Wednesday, January 30, 2013
W. C. Fields as Wilkins Micawber, deficit-scold
I have become increasingly interested in recent years in the verb deny and its nominative offspring denial and denier. In a very funny and protracted exchange of insults between Prince Hal and Falstaff in Shakespeare’s First Part of King Henry the Fourth, we get the following.
Prince: And thou a natural coward, without instinct.
Falstaff: I deny your major…
A lot of ink has been expended in the attempt to explicate this passage. What Falstaff means by major seems clear enough. It comes from the technical vocabulary of the medieval logicians, and it refers to the major premise of a syllogism. The schoolbook example of a syllogism was this:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Ergo, Socrates is mortal.
The major premise is that all men are mortal, a fact taken to be undeniable. The minor premise, that Socrates is a man, is likewise taken as undeniable. The problem is that the Prince has made no syllogistic argument, except perhaps by implication: “Only cowards flee from battle,” as Falstaff has just fled in ignominious fashion.
To deny something, etymologically speaking, is to say no to it. Denial ought to operate with regard to actual facts, though factual denial may require yet further interrogation. You may absolutely deny that you murdered Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick if (a) you were at the time of the murder fully occupied with Lady Bellebosom in the bedroom, or (b) you used a pistol. But more and more denial is becoming a matter of opinion. This mode of denial is often signaled by the proximity of the adverb surely. “Surely you will not deny that Bach is a greater musician than Brahms.” Well, you might in fact. Maybe.
So erratic have been the linguistic wanderings of deny-words that denial now means saying no to something that is true as often as to something that is false. We have Holocaust-denial and AIDS-denial, birth-certificate-denial, 9/11- denial, etc. Practically all of us are “in denial” about something or other.
Among the privileges of teaching at a major university is the opportunity to rub shoulders with the kinds of celebrity professors and “public intellectuals” who tend to be fairly thick on the ground in places like Oxford, Paris, Geneva, New Haven, Chicago, Berkeley and other particularly lush groves of Academe. If my own experience at Princeton is a safe guide, it is true, the shoulder-rubbing is mainly metaphorical, since Professor Famous is much more likely to be on a book tour or testifying in Washington than attending another dull meeting of the Library Committee, but we are at least all listed on the same mastheads. My experience also suggests that it is safer to deny some things than others.
One of my eminent colleagues, the physicist Will Happer, has gained mainly local opprobrium as a “global warming skeptic”. In fact his skepticism had something to do with the silent substitution of the phrase “climate change” for “global warming” in public discourse. A second eminence, the Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman has gained mainly local approbation as a “deficit skeptic”, or a scold of what he calls “deficit-scolds,” folks who worry about the fact that America is many trillions of dollars in debt.
Professor Paul Krugman, deficit-scold scold
I am neither a physicist nor an economist but a student of literature. Hence my possibly eccentric subordination of the theories of J. M. Keynes to those of Wilkins Micawber: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."*
It is pretty clear where President Obama’s selective denials prevail from two passages in his much-praised Second Inaugural Address.
¶We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms…
¶We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.
I am among those who fret perhaps too much about the fate of future generations of Americans, beginning with my own grandchildren. But like Falstaff I must deny the Prince’s major. Raging fires, droughts, and powerful storms did not begin in the Industrial Revolution. Although the twentieth century witnessed new heights (or depths) of incendiary warfare, the possibility of a “natural” disaster such as the London Fire of 1666 or the Chicago Fire of 1871 is in fact now quite remote.
As to “the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit”—well, call me skeptical. Our politicians are not really into “hard choices,” since making them might prove fatal to re-election. In my opinion, “the generation that built this country” has long since been in its collective grave. Furthermore I find the President’s use of the word invest rather peculiar. But there is no need to dabble in possible quibbles when there is a more obvious, simple matter of mathematical logic to be addressed.
Even a President cannot spend the same dollar twice. You can either use up all the nation’s money paying for Social Security and Medicare for us geezers or you can spend it on something else. Guns or butter. Cat scans on demand or high-speed rail. If you want seriously to reduce the deficit, let alone retire it, you need either to increase your tax revenues significantly or to reduce your expenditures, also significantly. In fact it’s pretty likely that you have to do both. I want to believe our leaders when they tell us that “America’s best days are still ahead”; but it’s a little rich to claim that saddling our school children with yet more debt will usher in the millennium. And I deny that I am in denial!
*Charles Dickens, in David Copperfield
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
As the term "liberty of the press" is adopted in this country without being understood I will state the origin of it and shew what it means.*
Last night on Channel Thirteen I watched the concluding episode of “The Abolitionists.” Like most of “The American Experience” offerings, it was excellent. It had the usual wonderful old photographs and the usual rainbow coalition of American historians offering commentary. Their fad of speaking in a chatty historical present—“So Lincoln reads this letter, and he goes ballistic…” sort of thing—annoyed me, or perhaps annoys me; but that is a mere quibble overwhelmed by the quality of the information conveyed.
I noticed that the National Endowment for the Humanities was on the list of financial supporters for the program. That caught my eye, perhaps, because like many liberal arts professors I myself have enjoyed the support of the NEH in years past. I did receive a fellowship from the Endowment one year, but my more extensive experience with the organization involved teaching several summer seminars, some for high school teachers and some for college professors. Some of my happiest experiences in a long teaching career relate to those seminars.
I am a patriot—that is, a lover of my native land—as I would hope that most of my far-flung readers are. I can imagine few activities more truly patriotic than studying the history of my country—seriously, honestly, and with that kind of moral intentionality that compares the words of our founding documents and the lives of our acknowledged national heroes against the background of the actual social realities of the “American experience”, past and present.
It was therefore discouraging to me to hear a self-proclaimed patriot in our Congress, when asked for concrete ideas as to how to attack an eminently unpatriotic sixteen trillion dollar national deficit, offer as his sole specific suggestion, defunding the National Endowment for the Humanities. The budget request made by the NEH for 2013 is, I think, about a hundred and fifty million dollars. For that amount of money the government could get about three-eights of one F-22 fighter plane, according to the most recent figures I’ve seen. How I do wish H. L. Mencken were still with us. We at last have achieved a congressional boobocracy fully worthy of his scorn.
However, the purpose of this post is not to bash the benighted but to energize the enlightened. It is my annual call to patriotism. Among the worthy groups that have enjoyed some very modest support from the NEH is the Library of America, the non-profit publishing enterprise with the mission of making available in scholarly and beautiful editions the works of important American writers. I cannot imagine a more patriotic mission than the preservation and dissemination of our extraordinary American literary culture, and the chaste dust jacket of every Library of America volume discreetly but proudly is banded in red, white, and blue.
My blog has apparently gained a readership far greater than I could have imagined. My chief evidence for this claim, though circumstantial, is to me quite convincing. It is the increasing frequency and urgency with which I am encouraged to “monetize” the blog—meaning make money off it by opening it to commercial advertisements. Such a suggestion is of course highly gratifying to me. First it means that somebody out there in cyberland who knows how to count readers has counted enough of them to offer me a little money to go commercial; second, because the money proposed is so little, I can safely scorn it, and with a deeply satisfying high-mindedness. So I continue to promise my readers: as you scroll through Gladlylerne, you will not be encouraged to drink Pepsi or undergo liposuction, even at the hands of our board-certified plastic surgeons.
The Library of America is another matter. I will continue to make an annual appeal—entirely unsolicited by the librarians, needless to say, or even known to them--on the library’s behalf. If you are an American, I urge you to visit the Library’s website. If you are a literate American, I urge you in a spirit of patriotism to join as a subscriber. We will grant a pass to semi-literates, for whom ordering merely one or two of the current specials will suffice. I note that Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales is among them. If you’re the kind of patriot who specializes in musket-lore, that’s the one for you.
*Thomas Paine, Collected Writings (Library of America, 76), p. 429.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
The Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (1798-1860)
Of all famous quotations usually misquoted few are more popular than what Scott Fitzgerald said about the difference between rich people and “us”, meaning the not-so-rich people. In a fictional voice, in a short story called “The Rich Boy”, Fitzgerald wrote thus: Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.
Being one of “us” I don’t know whether those sentiments are true, but they are very modern and very American and, let me add, very different from some attitudes of our ancestors. Fitzgerald was one of the great literary theoreticians of the American aristocracy of wealth. Our model differed from the old feudal model of an aristocracy of blood and rank in many ways, but in no way more noticeable than in its neglect of a sense of obligation.
This point has been driven home to me by some of my recent general reading, which has been roaming among the Romanovs. A more dutiful bunch of autocrats would be hard to find. In particular, I came upon a charming mini-memoir* written by the Empress Dowager Alexandra Feodorovna (1798-1860), the widow of Nicholas I and mother of Alexander II, the “tsar-liberator”. (Incidentally, is it at all embarrassing that the Russian czarist Manifesto of Emancipation antedates the American presidential Emancipation Proclamation by two years?) This beautiful and virtuous lady spent her girlhood as a Prussian princess named Charlotte, but everything had to change, including her name, when she fell into cahoots with the Romanovs. Her memoir, written in French in her widowhood, deals with her early years of married life (1817-1821).
There is a solid historical explanation for the plots of Jane Austen’s novels and most others worth reading. I suppose that the Darwinian imperative of sexual mating is too obvious to argue. But if you add to it a powerful religious rationale and even more powerful political, social, and economic motives you pretty much have the history of Western literature from the Iliad to Downton Abbey.
The chief reason that the royal houses of Europe ended up in such a mess of mediocrity, idiocy, and congenital disease was what might be called the “stale blood” problem: royalty had to marry other royalty. That had been a demographic challenge since the Middle Ages, but it became particularly acute after the French Revolution. The chief occupation of the royal youth of the age was checking out or being checked out as a potential spouse. Nicholas met Charlotte (Alexandra) in Berlin in 1814. He was 18, she 16; but the families closed the deal more or less on the spot. They were married in 1817.
As a ruler Nicholas I can fairly be judged as a disaster, and one of the worst kind, meaning a well-intentioned disaster. The first thing he did, on the very day of his accession to power in December, 1825, was to slaughter a few of those noble and romantic rebels henceforth known as the “Decembrists”. In macro-historical terms that was rather like fighting for the wrong guys at Bunker Hill. One of the last things he did was to lose the Crimean War in humiliating fashion. But the disasters had been thrust upon him. Like George VI a century later, Nicholas was an accidental monarch. His elder brother Constantine had been next in line for the throne, but when the time came he abdicated for a reason far more plausible than Wallis Simpson—cowardice.
Before his marriage Nicholas had gone on a number of educational tours, one of which was a fairly protracted stay in England, the nation recommended to him by some enlightened advisers around the court (and there actually were some) as a beacon of “representative government”. His host and cicerone in the industrial Midlands was the Duke of Wellington. It will tell you something of Nicholas’s political primitiveness that what he took to be the dangerous liberalism of the Duke and of the whole setup in pre-Reform Britain simply confirmed his belief in the sacred necessity of absolute autocracy.
Almost everything the imperial couple did was undertaken out of a sense of obligation, and sacrificial duty is actually the main theme of the Empress’s recollections of her early married life. Poor little rich girl, indeed! In the middle of June, accompanied by a military guard but with little you could call “emotional support”, she was sent off from her native palace in the direction of the Russian frontier, where she arrived about a week later to be met by her betrothed “with drawn sword, at the head of a guard of honor” and accompanied by various Orthodox ecclesiastics with lots of hair and weird hats. Part of the deal of being a Russian Grand Duchess was a crash course in the Orthodox faith. She was a Lutheran, and a serious one; but now she was closeted for five days with a priest named Moussowsky for an emergency spiritual transplant. Five days! Moussowsky must have been quite a guy. I’ve been working away at the works of John Chrysostom and Basil the Great for half a lifetime, and I’m nowhere near done.
For the whole week’s run-up to the elaborate formal announcement of the betrothal, she writes, “I did nothing but cry whenever I found myself alone; the change in religions cost me a lot and weighed upon my heart….On the 24th June I was taken to church by the Emperor. As well as I could I made my profession of faith in Russian. Beside me stood a black-robed Abbess, while I, dressed in white, with a little cross at my neck, looked like a sacrificial victim. This was the impression I produced on all our Prussian attendants, who with feelings of compassion and eyes full of tears watched their poor Princess Charlotte take part in a ceremony strange and mystical to the minds of Protestants.” But protest made she none.
*A Czarina’s Story, trans. by Una Pope-Hennessy (London, 1948)
Wednesday, January 9, 2013
After a long hiatus in grandchild production, a blessed industry in which our daughter held a family monopoly for nearly two decades, her two brothers began in the second half of the last calendar year to redeem the time. For the roughly five months since jolly John Henry arrived in lower Manhattan followed roughly six weeks later by radiant Ruby in Red Hook, Brooklyn, their pixilated paternal grandparents have been spending as much time as possible adoring them, an activity that has had a particular appropriateness as the season of Epiphany ran its course. Should any friendly pagan need an explanation of my allusion, it refers to the liturgical memory of the legendary visitation of the three magi kings (Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior) to the newly born infant Jesus.
Unlike the magi our mode of travel is not stellar. We travel at the sufferance of the New Jersey Transit Corporation, and we must open our coffers to their hungry ticket machines. For your bloguiste there is one other slight inconvenience. Should visiting day fall on Tuesday, that is to say yesterday, with a New York overnight, he is unlikely to start thinking about his Wednesday post, let alone writing it, until he’s well south of the tunnel on the return trip.
Such is the present circumstance, though “current events” practically dictate the subject. For what we have just witnessed as the New Year began—the orgy of fecklessness, incompetence, and poltroonery summarized under the general rubric of “the fiscal cliff”—relates to my newest grandchildren in a very poignant way. It means that little John Henry and even littler Ruby will spend the first years of their American citizenship in a land where the rising public debt is already greater than the annual gross domestic product. Along with their birth certificates each one picked up a congressional Visa bill of about sixty grand. Head start? No child left behind?
The disgrace of our federally elected officials is fairly ecumenical, but I have to say that the spineless Republicans take the cake. Can a political party that preaches fiscal responsibility and then proposes Mitt Romney for the presidency and actually re-elects John Boehner as Speaker of the House of Representatives have any claim on serious men and women?
Some of you will be old enough to remember Spiro Agnew, one of our most disgraceful and disgraced of Veeps. Long before he was exposed as a crook he had been widely recognized as a dolt. But when publicly taxed for his “mediocrity,” he in no wise contested the charge. On the contrary, his view was that the large numbers of mediocre people in the country deserved to have their representative too. He must have alluded to that large majority of our fellow citizens who have come to the consensus that every American has a natural right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness—and, oh yeah, a free lunch. Lest I seem to speak obscurely, I mean an unfunded welfare state. Perhaps Agnew had a point. Such people do need representation. But do we need four hundred of them in the House alone?
Sadly, we probably have the Congress we deserve. We have an electoral system that does an excellent job of pre-screening out intelligence, moderation, imagination, and any traditional sense of public service. Once elected, most Congressmen soon reveal by their actions their one unfailingly constant motive: getting elected again. As we voters seem happy enough to collude with this system, we perhaps have merited our loathsome reward. But surely the children of our nation deserve something better.
My own grandchildren will, I devoutly hope, survive the malfeasance of their government, for they enjoy some powerful advantages. They all live in stable homes with two loving parents who are committed in marriage to their well being, their education, and their moral training. They will do some family travelling. They will have books in the house. At the family table where they will regularly take their evening meal, they will join in intelligent conversation sometimes characterized by complete sentences and disyllabic words. They thus will find themselves endowed with a certain amount of what is called “social capital”. That fact alone may make them members of a generational minority, but it should help them to seize such opportunities as appear on the constricting horizons of our national life, as in happier and more generous times their meritocratic forebears of earlier generations once did.
It is the fantasy of a large swath of one of our political parties that “government programs” can do nothing to replenish the sadly depleted social capital of millions of our children, and the fantasy of a large swath of the other that they can do everything. Perhaps one early locus of the compromise which will be imperative for any real progress might be an agreement that at the very least we will not bury the newborn under a mountain of prenatal debt.
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Victor Hugo (1802-1885): among the great ones
Though I am not much of a movie-goer, over the last few months, I have actually seen several of Hollywood’s more recent and talked about efforts, including Argo, Lincoln, and Anna Karenina. Just before we went up to New York to see the New Year in with a group of old friends, we went down to Princeton’s sole and seedy cinema house and took in Les Misérables. I am very glad we did, as the experience has helped me clarify in my mind an incipient field theory of modern fiction.
There are whole continents of popular culture of which I am shamefully ignorant. We don’t go to Broadway shows, as I am unprepared to take out the second mortgage the habit would demand. I am therefore one of what are probably comparatively few suburbanites who over the last couple of decades have not shelled out a hundred and fifty bucks to watch a stage full of urchins in rags cavort their way through the fantastically successful show called “Les Miz.” This is relevant because the current film Les Misérables is a version not of Victor Hugo’s masterwork Les Misérables but of the Broadway musical “Les Miz”. That is, instead of talking the characters mainly sing to each other. Sort of.
Artistic “adaptation” has a long and noble history, but its parasitism must be frankly acknowledged right up front. As the great classicist Richard Bentley said of Pope’s version of the Iliad, “It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” So let us agree not to call this thing Hugo; call it Les Miz.02 or some such, and you will enjoy it greatly. The stage sets, the costumes, the architectural detail—all that is fabulous. Much of the acting is very fine. Although there are notable exceptions, for the most part the singing ranges from the mediocre to the misérable; but this somehow often seems appropriate to the material. Russell Crowe once made a film on the Princeton campus (“A Beautiful Mind”). His public deportment on that occasion suggests that his role as the horrible Inspector Javert was an instance of casting by type.
Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert: cool hat
This leads me toward my field theory. I long ago concluded that what is so thin about modern fiction is the absence of God. I do not refer to God as a literary character with a speaking part. Once you get past Milton’s Paradise Lost God doesn’t get all that many speaking roles. I refer to the moral gravity that becomes available to a work of fiction when it engages with the great question of a Providential Order, the question that animates the fiction of Rabelais, Shakespeare, Fielding, Dickens, Tolstoy—not to mention Les Misérables of Victor Hugo.
I do hope this film will stimulate a certain number of its viewers to read Hugo’s novel. Hope is of course a different thing than expectation. Les Misérables is half a million words long, within spitting distance of War and Peace. It is a skein of multiple plots, and its characters are sufficiently numerous to fill a small town’s phone book. Like much of the great fiction of the nineteenth century it is awash in sentimentality and coincidence. But, boy, is it ever “on message”!
Years ago a student said something very surprising to me. He was comparing two fine novelists, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James. Both, he agreed, were very great writers; but he was forced to grant the priority to Hawthorne. This was to me a rather surprising judgment, and he expressed it in an unforgettable way. “You see,” he said, “Hawthorne has more of the old eternal verities going for him.” It was easier to chuckle at the form in which the judgment was phrased than to contest the judgment itself.
Although there is a great deal in Hugo’s Les Misérables that is not in the film of Les Miz.02, I detected very little in Les Miz.02 that is not in Les Misérables. There is so much of Hugo, indeed, that it can hardly escape being an impressive work of art. I think it would be impossible to see this film without realizing that it is pregnant with the old eternal verities: sin and redemption, the vivacity of the spirit and the deadness of the letter, the debility of law and the power of grace, the vivid possibility, never entirely effaced even by the cruelest of material realities, of genuine moral change.
Les Misérables is a great work of Christian literature. This is not because Victor Hugo was particularly pious. Far from it. He was a free-thinking political radical who scorned the comfortable and often hypocritical Catholicism of the re-established ruling classes of post-Revolutionary France. All this is clear in Les Misérables, and quite explicit in some of his other works. Like his contemporary Karl Marx, he nurtured a passion for social justice—a fact obvious even from the very title of his book. Unlike Marx, he was not a materialist. There was an ideal moral order to be searched for beyond the random play of the molecules. His hero Jean Valjean searched for it and found it, and neither Broadway nor Hollywood could conceal it.