Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Spenglerian Gloom

Many of the world’s great books seem to consist of every damned thing that entered their author’s minds laid end to end in captivating fashion.  I’m thinking about books like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Arabian Nights, Rabelais’ Pantagruel, Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia epidemica, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, or Pynchon’s V.  You will undoubtedly have your own favorites of the genre.   These are all works of what might be called “the higher realism,” as they so perfectly imitate life in the compelling randomness of their subjects and associations.

            I must invoke some such concept if I am get an essay written this morning.  We have been in New York these last few days celebrating Christmas with two-thirds of our offspring and their families, the third having temporarily vacated Gotham in favor of South Carolina.  That was our official agenda.   An added benefit was to get away from the perils of small-town America to the comparative safety of the city streets. 

            The pace has been pretty hectic.  The gift-swap took place on Christmas Eve at Katherine’s (Katy’s*) welcoming apartment on Washington Square.  Zvi had prepared a real feast: some species of Middle Eastern vegetarian paella, from which we waddled to our places around the “ecological” tree.  It is actually the word “tree” that deserves the quotation marks, as it was a French-made construction of recycled soda bottles.  Don’t ask.  Autres pays, autres moeurs.  Walking through a feeble, spitting snow to Midnight Mass at St. Luke’s in the Fields on Hudson Street was a struggle, but a struggle well made: great musical settings by Giacomo Carissimi and a nearly endless liturgy that took no prisoners and spared no horses—though I suppose most liturgies never do either of those things even under normal circumstances.  There amid magnificent tranquillity I did not fail to hold up in prayer my far-flung relatives and friends in many lands, not excluding the readers of my blog.


            Christmas Day was mostly bright, and in the afternoon everybody went over to Brooklyn to the Red Hook digs of Katherine (Katie*) and Richard for some babyolatry and a second delicious feast, this one the product of Rich’s day-long labors in the kitchen, and centered upon the perfect turkey.  It was a memorably mellow evening.  There, gazing in my geezerdom upon the tiny face of a one-month-old granddaughter, I could feel the full force of the prophecy of Micah: “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid”.

            That was last night.  Now it’s Wednesday, blog day, and I turn for inspiration to the Internet news.  The first story that meets the eye concerns a new gun atrocity, one that in my recent preoccupation with celebrating the anniversary of the birth of the Prince of Peace I seem to have missed.  The story involves a small lakeside neighborhood in the suburbs of Rochester, N.Y.  In this place (Webster) on Christmas Eve a man murdered the sister with whom he shared the old family house, which he then torched with her remains apparently still within it.  When the volunteer firefighters arrived, summoned by his telephone call, he shot two of them dead and wounded two others.  He then killed himself as the fire, uncontested, burned down six additional adjacent houses.  A lot of bad things do seem to happen in our country, but we can perhaps learn something even from something as bad as this one.  In our continuing national quest to answer the question “What does it take to stop a bad guy with a gun” we can strike from the list of possibilities “Four good guys with fire hoses.”

            Concerning the dead arsonist-murderer, said to be “possibly” suffering with “mental health issues,” a journalist had written thus:  “Spengler had served 17 years in jail for killing his grandmother with a hammer but had done nothing to attract the authorities' attention since being granted parole in 1998.”  This is a curious sentence, but two of its features in particular attracted my attention.  The first is perhaps syntactical, perhaps penological.  Why should killing one’s grandmother with a hammer earn you seventeen years in prison?  What’s the tariff for a great aunt with a hacksaw?  Why have we heard nothing from the hardware lobby?  “Hammers don’t kill people; carpenters kill people.”

            But the more obvious jolt came from the poor madman’s allegorical surname: Spengler.  Spengler is not in my experience a common name.  In fact so far as I know I have encountered only one other Spengler: Oswald Spengler, the once famous (he died in the month of my birth) philosopher of history.  Spengler was, to put it mildly, a very gloomy thinker.  His most famous book (Der Untergang des Abendlandes, 1918-22) is usually translated as the “Decline of the West”.   But “decline” is a little mild.  Spengler actually believed that European Christian culture was finished, kaput.  And that was around 1920, before the twin political pathologies of the twentieth century, Bolshevism and National Socialism, had as yet strutted their stuff. 

            Some of Spengler’s analysis has proved errant.  Western economic dynamism has in the long perspective remained impressive, and as political power seldom trails far behind economic power Spengler’s view of Western material “decline” was to say the very least exaggerated.  But as I observe our current political impotence I have to admit that long-term developments in the moral life of the West, and especially in the American part thereof, come closer to justifying one of his more celebrated remarks: “Optimism is cowardice.”  Then, again, I wonder if the man who said that ever could have looked into the face of a sleeping month-old baby as illuminated by Christmas lights.

*Only by orthographic finesse can I now distinguish (in writing) my wonderful daughter from my wonderful daughter-in-law.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Constitutional Proposal

2nd: A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

            According to the Gospel of Matthew the Roman satrap Herod the Great, having heard through the magi that a great king was to be born in Bethlehem, and willing to brook no competitor, ordered the killing of all male babies in that village.  The feast of the “Slaughter of the Innocents” falls in most western churches just after Christmas, and it has been the subject of famous works of art, including the well-known paintings of Breughel and Poussin, among many others.  There is no other evidence of the historicity of the supposed event, allowing us at least the hope that it might be emblematic rather than literal.  But its horror, alas, is not inconsistent with actual known realities concerning the exercise of power in the ancient Near East.  The final verse of the beautiful psalm Super flumina ("By the Waters of Babylon") expresses the fervent wish of the psalmist that the infants of his oppressors have their heads crushed against a stone wall.

Herod's men bearing arms: Breughel

            Of Herod it can at least be said that he had an identifiable rational motive.  He was not a vaguely “disturbed youth” or “troubled loner”.  The arena of most moral analysis, surely, is the relationship between means and ends.  Herod used unspeakable means in pursuit of an ignoble end, but there was some connection between means and ends.

            We have a very big problem with guns in the United States.  I will spare you the bit about growing up out in the country, of sensing for as long as I can remember that guns were ordinary machines, though perhaps demanding even more respect than such other dangerous machines as automobiles, chainsaws, mowers, or engine block hoists, or of assuming that shooting birds and small animals was a universally practiced mode of improving a family’s protein intake.  That’s all true, but also quite irrelevant to the pre-Christmas slaughter of innocents in Newtown CT.

            The gun problem in America is complex and of long duration.  It is probably not susceptible to solution, but that does not mean it is beyond amelioration.  One index of intelligent organization, surely, is a reasonable correlation between theory and practice.  Take a look at the second amendment to the Constitution.  The second thing to notice about it is that there is not a person alive who can parse its grammar.  If the absolute phrase with which it begins is a justification for “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” the amendment is at the very least obsolete.  The national defense has not depended upon private arms for most of the history of the republic.  But the first thing to notice about the second amendment is that it is an amendment.

            Our Constitution makes no claim to perfection or immutability.  How could it?   Our adulation of the Founders sometimes does not stop short of idolatry.  Would such men be so stupid as to fail to anticipate the probable need for future changes, or to fail to provide a vehicle for their accomplishment?  Of course not.  Almost immediately people saw the need to make ten such changes, and made them by amendment.  We call them the Bill of Rights.  Yet everything legal was not in fact always right.  For example the Constitution clearly recognized the legitimacy of chattel slavery.  Chucking out the constitutional “right” to enslave human beings turned out to be a rather controversial and strenuous business, but the nation eventually got around to it by amendment.  What amend means is “to change or modify for the better;” and it can be accomplished by subtraction no less than by addition.

            Though I lack specific social science data I will venture the guess that alcohol abuse has racked up an even sorrier record of disaster in our American domestic society than has gun abuse.  It certainly has in my personal, anecdotal experience.  I know of no gun accident or atrocity among my own family, my neighbors, or my college classmates.  I could point to a dozen alcohol disasters among that same group.  Thus I can sympathize with and understand the motives of those who, after decades of struggle, succeeded in prohibiting alcoholic beverages in 1920 by means of the Eighteenth Amendment.

            Of course the Eighteenth Amendment itself soon turned out to be a disaster.  When enough people came to that conclusion, they repealed it in 1933 by means of the Twenty-First Amendment.  It took only a brief time for the well-intentioned prohibition of alcohol to reveal its unfortunate unintended consequences.  It has taken the Second Amendment a couple of centuries longer, but they now seem to me sufficiently clear.  What was once intended to extend our liberties has become, in Paul’s terms, “a cloak of maliciousness”. 

            I propose the repeal of the Second Amendment.  Let firearms and their possession go unmentioned in the Constitution.  Let firearms be like trains, planes, automobiles, chainsaws, commercial explosives, electrical wiring, potable alcohol, and thousands of other items of our material culture—stuff that may be very useful, but still potentially dangerous to a degree that invites periodic review and regulation by the duly constituted authorities charged with preserving the general welfare.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Theatrical Evening


            This is not a “literary” blog.  It is certainly not a Shakespeare blog.  And by no means whatsoever is it a blog devoted to “Productions of King Lear I Have Seen”.  It is thus by the merest of chances that about eighteen months ago I devoted a blog essay  (Ripeness is All—Most of It, July 19, 2011),to a remarkable production of King Lear that I had see at the Armory in New York, and that my subject today is a remarkable production of King Lear that I saw at the Class of 1970 Theater in Whitman College, Princeton University, on Saturday last.  And as I seem to be overusing the adjective remarkable, I’ll point out something further along those lines.  The Armory Lear was mounted by the hyper-professional Royal Shakespeare Company, the Whitman College Lear by the all-student Princeton Shakespeare Company.  They were of roughly equal quality.  Remarkable, quite remarkable.

            One of the joys and privileges of the academic profession for me has been constantly to be surrounded by golden youth.  The student generations are always different—yet ever the same in their brightness, their enthusiasm, their optimism, their talent, their strange naiveté and even stranger sophistication.  The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus reminds us that one can never wade into the same river twice; for though the stream may be there forever, its waters are in continual flux.  There is a plangent side to this.  “Time, like an ever rolling stream,” wrote Isaac Watts in his famous paraphrase of the ninetieth psalm, “bears all its sons away.”  But there is also a comforting, even inspiring reassurance of the continuity as well.  Several circumstances surrounding my most recent visit to the theater reinforced this happy aspect

            I came to know a lot of the first women undergraduates at Princeton because many of them were housed in Wilson College, of which I happened to be the Master at the time of their arrival.  Several of the friendships we made at that time have stayed the course, among the most cherished of which is that with M. Christine Stansell of the Class of 1971, whose name has appeared in this blog on an earlier occasion.  She is now an eminent professor of American History and Women’s Studies.  Her published books include City of Women: Sex and Class in New York 1789-1860; Powers of Desire: the Politics of Sexuality; and American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century.  Her present exalted title is “the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor in United States History and the College” at the University of Chicago, but since she has been an honorary member of our family since about 1969, we all claim the liberty of calling her “Chris”.  You get to do that if you have all camped out together for weeks on end in a tick-infested Ozark wilderness.

            Anyway, Chris has been on an academic leave up in New York, allowing us to spend a little time together, and she was our houseguest this past weekend.  Naturally she joined us in going to see Lear.   She should have felt at home, for in a certain way it was an “All Seventies” evening.  The venue was the Class of 1970 Theater in Whitman College, the newest of Princeton’s residential colleges and the gift of Meg Whitman of the Class of 1977.  (I hope the fiscal cliff-dwellers will think long and hard before messing about with the tax deductions for charitable donations.)  The college theater is beautiful, and I confess to a little pang of jealousy when I think back to the subterranean “black box” of Wilson College in my day. 

 Whitman College, Princeton University
           I well remember the founding of the Princeton Shakespeare Company in 1994.  I had no part in it, but I knew several of the student organizers; and it seems “like yesterday,” as the saying goes.  But time does pass, and student generations pass rapidly.  The role of Lear in this current production was played—and even choosing the adverb with care I would say played brilliantly—by a prodigy named Jake Robertson.  This man is a current sophomore, meaning that it must be a close call as to whether he had even yet been born when the Princeton Shakespeare Company was organized.  How such a stripling youth could convey such a sense of decaying and confused old age is a wonder not to be explained even by the technical genius of the production’s make-up gurus, which was considerable.

 Class of 1970 Theater

            I hardly need remind you that the matter of King Lear concerns the troubled relationships between an aging father and his three adult children.  All great literature must necessarily command some degree of universal resonance, and I cannot imagine that anyone could have seen this production without being engaged by it.  But I can guarantee you that should it just happen that you are an aging father of three adult children, you would certainly have sat up and taken notice.  A couple of Lear’s children are so conveniently wicked that for many years I was able to avoid the implications of the king’s own tragic realization:  I am a very foolish fond old man.”  This wonderful college production forces the realization upon you, and with it, some meditation upon the interplay of continuity and disjunction among the generations.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Well Honed Memory

the  reelacroy

the sharpest edges ever owned

            It’s somewhere around 1950, and I’m sprawled on the floor of my Uncle Wayne’s bizarre loft-bedroom in his homemade farmhouse in Baxter County, Arkansas.  Wayne himself is sort of crouched on his bed.  It’s dark, but I can make him out in the faint glow of the radio diode.  Now and again a flaring match briefly illuminates the whole weird room as he lights a homemade cigarette, its tube of reelacroy paper expertly glued with his spittle.  The radio’s volume is set very low so as to leave undisturbed the house’s many sleepers, and we listen intently.  What we are hearing is the play-by-play of a Saint Louis Cardinals’ game.  And there it is, the unmistakable rich slap of ash wood against taut leather, the signature sound of Stan-the-Man Musial hitting it long, long…

Stan the Man (note the smoothness of the chin)

            Musial featured no less prominently in the recorded advertisements played between innings.  There he sang the praises of Gillette shaving gear, and especially of Gillette Blue Blades®, “with the sharpest edges ever owned”.  He would apparently own no other.  And how fervently I, too, beardless child that I was, longed to own them.  Only much later, and then accidentally, did I come to realize that Stan’s word was not owned, but honed.  The word hone derives from OE hån, meaning a whetstone.  You don’t make razor blades sharp by owning them but by honing them.

            I should have known that even as a child, but the mind can cheerfully accommodate and rationalize almost any error.   That is no doubt why to this very day whenever I consult a certain of my favorite reference books—as I frequently do—I am likely to conjure up in my mind the pleasant whiff of loose Bull Durham tobacco and the crackle of an old radio.  For the three-volume reference to which I refer make up Hone’s Popular Works and Everlasting Calendar, consisting of the Year Book and two volumes of the Every-Day Book and Table-Book.  I bought up these treasures for a song early in my student years in England in the late 1950’s, when they were already more than 120 years old.  
William Hone

            William Hone (1780-1842), though no longer a household name, was one of the world’s most successful purveyors of household literature—what might be called coffee-table books that people actually read.  He was also an insufficiently appreciated hero in the continuing struggle for intellectual freedom.  We are so used in this country to talking about the iniquities of the “religious right” that we risk forgetting just how much of political liberty we owe to the “religious left”.  Hone came from a modest dissenting family.  He was self-educated, and in his formative years the only book his father would allow him to read was the Bible.  He became a printer and a bookseller, and spent much of his life in and out of bankruptcy and even the debtor-prison.

            He was the master of the trenchant political parody, often undertaken in collaboration with the genius radical artist George Cruikshank, most famous as the illustrator of Charles Dickens.  A famous series of pamphlets in 1817 were constructed in the form of parodies of several texts In the Anglican Prayer Book: the litany, the Athanasian Creed, and the catechism.  They were not making fun of these religious texts, of course, but drawing on their energies to make fun of a meretricious administration.  Nonetheless the Tory establishment pressed a prosecution for blasphemy, which eventuated in three separate trials—trials that now are regarded as milestones in the march of British liberty.  The deadly earnest of the government is suggested by the fact that the Lord Chief Justice (Ellenborough) personally presided at two of the trials.  Yet juries boldly acquitted Hone on all three charges, and he was carried from the court as a conquering hero on the shoulders of the Friends of Liberty.  The legal historian Baron Campbell later wrote in his Lives of The Chief Justices that “The popular opinion was that Lord Ellenborough was killed in Hone’s trial, and he certainly never held up his head in public after.”

Hone himself went on to achieve temporary sufficiency if not affluence with the eventual success of his domestic encyclopedias.  Don’t ask me what is in them.  Everything is in them.  His Every-Day Book has to be one of the most prolific and delightful literary phantasmagorias ever recorded in print.  Occasionally one has whiffs of his radical and republican sensibilities, but mainly it is just any damned thing that comes into his mind in relation to each of the 365 days of the year.

Should you turn to today’s pages, those for December 6th, you would learn first that this day is sacred to Saint Nicholas.  Hone then gathers various vaguely Nicolaian items and presents them in no particular order.  Some medieval English document, in its account of the church of Saint Nicholas in Jerusalem, tells us that “the gronde ys good for Norces that lake mylk for their children.”  It was on December 6th, Hone tells us, in the year 1826, that the Times newspaper revealed the grisly punishment, meted out in absentia in a Parisian court, to the naughty composer Nicholas Bochsa.  (He was to be sent to the galleys and branded with the letters TF, travail forcé.  But they never caught him and he went on writing operas and running off with people’s wives) We then have a gobbet of lore about the “boy bishop” (with its obvious Nicholas themes); but the main article concerns Henry Jenkins, who departed this life on December 6th, 1670, at the age of one hundred and sixty-nine.  Jenkins, otherwise obscure, was apparently the oldest human being since biblical times.  “Born when the Roman catholic religion was established, Jenkins saw the supremacy of the pope overturned; the dissolution of the monasteries, popery re-established, and at last protestant religion securely fixed on a rock of adamant.  In his time the invincible armada was destroyed; the republic of Holland was formed; three queens were beheaded, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Mary queen of Scots; a king of Spain was seated upon the throne of England; a king of Scotland was crowned king of England at Westminster, and his son and successor was beheaded before his own palace; lastly, the great fire in London happened in 1666, at the latter end of his wonderfully long life.”
He lived longer than men who were stronger
And was too old to live any longer.

Were he still around Mr. Hone would surely appreciate the fact that today’s newspaper, dated December 6th, notes the death in Atlanta of Besse Cooper, aged 116, and until yesterday the oldest living person in the world.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In the Midst of Life...

 Ruby Dixon Fleming with grand-parental bloguiste

The past week has been a crowded one, its high point being of course the birth of Ruby Dixon Fleming at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn about 7:30 in the evening of Saturday, November 24.  An event of such magnitude as to cause a palpable tremor in the earth’s crust demanded at the very least the brief “Extra” of Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche that I posted on Sunday.  One of the poems I memorized as a child is Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life”, now sadly neglected with the rest of the work of that fine poet.  Its most famous lines are probably these:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

Looking at little Ruby’s identification certificate it suddenly occurred to me that this great woman was not about to wait for her departure to leave her footprints.  It was practically the first thing she did.

            Ruby’s birth was the apex of this family’s week, but there were other exhilarating heights, one of which was the preparation, by yours truly, of the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.  Let no reader be offended that I thus mingle matters of greater and lesser import; the bird weighed exactly twice as much as the baby.  If you are lucky enough to live in a family that includes some kosher-keepers, some vegans, and some Anglo-Saxon carnivores, the preparation of large holiday meals presents a special challenge in the creation of a multiple choice menu.  It might have been easier to bag a wild turkey in Washington’s Crossing Park than to track down the penultimate Tofurky in central Jersey, which I eventually succeeded in doing at the Shop Rite in Montgomery Township.
 Tofurky: the vegan's sweetbreads: "It isn't sweet, and it isn't bread, and I'll be damned if I'll eat it," she said.

         A good deal of what I know derives from the erudite group of early-morning athletes with whom I share a rank of lockers in Dillon Gym.  Among them is this really nice, smart guy named Steve who happened to be talking, a few days before Thanksgiving, about the virtues of brining the holiday bird.  I had never even heard of it, but I leapt into the epistemological void and did it—in a big old ceramic pickling vat that for the last five decades has done nothing more noble than cool beer and soft drinks.  To about a gallon of heavy brine I added two or three quarts of apple juice, covered the whole thing with a couple of bags of ice, and left it in the outdoor cool for about thirty hours.  The result was the first really moist, succulent turkey in family memory.

            The two miracles, the seven-pound one and the fourteen-pound one, were not unrelated.  Katie Dixon, the unflappable mother of Ruby Dixon Fleming, partook heartily of the Thanksgiving turkey.  She then went for a lengthy and fairly strenuous walk, which involved dodging or clambering over numerous arboreal victims of the recent hurricane, along the side of the canal.  Next day, after a good night’s sleep, she drove back to Red Hook, whence on the next day, Saturday, she drove over to the hospital in Park Slope in the morning and gave birth to a miracle-child in the evening.  As for the theme of giving thanks, it is perhaps too obvious to mention.

            Literary theory is not a recent invention.  It is only incomprehensible literary theory that is new.  What many of the ancient Latin rhetoricians like Quintillian and Cicero taught was common sense only partially disguised by its geeky, Greeky polysyllables.   They taught, for example, that two particularly important parts of a composition were the beginning and the end, initiation and termination.  What is true of poetry may also be true of human life itself.  Certainly it was for me this past week.

            In an earlier post I mentioned having gone to Wales to visit a very old and dear friend from my college days in Oxford.  His name was Owen Roberts.  Though overtaken while still in late youth by multiple sclerosis, he became one of the premier Welsh-language journalists of his generation.  His career in television was marked by a notable variety and an unvarying success.   No man’s life is adequately summarized by a professional curriculum vitæ; but for Owen the suggestion would be laughable.  He was one of the sweetest men I ever knew, and one of Nature’s aristocrats.  I use the past tense verbs because to our great sadness Owen Roberts died a very short time after our visit with him.
 Owen Roberts and his wife, Ann Clwyd, M.P. with old friend, September 2012

            Among the most striking sentences of the striking Anglican burial service is this one: “In the midst of life we are in death.”  There can be no human heart that is deaf to the import of that sentence, but it takes on an augmented poignancy when you reach the age at which your contemporaries begin to vanish.  Virgil summarizes the whole tragic sense of ending with three haunting words: Sunt lacrimæ rerum—there are indeed tears in things.  But this is where the miracle-child Ruby Dixon Fleming comes in.  “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come,” writes Saint John the Evangelist, “but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.”  In the midst of life, we are also in life.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Extra Edition!

First Impressions

by Ruby Dixon Fleming (24 November 2012) 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Blowin' in the Wind


Hurricane Sandy is yesterday’s news, but its effects promise to be with us, at least in these parts, for a very long time.  I shall not bore you with another post about the fine old trees blasted, splintered, and strewn about the back end of my property.  The real damage was done along the shoreline—we are fifty miles from it—between Cape May and New York harbor.  There buildings with combined values in the billions have been washed away, destroyed, or damaged beyond repair.  In the press, somber accounts of continuing misery vie with upbeat stories about our national resilience, pluck, and frontier spirit.  Dozens of strangers, all volunteers, descended from the higher and drier parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan upon my son’s neighborhood in ravaged Red Hook to help out with the inglorious labor of bailing out sewage water.  And who would have guessed that the indefatigable drivers of huge garbage trucks of the New York Sanitation Department would emerge as the heroes of an updated Dunkirk flotilla?

            My personal injuries are modest in the extreme.  I was stranded for several pleasant days in Tennessee when no planes were flying toward New York, and my garden is a mess.  But I still find myself strangely disquieted.  The hurricane unquestionably demonstrated the potential dangers of living along the edge of shoreline of the Mid-Atlantic States; but in a larger sense, perhaps, it dramatized the degree to which we are all living on the edge.

 Georges Lefebvre
            In this regard I’ve been thinking about two European intellectuals of the middle of the last century, authors of books that have made a big impact on me.  The first of them is Georges Lefebvre (1874–1959), the great expert on the French Revolution and one of the founders of “people’s history” or “history from the bottom.”  The second is José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), the Spanish philosopher and literary critic.  Between them they seem to me to have made a more probing analysis of the crisis of Hurricane Sandy than anything I have read in the contemporary press.  When people tax me for spending too much times with old books—as opposed, perhaps, to the current offerings of the New York Review—I must answer with Milton.  “Many a man lives a burden to the earth, but a good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”
 José Ortega y Gasset

            Lefebvre was interested in the French peasantry, and in one his books he makes the following comparison.  On the eve of the Revolution, he writes, the French peasant was like a man standing in a body of water that just reached the crest of his lower lip.  So long as absolutely nothing troubled the waters of his subsistence economy, he could survive, if barely; the slightest ripple would swamp him.  The book of Ortega y Gasset that most impressed me in my youth was his Revolt of the Masses (1930).  It is justly famous for its prescient apprehension of the twin pathologies of its age, Fascism and Bolshevism.  But what struck me at the time was what he said about automobiles, just about that time becoming something like a mass commodity.  Modern Europeans, he said, are becoming entirely dependent upon the automobile.  Yet not one driver in ten really understood the operation of the internal combustion engine.  Modernity’s contract with convenience had rendered it subject in perpetuity to a technological indenture that only a small priestcraft could claim to understand.

            While the relevance of the maxims of Lefevbre and Ortega are merely suggestive in their application to Hurricane Sandy, the suggestion ought to be enough to alarm.  The world’s population has now become so large, its urban population centers so dense, our systems of communication and transportation so heavily used and so interdependent as to render us all, like the French peasant of 1789, permanent brinksmen.  A single pebble dropped into the water may not prove fatal, but it doesn’t take a great deal to swamp us.  Close one tunnel under the Hudson River for a single day, and chaos will ensue.  A blizzard in Chicago can mean disruption of a quarter of the flights coming out of Atlanta.

            As for Ortega's automobile and its internal combustion engine, it was, comparatively speaking, a piece of cake.  Even I understood it, sort of, up until about 1960 when its electronic augmentations began to transform auto mechanics into priestcraft.  About the same time, I think, I heard for the first time the strange phrase “fossil fuel”—with or without the word “crisis” attached I cannot remember.  What Hurricane Sandy demonstrated to millions—to the “masses” of old 1930s-speak—was our utter dependence upon a vast web of technology, some of it very high tech indeed, which few understand and fewer still can do much about.  There are large areas of my vital daily “infrastructure” that I didn’t even know were there until they weren’t.  We have some very large potential problems for which the suggested panacea—purchasing a gasoline-powered generator from Lowe’s—may prove inadequate.  The questions, my friend, are blowin’ in the wind.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On Reading Myself

 A Masonic initiation in eighteenth-century France

This blog might threaten to become consequential if it could only find a theme, a “message”, or even a minimal consistency of tone.  Yet were it to do that, it would cease to be what it is, and what I have intended that it be--an emblem of whatever is on my mind in a particular week.  Since I lead a pretty quiet life, what is on my mind is more likely to be related to what I am reading than to my exciting experiences in the hardware section at Lowe’s.  This week’s reading has been particularly gratifying, because I have been reading myself.

            Last week, somewhat delayed by Hurricane Sandy, I received in the post the copy-edited manuscript of my latest book.  Its title is The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason.  It is on W. W. Norton’s “spring list” for 2013, though since publishers cultivate a capacious sense of the calendar, that could mean any time after February and before September.  It’s sure to be nearer the latter than the former.

            The upside of an incipiently failing memory is that it is possible to read one’s work with a surprising sense of discovery.  For the most part the discovery was a happy one.  On the whole, I really liked the book.  On the other hand the experience brought its dose of humiliation.  A superb copy editor has given it a real going-over, incidentally drawing attention to a few dozen fatuities, misspellings, rhetorical solecisms, and simple errors of historical fact perpetrated by the Fairchild Professor of Literature.
Sir Isaac Newton: a mind for ever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone

            I determined, when I retired, that I would try to write a few “general interest” books in fields of what I would call my amateur interests.  Certainly the culture of the Eighteenth Century is one of those, and I easily could have spent my life toiling in its fertile acres.  But in choosing this particular topic I was responding to the stick as well as to the carrot.

            Throughout my long career as a medievalist I have been forced to endure a great deal of popular calumny heaped upon the European Middle Ages.  The Middle Ages were dark, benighted, ignorant, cruel, superstitious, irrational.  The very term Middle Ages told its tale—an unfortunate hiatus of a millennium of barbarism between a glorious classical antiquity and its rebirth in a glorious Renaissance. 

            In 1984, at the annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, in Atlanta, Professor Fred Robinson of Yale, who was in that year the President of the Academy, delivered the annual presidential address, on the topic “Medieval, the Middle Ages,” italicizing the words in such a fashion as to make clear that his business was to be with “the terms medieval and Middle Ages, not with the period itself.”  Fred Robinson is a learned philologist, but also a very witty fellow, and his talk had a sparkle not always to be associated with the phrase “presidential address.”

            He surveyed a wide sampling of occurrences of the adjective medieval in our contemporary discourse.  Using the Computational Analysis of Present-Day English of Kucera and Francis, one of the early gifts of computer technology to humanistic study, Robinson was able to confirm that the adjective medieval as used in contemporary English refers to the actual Middle Ages only infrequently.  Medieval “is most often used in Modern English simply as a vague pejorative term meaning ‘outmoded’, ‘hopelessly antiquated’, or even simply ‘bad’.”

            A typical anecdote had to do with the meaning of the word as imagined by NBC Nightly News.  In 1983 the Dutch beer baron, Freddy Heineken, along with his driver, was kidnapped and held for ransom by a gang of desperadoes.  During the time the kidnappers were successfully negotiating a huge tribute, the victims were held prisoner, unharmed, in a cement-block room.  They were fed, amply but monotonously, with Chinese take-out packaged in Styrofoam.  This treatment, according to Tom Brokaw, was “medieval”.  But a surfeit of General Tso’s chicken hardly reaches the level of medievalism made famous by the film Pulp Fiction.
The Houdon bust of Count Cagliostro

            Do not misunderstand me.  I am not trying to turn “Enlightenment” into a dirty word.  On the contrary I am arguing for its even greater appreciation by looking at some interests of the enlightened often passed over.
            Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night [wrote Alexander Pope]:
            God said, "Let Newton be!" and all was light.
He left unmentioned the fact that the great physicist was just as interested in solving the mysteries of the Book of Daniel by the application of kabbalist exegesis as he was in solving the mystery of gravity by sitting under apple trees.

            I have had to conclude that if you are into wizards, miracle healers, spirit-mediums, and alchemists, you’ll find many more of them in the Paris of 1750 than that of 1350.  One of the principal figures I deal with is Count Cagliostro, magician to the rich and famous.  Another—and chances are good you have not yet heard of her—is Julie de Krüdener, who was a sort of cross between Danielle Steel and Mother Teresa.

Julie de Krüdener and her son Paul, painted by Angelica Kauffmann

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Tale of Two Booths

Our house has regained essential livability, but we still lack the landline telephone and with it connections to television news and the Internet.  But though Verizon is not on the horizon, blog day is.  I soldier on.  You may have already picked up the news somewhere, but yesterday, November 6th was election day in the United States, and the incumbent Barak Obama, bested his challenger Mitt Romney in their presidential contest.  The vote was pretty close, but nonetheless decisive.  All of us ought now to be able to go back to productive work, except of course in the state of Florida where everybody is either retired or a full time vote counter, sometimes both.

            A single day’s voting was the culmination of a seemingly endless and usually mindless political campaign on which some billions of dollars were squandered, with a bloviating ratio of perhaps fifty thousand words per dollar.  Bottom line: we have the same president we had before along with a Republican House of Representatives and a Democratic Senate.  As President Obama recently said, “We know what change looks like.”  In this regard there were some happy surprises.  The Republicans are expert at plucking defeat from the jaws of victory, but never before in living memory have they employed gynecological theology as an accelerant of self-immolation.

            Though one may grow weary of our politicians, there is an excitement about American political life itself.  Think about it for a moment.  Nobody really knew who was going to win that election until the votes were counted.  In many states the issue was decided by a relatively small number of votes among a large electorate.  Many voters could credibly believe that their votes “counted”.  That may be democratic minimalism, but it’s a good deal more than most people in the world have.

            The apocalyptic rhetoric of the campaigners is a different matter.  Just as there is a “trial of the century” every decade or so, we as usual faced “the most significant election of our lifetimes.”  We were to choose between “two fundamentally different visions of who we want to be.”  I do have many friends, not a few of them highly intelligent, who seem sincerely to believe this kind of thing; but it is very hard to do if you have much of an historical consciousness.  What is needed is a little perspective, of which I was given an invigorating dose even before I voted.

            Yesterday morning following my swim, as I stood doing something necessary in the large lavatory in the men’s locker room, I saw directly before me, taped to the tiled wall at eye-level, a colorful poster sheet, about A-4 in size.  I had just then emerged from a swimming pool, and I was not wearing reading glasses.  Even so I could clearly make out what it was: a calendar sheet, a rectangular grid depicting in tabular form the current month, November.  Most of the rectangle’s little square subdivisions—there were thirty of them--were marked with graphic messages in differing sizes, colors, and type faces.

            These messages turned out upon inspection to be useful nuggets of wisdom, especially prepared for me by that organ of the Department of Athletics called “CampusRec”, which I believe alludes to the recreational as opposed to the semi-professional varsity activities in and around our athletic facilities.  By straining hard, and from a sufficient distance, my eyes could see the particular importance of each day in November as viewed from what might be called the “jock perspective”.  I saw that there was indeed a message for November 6th.  It was, I was sure, a helpful reminder of my civic duty, an exhortation to vote.

            But not in fact.  Dimly, as my eyes hazily focused, I learned that from the point of view of CampusRec, that is to say from the jock perspective, the most important thing about November the sixth was this: “Make sure to register for Flamenco Class that starts Today.”  Flamenco, as everybody must know, is an extravagant form of Spanish dancing, with lots of foot stomping, rosebuds between the teeth, plangent guitars and smoldering eroticism.  No one can accuse me of over-interpretation in finding a personal dimension to this message.  Flamenco is supposed to come from Andalusia, but as any linguist can see a mile away it obviously must mean dancing “in the style of the Flemings,” who were for an unfortunate historical episode in the sixteenth century subjected to Spanish domination and Catholic tyranny.  The Flemings’ imaginative resistance to such Hispanic mistreatment is a principal subject of the great Belgian novel by Charles de Coster, The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak (1867), a book I cannot too highly recommend.

            As for me, I managed to vote, but I never got it together to register.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ill Wind Blows Bloguiste Off Course

Irregularities in the rhythm of my blog posts rank low in the hierarchy of the world's current concerns, but one must make the best one can of the material at hand. The hurricane struck while your bloguiste was in Tennessee.  We may be here for an indefinite stay, as air travel to the New York area has become difficult.  I put matters thus only because I rarely find such a  splendid occasion to employ the classical  figure of speech called litotes.  What the sentence actually means is that there is no air traffic from Nashville to any airport in the New York area, and no idea when it might resume.  So while our hearts and minds go out to friends and neighbors in the northeast, our bodies must remain here in Murfreesboro, enjoying the beautiful bright autumnal weather and the unstinting southern hospitality of John and Betty Dixon, the parents of our daughter-in-law.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sad Stories of the Deaths of Kings

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings

          All hail, Thane of Cawdor

 Macbeth’s first step toward self-destruction is to be named as Thane of Cawdor, a position that becomes available at just the right moment when the current incumbent is executed for treason.  It is in this context that Malcolm, in describing to Duncan the death scene of the outgoing Cawdor, utters a couple of lines endlessly plundered by later British historians to characterize the final exits of a thousand hapless historical characters:

                                    …nothing in his life
                        became him like the leaving of it…

            This might be said to apply to Macbeth himself (Shakespeare’s stage direction reads “Re-enter MACDUFF, with MACBETH's head”) and indeed is generally relevant to numerous exemplars of Brittanic majesty since times immemorial.  It would be easy to begin the Royal Death Trip in Anglo-Saxon times, but as the Norman dynasty seems more interestingly accident prone, let’s pick it up with William of Normandy, the Conquerer.  About twenty years after the Conquest William, now back on the Continent, when riding about being evil one day, had the misfortune to be thrown by his stumbling horse not upon the ground but upon the pommel of his saddle.  If you have ever seen one of these things, you might imagine that it would smart should it penetrate your groin or abdomen.  Few things are more unpleasant than being stabbed by a sharp object, but one of them is being stabbed by a blunt object.  Such was the end of William the Conqueror.

            William II, son of the Conqueror, was a real chip off the old block.  He was known as William Rufus (“Red” William), a sobriquet that, needless to say, derived from the color of his beard rather than the tenor of his politics.  He shed this mortal coil in 1100 in the following somewhat undignified circumstances.  Accompanied by some friends and relations, including a younger brother, he had gone hunting, or rather chasing deer in the New Forest. (Remember none of these English kings could actually speak English, so it was all about la chasse.)  Unfortunately one of his fellow chasseurs sent an arrow through his upper body.  It is not clear that this was entirely accidental, since the presumed shooter immediately took off for France while the younger brother (destined to be Henry I) rushed off to grab the throne before yet another brother, the rightful successor, could get back home to claim it.  William Rufus was left to die in misery on the forest floor.  Some rustics eventually hauled the bleeding royal remains back to Winchester “in a rude farm cart”, as one of the sources put it.  What a comedown for a king!  Sick transit, indeed.

            Friendly fire was something of a specialty among the Norman aristocracy, who were even more accomplished at shooting their companions of the chase than Vice-President Cheney.  Of course the friendliness of the fire that ended the career of Richard the Lionheart may be doubted.  He was shot through the shoulder by a surly teen-ager, thus allowing the witticism that “The Lion was killed by an Ant”.  Actually it wasn’t the arrow that killed him, but the gangrene.  It’s never so much the original scandal as the coverup, in this instance a filthy bandage.

            In a family blog such as this one it would be indelicate to mention, except somewhat obscurely, the painful end of Edward II in 1327.  It involved a red-hot poker and—well, anyone familiar with Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” will grasp the Begriff.  The chronicler Geoffrey le Baker puts it thus: “cum ferro plumbarii incense ignito trans  tubam ductilem ad egestionis partes secretas applicatam membra spiritalia post intestinas combusserunt.”  Ouch.

            But it is worth noting that aberrant gastronomy played a not insignificant role in the morbidity of the Anglo-Norman royalty.  Indeed the demise of Henry I himself was itself notable, for it is he who famously died of a surfeit of lampreys.  That is the canonical historical expression.  It wasn’t an excess of lampreys, or a superabundance of lampreys, or even simply too many lampreys; it was a surfeit of lampreys.

 Lampreys (a hemi-demi-surfeit thereof)

            Now as you undoubtedly know a lamprey is sort of a combination of a mollusk and a water moccasin, to wit, “any of an order (Hyperoartia) of aquatic vertebrates that are widely distributed in subarctic regions in both fresh and salt water and resemble eels but have a large suctorial mouth.”  I have to tell you that lampreys really suck, and if you study the iconographic evidence you might well conclude that a single lamprey could constitute a surfeit, indeed rather more than a surfeit.  We have reasons to suspect, however, that Henry I’s fatal surfeit consisted in no less than two dozen of them.  This would seem to be a world record unsurpassed even in Erasmus’s immortal colloquy called “On Fish-Eating” (Ιχθυοφαγια), to which I refer the interested reader.
           lampreys really suck

 Under the unifying rubric of suicidal gluttony we should probably include the demise of John Lackland (Jean sans Terre) in 1216, brought on by binging on unripe peaches and sweet wine.  As his name will forever be associated with Runnymede (where he reluctantly signed the Great Charter) it is seems entirely condign that he should expire of a vinous flux.  Death by alcohol was of course not always voluntary, as is illustrated by the celebrated circumstances of George, Duke of Clarence (1449-1478).  Although the brother of two kings (Edward IV and Richard III), the duke never quite made it to the throne.  It was not for lack of trying, as he was a sordid conniver of the lowest order (“false, fleeting, perjured Clarence” is what we find in Shakespeare’s Richard III.)  Attaindered on a charge of treason, he was allowed to choose his own mode of execution.  He is believed to have been drowned in a butt of Malmsey in the Tower of London.  Way to go, Clarence!