Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Martin Malia's USSR

In organizing their scholarly shindigs, academics tend to favor the centenary—the so-many-hundredth anniversary of this or that.  The last time I got caught up in centenaries was two years ago, when modern historians were much caught up with the implications of the Battle of Waterloo (1815) leaving us medievalists to the comparative obscurity of Magna Charta or the Fourth Lateran Council six hundred years earlier.  As a scholar of Franciscanism, among other things, I naturally had to opt for the latter.  But should you have no clue what I am talking about, indeed if you have never even heard of the Fourth Lateran Council, not to worry.  It followed the Third Lateran Council and preceded the Fifth.

Now I am at it again—on a purely amateur basis.  Just at the protracted moment we are in the midst of assessing the First World War, formerly known as the Great War (1914-1918) and, with a more particular focus, the “October Revolution” of 1917, which saw the birth of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  Major war events of 1917 included sensational instances of continuing slaughter (as in the third battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele) and America’s belated entry into the hostilities.  However, it is in retrospect pretty obvious that the most important events of 1917 were those taking place in Russia.  For the first time in history ideological Socialism came to political power in concrete form that amazed, inspired, or terrified the world and largely dominated its attention for the next seven decades.

So I have been doing a bit of a refresher course on the Soviet phenomenon, a subject in which I perforce read fairly widely when I was writing The Anti-Communist Manifestos.  A phenomenon that struck me during those years was the extraordinary reluctance of Western intellectuals of the Thirties and Forties—and to a certain extent even of today’s intellectuals—to recognize and acknowledge the profound political pathologies of the practiced Marxism of the last century.  This began with the fantasy that the coup d’étât of October 1917 was a “proletarian revolution” rather than a criminal power-grab by a gang of conspirators, and a general denial that from its very origins Bolshevism imposed itself by terror, violence, and coercion.  It included the utter rejection, expressed with a kind of theological outrage, of the obvious similarities between Hitlerian Nazism and Stalinist Communism, and a cultivated blindness to such world-class atrocities as the Ukrainian famine, the purges, and the growth of the gulag system.

For a non-specialist I had read pretty widely in English language Soviet history, but I somehow had missed the essential book.  That would have to be Martin Malia’s The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 (1994).  I recently completed a slow reading of this large, conceptually rich work, and have emerged with a feeling of having seen at last the Big Picture, or at least a much bigger one than I had ever before grasped.  I already knew something of Malia and the general contours of his own anti-Communism.  (He wrote the introduction to the English language version of The Black Book of Communism.)  I was, however, unprepared for the elegance of the writing and the capaciousness of his thought—always a powerful combination.

It is not exactly a polemical book, but he does offer trenchant criticisms of the mainstream of Anglo-American academic “Sovietology”, especially as represented by two huge and hugely influential works—E. H. Carr’s Bolshevik Revolution and Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume dithyrambic biography of Leon Trotsky.  Malia’s criticism of the major Sovietologists is that they constantly mistake a philosophical question (What is the “best” way to build Socialism?) for a historical question.  If you begin from the a priori position that Socialism is highly desirable and should work, you must spend a great deal of time either in denial or in rationalizing explanations of “what went wrong”.

What “went wrong” was that Russia was too backward, or the peasants too stolid and obdurate, or that Lenin didn’t live long enough, or that Bukharin was marginalized, etc., etc.  What really went wrong was that the vast “superstructure” of the Communist Party had no actual “base” over which to be super, and the unceasing attempt to create one necessitated ceaseless cruelty, coercion, and homicide on a staggering scale.   Malia is particularly hard on Trotsky, the great if imaginary hero of a counterfactual Soviet history still alive and well in the Academy.  He calls Deutscher’s three volumes of biography, which I remember several radical undergraduates of 1970 schlepping about in their bulging backpacks, a “Marxo-Miltonic trilogy”.   But authorial stamina and indefatigability cannot in themselves command a reader’s assent.  As Malia points out, Trotsky embraced no particular doctrines that would differentiate him on such issues as mass murder from his fellow Bolsheviks.  They were all required as a matter of principle to follow out a sanguinary “logic of history” that directed the seventy-four years of the life of the USSR.

As we have found in our own recent national discussions, historical events rarely command a permanent interpretive consensus.  The Chinese premier Chou En Lai, when supposedly asked about the effects of the French Revolution supposedly replied “Too soon to tell”.  Truth may be the daughter of time, but she has many quarrelsome sisters.  Scholars have another big chance coming up quite soon.  2024 will mark the centenary of the death of Lenin.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Elusive Tipping Point

Have we reached a “tipping point” in terms of a general social acquiescence in sexual harassment?  That is the question raised, and seemingly answered in the affirmative, by a lengthy article in yesterday’s newspaper.  I hope so, but I pretty well exhausted such meager opinions as I have on the subject last week, and I was hoping to move on to something more uplifting, engaging, or erudite.  Uplift, however, is in somewhat short supply these days.  I know that I am not the only American patriot who finds himself more or less permanently down in the dumps as I survey the many tipping points we seem never to be able to reach.

The really big story in yesterday’s paper was about one of these unreached tipping points.  A “crazed veteran” shot up a Sunday worship service in a Texas church, killing twenty-six people.  Given its setting and circumstances one might call it a contemporary Slaughter of the Innocents.  Among the many victims were young children and an unborn baby.  In terms of the language of the President’s Inaugural Address, the apt political term might be “American carnage”.  My appellation “crazed veteran” is intentional and allusive.  I remember it from a headline in a 1949 article about the murder spree of Howard Unruh in Camden, N. J.  This atrocity made a huge impression on the country at the time, and now seems to be regarded by criminologists as the initial episode of a new genre of American mass murder, of which there are too many recent examples to require further comment, in which mentally disturbed people trained in military combat, or simply using guns manufactured to pursue or simulate warfare, have committed mass murders.  Unruh’s weaponry, which will now seem quaintly modest, consisted of a single German Luger pistol and thirty-three rounds of ammunition.  The Texas gunman had a rapid-firing “military style” killing machine.  Had he also had Unruh’s impressive kill ratio, he would easily have wiped out the entire congregation.  The unjust and unhelpful stereotype of the “crazed veteran” returned in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  The preferred term of art among journalists now seems to be “ticking time-bomb”.

I suspected this would be no turning point, but knew so for certain when our President opined from an Asian press conference that “We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries. But this isn’t a guns situation. I mean, we could go into it, but it’s a little bit soon to go into it.  But, fortunately, somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, otherwise it would have been — as bad it was, it would have been much worse.”  Like too many of our President’s pronouncements this one marshaled faulty syntax and factual error in the service of a hollow argument.  If killing twenty-six people with a rapid-firing rifle isn’t a “guns situation” what does a “guns situation” look like?  It is precisely our American “guns situation” that so often renders our American “mental health problems situation” grotesquely homicidal.

There is no way to eradicate gun violence in our country, but there are many ways in which it might be constrained.  I offered my own suggestion on this blog some years ago.  I suggested that the second amendment to the Constitution be repealed, conceding the near political impossibility of what I was suggesting.  This would mean that gun legislation would have to be crafted by our duly established legislative bodies in the light of actual twenty-first century social realities.  I think there would be absolutely no chance of prohibition, let alone of “confiscation”; but it might be impossible, too, to return to the maximalist status quo that has been allowed by fetish anachronism and an uncertain reading of an obscure gobbet of eighteenth-century prose. 

But lacking any national consensus, or even the will to seek one sincerely, that is neither here nor there.  We are left with the conventional thoughts and prayers of our political leaders.  As it happens I am in favor both of thinking and of praying, but I find in my own life that both are rather hard work if taken seriously.  I doubt that politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” have much linguistic precision.  But the desire for linguistic precision may simply be pedantic here.  Or is it?  In the final act of this Texas massacre there appeared a “good guy with a gun”, Stephen Williford, who lived near the church and who wounded and pursued the bad guy with a gun, Devin Kelley, after Kelley had completed his slaughter.  Williford’s actions demonstrate extraordinary bravery and initiative.  The term “hero” is used so generously in contemporary journalism that I was surprised not to see it used of him in the first press reports I saw.  What I saw instead was “Good Samaritan”.  Out of respect to the slaughtered members of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, many of whom were probably Bible readers, I recommend going with “hero”.  If you check out Luke 10 you will find a good guy with pity, a first-aid kit, and two pieces of silver—but no good guy with a gun.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

House of Cads

We are sometimes a little late, but we eventually get around to things.  Only a couple of days ago we watched another Netflix episode of “House of Cards”.  It’s at a point in the story where President Frank Underwood, having recovered from being shot, is now threatened by serious competition from a charismatic Republican candidate named Will Conway.  We find this series pretty gripping, but it had been a very long time since we last watched an episode, and maybe we slept through part of it or something, because we didn’t actually remember this Conway fellow or how he had gotten into the plot.  But as his first impression in this episode was rather striking—he was having calisthenically challenging sexual intercourse with his wife on, so far as I could tell, the living room wall—we shall probably remember him now.

Anyway, the next morning’s paper brought the news that Kevin Spacey—he’s the actor who brilliantly plays the sinister President in “House of Cards”—had just been accused of having thrown himself upon a fourteen-year-old boy on a bed.  A bed is not a wall, which is good, but this was in real life rather than in make-believe, which is bad.  It was supposed to have happened about thirty years ago, and Mr. Spacey didn’t actually remember the episode, but he nonetheless wanted to apologize just in case that, you know, it had offended anybody or anything like that.  This news report was not all that edifying in the long run, but there was one thing about it that made me happy.  Well, “happy” is not exactly the right word; but it was at least satisfying to me that I knew who Kevin Spacey is.

You see the thing is for the last month, though it seems more like a decade, I have been reading about this man Harvey Weinstein.  I know it’s my own cultural limitation, but I had never heard of Mr. Weinstein.  I did not know that he was a Hollywood mogul, or even that Hollywood mogul was an actual trade or profession recognized by the Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau.  I thought it was a figure of speech.  It really makes one feel out of it never to have heard of the most famous man in America even at the moment he is transitioning to most infamous.  I now learn that this guy was a huge mover and shaker, though how his daily exertions of satyriasis left him with the energy to move, let alone to shake, is beyond me.  I had never heard of most of his female victims either, though I did a little better with the list of his unindicted male co-conspirators as they manfully if tardily twittered out their repentance for not having “spoken out” earlier.  But Kevin Spacey: him I have heard of.  It makes me feel more in the American mainstream.

Though there is nothing funny about this sexual harassment stuff, there is plenty that is ludicrous.  While we are talking mainstream, come now before the court young women complaining of former President George Herbert Walker Bush, who likes to “cop a feel,” as he wittily puts it, during photo ops in which he finds himself in proximate situations with attractive females.  One Internet neurologist I have seen suggests a possible connection between this behavior and frontal lobe disturbances associated with Parkinson’s, but the ex-President’s spokesman’s view is that he gooses girls “to try to put people at ease.”  I do know that men and women are very different, but just speaking personally, I never have found this sort of treatment from my urologist all that relaxing.

Last night this patrician groper invaded my dreams.  Though I really prefer it when I dream in Middle English, I don’t actually have the slightest control over it, and this dream was more Joycian, and specifically Molly Bloomian and sort of, like, all runtogether and stream of consciousness, so anyway Bush Forty-One but aged Ninety-Three rolls up to this babe in his wheelchair and he asks her can he take a selfie with her and she says fine go ahead and he asks her do you know who my favorite lyricist is which might seem a little random but she says it’s gotta be Cole Porter on account of his great song “Did You Evah?” which sort of throws him because she was supposed to say no who is your favorite lyricist and so he  says how does that song go again and she starts singing Have you heard that Mimsie Starr …(what now?) She got pinched in the Astor bar And did you know that old George Bush…(what now?)  He grabs young ladies by the tush--and by the way what’s your favorite Dickens novel and he says well it used to be David Coppafeel but now I think Dumboy and Son is even better and she says Well I nevah…

And then I awoke to a morning paper announcing that Kevin Spacey is so deep in Weinsteinian doodoo that Netflix is cancelling “House of Cards,” meaning I may never find out the story about this fellow Will Conway, in which case Weinstein is going to have to answer to me.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Adventures of a Nutty Professor

the fruit of the juglans nigra

According to a pleasant legend Isaac Newton sat musing beneath an apple tree when a falling piece of fruit bonked him on the head.  So he decided to invent modern physical theory.  It is stuff like this that has infused the word legend—which ought to mean simply something you read—with implications of fiction if not whopperism.  The truth is that he was not sitting, nor did the apple hit him.  But he did observe one falling, and it appeared to fall in an absolutely straight path from bough to turf.  So he decided to invent modern physical theory.

 on the tree

The Flemings are no less capable of observation than the Newtons, though perhaps somewhat less deductively brilliant.  When I arrived at my son’s country place a couple of weeks ago I caught him black-handed removing the cortices of a basket of fallen wild walnuts which had first captured his attention by the considerable noise created when they fell upon the roof of a parked Volvo station-wagon.  The black walnut (juglans nigra) is a fairly common tree in the northeastern United States, but he had not noticed that there was a rather tall one looming over what you might call his private parking lot.  His discovery led him to no modification of modern physical theory, but it did suggest the possibility of a tasty walnut pie.  I joined the project with enthusiasm.  I had to leave the hunting part of my hunter-gatherer genes behind in Arkansas, but I still gather with the best of them.  By the time I left for home we had liberated a few dozen walnut shells.

on the ground

Directly across the street from my house is a largish tract of University-owned land recently cleared of its old student housing units. It still has its paved roads and street lighting, but it is blocked off from vehicular traffic, and has consequently become my neighborhood’s own private park, with acres of greensward, fields of broadcast wild flowers, and plenty of mature trees.   One of these, not a hundred yards from my front door, I knew to be a black walnut.   Sure enough, when I sought it out, I found the ground beneath it thickly scattered with freshly fallen green walnut balls and blackened ones that had been on the ground for a while.  As it happens, late September to mid-October is the perfect season for harvesting walnuts.  I gathered up a barrow load full, and wheeled it to my back yard.

Removing the fibrous coverings from the hard shells that enclose the actual nutmeats is a laborious and rather messy business.  The cortex has the consistency of a hard raw sweet potato, and it wants to cling ferociously to the inner shells.  It emits a pungent limey smell and secretes a dark greenish sap that indelibly stains whatever it touches, especially that pale-toned Caucasian skin known for some reason as “white”.  It turns such skin “black”.  So I soon enough had black hands and a heap of walnuts of my own.  My general theory of life is that if a little bit of something is a little bit of fun, a lot of it is probably a lot more fun.  So I made an arboreal survey of the whole “park” and found three more specimens of juglans nigra, two of them magnificent in their fecundity.  Always searching for plausible reasons to avoid real work, I spent the next two days in walnut processing.

When done with pre-industrial techniques it is a very labor-intensive business.  Gathering large numbers of the green balls is a trial for the ancient back.  I soon enough discovered that the really hard work could be done in a seated position.  This involves stomping hard on the balls with a heavy boots, an attack that often frees the inner shell with a single blow and rarely crushes it.  It also frees a certain amount of juicy splatter, of course.  I eventually learned that if I wore paper-thin medical gloves within a pair of robust work gloves I might emerge less swarthy.

on my kitchen table

There is much art to be mastered, of course.  The ideal nuts are big ones on which the cortex has begun to soften but is not yet blackened.  And freeing the inner walnut shell is by no means the end of the process.  You want to get rid of as much of the adhering inky gunk as possible.  According to a YouTube tutorial prepared by some geezer in West Virginia the proper tool for this is a cement mixer.  I don’t have one to hand at the moment, but I discovered that if you put a couple of hundred of nuts and a few sharp gravels into a few inches of water in a tight and sturdy wheelbarrow, then agitate it all like mad with a garden hoe for about twenty minutes, then wash down the results over a wire-mesh frame, then dry the shells for a few hours in full sun—well, you end up with the plausible results pictured above: about twelve hundred black walnuts ready to be seasoned for a few weeks before becoming Christmas dessert.   Furthermore, if you cost out the time investment at the rate of the current minimum wage, it cannot be more than about $1.12 per walnut.  Of course the fine work of cracking the shells and picking out the minute pieces of meat still lies ahead.

nut-gatherer suffering from pollex niger

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

In Memoriam M. J. C.

Michael Curschmann (1936-2017)

I am not big on trigger warnings, but since I am aware that what I have to say today is not particularly amusing or uplifting, I might as well tell you that in advance.  In general I do my best to fulfill the affirmative role of a “senior citizen” that is assigned to my particular sociological subdivision.   You see photographs of such people, gray to be sure but tanned and beaming, especially in advertisements for insurance policies and retirement communities.  That is, I am “active”.  I have “interests”.  I am “engaged with the community”.  The motion of the molecules is incessant.  I frolic with my grandchildren.  Yet my subject today is a disquieting aspect of the aging process—namely the proximity of old age to death.  I do not refer merely to a heightened personal apprehension of my own mortality, though I am not so foolish or mendacious as to deny its relevance.  Every person alive this morning will be one day closer to death tomorrow.  But as you get old, you find that death’s intrusions become more frequent, more disturbing, and more cruel.  Your childhood friends, your old classmates, colleagues and companions with whom you have spent decades of shared labor or shared aspiration—these people begin to disappear.  At first it seems random and aberrant, and then you look at some membership list of something from 1950, or 60, or even 70—and you realize that some or many or even most of the people on it are now gone.  You find yourself reading obituaries and—if you have even so little a public presence as I do—writing them.  You observe and in some measure enter the sorrow of friends who have lost husbands or wives.

We got back from a stimulating trip to Michigan, reported on a couple weeks ago.  That was late on a Wednesday.  We anticipated the happy prospect of a brief visit from our dear friend Jim Magnuson.  Jim arrived just before noon on Saturday at the train station, whence we collected him.  We were still in the first couple of hours of animated, jovial debriefings at our house when the phone rang.  On the other end of the line, calling from Delaware, was the daughter of another close friend, Michael Curschmann.  She was distraught.  She reported that her father had just died.

Michael lived in a house probably less than five hundred yards from my own, literally on the next street.  In recent years he was a widower, and he lived alone.  It was probably a sudden massive heart attack that killed him.  When exactly the blow struck I don’t know.  It may have been not very long after our plane was touching down at Newark Airport.  After a couple of days, suspicious inactivity at his residence alarmed neighbors and led to the discovery of his body.  You read about such things in newspapers.

Michael was a most distinguished scholar of medieval German literature.  The praise of his professional accomplishment will rightly occupy the necrologies of the learned academies of which he was an ornament.  I shall no doubt have some part in composing one or two of these, but his scholarly attainments have little to do with the sorrow we are now feeling.  I might go so far as to say they are irrelevant to it.  Michael and I were almost exactly of an age.  We joined the Princeton faculty at almost the same time.  We were friends for more than half a century and for at least the last three decades close friends.

Augustine, who is so expert in pointing out the obvious in its most unwelcome forms, somewhere says that all our obsequies and funerary rites, our tailored reminiscences and memorial meditations, while they may pretend to honor or to magnify the beloved dead, are in fact but palliatives, and often enough rather feeble ones at that, for the living.  Few things are more complete than death, but it is precisely from that point of view that Michael’s death seems to me particularly wrong and objectionable.   I went away for a few busy days and returned to something awful, sudden, immobile, and definitive.  You want to regard it in some way as tentative or provisional.  Absurdly you want to search about for something negotiable in it.

I may be among the last admirers of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” written in response to the sudden death of his intimate friend Hallam in 1833; but for all its Victorian embarrassments I do admire it.  It took Tennyson fifteen years to finish the poem, and even then one of his principal themes was the impossibility of finding the right words for the task at hand.  I sometimes hold it half a sin to put in words the grief I feel,” he writes.  “For words, like Nature, half reveal and half conceal the Soul within”.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Last Days of Columbus


             Monday last was Columbus Day.   For me the sole practical implication of that fact was that there was no mail delivery, but I was aware of a cloud of metaphysical implications forming on the horizon.  We had just enjoyed a rare visit from a dear friend from Austin TX, who reported that his city council had just voted to replace the holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  I have also been reading the papers.  I know that Mayor Di Blasio, whose father’s German name (Wilhelm) was of less political utility than his mother’s Italian one, had been musing aloud about the problem of Columbus Circle and its conspicuous statue of the Mediterranean mariner.  He wants to cleanse the City of its fascist heritage, but perhaps for the moment he will be satisfied with such low-hanging fruit as the sidewalk plaque commemorating the ticker-tape parade that honored Marshall Petain in 1931.  Then, more gradually perhaps, he could abolish Columbia University.  The disposition of the District of Columbia, Columbus, Ohio, the Columbia River, the Knights of Columbus, “Way Down in Columbus Georgia”, etc. might be posptponable to the next administration.

threatened in Manhattan

            I have been here once before, in 1992, when I was one of the curators of a major exhibition at the Library of Congress marking the Quincentenary of Columbus’s first voyage.  In 1892 the Columbian Exposition had celebrated a number of the unlikely virtues of a medieval Genoese mystic: his Yankee fortitude, his Protestant work ethic, his indomitable will to succeed in business.  Now we were supposed to find in him nought but blind luck, unquenchable greed, and an appetite for genocide.  The verb discover and its kinfolk were to be banished.  Columbus could not have “discovered” America, as America was never lost.  People already lived there.  Of course my whole life has been a series of great discoveries—such as girls, Shakespeare, and spaghetti alle vongole—that somebody else probably already knew about.

Neither the atrocities committed by some Europeans nor the valid indignation of some contemporary seekers after justice are to be dismissed or belittled, but historical truth is ill-served by ideological erasures and air-brushings.  Karl Marx famously said that changing the world should take priority over merely understanding it.  The first stanza of the “Internationale” contains the following aspiration: Du passé faisons table rase—“Let us make a blank slate of the past”—or more literally a tabula rasa, an erased wax tablet, the student’s notebook of ancient times.  In the last century, in Poland, in Russia, in China, in Cambodia, and elsewhere, political regimes ostensibly committed to making the world a better place through principled erasure amassed hecatombs reckoned at about a hundred million human lives.

At the end of the eighteenth century the Indians of the northeast were not without grievances, but neither were the European refugees.  Among the crimes imputed to King George in our Declaration of Independence is his attempt “to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”  The etymological meaning of the word “savage” in English was “forest-dweller”; the evolved meaning grew out of observed experience.  Even so, early (Anglo) American writers, following the lead of such French Romantics as Bernard de Saint-Pierre and Réné de Chateaubriand give us admiring and idealized pictures of Indians and Indian lore.  I think of the novels of Fenimore Cooper or Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” a masterpiece condemned by the political correctness of people who have never read it.

a happy islander, according to Pliny

            I do not know whether Bill Di Blasio has studied all of Columbus’s writings, but I have.  I am especially interested in his “Book of Prophecies”, which holds interest for me in its reflections of medieval Franciscan millenarianism. Columbus was a sailor of amazing skill and daring, and he grasped a navigational principle, in retrospect obvious but at the time audaciously innovative.  As an observer of phenomena unknown in Europe he is often disappointingly banal. Things are either “like we have in Castile” or “different from what we have in Castile”—the initial reaction of many tourists even in our jet age.  As to the human inhabitants of his “India”, he looked for what he had been taught to look for by ancient geographers like Pliny and Strabo and medieval Munchausens like John of Mandeville.  That is, he looked for giants, pygmies, monocular men, retrohumeral men, macropedes, and dog-headed men, also known as cannibals.  We usually find what we are looking for, if we look hard enough.

            We may fault Columbus for blinkered vision.  Although he was among the earlier world travelers, he lacked a cosmopolitan view.  In other words he is different from what we have in Castile, or perhaps Berkeley.  But if cultural solipsism is to be deplored in the fifteenth century, one might pause before indulging it in the twenty-first.  The past is very important, but it is actually hard--very hard--to grasp.  We are prone to treat its events and personages as inkblots in our self-designed Rorschach tests, and then to believe that our inkblot is essential truth.

 probably safe (for the moment) in Barcelona

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Soviet Communism Then and Now

Berlin 1945

We are very near the centenary of the Bolshevik coup d’état or “October Revolution” of 1917 that brought the Communists to power in Russia, and there are dozens of scholarly conferences and other conclaves marking the event.  This has meant that real experts on Soviet Communism, much bidden, have been in such short supply that program committees have been willing to turn to some fairly marginal “experts,” such as yours truly.  My modest claim to fame is my book The Anti-Communist Manifestos, which is mainly about European and American literary critiques of Communism.  I am a day later than usual in posting this essay because most of yesterday was taken up with travel home from a conference, at which I had given a lecture, at Hillsdale College in Michigan.  Both the conference and its host institution were full of revelation to me.

            I have a reasonable knowledge of the contours of American higher education, but I was unaware of Hillsdale, a pioneering liberal arts college, coeducational since its founding in 1844 and an early hotbed of abolitionism, that prides itself on staunchly conservative attitudes in political and educational theory.  Practice is not far removed from precept.  To avoid the annoyances of entangling federal regulations and mandates, Hillsdale accepts no federal funds.  Most institutions with which I am familiar have sizable bureaucracies tasked with securing as much federal funding as possible.  I suspect that few other campuses feature a statue of Margaret Thatcher, or are in the midst of building an imposing and expensive new house of worship.  I sensed that many of the attendees at the conference were not alumni but affluent elderly admirers and financial supporters of the institutional mission.  My guess would be that the percentage of Trump voters in the Hillsdale academic community is about that of the percentage of Clinton voters in the Princeton academic community.  In a country that is so dangerously polarized, it is very salutary to switch bubbles now and again.  Though the concept of  “diversity” approaches sacral status in current educational theory, what I found in my career was that it often meant “some more people who think the way I do.”

Hillsdale College Campus: Two Iron Ladies (one technically bronze)

            I have often commented on the happy coincidences of my life.  This one involves my experience with military history.  As you may know from last week’s post we are recently returned from a wonderful house party in the south of France.  Like most vacation homes, this one has over the years constructed an eclectic library reflecting the tastes of its owners and frequent visitors.  Two strong suits developed over the years are long biographies and military history, sometimes overlapping as in the nine hundred pages of Roger Knight, The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson.  Ordinarily, I don’t read much in this genre, but when in Rome, or rather Salernes….  One author copiously represented is the historian Antony Beevor.  In previous years I had read his books on Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin.  I was astonished by the skill deployed in the Stalingrad book to organize in clear and compelling narrative such an epic struggle of such complicated and protracted nature.  Just this past month I read two more Beevor volumes, both of them excellent: the book on D-Day, and that on Hitler’s “last stand” in the Ardennes (the “Battle of the Bulge”) in the final winter of the War.  The man has an unusual gift.

            To my delight and surprise—as I had not noted his name in early announcements of the conference—Beevor was a fellow speaker at the Hillsdale conference.  Sir Antony (he has recently been knighted) gave a terrific lecture on “The Soviet Role in World War II”.  We hit it off in a couple of memorable private conversations.  He told me that historians reckon that at Stalingrad alone the military commissars shot 13,500 of their own troops for cowardice, desertion, or insufficient enthusiasm.  The execution squads needed to be kept in a state of semi-permanent drunkenness to carry out their task.  By way of contrast there was one execution for dereliction of military duty (as opposed to murder or rape) in the American army—that of Eddie Slovik.

            The level of the formal academic lectures—leaving my own aside--was very high.  Two I would point out for special praise were the first and the last.  The first speaker, Professor Mark Steinberg of the University of Illinois, spoke with sparkle, verve, and lucidity on the complicated revolutionary scene in late Romanov Russia (1905-1917).  I left the lecture room thinking I understood some rather complicated matters—sort of.  Now, if I could only reach similar quasi-enlightenment concerning the Spanish Civil War….The last talk was by Daniel Mahoney, a professor of political science at Assumption College, a prolific author on themes and figures in modern political theory, and an expert on the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  I think I have read everything by Solzhenitsyn available in English translation, but I don’t think I would have the nerve to write about him.  For me he remains too strange, too prophetical, too Dostoyevskian, too alter—as he did to his shocked audience at the Harvard Commencement of 1978.  But Mahoney got to the very essence of the Gulag Archipelago in a fashion that elucidated its spiritual and even theological core in a way I had not previously seen.  An additional pleasure was learning for the first time that Solzhenitsyn refused to meet with Jean-Paul Sartre, a man my petty mindedness cannot forgive for temporarily corrupting my youthful intellect.  I believe that videotapes of all the conference talks will soon be available on the Hillsdale website.

Berlin 1989


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Back from the Old World

There were mobs of folks arriving at Heathrow in early September and mobs arriving at Newark yesterday—some of them, doubtless, like us, parts of both mobs.  I am led to conclude that whatever economic, spiritual, and political discontents the West faces just now are not showing up in the bottom lines of the international airlines companies.  New Jersey was hot and a little muggy, as though its calendar were running a month behind.  Even so, homecoming is almost always sweet, and the sweetness tends to increase as the years go by.  I could do without the faint but undeniable aroma of a defunct mouse as yet unlocated among the heavy printing machines that surround my study workspace; but that, too shall pass.  Odorless mummification cannot be too far distant.  And I confess to a slight disappointment that I found no visual evidence that there had been rioting in the streets on account of the temporary suspension of “Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche”.  In any event I am back, and it’s back, though with even less to say than usual.

Our journey, which had no motive beyond that the pleasure of the travelers, had four stages through two countries.  We began in England, dividing our time between Cambridge and the Kentish countryside near Canterbury.  Then we flew to Nice, where our dear friend and host Andrew Seth met us and drove us to his own personal parcel of paradisal Provence a hundred kilometers to the west in Salernes.  We were there for a week before boarding a Paris-bound TGV in Marseilles.   TGV, as you probably know, means train à grande vitesse, or “high speed train”; and they really mean it.  Just over three hours later we were in the capital for either a short week or a very long-weekend (Thursday to Tuesday).

Once we set aside the cattle car aspect of the air flights, every segment of the trip, which was devoted to visiting family and friends, was delightful.  That phrase (“family and friends”) may sound disjunctive and possibly even adversarial.  My dear old dad had a favorite joking line: “Of all my wife’s relations, I like myself the best.”  It is one of the many blessings of my own life that so many family members, and I might say especially my wife’s relations, are also friends, and very good ones at that.

            At Cambridge, the University being out of session, things were a little quieter than usual; but it’s still a bustling place, with the bustle butting up against absolutely extraordinary buildings.  We took in a Eucharist at the vibrant old University church, St. Mary the Great—my first time ever in the place.  A couple days later at Canterbury, where some official function had temporarily closed the cathedral to mere gawkers, the high point was the bookshops.

            On a couple of earlier occasions I have reported on the remarkable country house parties hosted by our friend Andrew.  This was perhaps the mellowest of them all.  Ancient friendship has a quality like no other.  It is almost always forged not merely by the laughter of heedless youth but by the more severe realities of life’s vicissitudes.  There is a patina to it that only time can provide and that only age can appreciate.

            The final few days in Paris turned into a social whirl.  We had hoped to do some memorable chowing down, to see some museums, and visit a couple of old friends.  The friends reacted with such enthusiasm and generosity that we ended up having only two restaurant meals.  I was in France long enough to do some serious newspaper-reading across the political spectrum, and this left me with the impression that the country is on the whole pretty happy with its new leadership.  One very knowledgeable French friend calls Macron not merely intelligent, but hyper-intelligent.  To be sure once you move past such accidental and peripheral matters as style, substance, and essence, one can easily appreciate the striking similarities between the situations of Messrs. Macron and Trump.  They were both put into office by voters sick to death of the same old Same Old offered up by the same old political parties.  Of course Emmanuel Macron actually created a new political party that pulled off the astonishing feat of providing him with a parliamentary majority.  Donald Trump’s feat was perhaps no less astonishing, though very different.  He simply squatted in the vacancy that was the Republican Party.  Mons. Macron has already has some stunning successes, especially with the reform of France’s sclerotic labor laws.  The naysayers’ prediction of paralyzing protests have so far proved inaccurate—suggesting to me that on the whole les français can be realists.  And now Macron seems poised to take on a major leadership role in the wider European context.  I am going to be watching with interest.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

O youth!

Our eldest child, Richard, is a man of parts, his best part being his spouse Katie Dixon.  My blog has on occasion featured the exploits of this dynamic duo, not omitting those of their young daughter Ruby, in relation to their gentrifying adventures as pioneers in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  The rigors of elevating a run-down workingman’s cottage from the era of President McKinley up to the requisite seven-figure baseline of New York residential realtors have apparently exhausted their challenge.  So Rich and Katie have now taken on, as a weekend getaway, a rather large old colonial house (ca. 1750) in the wilds of Hunterdon County, New Jersey.  This large house is beautifully placed on a very large parcel of field and forest just above the Delaware River, and is surrounded by a number of large outbuildings, of which I have so far catalogued four.

This is the real deal.  The property is the large remnant of one of the huge old pre-colonial farms established on West Jersey lands sold off from William Penn’s truly vast holdings in the early eighteenth century.  As to the main residence itself, one may be certain that George Washington slept there—the want of explicit written record being merely a testimony to the delicacy with which our early journalists spared the feelings of Mrs. Washington.  If you know anything at all about New Jersey real estate you will instantly perceive that the only thing that could render such a fixerupper even theoretically affordable is a need for up-fixing so daunting as to stun the imagination.  We look on in awed admiration.

I have now spent a couple of happy days at this rustic Paradise.  My token effort so far has been to clear a decade’s worth of jungle from a beautifully constructed old stone retaining terrace.  Though only a gorgeous thirty-mile drive from Princeton, this place might just as well be in some remote part of the rural South or West.  The property has various names in the old papers.  Its new owners seem to be calling it “Kingwood” after the township in which it is located and the eighteenth-century hamlet that was once its center.  But I think I will call it “Judea”—a name I think my son will recognize and possibly approve.

Two of our children are college professors of distinction.  But even an academic calendar, as flexible as it may be, is still full of constraints.  Rich doesn’t march to drummers at all, including his own.   Though I dare not label him, I have to recognize him as an intellectual.  He certainly is a voracious reader.  One enthusiasm we share—and for which I would hope to claim some responsibility—is the work of Joseph Conrad.  As you know, our digital younger generations are not supposed to be much into physical books, let alone bulky sets of the complete works; but he has turned over a yard of precious shelf space to Conrad.  The moment I first saw the Kingwood property, or rather the moment I first grasped the dimension of the task, I knew there was a Conrad story I had to reread.

Its title is “Youth”.  It is largely autobiographical, and it is largely about—well, youth.  It could as well be titled “The Impossible Journey”.  It is the first-person reminiscence of a seasoned English sailor who recounts his first experience as a second mate, at age twenty, aboard an antiquated sailing barque.  The old ship’s name is the Judea.  Its mission is to sail from London to Newcastle, pick up a heavy and dangerous cargo of coal, and transport it thence to exotic Bangkok.  What unfolds is the Mother of All Bad Trips.  If you have never read it, you will not find many better uses of a couple of hours of your time.  Not many tragicomedies get the right balance of tears and laughter, but Conrad here pulls it off perfectly.  A single theme controls the narrative: youth, its essence, its energy, its excitement, its optimism, its can-do spirit, its indefatigability.  This is the way Conrad’s famous narrator Marlowe puts it, recalling his feelings of twenty years earlier concerning the Judea: “O youth!  The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it!  To me she was not an old rattle-trap carting about the world a lot of coal for a freight—to me she was the endeavour, the test, the trial of life.”

Rich and Katie are actually nearer in age to the narrator Marlowe than to the fledgling second mate Marlowe, but they are still a lot closer to that young man than am I.  As I stood before a couple of yards of my long old stone wall, panting in the hot sun, trying to deracinate poison-ivy vines as thick as garden hoses, what I saw was something in the category of Mission Impossible.  What they see is adventure, worthy challenge, extraordinary possibility, and thrilling prospect.  Perhaps “the endeavour, the test, the trial of life” would be a little hyperbolic under the circumstances.  I don’t expect their new old house literally to fly apart in a violent explosion—merely one of the more dramatic experiences faced by the crew of the Judea.  But I stand in awe of a real-life demonstration of a power of youth I once may have possessed but now can savor only in books.



The blog proposes to follow its author into a state of temporary and recreational suspended animation as he bids adieu to the heats of summer and welcomes in the mellowness of autumn.  If all goes as planned, and if the creeks don't rise, it will resume in the last week of September.