Wednesday, December 26, 2012
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.
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
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
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 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…
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 (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.”
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.