Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry in Montreal

Neither blog-writing nor blog-reading is a particularly appropriate occupation for Christmas day.  On the other hand I can think of no better time to to publish a manifesto of universal good will to all readers, whether intentional readers or accidental ones,  of "Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche."  Snow is everywhere here in Montreal, and it is not of the Jingle Bells variety.  Last night on my way to church I relived an experience nearly forgotten since I lived in Wisconsin six decades ago.  When you step out into a certain degree of cold you can feel on your second or third intake of breath a strange sensation as the hairs on the insides of your nostrils stiffen and freeze.  There is also a distinctive sound to the scrunch of the snow beneath your foot.  Under these circumstances such a casually uttered cliche as "warm-hearted" becomes vivid with meaning.  So I send you my warm-hearted greetings and my hopes for peace and wisdom in our lives.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Essential Bookness

There is in our town a fine institution of continuing education or “senior academy” called the Evergreen Forum.  Each year it offers in conjunction with the Senior Center a large number of courses impressive in their range and scope.  I have  taught a few courses in this program in the past, and in the spring I am scheduled to teach another—this one on eighteenth-century occultism and other matters raised in The Dark Side of the Enlightenment.  I have met many engaging people among the Evergreen seminarians, including Harry Pinch, whose wife has been over the years one of the Forum’s principal movers and shakers.
            Harry asked me a couple of weeks ago whether I was receptive to suggestions for weekly blog topics. I’ll take the opportunity to announce publicly that the answer to that question is affirmative.  My aim is “general interest”—a category perhaps not always or entirely coincident with my default religious and political opinions.  Harry had been struck by an essay by David Streitfeld entitled “Out of Print, Maybe, but Not Out of Mind,” published in the New York Times “Technology” section in early December.  Harry wondered whether this stimulating piece might offer some grist for the bloguiste’s mill.  And of course it does.  Its subject very generally is the fascinating commerce between the printed book and the e-book.  Yes, I know--but this really is an excellent essay, and you should read it in its entirety, as I am engaging with only a few of its implications.
            Everybody knows that electronic technology can revolutionize the reading experience.  What Streitfeld is struck by is the reluctance of the book industry to let it do so.  You don’t need to turn pages in an electronic book.  However, makers of reading machines are going to extraordinary lengths to try to recreate the “feel” of turning a page.  Although the idea of an autographed or inscribed copy of an e-book ought to seem absurd on the face of it, canny Amazonians are inventing one.  I guess that if you can make an electronic cigarette, you can make an electronic anything.
But why?
            Although literacy commands a legitimate private sphere (personal letters, diaries, etc.) the great historical impulse in graphic communication is directed toward the public sphere.  I have lots of reasons to be interested in “publication”, broadly understood.  I am a reader and a writer, the owner of a library, an expert on medieval manuscripts, an amateur historian of printing, and an actual letterpress printer.  I conclude that all major developments in the history of publication have been driven by one or more of four considerations: the authoritative accuracy of the published text; the durability of the publishing medium; the number of copies that can be produced; and the cost of the publishing process.  The first consideration—accuracy of text—may take you by surprise; but many early printers considered the new option of authorial correction of proof sheets quite as important as the capacity for the multiplication of copies.  From the analytical point of view an electronic text satisfies all four desiderata as well or better than all previous modes of publication.  Yet many of us resist.  But why?
            Part of the answer—an important part—lies in universal habits of cultural conservatism.  “Most things that exist in the world,” said the great cultural anthropologist E. B. Tylor, “exist for the reason that they once existed.”  Contrary to popular academic belief the argument that “we have always done things that way” is among the most powerful one can muster.  We have always made books by the mechanical application of ink to paper—so long as “always” means perhaps a tenth part of the long history of publication and so long as we restrict ourselves to our own neck of the cultural woods.
            It is no easy thing, however, cleanly to separate the essential from the decorative.  That is a major point of Streitfeld’s essay.  The particular thought that captured Harry Pinch’s attention was this: “We pursued distractions and called them enhancements.” My late colleague and friend, Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science, became famous for his concept of the “paradigm shift,” a rearrangement of the mental furniture so thorough-going as in effect to supplant an old “reality” and establish a new one.  Such, for instance, was the triumph of the Copernican astronomy over the Ptolemaic.
            But few shifts were so dramatic or so complete.  The perfection of durable writing surely qualifies, and perhaps, but only perhaps, so does the invention of movable types.  But Gutenberg’s technology, however incrementally improved, remained essentially the same for half a millennium.  Now letterpress has been trumped by offset lithography, the process used to produce every book that most people alive today have ever read.

            The matter is perhaps semantic, but I cannot consider the advent of lithography as a paradigm shift, any more than I can so regard the shift from scroll (words laid out in a single long roll) to codex (words laid out in sequentially bound discrete sheets).  That shift, incidentally, has been reversed on your computer screen.  There is very little theological difference between a Torah procession in a Jewish liturgy and the gospel procession in a Christian liturgy; but you will see fossilized in the contrast two historical moments in the history of writing and reading.

            So what is “the future of the book”?  There will not be a single future, but many.  It is possible to read writing produced in a myriad of forms: spray-painted on the sides of subway cars, traced by a finger on a steamed-up mirror, puffed into the cold air by a sky-writing airplane.  Some poor souls will doubtless come to think of a “book” as a fugitive sequence of pixels on a hand-held screen.  But how can there be a real book without the tactile ghosts of the type on the backside of a sheet of laid paper, or the smooth feel and smell of old calf?  And how can you really read it except with the aid of green-shaded glass lamps on a polished old library table?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Geneva--Johannine and Lukan

 Geneva: December 10, 2013

 I try to maintain a regular schedule of Wednesday publication, but there are times, as for example when I find myself climbing into an airplane in Geneva midmorning of a Wednesday, when sticking to schedule would be more in the genre of electronic athleticism than of journalistic virtue.

            This visit to Geneva was my first in more than fifty years.  On my last stay there my mission was to seek out an illuminated manuscript of the Roman de la Rose for work on my doctoral dissertation in preparation.  My companion then was my newly married bride and life-partner.  My companion of the past few days was our younger son Luke, now himself a doctor of philosophy and the father of a young son.  Quite a lot can happen in half a century.

            Like his mother, Luke too is a splendid companion of the road.  A few years ago we visited Lisbon together.  That was a memorable trip, but I shall remember our three days together in the Alps as even more rewarding.

            If you have arrived from Europe at JFK or Newark any time recently you might be interested in how they do things in Geneva.  In the immaculate luggage hall there is a machine that dispenses tickets for free train rides to the center of the city, good also for a transfer to any of the frequent buses or trams that radiate out from Cornavin Station in all directions including almost necessarily the direction of your hotel.  Once at the hotel the clerk hands you, along with your key, a pass good for free public transport for the duration of your stay.  I cannot deny the truth of what many tourists also notice—the place is very expensive--but you still have the feeling people actually want you to be there.  So, yes, you may have to take out a bridge loan to cover lunch, but it’s a really nice lunch.

            Geneva is relatively small, with many beautiful features, and it is so eminently walkable that we never even used our free bus passes.  There is lots of clean, fresh water dramatically channeled for visual effect, and a large artificial geyser springing from the lake, beyond which rises Mont Blanc in all its majesty.

           Walking and water were perhaps the trip’s unifying themes.  One of the most prized treasures of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire is a great altarpiece made for the city’s cathedral by Konrad Witz in the 1440s.  This magnificent work of art was attacked by Protestant iconoclasts in the sixteenth century, broken apart, and severely damaged.  But unlike their more enthusiastic brethren in the Low Countries, the Swiss Calvinists did not utterly destroy the despised relics of Gothic piety.  The broken bits were gathered together and stored in a civic warehouse where, long forgotten or ignored, they survived into our more happily ecumenical age.  Witz’s altarpiece has been almost miraculously restored through the skill and technology of modern museum science.

            Four large panels have been preserved.  In my opinion the most striking is the “Miraculous Catch of Fish”.  The story is told twice in the gospels—in Luke (cap. 5) and John (cap. 21)—and in significantly different forms.  In the latter it is presented as one of Jesus’s post-Resurrection appearances.  The basic “plot” is this.  The disciples--many of whom were actual fishers of fish before they became fishers of men—are plying their piscatorial trade without luck until Jesus tells them where, precisely, to cast their nets.  Then they catch a huge haul.  There is a particularly striking fact about John’s version—entirely aside from the failure of Jesus’s intimate disciples at first to recognize him—and that is its curious numerical specificity.  The fisherman’s net is so full that it tests the tensile strength of the net’s webbing.  But John doesn’t say anything so indeterminate as that they caught a lot of fish or scores of fish, or whatever.  He says they caught one hundred and fifty-three fish.  It’s as though in the story of the “Feeding of the Five Thousand” there were an editorial note saying that the actual number was 4,996.

            One hundred and fifty-three is an odd number in more senses than one, and medieval exegetes marshaled their remarkable powers of ingenuity in attempts to explicate its hidden meaning.  The results of their efforts might one day provide the materials for another essay.  Konrad Witz’s remarkable panel painting is satisfied with the more obvious and literal theme of divine plenitude, the bounteously given fruits of soil and water.  In that context, I realized as I walked with a beloved son along the water’s edge, that the Lake of Geneva can be no great spiritual distance from the Lake of Genneseret.  How little could I know in 1962 of the fullness of providential possibility.  Another watery scriptural text came to my mind—one that was a favorite of a long-departed grandmother.  Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Annals of Homiletics

Life, you know, is rather like opening a tin of sardines. We are all of us looking for the key. And I wonder how many of you here tonight have wasted years of your lives looking behind the kitchen dressers of this life for that key. I know I have. Others think they’ve found the key, don’t they? They roll back the lid of the sardine tin of life. They reveal the sardines, the riches of life, therein, and they get them out, and they enjoy them. But, you know, there’s always a little bit in the corner you can’t get out. I wonder is there a little bit in the corner of your life? I know there is in mine!

                                                      From Alan Bennett’s Anglican sermon in Beyond the Fringe (1981)

            Sunday last, the first Sunday of Advent, might be called “the Christian New Year”.  The endlessly repeated liturgical cycle of the Christian year does not begin with the birth of Jesus.  The early Christians regarded that event as so stupendous as to require at least a brief period of thoughtful preparation, and this became the penitential season of Advent, which begins with the fourth Sunday before Christmas. 
            The Scripture readings for the first Sunday of Advent, established in ancient times, are particularly solemn and impressive.  They include the stirring passage in the letter to the Romans (cap 13) in which Paul likens the coming of the Christ to daylight breaking through the darkness of night, an archetypal image shared by many religions and philosophies, but here used distinctively by Paul as an appeal to action and the reformation of moral life.  This is the very passage on which the eyes of the young Augustine fell as he brooded beneath the fig tree.  The text changed his life, and with it the intellectual history of the Western world, in an instant.

tolle, lege

            Many of the great preachers of my tradition have dealt masterfully with this passage.  I think particularly of John Donne’s sermon before the Prince and Princess Palatine on June 16, 1619.   So naturally I was eager to hear what my own rector would have to say about it.  Of course I knew in advance that this man’s homiletic style tended less to the Pauline than to the Victorine—recognizing in this term his penchant for the striking domestic metaphor.  In the seventh chapter of his second book (Pantagruel) Rabelais gives an extensive catalogue of the theological titles that Pantagruel supposedly found in the famous library of the abbey of Saint-Victor, including such masterpieces as The Codpiece of the Law and The Mustard-Pot of Penance.

            Even so I was startled to hear that the anticipation of the coming of Christ was to be understood in terms of the way a viscous blob of red condiment slowly oozes from a bottle of Heinz ketchup.  The image, we were told, related explicitly to one of the old glass bottles, before they came up with a squeezable plastic model, as squeezing considerably accelerates the flow.  One of the geniuses of Madison Avenue had summed it all up in a TV ad of an earlier age (see  It takes a long time for the ketchup to flow, but “It’s worth the wait.”  That’s the way to understand what Paul means when he says “now is salvation nearer to us than when we first believed”!  It takes a while to get here, but it’s worth the wait.  For  the slow oozing of divine grace eventually builds to the crescendo poetically described by the theologian Richard Armour:
                    Shake and shake the ketchup bottle
                    None'll come, and then a lott'll.

            Historically, the sermon is actually a fairly late addition to Eucharistic worship.  The sermon was of course a common enough literary genre, but most of the famous sermon collections of the Middle Ages—those of Augustine, Caesarius of Arles, or even Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century--were perhaps never actually preached.  They were instead passed around in manuscript for pious reading in religious houses.  They were like “closet” drama.
            While preaching as the actual center of a religious service appears only with Protestantism in the sixteenth century, the beginnings of the weekly parish sermon will be found in the evangelical revival of the thirteenth century and the coming of the friars.  The real name of one of the two largest orders of friars, the Dominicans, is Ordo Praedicatorum, the Order of Preachers.  The Dominicans had some really great preachers.  Berthold of Regensburg, without mechanical amplification of any kind, could command an audience of thousands in the open fields for his three-hour harangues.  He attached a pennant to his portable dais so that people on the periphery could see which way the wind was blowing and station themselves downwind of his bellowing.  If you are architecturally savvy you can often tell a medieval Dominican church by its distinctively wide nave designed to serve the acoustical needs of large auditory.  Some art historians have called these buildings “preaching barns.”
            Barns are surrounded by barnyards.   The famous Franciscan preacher Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) usually stayed indoors, but one of his specialties was the scripturally based barnyard metaphor.  We are told that on occasion he did not scruple to supplement his theological point by braying like the ass on which Jesus entered Jerusalem, clucking like a mother hen, or grunting like the Gadarene swine.  It was, of course, an agrarian age.  Animal husbandry was everywhere the normal extension of human community; and human community was mostly small villages surrounded by cultivated fields, grazing pastures, and untamed forest.  It is not too surprising, therefore, that some of the earliest Franciscans took the logical step toward indiscriminate zoological homiletics.  Who has not seen at least a reproduction of Giotto’s depiction of Francis preaching to the birds?  Assisi is of course a land-locked place.  The next great Franciscan Saint, Anthony of Padua, actually came from Lisbon, a famous seaport.   Anthony preached to the fish.  With such an awesome precedent as Francis’s to compete with, he perhaps felt he had to play ketchup.  But these days if you come up with a sermon that is strictly for the birds, it’s probably best preached in an aviary.   

 Franciscan homiletics: (a) avian; (b) piscine

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

My Fragment of Kennedy Memorabilia

 The Senate Document Room in Days of Yore

The varied assessments of the presidency of John F. Kennedy published during the week memorializing the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination left me with a variety of impressions, two of them personal.  The first is of my antiquity.  Every pundit in America found it necessary to reminisce about where he or she was precisely at the moment the terrible news arrived, and where they were was usually in Mrs. Higgenbotham’s third-grade classroom or some such.  I was already a college instructor. However, their infantile perceptions remembered after half a century seemed to offer them a sufficient platform from which to announce confident and sweeping views about the mood of America in 1963 and President Kennedy’s role in creating it.

            Though I remember those times vividly, I cannot recall that there was a national mood.  In my experience life’s complexity is fairly constant.   So I have no field theories to propose.  I can offer by way of a second impression only one quite small and specific point.  I had to conclude that none of the pundits talking about the Kennedyesque “Camelot” had the slightest idea what or where Camelot is or was—though the more astute among them connected it to a Broadway show.  Medievalists rarely appear in prime time, so let me take the opportunity to remind you that Camelot was the legendary place that was the legendary seat of the legendary medieval King Arthur, and that it was somewhere vaguely off in the West—meaning the West of England, of course.

            I suppose it is natural that a figure so attractive, indeed charismatic as President Kennedy would attract mythic comparison, but I am not sure that  popular journalism has picked up the right myth.  The idea that the thousand days of the Kennedy administration created a Camelot on the Potomac is one that I, at least,  cannot fully endorse.  It is not simply the matter of the inexactitude of the parallels, significant though they be.  (For example, in the real Camelot it was the queen, not the king, who was the adulterer.)  It is more a question of mythic tone.  Broadway musicals are not big on ambiguity.  Medieval poets were much better.

            Of Arthur at his Christmas feast at Camelot the great author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight writes thus: 

Þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse….
He watz so joly of his joyfnes, and sumquat childgered:
His lif liked hym lyȝt, he louied þe lasse
Auþer to longe lye or to longe sitte,
So bisied him his ȝonge blod and his brayn wylde.

We don’t know for certain what the key adjective childgered means, but it is probably closer to “childish” than “child-like”.  The restlessness, I think, has to be borderline pathological: Royal Attention Deficit Order is my guess.  Anyway the king’s appetite for action sure gets Gawain in a spot of bother.  Young blood and wild brain make for hair-raising adventures, but they are hardly presidential.

            I have one personal and trivial Kennedy anecdote that is perhaps worth recording.  I spent the summer of 1958 in Washington, working in the Senate Document Room.  In the old days (and for all I know, still) each piece of legislation proposed in either of the houses of Congress was printed in a large number of copies at every stage of its discussion and amendment for the consultation of interested legislators and staff members.  The Senate Document Room stored these papers and distributed them among the senators on demand.  I was a well paid summer clerk in this office.  The duties were not taxing, and I had plenty of time to enjoy Washington.  What a wonderful way to spend a summer between graduating from college and sailing off to Europe!  
Senator J. William Fulbright in 1965

            The instigator of this boondoggle was Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas).  All the senators had a certain number of patronage jobs at their disposal.   Some may have gone to political cronies, but several of the senators sponsored “promising youth”, a category into which I once plausibly fit.  Bill Fulbright, one of the genuine American statesmen of the last century, took a special interest in Rhodes Scholars elected from Arkansas.  He was still doing that ten years later when he patronized Bill Clinton.

            Among my summer friends in the Document Room was a smart guy who later became an American historian at the University of Wisconsin, where I ran into him again.  We both regarded the Senate as though it were an all-star baseball team and we card-collectors.  There were many highly prized cards, but for this fellow the Jack Kennedy card, had there been one, would have outranked the T208 Honus Wagner.  One hot, bright afternoon after work we were walking near the Capitol vaguely in the direction we both lived when Senator John F. Kennedy drove right by us.  We were not twenty feet away.  He was driving a red convertible car with the top down.  In the passenger’s seat at his side was a good-looking blonde.  She could have been some latter-day Daisy Buchanan.  They were both laughing. 
            Religious rapture is rare this side of baroque painting, but my friend’s affect surely must have approached that of Saint Helena when she saw the Vision of the True Cross.  We had seen Kennedy often enough on the floor of the Senate, but this was entirely different.  I myself was thrilled.  “That man,” he said with oracular solemnity, “is going to be President.”  He didn’t tell me that he would be President even before I got back from Oxford.  Thus it is that I have in the book of memory two images of President Kennedy in an open car.  One, shared with a whole horrified world, comes from the home movie of Abraham Zapruder.  The other is a much more limited edition.  Kennedy as Royal Victim.  Kennedy as Prince Charming, somewhat childgered.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Debtor's Prison?

the Hogarthian view

            My half-hearted attempt to keep atoe if not abreast of the daily news begins in the wee hours with on-line surveys of the New York Times and Real Clear Politics and ends, after a substantial hiatus devoted to what might be called Real Life, with the PBS “News Hour” at seven in the evening.  Saying that the “News Hour” is the best television program I know may mean little seeing that I know so few.  But the morning survey of Real Clear Politics is probably the most important for me.  That is because it offers a fairly generous and eclectic sampling of various more or less influential politicians, pundits, talk-show hosts, Sunday gabfests, and edgy comedians whom I never would encounter in undigested form.

            I don’t listen to speeches or interviews of Sarah Palin, for example.  I have never viewed Martin Bashir’s television program on MSNBC or listened to Mark Levin’s radio program.  I am not a regular reader of the Washington Post and until yesterday was unaware that somebody called Eric Wemple published a blog sometimes attached to that paper.  Hence without Real Clear Politics I should never have known of the following sequence of events.

            (1) Sarah Palin, in a public utterance decrying the dangers for future generations of Americans of a huge and rapidly growing public indebtedness, compared debt’s possible constraints to slavery.  (2)  Martin Bashir suggested that for making such a verbal comparison Ms. Palin, “America’s residence dunce,” should be punished with revolting torments of an appallingly obscene and scatological nature.  (3) Mark Levin, without obscenity but in language otherwise hardly less violent than Bashir’s own, attacked Bashir and other commentators on MSNBC.  (4) At considerable length Bashir apologized to Sarah Palin publicly, unreservedly, and so far as I can tell sincerely.  (5)  The blogger Eric Wemple opined that Bashir had made “towering mistakes” in his fashion of attacking Ms. Palin, even though her comparison of debt and slavery “was idiotic on its face”.

            I am sure that many other events could be related to the five enumerated above.  My point is that a half hour spent on one useful website can offer a kind of  “casebook” entrée—happily not always so depressing as this one—to an emblematic political episode or debate so ephemeral that two or three days later it will be difficult to track down the relevant links.  Of course in this instance I also have some interest in the substance buried deep beneath the muck.  I suppose I am a “fiscal conservative”—perhaps even a “deficit scold”.  I am also a grandfather, and at times a rather worried one, as I ponder the America my grandchildren may know when they are my age.  Add to that my profession: I am a student of literature, so much of which is a matter of comparisons, especially similes and metaphors.  Is a comparison of debt to slavery “idiotic on its face”?

            “My love is like a red, red rose,” writes Robbie Burns, “that’s newly sprung in June.”  Now I suppose that Eric Wemple would judge that this comparison is idiotic on its face, or rather on the girlfriend’s face, since no Scottish lass known to history has had skin of a scarlet hue.  Nor did one ever sprout pinnate leaves or sharp spines.  Yet many a man seeking to express his sense of a woman’s beauty and desirability has judged “My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose” to be a capital song.  Now a partial list of the things to which writers of repute have said that men and women are enslaved would include the following: slaves of passion, of alcohol, of fame, of reputation, of convention; slaves to the office, slaves to the telephone, slaves to blueberry pie.  Somerset Maugham’s great novel Of Human Bondage extends the metaphor over practically all of human social, sexual, and psychological life.

            How about indebtedness as slavery?  Has anyone of intellectual authority ever talked of such a thing?  Before answering with the obvious and required affirmative, it is worth noting that actual, historical slavery has existed in many forms.  The chattel slavery of the ante-bellum South, which for obvious reasons is likely to leap to the American mind, is actually something of an “outlier” in the history of servitude.  The racial dimension of slavery has not been constant, but slaves have often been conquered people.  The Old English word for slave, weahl, means a Celtic Briton (cf. welsh); in a similar fashion slave itself reflects the fate on many conquered Slavs in the pre-modern world.

            Slavery was both involuntary and voluntary, as in many places people could (and did) in desperation sell themselves into servitude.  Many white people came to the American colonies, and other outposts of British Empire, under the scheme of indentured servitude.  Here slavery was not merely like indebtedness, but coterminous with it.  There are probably a million people in indentured servitude today.  Under these circumstances it would be odd indeed if slavery and indebtedness were not frequently brought together in metaphor.

            There has been pretty ecumenical agreement across the political spectrum that economic indenture is or might be “slavery”.  Though we should not entirely neglect such right-wing gurus as Hayek (The Road to Serfdom, 1944), it has principally been the theoreticians of socialism who have made the equation debt=slavery.  One need look no further than Marx in whose system the entire proletariat are “wage slaves”.  If the means of production are in private hands those who have nothing to sell but their labor (the workers) are doomed to de facto subsistence slavery without the possibility of capital accumulation.  Lots of people have disagreed with Marxism, without however finding his metaphoric vocabulary “idiotic on its face.”  It has been a large inspiration to writers of the greatest repute down to and including Tennessee Ernie Ford:

            You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
            Another day older and deeper in debt….
            Saint Peter, don’t you call me, cause I can’t go.
            I owe my soul to the company store.

I presume you understand the term company store?

racing against the clock

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Autumnal Convergence


continuance in some crinkled primrose leaves...

I have often pondered, and on occasions even tried to write about, the mysteries of synchronicity—“synchronicity” being the semi-scientific word now often used to denote what I grew up calling “coincidence”.  I step out of my apartment in Paris to buy a pineapple.  In the fifteen meters between my front door and that of the fruiterer I literally bump into one of my favorite Princeton students of a decade past,  now a lawyer in a small city in North Carolina.  A man can go in search of a pineapple at most daylight hours, but thirty seconds earlier or later we would not have met.  Nor would I have learned from her parents, who were with her, that in North Carolina they lived a street away from, and slightly knew,  the parents of my elder son’s girlfriend in Brooklyn.

            I believe it was the famous Swiss psychologist Karl Jung who popularized the idea of “synchronicity”—coincident events or situations without discernible causal linkages.  Perhaps I should italicize discernible.  I am after all a disciple of Boethius, who teaches that there is no such thing as chance, if by chance we mean an effect without a cause.   Jung brilliantly attempts a field theory of human mental experience in terms of poetry and myth.  In a quite difficult book called The Roots of Coincidence another of my gurus, Arthur Koestler, tries to transpose the matter from the key of myth to that of science.  I find both men fascinating, but neither fully satisfying.  I can but confess with the Psalmist an incapacity  to “exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.”

            The apparent mundane inconsequence of so much “synchronic” experience is at odds with the disturbing abnormality of synchronicity itself.  In two recent sequential blog posts I touched briefly on two unrelated topics: (1) visiting my wife’s cousin, Margaret Richards, in her sensational house (converted stables) in Whitekirk near Edinburgh; and (2) planting daffodils on a beautiful autumn day in central New Jersey.  I did not mention that during our time in Whitekirk I had the leisure to do quite a bit of reading.  Margaret and her late husband John, an eminent Scottish architect, collected an extensive library.  One of John’s special interests was the history of the Great War (alias WW I), to which he devoted a large shelf.  I read several volumes from that shelf, the most memorable of which were Niall Ferguson’s hefty The Pity of War and The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook.  On the first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) the British suffered sixty thousand casualties.

            The next stop on our itinerary was Oxford, where I didn’t do very much except walk about, visit a couple of libraries, and seek out what remains of the once-thriving second-hand book trade in the city.  (Thornton’s, once with Blackwell’s one of the twin jewels of the Broad, no longer exists there, having decamped to a nearby village and the spirit-world of e-commerce.) Two once good little places in the Turl are also gone; but there is a sizable OXFAM bookshop there, and I poked my nose in.  Only folly urges me to acquire more books, as I ought to be in serious downsizing mode; but that is rather like saying that only hunger urges me to eat.

            There was in this shop an excellent copy of Siegfried Sassoon’s Complete Memoirs of George Shertson (1937; Reprint Society, 1940).  These memoirs comprise a thinly fictionalized autobiography of Sassoon himself, the first two parts of which (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer) are generally considered to be among the major literary monuments to the Great War.  A 656-page book was perhaps not what my supposedly light luggage required, but I bought the book and spent several hours of the return flight reading it.  Sassoon’s grim take on the Great War invaded my mind and occupied it long after touch-down..

            But what, you might ask, has become of synchronicity?  For that we needed the daffodil planting.  My younger readers will one day know the autumnal experience of their elders.  The fall of the year has always had for me a certain somber cast, especially after the passing of the last Indian summer day of October.  But as I have aged the death of the year has become ever more personal.  How else could it be?  As the nights grow longer, the Night itself moves closer.

            There was perhaps more of this autumnal gloom in my passage on daffodil planting than I had intended, for a friend was moved to write to cheer me up.  I am lucky to have this lovely lady and deep thinker among my regular readers.  She forwarded to me a consolatory poem.  It is called “Another Spring,” and it makes the point, obvious enough once one stops to think of it, that there is natural rebirth just as there is natural death.  Jesus, indeed, seems to make the former contingent on the latter: “verily I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”   Such religious musings are not invited by the poem; its consolation is entirely secular.  Though the poet would die many years later as a Roman Catholic convert, he was at the time of writing this poem a man adrift, still struggling with his war-ravaged psyche, with his homosexuality, with unfulfilled literary aspiration—in short with the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.  The poet was Siegfried Sassoon.
 "Another Spring"

Aged self, disposed to lose his hold on life,
Looks down at winter's ending, and perceives
Continuance in some crinkled primrose leaves.
A noise of nesting rooks in tangled trees.
Stillness- inbreathed, expectant. Shadows that bring
Cloud-castles thoughts from downloaded distances.
Eyes, ears are old.  But not the sense of Spring.

Look, listen, live, some inward watcher warns.
Absorb this moment's meaning: and be wise
With hearts whom the first primrose purifies.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Read All About It


           Last night I was the “featured author” at a book launch at our town’s big independent bookseller, Labyrinth Books.  There probably were about forty people there, only half of whom were close friends or family members.  Such an unusually bookish experience gave me the occasion to think a bit not merely about my book but the state of the book in general.

            It is hardly news that the entire book trade is in a state of crisis or of transition--or maybe it is “critical transition”—and I do not pretend to be able to predict the commercial future of the printed book.  I have not yet fully absorbed the implications of the advent of the mega-publisher, the mega-store, and e-commerce; yet much more is likely coming soon.  I recently met my first bookless English professor, that is, a literary scholar who, confident that everything he will ever want or need to read will be available in electronic form, refrains from buying printed books on principle.  Under these circumstances a large, high quality independent bookshop that gracefully navigates the markets for both learned and trade books is a precious community asset.

            I was talking about my new book, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment.  If ever a topic were tailor-made for bookshop chatter the Enlightenment ought to be it.  For although there is no universal agreement as to what, when, or how the Enlightenment was, it’s easy enough to see that books had a great deal to do with it.  For convenience of chronology I am willing to follow Harold Nicolson in associating Enlightenment origins with two famous English books: Newton’s Principia of 1687 and Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)—two enormously influential books that, I claim, “mark a decisive shift in the way thinkers regarded the natural word around them, and the way they thought about thinking itself.”  I suppose the books that most people naturally call to mind when they hear the word “Enlightenment” are the large volumes of the great French encyclopedia published in Paris in the third quarter of the eighteenth century.

            Fortunately for us mere mortals, not all writings of the Enlightenment period were so difficult and high-minded.  My old friend and long-time colleague Robert Darnton, now the University Librarian at Harvard and one of the key players in some of the more benign of the vast electronic projects characteristic of our age, has written brilliantly about the print culture of the eighteenth century, demonstrating its extraordinary vitality and variety.

            One of the major figures dealt with in my book is “Count” Cagliostro, a famous alchemist, sooth-sayer, table-rapper, healer and Freemason of the second half of the eighteenth century.  If you believe Thomas Carlyle Cagliostro was “the most perfect scoundrel that in these latter ages has marked the world’s history…Gold-cook, Grand Cophta, Prophet, Priest, and thaumaturgic moralist and swindler, really a Liar of the first Magnitude…what one may call the King of Liars.”  If on the unlikely other hand you believe Fleming, Cagliostro was an unconventional social reformer and a Rosicrucian “friend of mankind” whose exploitation of celebrity just happened to be a bit advanced for his time.

    Charles Thévenau de Morande, ace reporter        

The Carlylian view of Cagliostro derives directly from a particularly seedy French journalist, active in London in the 1780s, named Thévenau de Morande.  His specialties were pornography and blackmail, not infrequently conjoined in interesting ways.  You may well think our gutter press is pretty bad, but a perusal of a few numbers of Thévenau’s Courrier de l’Europe will offer enlightening perspective.  The public revelation that journalists from Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World had hacked the telephone of an abducted and murdered girl in search of publishable information was a death sentence for that venerable yellow sheet.  Mr. Murdoch was dragged penitent before a tribunal to declare himself shocked, shocked by what had been going on.  The paper’s actual editors Rebeka Brooks and Andy Coulson are even at this moment being tried in court, where, ironically, the exposure of their own intimate misbehavior became a gratuitous and incidental point of testimony.

  Naughty, naughty!     
            A journalist of the school of Thévenau would have spared himself the labor and simply have made up whatever information he wanted.  There are after all distinct advantages to fictional journalism.  In the early part of the eighteenth century the great Jonathan Swift, who was among other things a journalist, took a dislike to the popular astrologist John Partridge.  (Astrology was very big during the Enlightenment).  This Partridge was a compiler of almanacs in which he published astral predictions concerning the high and mighty: what the stars had to say about the stars, so to speak.   So Swift, alias Bickerstaff, decided to make a prediction of his own.

Jonathan Swift, especially with his wit

            In his widely circulated journal he published the prediction that the well-known astrologer, John Partridge, would die on such-and-such a day.  Then, when the day arrived, he announced the sad news that poor Partridge had in fact succumbed on schedule.  Alas, the stars were fatally aligned.  Swift then sat back to enjoy the vain protestations of some man claiming to be Partridge to the effect that he was still alive.  After all, the whole world knew the truth.  They had read it in the papers.  Thévenau de Morande did a similar number on Cagliostro’s reputation, though he admittedly had some genuine good material to start out with.  Of course you can believe every word in my books.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Gift of Moonlit Magic


the path into the Common Land wood in autumn as seen from the bottom of my garden

     The Gray Farm is a residential development  of about seventy-five houses in south-east Princeton, N.J.  It is bounded on the west by South Harrison Street, on the south by Lake Carnegie, and on the north and east by a lengthy curve of Hartley Avenue—my street.  In the center of the tract, running from Hartley to the lake, are many acres of dedicated green space called the Common Land: open fields and pathed woods.

            The Gray Farm was developed around 1960 by the authorities at Princeton University as an imaginative way to allow faculty, whose salaries at that time could rarely gain them entry to the town’s commercial housing market, to build their own houses.  Certain restrictions applied, naturally, the chief of which involved eligibility and resale: only tenured faculty and certain administration could participate, and when they eventually sold they must sell back to the University.  The original Gray Farmers rightly regarded themselves as pioneers of a kind, and they shared a strong feeling of community expressed through a neighborhood association so active as to have about it something of the whiff of a 60s commune.  The Grounds Committee—charged with maintaining and beautifying the Common Land for the enjoyment of all residents—was among the most active.

            Utopian communities are notoriously short-lived, and the neighborhood association (the “Gray Farm Neighbors”) had already lost much of its original ardor when we took up residence in 1988.  By now it has slightly the air of the last days of the Venetian Republic.  Practically all the founders are dead or scattered in retirement communities.  In changed circumstances the original economic rationale of the Gray Farm no longer obtains.  Many of the original houses have been torn down, replaced by grander piles whose inhabitants often do not even join the “Neighbors”.  We do have an annual meeting, but with only about a quarter of the residential families represented.  What I regard as the Gray Farm’s greatest asset—the beautiful woodland and lakeside paths of the Common Land—are seriously under-utlilized.

            But the Grounds Committee continues to exist.  I have been its chair for many years.   I now have but one regular helper—a woman not too much younger than I—and we have a half-day community work party once a year, for which perhaps twenty people will show up armed with secateurs and pruning saws.  The University mows the open fields in the summer, but we are largely on our own in managing the woods, making new plantings, keeping up the paths, and so on.  I have sometimes felt rather lonely in my role as groundsman and, truth requires me to confess, a little unappreciated.  Not any more.

            About ten days ago I was working on my firewood piles when two neighbors came walking toward me through the common ground.  One of them was the President of the Gray Farm Neighbors, and he carried before him, in semi-liturgical fashion, a brightly wrapped package.  I was amazed to hear that it was a neighborly gift offered to me in appreciation of my alleged services over the years as Chairman of the Grounds Committee.  My wife also materialized about the same time—she of course having been in the plot all along--and we all moved into the back yard and sat for a moment on the lawn furniture, not yet abandoned to its winter mothballs.  There I was urged to open the package.

            It turned out to contain a handsome L. L. Bean flannel work shirt in bright plaid.  I do my own shirt shopping at the Saint Peter’s Thrift Shop, where one can occasionally find such a quality item, though only if seasoned by a few years of pre-ownership.  So I was delighted.  Still, my benefactors urged me to look more closely.  Only then did I note that peeping out the shirt pocket was a small envelope.  Upon investigation the envelope proved to contain two tickets for excellent seats for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for Wednesday night, a week ago today.

            Good seats at the Met are not cheap.  Putting that in a slightly different way, they are very expensive.  The luxury of the evening, already in excess of our sumptuary habits, was further augmented by the provision of a car and driver who whisked us home after the three-and-a-half hour performance.  But the munificence of this astonishing gift from friends and neighbors lay as much in its imagination as in its material.

            The Met’s production is mounted in part to mark the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth in 1913.   Perhaps someone among my neighbors had read my essay of two years past (“East Anglian Church Crawl”), in which I waxed enthusiastic over a tour of “Britten country” in and around Aldeburgh in Suffolk.  Be that as it may, the subject of Shakespeare’s immortal play is magic in the woods.  It is tonally complicated, for the fairy world is not without its dark side.  The teasing of Bottom is deployed along a kind of ethical razor’s edge.  Britten’s beautiful music fully honors the complexity, affirming the moonlit enchantment without entirely avoiding its anxieties.  One of Shakespeare’s themes is the evanescence of dreams, often beautiful but always fugitive.  The official setting of the play is supposed to be Athens, but the sylvan landscape seems much more like those of the south of England or the eastern seaboard of the United States.

            The current project of the Grounds Committee is bulb-planting.  I want to get a thousand more daffodils into the Common Land by Thanksgiving.  In the autumn of the year, in the autumn of a life, this seems a worthy aim.  The bulbs promise a brave show in another season.