Wednesday, January 25, 2012
I am an alleged expert in allegory—a literary genre that advances its fiction beneath a dark conceit. There are some pretty famous examples, such as the Divine Comedy, the Faerie Queene, and Pilgrim’s Progress. Some literary manuals define allegory as “an extended metaphor,” but I prefer the simplicity of the medieval definition of Isidore of Seville: Allegoria, he writes, id est, alieniloquium. Allegory is “saying one thing to mean another.” It’s more compehensive, and, besides, Isidore is the patron saint of the Internet. (Note the cool laptop, below.) Internet users ought to give him a plug whenever possible.
I like this expansive definition because it includes such useful speech acts as sarcasm, as well as literary irony of many kinds. One so rarely meets in real life people called “Red Cross Knight” or “Mr. Worldly Wiseman” that one is likely to suspect them of being allegorical immediately when encountered in books. And if Red Cross Knight goes on to slay (slay, note, not kill) the Foul Dragon—well, you can be nearly sure he did it with his trusty Sword of Faith.
Real life alieniloquium can be more interesting. Say you run into someone, an old associate you don’t particularly like but fortunately also rarely see any more, in circumstances that require a few minutes conversation. Vapid as it is, the conversation is sufficient to remind you why you don’t like this person and to demonstrate that the person feels exactly the same way about you. Nonetheless the interview ends at the fifty-ninth street stop or wherever with mutual declarations of how good it has been to catch up and the suggestion by one or other that “we must get together for lunch”. “We must get together for lunch” is alieniloquium for the unutterable “So long, and with any luck I won’t run into you for another seventeen years.”
Though I have written whole books about allegory and the difficulties of its interpretation, the current Republican primary contests, or at least the learned journalistic disquisitions thereon, have revealed what an allegorical piker I really am. It appears that the Republican candidates have all been “telegraphing” in “coded language” certain “messages” interpretable only by hermeneutically adept hillbillies. Very often their utterances have been “dog whistles”, presumably discernible only by the hillbillies’ hunting hounds. Though varied in nature these alieniloquia meet in a single, simple certainty: all criticism of the current president and his policies is racist.
I had been wondering what it was, actually, that is so wrong about Mitt Romney. Yes, he’s filthy rich and as phoney as a three-dollar bill; but cut him some slack. The man is a presidential candidate. After all, the words and deeds of his current rival, Newt Gingrich, threaten to give hypocrisy a bad name. Yet Mitt Romney somehow makes Gingrich look good. Then I saw a snippet from one of the talking head festivals, and the scales fell from my eyes. George Will, the columnist and pundit, nailed it. The trouble with Romney, he said, is “Romneyness”. So repellent is Romneyness from the political point of view that I ordinarily wouldn’t be inclined to defend its only begetter from attacks, even in the pages of the New York Times. But a recent op ed essay there by Lee Siegel (“What’s Race Got To Do With It?”) goads me to draw my tropological sword from its anagogical sheath.
According to this essay what’s wrong with Romney is not his Romneyness but his whiteness. “Mitt Romney is the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.” Like the probing literary critic he is, Siegel supports this sweeping generalization with concrete textual and iconographic details. Romney invokes an America of “white picket fences”. Furthermore, “He is nearly always in immaculate white shirt sleeves. He is implacably polite, tossing off phrases like ‘oh gosh’ with Stepford bonhomie.” (I think Stepford Bonhomie is that rock band with white guitars, but I’m not sure.) Siegel’s essay is accompanied by a devastating “visual”—one of those patriarchal family photos favored by rich people who can’t descend to ordinary Christmas cards. You cannot deny the testimony of your own eyes. The guy’s wife is white; so are all the kids, and the grandkids. The black shirts are just to confuse the opposition. Then, too, the guy is trying to get into the White House!
“I am sure that Mr. Romney is not a racist” writes Lee Siegel. “But I am also sure that, for the many Americans who find the thought of a black president unbearable, he is an ideal candidate.” There is no footnote citing the epistemological grounds for the author’s certainty on either point, but how can you footnote a dog whistle? Only the most intelligent dogs can so much as construct a complete sentence, let alone give proper citations.
The first thing the student of allegory needs to learn is that not everything is one. Sometimes a Red Cross Night is simply an evening spent at a fundraiser for a social service agency. There are even times when an invitation to lunch is an invitation to lunch. Now and again the newspapers report that in New York or Los Angeles a police officer has shot an unarmed Hispanic youth in a dark alley. The cop always thought the kid had a gun. He almost always saw the “glint of metal” in the kid’s hand. It almost always turns out to have been a cigarette lighter or a soda can. We say that seeing is believing, but it often works the other way around. Fixed expectation carefully edits our sensory experience. We see what we already believe—or already fear. But that’s no less true of newspaper columnists than of cops.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Over the holiday season the Grim Reaper was busy in my little corner. Just around Christmas my cousin Edie Kellem died in Mountain Home, Arkansas. Last week I learned that one of my closest friends of undergraduate years, Dupre Jones, died on January 9 in Beaufort, South Carolina. Both of them were killed by bladder cancer. There were less savage bonds of coincidence that might link them in my mind, and that might plausibly give shape to a readable essay. But it is too early for that; for the moment they are the stuff of private meditation rather than public proclamation. “Family and friends.” They are the usual categories of our scrapbooks, our generic Christmas letters, our intercessory prayers. For most of us, too, for most of the time, they are the categories of history.
We all have history. It is the medium in which we live--and die. One mode of history we are all familiar with is “family history”, but my own family--that of my father and mother, I mean, and their own forebears– have been terrible historians. There are of course material reasons why “the short and simple annals of the poor” are short and simple. Most of my ancestors simply did not lead lives nourishing of the archival mentality. I'm trying to do a little better for my own posterity. For this reason I was delighted if also flabbergasted when a few months ago I found three letters written by my father. I don't know where they came from, although one of them is addressed to me. That is one of two printed note cards decorated with Navajo designs—the other is addressed to his brother John (my uncle) in Arkansas—written after my mother’s death and shortly after his penultimate stroke in 1978. “Dear John,” he writes in a hand barely decipherable through the palsy, “I am working hard on speek and writing.” He worked hard at most things; I don’t know many people who worked harder.
But it is the third letter I intend to share with you. How it came into my possession, or why I never saw it before, is a mystery now beyond resolution. This letter is undated, but context shows that it was written in 1942 from Gary, Indiana, to his father Samuel Fleming (my grandfather) in Arkansas. As the disastrous economy of the Depression began to brighten a bit as a result of the European War, he had found work in the steel mills where he had once before worked in the mid 1930s. The letter is more or less self-explanatory. As my father writes, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is a recent event. He is explaining to his father why he feels impelled to leave his family and go to war. The people alluded to are his sister (my Aunt Louise), my mother Janet, and “Ricky”, my baby brother. We talk in a rather vague and sentimental way about the “Greatest Generation”. For me the penultimate paragraph of this letter gives sharpness and specificity to the phrase. And as a bonus I also found out where my heart murmur came from!
† † † † † †
Probably you have heard from Janet’s letter to Louise about what’s been going on. Believe you are entitled to a more minute account of proceedings so here goes.
The day after my arrival from Arkansas I thought I’d take a trip to the Chicago naval recruiting Station to see what I could find out about their construction work. So Janet called there and yes they would be open all day Saturday and yes there were openings in naval construction. So up I goes. The Lieutenant in charge, after talking with me for several minutes advised my taking a physical and then see if we could agree on something. So I did. I passed the vision 20-20 and the hearing OK also the teeth. I was going great guns when bang! the doctor says “How long have you had that hernia and why didn’t you tell us about it before? I was too astounded to answer and even more so when about 3 minutes later a doctor called me for a heart murmur. I was beginning to feel mighty blue not only missing out on service but I dreaded the time should come I’d have to take a physical exam at the mill. About ten minutes later they smacked me again blood pressure 170. I really felt like calling for an ambulance. So they said they were sorry but come back and take a GCT test. I supposed it was some sort of heart test and only went up Monday because I wanted to get it over with and be rejected and get something done about the hernia. Monday I found that the test was a mental one—they wanted to see as they cold bloodedly told me whether it was worth their while to assume such a poor risk! Thank the Lord I passed the mental with a high grade. Then they found the blood pressure was down to normal the high reading of Saturday I suppose was caused by shock and apprehension. So they passed me physically. By the way the Doctor said the heart murmur was wholly functional, that 18 out of 100 have it and it’s not to be considered as a heart disease or anything of the sort. It just isn’t a perfect heart.
After getting some recommendations from the mill and out West the Lieutenant offered me a rating in construction Battalion. This is a new branch of the navy. I am listed as a carpenter’s mate, first class. That is a first class Petty Officers rating, corresponding with a Top or First Sergeants rating in the Army. I am to await call and after 3 weeks inoculation etc be shipped to whatever base we are to help in constructing. They range from Alaska to the south Seas and from Ireland to Brazil. Rather expect when the time comes to head South as I am listed as having some command of the Spanish language. The base rate is 114.00 per month plus 34.50 for Janet and 22.80 for foreign service. There is no domestic service in our branch.
In many ways the rating should be better, at least financially than a higher one. One grade up—chief Petty officer and you have to buy your own uniforms. They total I am told about $300.
I am very thankful to get the rating. I will be doing vital and important work even though it is considered non-combatant. The enlistment runs until 6 months after the war. I am to be hospitalized whenever the rupture bothers me and I can carry $10,000 insurance.
To say that the thoughts of separation do not appal both Janet and I would flatly be a lie. I hope the war is short – I fear it will be long. That’s a sacrifice we must make.
Janet will be going to Denver for over the winter at least. Give Ricky one more year and Arkansas should be much less dangerous to him. If I can obtain permission I’ll drive her out.
Concerning the money we owe you Dad I guess if you’re willing we’ll have to let it ride. Janet will have to have a little reserve until my checks start coming.
In many ways this has been a fortunate break. They laid off to May 1936 in my department, so I’m hanging on by three months service. There’s another cut coming later sure as shooting. Of course there are jobs and plenty of them. The armor plate mill, […] rubber plant etc and of course back in the copper mines they are crying for men. But that rupture wouldn’t help at all in getting those jobs and it would have been found out I’m sure for the navy doctors caught it instantly. I had been aware of a chafing feeling for some time but never dreamed of a hernia.
Please all of you write to Janet regularly. She has had her heart set on going to Arkansas for a long time and she’s going to be very lonely. After all, as she says, she rather got accustomed to being around Flemings. But I felt it best she should go to her folks over the winter. You know how those Arkansas rains are and with the lack of doctors it makes a hazard for Ricky. But of course in an emergency wire for Janet right away. I told her she could probably go to Arkansas in the spring.
When I’ll be called I don’t know and I know enough of military procedure not to start fretting. You cant rush those people and when they want me they holler. Meantime I’m on the active list.
I hope my course of procedure does not grieve you. We have under God each our own conception of duty that we owe to ourselves and our loved ones our country and our Lord. In the case of my wife and myself this conception left us but one choice of action – the choice is not mine but ours – for we see eye to eye on this matter.
I doubt extremely if I will get to see you again before leaving for duty. So to all I say may God bless us – one and all.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Your Blue Jays is to be found sitting before his machine playing with his favorite Christmas present, 2 Rick his voice recognition program: Dragon Dictate. It will be immediately apparent to you that Mr. Dragon and I will have to work at our relationship. What I thought I was writing was not “Your Blue Jays” but “Your bloguiste”, while the “2 Rick” was intended as “to wit.” Then again my brother Rick can be quite a wit, so I can understand the confusion. The interesting point about this technological marvel is that its mistakes are almost always more interesting, from the point of view of language and ideas, than the intended burden of my dull prose. I was prepared for Mr. Dragon to have some difficulty dealing with foreign words and especially proper nouns. I first grasped the full dimension of his awesome genius when I tried to write the following sentence: “Madame de Krüdener took as her lover a stripling youth named Hippolyte Tarray.” This in Dragonese became: “Not in the creator took as her lover is Stripling use named leper leads Calais.” The manifest superiority of the latter requires no comment. Leper Leads Calais. What a fantastic headline! I am trying to work up a story worthy of it.
We all must be aware of instances in which the erroneous rescues or redeems the humdrum canonical. The small child who in reciting the Lord's Prayer petitioned “Lead us not into Penn Station” demonstrated a theological acumen unparalleled in two millennia of scriptural exegesis.
A few years before he became famous with the publication of his novel The Moviegoer (1961), Walker Percy published in the Sewanee Review a brilliant essay entitled “Metaphor as Mistake”. In fact I can remember the date--1958, my senior year--though I retain only a vague sense of the argument. But should you be interested in the habitual failure of language to do what it is supposed to do by doing something better, you would find Percy considerably more engaging than Jacques Derrida (or shocked Gary in Dragonese).
M and M
There is a particularly striking example of the ameliorating powers of error related to our great Herman Melville. It is well known to professional bibliographers, a group that unfortunately makes up at least half my boutique readership, but I shall rehearse it anyway. Near the end of Melville’s novel White Jacket the first-person narrator recounts a terrifying experience—namely, that of falling a hundred feet from a yard-arm into the sea below. As he plummets downward, seemingly in slow motion, his life passes before the screen of his mind, and he is perfectly conscious of the certainty of death. Then he hits the water:
The feeling of death flooded over me with the billows. The blow from the sea must have turned me, so that I sank almost feet foremost through a soft, seething, foaming lull. Some current seemed hurrying me away; in a trance I yielded, and sank deeper down with a glide. Purple and pathless was the deep calm now around me, flecked by summer lightnings in an azure afar. The horrible nausea was gone; the bloody, blind film turned a pale green; I wondered whether I was yet dead, or still dying. But of a sudden some fashionless form brushed my side–some inert, soiled fish of the sea; the thrill of being alive again tingled in my nerves, and the strong shunning of death shocked me through. [Library of America edition, p. 763.]
That is what Melville wrote, or at least what nineteenth-century editions of White Jacket led readers to believe he wrote. One such reader was Professor F. O. Matthiessen, of Harvard University (1902-1950), sometimes credited with “inventing” the field of American literature as an academic subject. Matthiessen was very struck by this passage—so struck, perhaps, that when he chose to end his own life he did so by leaping from a twelve-storey building. He wrote a good deal about Melville, and famously about the paragraph just cited. According to Matthiessen Melville, in choosing the adjective soiled to describe the fishy form which by its touch gave evidence to the submerged sailor that he was still alive, had performed an act of linguistic magic. The astonishing phrase soiled fish—so surprising, so indeterminate, so evocative—was a hallmark of genius.
Then the bibliographers set about their spoil-sport work. There was a compelling argument that the soiled fish of the sea was a typographical error. The fact that the phrase was meaningless was only one clue. Documentary evidence showed pretty clearly that the author had written coiled fish. (Remember, we are talking Herman Melville, author of the world’s biggest book about whales.) The transposition of the letters “C” and “S” is not uncommon in old hand-set copy. If you examine the layout of the job case you can see that the error is based in a kind of spatial dyslexia. So the great literary critic F. O. Matthiessen had been caught with his hand in the linguistic cookie jar.
To which I am tempted to say: So what? Had Melville been offered the option of the mistake, he would have been a fool to reject it. From now on I am going to write “Hippolyte Terray” only on those rare occasions when it is absolutely necessary. Otherwise it’s “Leper Leads Calais” every time.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Gilded youth see the New Year in (New York, 2012)
Events that occur but once a year–-birthdays and wedding anniversaries being the most notorious–-are probably occasions of what might be called necessary reflection. For the better part of three decades, with occasional off years when we were living abroad, we have celebrated the advent of the New Year in the company of a group of long married couples who are also close personal friends. All the men were professional faculty colleagues at Princeton. It was a kind of movable feast in slow motion, as we moved about from house to house. There were originally five couples, with a sixth soon added, making a large dinner party of a dozen.
But as fast as the years move on, people often move faster yet. Soon enough our group experienced the inevitable mutations attendant upon increasing age and eminence. One couple went off to inhabit the presidential mansion of a famous university in the South. Another (I will call them “the musicians”) moved to exciting new positions in New York. Then, shockingly soon as it seemed, people began retiring. One couple went back to their New England roots in rural New Hampshire. The university president has now taken up permanent residence on Martha’s Vineyard. Another eminence went off to Harvard. Of the original New Year Dinner Club couples only one other now remains in the area, and this particular year they were visiting a daughter in China. Sic transit gloria mundi. Things change, as Tennyson puts it, “lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”
Thus it was that on Saturday we went up to Greenwich Village to have dinner at the marvelous abode of our “musicians” in the company of three other of their musical friends. It was a mellow evening, but it ended about ten forty-five when the seven of us arrived at the mellow decision that we were sufficiently venerable to waive any implicit requirement to stay up to hear the midnight roar from Times Square. (It is, however, an interesting acoustical fact, personally experienced at the turn of the millennium, that the Times Square roar is heard loudly in southern Manhattan.)
New Year’s Eve should belong to the young, as one is quite sure that it does if one takes a train into the city in the early afternoon. Many of the more forward-looking youth are already preemptively intoxicated by the time they get on at Metro Park. Which makes it all the stranger that the evening’s canonical anthem is “Auld Lang Syne,” a song that is not ethically singable by people under the age of fifty. Concerning this song I know considerably more than I did a week ago, for we spent a couple of hours of our sober New Year’s Eve afternoon at the Morgan Library working up an appetite for our Darby-and-Joan dinner party.
Readers familiar with this delightful venue will know that there is on the ground floor, across from glass box elevators, a single exhibition room ideal for showcasing the carefully defined literary collections that are one of the library’s specialties. Not too long ago they had a splendid display of Miltoniana, including the Charles Ryskamp Milton portrait. The highly topical exhibit of the moment is “Robert Burns and ‘Auld Lang Syne’.” The Morgan curators had laid it all out: original manuscript, autograph letters, contracts with publishers, musical settings—the whole lot. So I am now prepared to announce as proven facts a number of suspicions I have long harbored concerning “Auld Lang Syne”, to wit:
1. Auld lang syne is a meaningful phrase in no known ancient or modern language or dialect, least of all the Northumbrian dialect of English known to the unlettered as “Scots”. It shares the status of the imaginary “English” one frequently sees on the tee-shirts worn by teen-agers in Barcelona or Civitavecchia, the product of the resident linguists in Chinese sweatshops: “Baby Happy,” “Cool Frisk,” etc.
2. Burns was fibbing outrageously when he claimed to have transcribed the song as sung by some toothless old gaffer crooning on the heath amid the heather. He obviously made the whole thing up.
3. “Auld lang syne” is a perfectly atrocious poem. And…
4. “Auld lang syne” is therefore the perfect song to be sung by those who do not wish to remember having done so even so soon as twelve hours later.
The Burns holograph currently on display at the Morgan Library
Particularly acute are the second and third verses. However, since I know that there are more people—three, by actual scientific count--who know the second and third verses of the “Star-Spangled Banner” than there are of those who know the second and third verses of “Auld Lang Syne,” I take the liberty of supplying them for you.
With this I wish the happiest of possible new years to all my readers. May your gowan-pulling be joyous and your burn-paddling moist.