....

What dawned on me was an odd extension or corollary of Augustinian linguistics.  It seems possible that an entire language can become a conventional sign. On Sunday last I went to the University Chapel for the monthly Communion service.  The cornerstone of this mini-Amiens cathedral was laid in 1922, when a buck was still a buck; and cynics almost immediately christened the building “Princeton’s million dollar answer to materialism.”  Well, let them scoff.  The space is magnificent, and the music excellent even when, as on this occasion, many student choristers were still away on Fall Break.

Chapel services are ecumenical Protestant, though the Gothic architecture pushes the envelope well beyond the comfort zone of, say, John Knox.  The Eucharist has the traditional structure, though Catholics, of whom a fair number attend, must face the anomaly of pronouncing the words of consecration themselves, thus practicing if not approving Martin Luther’s concept of the priesthood of all believers.

But the implications of one odd feature of the service only now struck me with full force.  The old Roman Catholic Mass was in Latin.  We still use Latin words (the Gloria, the Sanctus) to denominate certain parts. One of the principal reforms of the Reformers, adopted by the Catholics themselves after a brief lag of four centuries, was to translate it into the local vernacular.  But here we were in a rather WASPish conclave of central New Jersey singing these parts in Spanish.  Princeton, N.J, is reasonably cosmopolitan, but it is not Miami.  I cannot be sure that there were no native speakers of Spanish in that substantial congregation, but I allow myself to doubt it.  Yet there we all were lustily praising El Señor with authentic south-of-the-border (the Massachusetts border, that is) accent.

The explanation of this phenomenon is not so simple as the fact that our musical settings do in fact come from an Argentinian folk mass.  I have never heard this crowd singing “A Mighty Fortress” in the original German.  No.  The explanation is that in a certain American politico-ecclesiastical context the Spanish language itself, quite apart from any of its individual verbal signifiers, is becoming a conventional sign.  What it signals is a vague but benevolent aspiration to catholic fraternity and recognition of that biblical category called “the poor, the fatherless, and the oppressed.”  I rather doubt that it signaled the same thing to Lope de Vega, but then conventions do shift.