Wednesday, November 28, 2012
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
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.