Wednesday, February 27, 2013
I once had a teacher who was inordinately fond of a small repertory of witticisms. About once a week she would survey the classroom in simulated consternation and say: “Hummmn. Not everybody is here today. There are some people missing. Who are they, I wonder?...If you are absent, please raise your hand.” This was supposed to be amusing, and for the first two or three dozen times it was, sort of. We soon enough learned to fight corn with corn by all raising our hands.
Yet this harmless little farce exemplified a recurrent and perplexing problem that does from time to time appear in life: by what means does one communicate with the incommunicado? I have had a certain number of email communications from occasional readers of the blog in which the sender tells me that he or she is encountering technical difficulty in summoning the weekly posts from outer cyberspace to the actual computer screen. All that appears is the post’s title. This news has presented me with a dilemma. I am reluctant to admit that in fact the title is usually the best part, after which it is usually all downhill, so that they are not really missing all that much.
The Berkeleyan philosophical problem is of course engaging. If you write the Great American Novel, show it to no one, and upon your demise leave it abandoned in a trunk in the attic of a house later razed to enlarge the municipal parking lot, is it still the Great American Novel? This is a fascinating poser, but in and of itself perhaps insufficient to make the mare go. So at the practical level I must now offer this advice to all those who are not here today. It might be a browser problem. My tired old Firefox has begun to balk at all sorts of things. Blogger, being googlish, seems to respond more robustly to Google Chrome. A cathartic flush of the old cache—nasty as it may sound--will also, I hope, prove helpful.
I myself have taken counsel of my website guru, which brings me at last to the ostensible topic of this post: namely, my resurrected website, johnvfleming.com redivivus. In the later stages of the production of my book The Anti-Communist Manifestos, which appeared in 2009, I launched this site at the behest of the marketing mavens of W. W. Norton and Co. The website was, in effect, a gimmick for hawking the book. Since the book itself was about Commies without the dot, there was a certain mystical symmetry to the enterprise. The launching of the website was but one feature of a wide-bore commercial campaign. My publishers also sought my aid in placing a review in what their little form called “your home-town newspaper”. I was, however, unsuccessful in my attempt to solicit the cooperation of the Baxter Bulletin of Mountain Home, Arkansas.
As you know, history repeats itself. That is one of comparatively few reassuring things about history. I shall fairly soon (July) have another Norton book appearing—The Dark Side of the Enlightenment. The marketing mavens, a migratory species, have reappeared. Hence my web guru, Beth Morgan, has re-animated johnvfleming.com, mounting thereon some new information about the new book. Though the pictorial matter has the same old author, there is a new book jacket. Limited progress is preferable to no progress at all. The new posting includes some rash promises made by me. I there declare it as my intention to add a few mini-essays about the subject matter of The Dark Side of the Enlightenment, and about the process of book publishing generally, in the foreseeable future. What I don’t say is that the execution of my good intentions will depend upon my ability to remaster Dreamweaver, the web-design software that allows the ignorant and the amateur to create an illusion of knowledge and professionalism. It’s been so long since I last used it that I can no longer remember even the first steps. Maybe it will turn out to be like riding a bicycle—supposedly you never forget how to ride a bicycle—but I somehow doubt it.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
There are certain necessary and recurrent tasks that are so onerous and unpleasant that they can be accomplished only by the application of external physical duress or the nearly supernatural engagement of will power. In general, at least in my life, these have to do with cleaning up messes of one kind or another. I absolutely hate tidying my study, for example. My view is that if a house must look lived in to be livable, a workplace must look worked in to be workable. This theory, which aims to elevate slovenliness to the rank of the virtues, is unfortunately effective only to a limited degree. All too soon the books and papers on the desk become so many and so miscellaneous as to form a kind of haystack in which one’s actual “work” of the moment plays the inglorious role of needle.
Gutter-cleaning is another periodic purgatory. Though nearly a third of our trees have been blown down by the huge winds of recent years, you would think we lived in the heart of a deciduous forest from the state of the drainpipes. Over the years I have bought every patented “gutter-guard” device on the market. They always work perfectly in the ads, but they somehow fail miserably on the actual gutters. The only solution, painful and slow, is a bloguiste on a ladder, moving very slowly around the periphery of the whole house with incrementally scraped knuckles.
Yet gutter-cleaning is less awful than desk-tidying in one important regard. I am not personally responsible for creating the gutter mess. To be forced to face the results of one’s own iniquity always has a special awfulnessness about it. What all this is building up to is this: I have just completed a fortnight of torment reading and correcting the proof sheets of a four hundred page book in the process of publication.
As we look back on printing history we are inclined to regard Gutenberg’s great advances in creating movable type in terms of an increased capacity for production and distribution. It took a long time to copy out a book in handwriting. It took a bit longer to set one up in type, but once that was done you could then print off a hundred of them, or a thousand, in the time it would take to make a second manuscript. But the early printers rarely talked about that huge and obvious advantage. What they tended to brag about was that it was now possible to guarantee the integrity of a text because it had been read and corrected in proof by the author or editor. Every book, in theory, had the authority of a holograph.
But what was a great relief for a publisher might be an equally great anxiety for an author. The “printer’s error” is, after all, a great convenience for a writer, as its invocation might plausibly shield him from the consequences of his own folly. That is why for a long time editors actually made authors sign the corrected sheets. I haven’t experienced that intimidating ritual in a while. That’s probably because most printing these days involves an electronic technology in which a computer file is transformed directly into print. Under these circumstances there are no more “printer’s errors”. There are only author’s or editor’s errors. And the number of them that you can rack up in four hundred pages is pretty discouraging.
There is a technical bibliographic term beloved of graduate students in English: foul papers. The term says it all. Foul papers are the really messed up, crossed out, and scribbled over bundles of verbal protoplasm that were the germs of some of Shaespeare’s plays. Once, in what I must regard as the good old days, I received from a Belgian printing house the proof sheets of a fairly long article in which the word the appeared as thq two hundred and twelve times. Circling every one of those suckers with a red pencil gave me a considerable feeling of accomplishment. There is no such cheap grace in finding twenty-six tabulated pages or errors in a book set directly from the computer disk submitted!
The English word proof has now wandered a fair distance from its original meaning, which still exists is some proverbial expressions often used but seldom understood, such as “The exception proves the rule” or “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” The main challenge of proof-reading, apart from the constant danger of sudden death by terminal boredom, is that the human eye struggles to see not what is there, but what it knows ought to be there. And if in the first place you wrote the text being eyeballed, you are fatally certain of what ought to be there. Your eyes tend to approve some platonic version of what you think you wrote rather than what you actually wrote. That’s why you missed it the first time.
The only thing that allows my blog posts even a spurious façade of typographical accuracy is Joan’s eagle eye. She has just earned yet another oak leaf cluster on her heavily laden marital Croix de Guerre by proofing the equivalent of a hundred and twenty-five blog posts back-to-back. A masochistic friend, Eli Schwartz, likewise read the whole “first-pass” book. The slightly scary thing is that several glaring errors appeared uniquely in each of the three catalogues of error. Eli alone noted a passage in which I have Louis XIV, who died in 1715, presiding over certain events of the 1730s!. But then, in the immortal words of some typographical aphorist of Renaissance, “No book is completed until Error hath crept in and affixed his sly Imprimatur”.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Papal refuseniks: Benedict XVI checks out the tomb of Celestin V
As a long-time friend and admirer of the great dantista Robert Hollander, and a sometime apprentice in the fabulous summer seminars he has conducted in a thirteenth-century Tuscan castle, I have learned to sing along with the chorus of Dantolators for whom the poet can do no wrong—and I mean none at all. Even Homer may nod, and for all his greatness my guy, Geoffrey Chaucer, published some fairly dubious stuff, such as the following account of the failure of medicine to save the dying Arcite:
Hym gayneth neither, for to gete his lif,
Vomyt upward, ne downward laxatif.
But I am required to believe that Dante never errs, that every line is spun gold, and every idea platinum.
But as Milton’s Satan says, “The mind is its own place.” And I have to tell you from that undisclosed location that I think there is some—not much, but some--pretty dumb stuff in the Divine Comedy. There! I said it! Dante and his guide Virgil are barely through the famous gate of Hell before we get a real lollapalooza. There in Hell’s waiting room, so to speak, are the Trimmers, the morally inert, the lukewarms, the neither fish nor fowl, the spiritual Thyatyrans of the ages. These folk are being stung by wasps and hornets. Their mingled blood and tears drip down to attract stinking worms around their feet. Not nice. Dante gives us only one representative human member of these tormented sadsacks. He recognizes “the shade of him who, through cowardice, made the great refusal [gran rifiuto].”
Learned annotators explain that this has to be the shade of Pope Celestin V, the emaciated old man who resigned the papacy in 1294 less than a year after accepting it. Yesterday I saw strings of interviews with people, mainly distraught, lamenting the announced retirement of the current pope. Two of them actually brought up Celestin V, whose name I had never before heard mentioned in half a century of loyal viewing. I am sure these people got it from Dante, also the attitude. Both of them were steaming mad at the pope.
Well, not me. I admire him. But then I also admire Celestin V. Celestin V was anything but a coward. He was an octogenarian holy hermit, and it didn’t take him long to conclude that the chair of Peter was, in that age, no place for a religious person. The cardinals agreed; they didn’t elect another one for quite a while.
I am not a Roman Catholic, but I have had a special reason—I’ll come to it in a minute—to follow the career of Benedict XVI. Hence I am aware that he has often been criticized as a hide-bound traditionalist trapped in yesterday’s moral theology. Well, he has just struck a powerful blow for modernity. The idea that the pope is a spiritual monarch who must hold up his orb in his palsied hand until dementia or prostate cancer finally carries him off lacks theological warrant, common sense, or simple Christian charity.
Recently, when the Archbishop of Canterbury resigned and went on to become the head of a Cambridge college, I regarded it as an episode in an upward trajectory. But of course I am a college professor, which is what the pope also was so many years ago. That’s why I knew him before many of you did. I knew him as Professor Joseph Ratzinger, the author of a brilliant book* about St. Bonaventure’s theology of history. This is one of those books that—granting a preliminary interest in its admittedly arcane subject matter—simply knocks you off your feet. There are only a few books the reading of which actually changes the direction of a scholar’s work. For me, this was such a book. Without it I hardly would have stuck my toe into the subject of Franciscan studies.
I had no idea who Ratzinger was, of course. I didn’t particularly want to know. One of the joys of academic study is encountering the disembodied minds of other people a thousand miles or a thousand years away, completely independent of personal or biographical speculation. He had been pope for two or three years before I tumbled to the fact it was the same guy.
Dante checks out the tomb of Boniface VIII
Dante didn’t really know squat about Celestin V. He was simply furious that Boniface VIII, who he thought was a really bad guy, was able to leap into the breach. So I’ll forgive his little poetical hissy-fit. But whatever else resigning the papacy might be, it can hardly be an emblem of “cowardice” [viltade]. I wish Professor Ratzinger even longer life and good health, and I shall hope, selfishly, for another dynamite book.
*Geschichtstheologie des heiligen Bonaventura (1959); English translation The Theology of History in Saint Bonaventure (1971)
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
KING RICHARD III
The latest news in medieval history appears on the front pages of our daily newspapers so infrequently that I can hardly let pass without comment this week’s truly sensational bulletin that a team of medieval archaeologists at the University of Leicester in England have convincingly identified the skeletal remains of King Richard III buried beneath a municipal parking lot. This is an extraordinary historical discovery, and a stunning illustration of the powers of modern scholarly methods to achieve results beyond the reach of earlier generations. So, let’s hear it for the Leicester medievalists!
From this medievalist what you will hear is his usual eccentric meditation, which involves the vagaries of history and literature. In the first place I am deeply gratified, as an historian of Franciscan culture, that the bones were found in conjunction with the rediscovery of the actual foundations of the long obliterated Minorite friary in Leicester. The neighborhood was called “Gray Friars” from time immemorial, but nobody knew exactly where the buildings had been. Nothing can have been much more politically unpopular than the mutilated body of a deposed monarch; but ever faithful in their exercise of the “corporal works of mercy” (the last of which is the burial of the dead) the friars at Leicester did not shrink from the task. So the Order of Friars Minor, too, deserves its “shout out,” as the latest vulgarity puts it.
The literary history of King Richard III is yet more fascinating. Richard died in the bloody finale of the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. He was the last of the Plantagenet monarchs of England. Henry Tudor, who defeated him and who ascended to the throne as King Henry VII, though he had cobbled together a wobbly dynastic claim, was actually a usurper. But history is generally written by the winners, and the winners did a real number on poor old Richard III. Some of the main outlines of the Black Legend of King Richard had been sketched by his enemies even in his lifetime. A physical abnormality (curvature of the spine, or scoliosis), which left him with the unflattering nickname “Crookback”, is glaringly evident in the skeletal remains. But it was his supposed moral degeneracy that William Shakespeare has made forever vivid.
Since the Immortal Bard is, well, the Immortal Bard, it may seem churlish of me to point out that he was also a Tudor propagandist. I say this without suggestion of censure. If you were not a Tudor propagandist in the reign of the Virgin Queen, you would have been most foolhardy to write a play on an English historical subject. Still, one of the most salient features of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of King Richard III is the gusto with which it incorporates the Tudor libels about the unfortunate king. Shakespeare has them all, and then adds a couple of his own invention. From the popular point of view Richard’s crowning crime was arranging the murder of his two juvenile nephews, aged nine and twelve, in the tower of London. Famous actors have loved playing this role. In addition to getting to utter an immortal line (“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”) they have been able to vie one with another in what might be called an Ugliness Pageant. Ordinarily making fun of cripples has been regarded as poor form, but Shakespeare’s treatment of the infanticide Crookback has given a plenary license to the make-up artists to do their direst thing.
An authorized anthology of grotesques
Thing is, Richard didn’t do it. That is the argument of a still insufficiently known masterpiece of modern fiction, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951). This wonderful book has been called “the greatest mystery story of all time”, and not by me but by the Crime Writers’ Association gathered in solemn conclave in 1990. Josephine Tey was the pseudonym of a very proper and unassuming Scottish lady named Elizabeth Mackintosh. She took her title from one of the pithier sayings of old Francis Bacon: “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.” I would say that you can take my word for it, but it seems inappropriate to do so.
Like many great detective writers Josephine Tey has a master detective who moves from book to book: one Inspector Grant. But true artistic genius usually combines honored tradition with striking invention. Part of the brilliance of The Daughter of Time is its bold upending of the conventions of the detective novel. The classic detective novel ingeniously reveals the guilt of a perpetrator who began the book enjoying the reader’s natural assumption of innocence. The Daughter of Time ingeniously reveals the innocence of a man universally loathed as one of history’s moral monsters. The great detective must be a man of daring, whose bold initiatives in pursuing his investigation land him in life-threatening scrapes—a minimum of three scrapes per caper--in abandoned tunnels, spooky warehouses, and elevator shafts. Inspector Grant cracks the case of Richard III while laid up in a hospital with a broken leg. The greatest physical danger faced by his right hand man (an American graduate student!) is the risk of dropping a heavy folio volume on his foot. Ms. Tey’s book carries no such dangers, and if you haven’t read it, you should read it soon.