Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My First Century of Blogging

 This post witnesses the completion of my first century of blogging. If this claim seems implausible, the problem is probably philological. Cricket fans and readers of Thomas Traherne will have no difficulty, but quite a few other people seem to have forgotten the primary meaning of the word century, which is “a hundred of something”. A hundred years is only one possibility. Long before that it was the hundred centurions making up that division of a Roman legion called a centuria.

A similar fate has befallen decade, “ten of something,” now used almost exclusively to mean ten years. We don’t think that the only thing you can have a dozen of is eggs, do we? But our universal anxiety with time sweeps all before it, including your bloguiste as he sets about writing his one hundredth blog post. For the wheels of Time’s Winged Chariot have been clattering rather than whirring softly since my last effort. For starters, I turned seventy-five on the very day I flew to Europe. Yet more sobering was the news that reached me when after several days I reconnected with my email in Compostela. My Sewanee classmate and long-time friend Dave Evett had died on May 25 at his home in the Boston suburbs.  Herein, perhaps, is a topic of sufficient solemnity for the occasion.

David Hal Evett (died 25 May 2011).  May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.

David was a great man—brilliant, talented, energetic--an athlete, a singer, an actor, a powerful writer. Our careers, personal and professional, had several external parallels. When we first met in the fall of 1954 we were amused by the coincidence that we both came from small towns called Mount Pleasant—one in Michigan, the other in Texas, but both double misnomers. After college Dave went to Dijon on a Fulbright Scholarship, then on to Harvard for his Ph. D. in English and, as it turned out, an equally doctoral spouse, with whom he would raise three highly accomplished children. We almost but not quite overlapped in the English Department at Wisconsin, from which he later moved on to a long and distinguished career at Cleveland State University. He was the author of important studies in the field of Renaissance Literature. In retirement he and Marianne removed to the Boston area, where all three of their children had put down roots. He died peacefully, as I understand it, after a meal at which his whole family was gathered.

Dave was also an excellent poet. In lieu of a Christmas card he would send out each year an original Christmas poem, and we never could regard our seasonal preparations as complete until it arrived. Naturally in my state of disorganization I cannot now lay my hands on the anthology of these poems he prepared for distribution at our fiftieth class reunion a few years past. But I do have one poem of his in my computer—one not entirely inappropriate for this blog century. It is called “Alumni News,” and it responds to the announcement of the death in 2004 of another classmate (called by the poet’s sensitive pseudonym Matthew George Todd), once close friends to us both.
Probably no more lost than most

Gertrude Stein famously called her fast-living expatriate Parisian friends of the 1920s “a lost generation”. But I doubt that her generation was much loster than mine—or perhaps yours, or any other. The sheer number of my bright shining classmates who crashed upon the shoals of life, not a few of them last seen adrift on a sea of alcohol, is appalling. Of them there might seem no more poignant example of sheer waste than that afforded by “M .G. Todd”. Evett’s evocation of the “inheritors of unfulfilled renown”—a famous and tragic phrase from Shelley’s “Adonais”—was hardly hyperbolic, given this man’s talent and potential. Like most good poems, this one tells a story, the outlines of which are sufficiently clear, even without any footnote explication of its enriching details:


Matthew George Todd, ’58, of Austin, Texas, died March 11, 2004.

Lean, cool,
with a voice like George Sanders'
and a wry snort of a laugh
and a graduation watch identical to mine.
Riding the Southern on the last leg together,
Nashville to Cowan, Tennessee,
through leads in the senior play,
basketball, Hemingway,
we frisked into cronyhood
like two dogs into a wood.
Bronze hours:
dismayed to find him deadly from the key,
though I was stronger off the boards,
I challenged him at tennis,
and lost there, too;
we both paid homage to Bill Rotten
if the last trump refused to fall.
When the old Dodge balked
an hour north of Knoxville
on the way to some Virginia college weekend
we watched the winter sun strike
through the window of a clean, well-lighted place
the silver bubbles rising through the Bud,
the plywood booth, the green baize; Keats
was more real to us than the bodies of girls, then,
and we were all inheritors
of unfulfilled renown.
Later, he dared auditions and casting calls
off Times Square, the high life
of singles in D.C. played
against a barren federal job,
too much drink and sex,
while I took a safer road
through graduate school and marriage.
After this fraying globe
spun him back to Rose City, Texas,
an epistolary confession
twenty years long
on sheets from yellow legal pads
tracks his battles
with the flesh and the world and the church:
addiction was the Devil,
he knew, and wrote a long, strange book
to prove it that no-one would publish.
When a draft of this sat unread
while I tried to finish a book of my own
the letters stopped. I let it lie.
Can we not think about how he died last month,
leaving me this glum rage
over the slow corrosion
of bronze hours and my failure as a friend,
and about that devilish voice instead?
Three no trump? Double, I say. Snort.
Is there any more beer?  [David H. Evett, 2004]

The concluding lines about the obligations of friendship cut to the quick.  After twenty years of silence "Todd" had resurfaced in my sphere as well, first with a mad and truculent essay about the Cathars, then with the searing but incoherent manuscript about addiction to which the poem alludes.  One didn't know where to begin.  I, too, "let it lie".  But a couple of years later, around 2000, an academic conference took me to Austin.  By a near miracle I tracked "Todd" down by mail, and arranged to meet him for a meal.  He had greeted my initiative with something like enthusiasm, but the night before our scheduled meeting he called me at my hotel.  He abruptly, rudely, indeed angrily cancelled, then hung up the phone. I never saw him nor heard from him again.

As for David and me, the friendship was continuous if seriously intermittent.  In the last decade (of years, I mean) we tried to meet at least once each year, in New York in November, at an annual conclave of the somewhat Trollopian group known as the Guild of Scholars of the Episcopal Church.  We had in fact pre-scheduled a private conversation on the topic of "the nature of religious faith" for last November, but I bagged it when I had the chance to go to Paris instead.  At the time it seemed to me one of life's easier choices--between talking about religious faith or going to Paris, I mean.  Now I am not quite so sure.  I'll think about it more during the next century.

 The Cumberland Mountains around Sewanee TN

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Paean to the Pilgrims

Joanna Peregrina

It has been facetiously remarked of long-married couples that the partners become so used to putting up with each other through compromise and accommodation that in time they approach near identity even in physical appearance. Approaching my current physical appearance is not a fate I would wish upon most enemies, let alone my life partner, so I was delighted to discover that even after being married for forty-eight years, eleven months, and twenty-five days I could discover an entirely new and unprecedented reason for admiring my wife. As Shakespeare’s Enobarbus says of Cleopatra:
             Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
             Her infinite variety….
Fortunately, the context in which I recalled the lines was much more propitious than that in which Shakespeare had placed them in his play. It was last Friday, about 11:15 in the morning (local time) near the entrance to the south transept of the medieval cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. In a miracle nearly as astounding as any of those performed of old by the ferocious apostle himself, we actually successfully met up as planned with our pilgrims—two moving needles in a large and chaotic moving haystack of ambulatory humanity. Though the calculation is not yet absolutely final, Joan and her friend Susan had walked just under a thousand miles to get there.

 Susan & Joan / Compostela 27 v 2011  What a feat!  Also, what feet!

Five years ago, Joan’s friend and fellow Dante student Susan—twenty years Joan’s junior--was facing her fiftieth birthday. She suggested that a good way to mark the event would be to walk upwards of two thousand kilometers through southern France and northern Spain. You or I might think of a less strenuous way to be festive, but as the old saying goes, Different strides for different brides.

There were literally hundreds of pilgrimage sites in medieval Europe, but the three greatest were Jerusalem, Rome, and Compostela, the legendary home of the relics of Saint James “the Greater”, the brother of Jesus. I use the word "legendary" with some temerity, as Spaniards of the Middle Ages and Renaissance entertained no doubts whatsoever. Saint James, Santiago (i.e. San Yago or San Diego), became their national patron saint, and in his martial role as Matamoros (“the Moor-slayer”) an emblem of their ferocious ethnic cleansing in the fifteenth century and their imperial expansion in the sixteenth.

Any reader of Chaucer will know that medieval pilgrims undertook their travels out of many motives; but a long pilgrimage was always a serious business. The original meaning of the English word "travel" is preserved in the French travail—work—a form preserved in our tongue only for the agonies of childbirth. Travel was in fact so difficult, dangerous, and painful that it was appropriately undertaken as expiation for serious crimes. Canon law required those preparing for a “major” pilgrimage to leave behind their properly executed wills. The chances that they would die en route were significant.

The Compostela pilgrimage drew Christians from all parts of Europe, and it has left its memorial traces in many surprising places. (The rue Saint-Jacques in the Latin quarter of Paris, for example, takes its name from its original destination.) The scallop-shell emblem, originally an attribute of the saint himself, has become the more or less universal emblem of pilgrimage. “How should I your true love know from another one?” sings Ophelia in Hamlet. “By his cockle hat and staff, And his sandal shoon.” In recent years, the Compostela pilgrimage has enjoyed a remarkable rebirth of popularity. The percentage of seriously “religious” pilgrims is not large, but probably not proportionately much different from in Chaucer’s day—about three twenty-ninths in my calculation. There are also many young outdoors types, and lots of life transitions and inner searches. The mode of a few would appear, perhaps, to be that of the Wife of Bath: better described as cruising than journeying.  Of course the theory of medieval asceticism always linked the voluntary embrace of self-abnegation with material ministration to a needy world.  Joan and Susan called their undertaking "a pilgrimage with a purpose"--one external part of which was to raise a significant amount of money in aid of an imaginative international charity--the Worldwide Orphans Foundation.

 The Apostle's Reliquary

But what an adventure! What an engine of companionship! Chaucer’s pilgrims started out in a pretty fancy hotel where they were “esed atte beste.” Joan and Susan, like the huge numbers of today’s Compostela pilgrims, had to content themselves with modest commercial or monastic hostels. So far as I can tell the most typical activity of pilgrims is the nightly hand-washing of intimate items of apparel! You can trace the four stages of our pilgrims’ progress on the map below.

Their plan evolved.  Originally, they had plotted the pilgrimage for three stages in three succeeding years.  The demands of what we laughingly call "real life," however, soon showed that they could not devote more than seventeen or eighteen days of walking to a stage.  This meant it would require four stages.  Though circumstances made them miss one year, they kept to their revised design: four stages of almost 250 miles each, averaging fifteen miles of serious hiking a day.   Stage 1: from Le Puy en Velay in south-central France to the old medieval city of Cahors. Stage 2: Cahors to Saint-Jean Pied de Port, the traditional crossing place across the Pyrenees into Spain. Stage 3: Saint-Jean to Sahagún between Burgos and León. Stage 4: Sahagún to Compostela. The other pilgrim spouse (also a John) and I have thought of ourselves as a kind of technical “support team”—sort of like the guys who used to accompany Channel-swimmers in a motor launch, ever ready to beat off shark attacks. Pilgrimage turns out to be much easier if aided by the Wizard of Avis. But no cross, no crown. We didn’t get a diploma, the way the ladies did.

The purpose of this blog post is to salute my remarkable wife on a remarkable accomplishment. To gain their certification, pilgrims must register a few vital statistics with the peregrine officials. Joan did note that she was the sole septuagenarian on the large ledger sheet she signed. I doubt there were many on other pages either.
We know that life is a pilgrimage, and so also no doubt is marriage. There are other metaphors as well. We stumbled upon one quite by accident. We spent a most pleasant day in Compostela, before moving on to Madrid for some tapas and Velasquez, and thence back home. Old Compostela has many attractions, quite apart from Santiago and his golden shrines, and we hope one day to return. In the old Dominican monastery, now the regional museum of Galicia, there is a fascinating triplex helicoidal staircase, the work of the seventeenth-century Compostelan architect Domingo Antonio de Andrade. Three soaring sets of steps, each seemingly unsupported and each interlacing but never touching its fellows, rise from the old cloister level to the several stories of the old monastic buildings.

We started up separate flights and for a while circled each other, now coming closer, now drifting away. But by chance the flight I had chosen stopped one floor short of the top, and I was left looking up in admiration at my spouse’s greater ascension. Looking up, perhaps, as the poet Dante once did—
              E quasi peregrin, che si ricrea
              nel tempio del suo voto riguardando,
              e spera già ridir com’ ello stea…(Par. xxxi, 43-45)
And, as a pilgrim, in the temple of his vow / content within himself, looks lovingly about / and expects to tell his tale when he gets home.