Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Snake in the Grass




 ...not to mention the tree


 Saint Augustine and our Founding Fathers share more in common than I at first thought.  Augustine says that the search for happiness is hard-wired into our nature.  Jefferson says that it is not merely our nature but our right.  Well-being and optimism should thus be the defaults of the human situation.  I believe this accounts for the sense of grievance we feel—or at least I feel—when life is intruded upon by oppression, hurtful accident, or sudden medical emergency.  All of us, surely, face moments equally disturbing and clarifying in which we are forced to think about such things.

It was a choice Ozark morning in early summer, radiant but not yet hot.  There was not a cloud in the sky.  The only evidence that there had been a light shower in the night was the sparkle from every bright leaf and blade.   I was fourteen or fifteen, and my moral and physical being matched the brightness of the day I rushed out to meet.  What a great day to be alive!   As I hurried through the screen door I crushed down upon my head my well-worn straw hat.  What happened next began an unresolved theodicy of seven decades.  Theodicy, fancy word: “a defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.”  I reeled before an explosive pain in my right temple.  I actually imagined I had been shot.  Quite unbeknownst to me my hat, acting like a butterfly net, had caught a wasp between its leather sweatband and my hairline.  Never before nor since has an insect bite been so dramatic.  The pain was not merely excruciating but nauseating.  The right side of my head ballooned.  Within minutes the right eye was swollen shut.  Within an incomprehensible instant an effervescent youthful optimism was overcome by a confusing agony.  I was ill for three days.

It would be nearly another decade, anyway sometime when I was at Oxford, that I picked up Goethe’s spiritual autobiography, Truth and PoetryIn 1755, when Goethe was six years old, the major church festival of All Saints’ Day happened to fall on a Sunday.  For that reason the heavy stone churches of Lisbon were more crowded than usual when about ten in the morning the city was flattened by a monster earthquake—soon followed by a tsunami and uncontrollable fires.  The loss of life was appalling.  The impact of this event on the European intelligentsia deserves a chapter in the history of modern thought. Goethe, who was a genius, could already at the age of six intellectualize the dilemma of the Enlightenment philosophes.  “By treating the just and the unjust in the same way, God had not behaved in the fatherly manner that I had been attributing to him in my catechism,” he later wrote.   “The wise and learned people around me seemed to be unable to agree on the way in which the phenomenon should be described….” 

Of course the “problem” was an ancient one, and it is beautifully treated in several ancient texts.  In those most familiar to me, the Scriptures compiled by the Hebrew theologians and the poetry of the Greco-Roman ancient world, there is a striking thematic convergence seized upon by the earliest Christian humanists, those ancient ascetics, many of them unknown to us even by name, to whom we are indebted for the preservation of practically everything we have of “classical literature”.  According to the myth of the Fall in the book of Genesis God created our race for immortal bliss in a magnificent garden.  But human perfection required the freedom of the will to choose moral imperfection.  That choice, proposed by the serpent, endorsed by Eve, and executed by Adam “brought Death into the world, and all our woe, with loss of Eden” (Milton).  The actual cosmogony or creation story is less central in Greco-Roman mythology—but the idea of a fall from perfection, gradual, episodic, perhaps continuing to this very day—is enshrined in the story of the violent ending of the Golden Age, effected through the revolt of Jupiter against his father Saturn, and emblematized by the birth of Venus, goddess of passionate desire. 

Ovid and Virgil both deal at some length with the sad implications of the end of the Age of Gold.  In the pastoral world of the Eclogues, in which shepherds and goat-herds pursue their rustic amours and poetry slams, hidden dangers abound.  “You lads who gather flowers and strawberries that grow in the earth,” says Damoetas, “fly hence!  A cold snake lurks in the grass.”  To which Menalcas adds: “Take care, my sheep, that you advance not too far; it is not safe to trust to the bank.”  In other words, don’t go near the water.

Disaster intrudes when least expected—and least comprehensible.  Proserpina (the Latin version of the Greek Persephone) is in a carefree instant snatched down to hell.  Avoid that field of Enna “where Proserpin gathering flowers / herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis / was gathered…” (Milton again).  Our old folklore is full of tales of sudden danger descending upon the innocent: the Babes in the Wood, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding-Hood.  The Greeks had a proverb: “Under every stone a scorpion”—as if to say “In every porch awning a wasps’ nest.”

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Insights into Health Care


            Even occasional readers of this blog will be aware of its improvisational nature.  I am often constrained—mainly by ignoble sloth but on occasion by actual disruptive circumstance—to throw something together in rather a hurry and without benefit of the technical resources really required.  I am not so bad as Doctor Johnson, Prince of Bloggers, who might not even begin writing one of his essays until the printer’s devil was at his door demanding copy.  Unfortunately, I am not nearly so good as Doctor Johnson either.  It’s usually a question of hoping that things will come together.

            One genre of coming together is the historical congruence.   Historical congruences can be happy or sad, sometimes both.  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams—American Founders, presidents, and political antagonists—both died on July 4, 1826.  That day, by the providential scheme, happened to be the fiftieth anniversary of Independence Day, when the Declaration was first proclaimed in Philadelphia.  Both men were pretty prolific writers, but not so famous in literary history as William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, both of whom died on April 23, 1616.  That one involves a little historical leger-de-main concerning time zones and variant calendars and that sort of thing; but it’s too good to give up without a struggle.  Cervantes was so fanatical about deadlines as to take them rather literally.  His dedication of his last novel, Los Trabajos de Persiles and Sigismundo, is dated April 19, 1616.  He wrote it on his literal death bed.

            What makes these congruences congruent for my particular circumstances is that as I write I find myself temporarily confined to a bed in a hospital in Philadelphia, city of the Declaration.  My circumstances are by no means so urgent as those of Cervantes, and there is not the slightest hope of their stimulating another Persiles.  But they do invite serious thought about two topics near the top of the current American political agenda: health care and immigration.

            A very old and dear friend from Oxford days, a man who has appeared more than once in my blog posts over the years, was supposed to be visiting us in Princeton yesterday before going on to Boston, where one of his sons is in temporary residence, and thence to California, where he has business interests.  Most people, arriving at Newark Airport only to face the Case of the Disappearing Host, would utter a few awkward words of formulaic absolution and encouragement (“Not at all, old man; don’t give it another thought; just concentrate on getting well”, etc., etc.) and then move on north.  But not Andrew.  He came down to Princeton, where Joan was able to give overnight room and board.  Then they both jumped into his rented car and drove to Philadelphia, where we spent an entire long afternoon conducting an orgy of reminiscence and a probing seminar on the state of the world in a 150-square-foot room full of blinking and beeping machines, our debates fuelled by bad tea in paper cups supplied by friendly nurses, and punctuated by intermittent blood-lettings and takings of vital signs.

            Our topics included Brexit, the French election, and the rapidly changing latest Trumpiana.  But the setting of our conversation, together with some of Andrew’s own recent experiences, naturally raised the large subject of health care in a comparative context.  Something like sixteen percent of the American GDP is related to health care.  In Britain the figure is closer to six percent.  Anecdotes are not the same thing as big data, even if data is the gathering together of anecdote.  But my current, personal, anecdotal experience is that as a consumer of Medicare I have in general received services of extremely high quality.  The scientific and technological aspects of medicine in a university hospital, as this layman has observed them, are remarkably impressive.  The American health care system, as I am experiencing it, is anything but “failing”.

             I shall not attempt to draw from this experience any comprehensive generalization on the topic of health care.  On the topic of immigration, however, I will make so bold as to do so.  Most of a hospital stay is boredom alleviated by observing the variety of one’s fellow human beings.  I conclude on the basis of observation that of the most highly trained professionals I have encountered here—the superb physicians, chief nurses, and registered nurses—at least a third are not native speakers of the English language.  These are the people who have just fixed me up and plan to send me home today.  When one broadens the census of hospital workers to include what usually would be regarded as non-professionals, the proportion of the foreign-born would perhaps be even higher.  There are certain nativist attitudes to immigration in the air, and they don’t strike me as particularly conducive to the health of American health care.

            There are some advantages to last minute blog composition.  I just had the opportunity to test some of my impressions with the Asian-American medical student assigned to my case.  When I asked him whether the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania could operate without immigrants he simply laughed.  But he thought that the hospitals would probably have a better chance than general and family practices throughout the country.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Chloë and Hector



 basking in the sun

One summer’s day about three years ago I was prospecting for a few nicely squared field stones in a remote country place where I gather such things when I came upon a turtle.  The turtle, morosely planted in the shade of a clump of stringy grass, cast upon me what I considered the plaintive look of a lonely creature seeking companionship.  So I picked it up, placed it in the effective holding pen of the bed of my pickup, and after completing my business drove home.  If you are already offended by my blatant turtlenapping, I shudder at your reaction to what comes next.


For what happened next, and what happens altogether too frequently in my life these days, was oblivion.  Preoccupied with other matters, I did not immediately unload the stones, and only when I went to do so two and a half days later did the turtle reappear in my consciousness.  Removing a turtle from a landfill dump is one thing.  Starving it is another.  What most alarmed me was the fear of a possibly lethal dehydration.  My original thought had been simply to move the turtle to a better zip code.  But now I decided to put it in our atrium, one feature of which is a small pool frequently refreshed by rain and generous infusions of tap water, frequently recirculated by an electrical pump through the mouth of a concrete dolphin mounted by a cement rodeo-riding putto.  The pump is controlled by a switch in the kitchen, reachable by even the smallest ambulatory grandchild when sufficiently motivated; so the dolphin keeps pretty busy.

The atrium is about twenty feet square and has many other attractive features.  When I consulted written authority concerning the housing of pet turtles, I discovered that our atrium was the equivalent of the King Ranch and the Taj Mahal conjoined.   It could comfortably accommodate a half dozen carapaces.  The place is replete with vegetable delicacies and literally crawling with scrumptious insects.  Like Onan our frequently shaken bird-feeder regularly spills its seed upon the ground.  It turned out later that the root cavities left by long gone birch trees would prove perfect for hibernation.

Other inhabitants of the house, or frequent visitors to it, soon noticed that there was a turtle crawling around the atrium paths and swimming in its pool.  I tried, successfully for a time, to be as dumfounded as anyone else.  Perhaps it was spontaneous animal generation, as in Aristotle?  But eventually I had to come clean.  My spouse named the turtle, obviously a female, Chloë.  To the delight of the grandchildren, she became a part of the family.

Fast-forward now several turns of the seasons, and through two successful atrium hibernations.  Now I am working at the bottom of my garden in the warmth of an early summer morning when I see headed straight for me through the field grass, like a bee toward the hive, a really large turtle, obviously a male with sex on its mind.  I hesitated not for an instant.  I knew what this turtle needed and where it might be found.  I scooped it up, carried it to the outside atrium door, introduced it into its artificial paradise, and returned to my tomatoes.   Testudo Twain provided me a second opportunity to keep mum until others made the discovery, but that didn’t take too long.  Once again Joan was ready with the perfect name: Hector.

emerging from hibernation

We kept alert for significant tortoise social interaction but saw only indifference and occasional bickering.  Both turtles disappeared by around Thanksgiving.  Hector, covered in mud, reappeared briefly on a bizarrely hot day in February, then like the Punxsutawney groundhog wisely retreated for six more weeks, when within a few hours of each other both Chloë and Hector reappeared.  Since then they have been having public sex on a shockingly frequent basis.  And we have had to make a slight adjustment.

You are probably aware that a number of my colleagues in literary study have demonstrated that “men” and “women” are passé—the categories I mean.  It turns out that what we call “sex” is neither a natural category nor a fixed one, but a fluid condition constructed by society.  The failure to recognize this truth causes enormous problems, and perhaps even accounts for the election of Donald Trump.  During all my years as a professor, to my enduring shame, I resisted this scientific discovery, confidently espousing reactionary opinions born in the interstices of a premodern mind.  When they go at it our turtles do not make “the beast with two backs,” as Iago calls it.  Their amorous sport would better be described as “the shell game”.  But it turns out that I totally constructed—or rather misconstructed—their so-called sexual identities.  That is, we have been forced to conclude on the basis of empirical evidence that the large and aggressive Hector is actually Chloë.  The demure and tidy Chloë is actually Hector.  Somewhere among the woodruff there must be a cache of well fertilized eggs.  Perhaps I will be able to offer an update to this post in eight or ten weeks.




Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Philosophical, in Philadelphia


 Chaucer directed his wonderful poem Troilus and Criseyde to two of his admired friends: the trilingual poet John Gower and Ralph Strode, a logician from Merton College, Oxford.  He called the one moral Gower and the other philosophical Strode.  The adjectives sound heavy and stilted to us today, perhaps even ironical; but Chaucer meant them as straight and highly complimentary.  It’s rather a pity that philosophical in particular has lost its old juice.  To be philosophical about something these days is to be uncomplaining, pragmatic, or resigned.  In Boethius and other early writers “philosophy” can indeed lead its votaries to an attitude of indifference or even scorn toward many of the things that animate the rat race, but the word itself is true to its noble etymological origins—the love of wisdom.

All this comes to mind because we just spent two days last week at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the city in which Benjamin Franklin and others founded it in 1743.  In its name we have the dignity of the older meaning of the word.  “The first drudgery of settling new colonies is now pretty well over,” Franklin wrote, “and there are many in every province in circumstances that set them at ease, and afford leisure to cultivate the finer arts, and improve the common stock of knowledge.”  The principal purpose of the Society would be to promote “useful” knowledge—particularly the application of new scientific knowledge and technological developments to the advancement of human health, welfare, and general felicity.  Its most obvious antecedent model was the Royal Society of London, founded in 1660; but there were, or soon would be, similar sodalities of the benevolent learned wherever the Enlightenment had taken root.  It was not explicitly a political organization.  But people interested in the betterment of mankind often think, rightly or wrongly, in political terms; and the Society really got going in the 1770s just as our nation really got going.  Among its early luminaries were many of our great Founders, including Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Monroe, and Washington.  Thomas Jefferson was actually the president of the Philosophical Society while he was President of the United States. To recall such names is to revel, licitly, in national pride; but it is also a sadly archaeological exercise.  As you catch glimpses of our national leaders today on CNN how many “philosophers” can you count?

The Society’s grand old buildings are in the historic center of Philadelphia, very near to Independence Hall.  The library is one of the intellectual jewels of the early Republic.  Among its treasures are the original journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Like many early American intellectuals Jefferson was eclectic in his interests, which included agriculture, history, literature, and archaeology.  Everything about native Americans interested him, particularly Indian languages.  The Enlightenment was an age of great systems, and he and others hoped it might be possible to construct a universal linguistic map, which might deconstruct the Tower of Babel.  To this day the library remains an important world resource for the study of America languages. 

There are of course limits to the traditionalism of an organization dedicated to intellectual progress.  What we are now calling the STEM fields are probably still most thoroughly represented in the membership, but there are also artists, poets, musicians and quite a few humanities professors from fields less obviously “useful” than organic chemistry or applied mathematics.  At the meeting just concluded outgoing president Clyde Barker, an eminent transplant surgeon and medical educator, passed the gavel on to Linda Greenhouse, a prominent journalist and legal expert.  There is an actual gavel, incidentally, though it looks more like a detached door knocker than a hammer.  Naturally, it once was wielded by Jefferson.

 A meeting of the APS consists principally in hearing a series of diverse, carefully prepared learned talks pitched for a diversely learned audience, and then schmoozing about them with interesting people over nibbles.  Two of the themes last week were the growing impact of artificial intelligence on the professions and various aspects of observable climate change.  Sometimes what is observable in the very old tells us important things about the very new.  There are scholar-adventurers who seek out the oldest ice in the world and dendro-chronologists (“tree ring” experts) who wrest from the carcasses of long dead forests information about the here and now.

One odd feature of academic life as a university professor is that one is surrounded by great lecturers whose lectures one never hears. By chance I got to hear two dynamic talks by a couple of my own Princeton colleagues—something that I would never get to do under ordinary circumstances.  The astrophysicist David Spergel explained both of Einstein’s relativity theories in six minutes flat, and the Sinologist Martin Kern introduced us to the treasure trove of ancient Chinese bamboo manuscripts recovered from grave sites.  

We returned from our “philosophical” weekend refreshed in mind and body.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My Week With Conrad


Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

            Last week we drove to New Haven, where we became part of a small, surprise dinner party honoring a close friend on his seventy-fifth birthday.  The memorable meal,  featuring succulent chicken and lamb, was supplied by a restaurateur-caterer with a mobile barbecue pit towed behind his SUV.  We had a great time, spent the night with our friends, and made a leisurely start on the return drive next morning.  But I am an inveterate early morning riser and, as usual when I am an overnight guest in someone’s home, I found myself with a good two or three predawn hours on my own.  I addressed them in the usual manner, by taking an interesting-looking title from a shelf of books: an anthology of spy stories.

            In this anthology were two pieces I had already read, and now reread with pleasure, by two authors I hold in the highest esteem: sections from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) and Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down (1966).  Both of those books deal with revolutionary terrorism and police repression in pre-Revolutionary Russia.  West’s explicitly fictionalizes one of the most extraordinary facts in the history of espionage: the fact that a double agent named Yevno Azef was at the same time an organizer of social-revolutionary terror against the Czarist regime and a highly placed counter-terror agent of the Okhrana, the Czarist secret police.

            The effect of this early morning reading was the typical effect of most good reading: I wanted to do more of it.  Without attempting any description of my circuitous mental processes, I shall go immediately to their product.  I returned to Princeton determined to take up one of the few important Conrad novels I had never broached—Under Western Eyes (1911)—and I did so at the first convenient moment.  I have had a delighted several days.  It has been a while since I was reading something so pleasurable that I felt the need to ration the reading, as one might the eating of a fine piece of chocolate, lest I too quickly finish it.

            People have reading habits just as they have habits of other kinds.   I once had a friend whose mode of reading a novel I found most peculiar, especially since he had been an English major in college.  His principal aim, so far as I could tell, was to read the book as fast as possible.  His first move was to ascertain the number of pages.  He would then make a silent and tentative commitment to the first five percent of it—for a four-hundred-page book the first twenty pages.  At that point he had another chance.  He could either chuck the project or make a solemn commitment to finish it to the last page.  The arrangement was sort of like that of the religious novice under provisional vows faced at a certain point with the awesome choice of accepting or declining a life commitment.  But even when committed to a whole novel he allowed himself a major time-saving reading practice.  He would skip all parts “between quotation marks”—that is, all directly reported speech.  He reckoned that in general dialogue did very little to advance narrative.

            In the edition I own--the collected edition of the 1920s-- Under Western Eyes is 380-pages long; but if I applied to it the “quotation marks canon” it would instantly become a longish short story.  It is absolutely full of Russian revolutionaries and sentimentalists, and although they do enough to keep a plot of sorts going, what they mainly do is talk…and talk some more.  “In this book,” Conrad wrote to his friend Edward Garnett, husband of the famous translator of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, “I am concerned with nothing but ideas, to the exclusion of everything else.”  The ideas are thick on the ground, and major characters are tireless in enunciating them.  The unfortunately unreliable narrator is an ex-pat Brit in Geneva, where there may have been a few native-born Swiss people in residence at the fin de siècle, though it seems unlikely.  This man, a hell of a talker himself, is a “professor of languages” like me, except much more in demand, because most of the talkers wouldn’t dream of attending the salon of Madame de S---- without at a minimum perfect English, French, German, and Russian under their epiglottises.  (The book itself, fortunately, stays mainly in the impressive English of its Polish author.)  As the title might imply, a major theme of the book is the difficult if not impossible challenge presented to the “western” liberal mind by the opulent barbarism of Czarist autocracy.  A popular book of my Cold War youth was entitled Why They Behave Like Russians.  Its author must have been a reader of Conrad.



            When Conrad published Under Western Eyes in 1911 readers likely brought to mind the pseudo- or semi-revolution of 1905; but from a slightly later perspective it is likely to seem prescient with regard to the Bolshevik coup of 1917 and the huge cataclysm of the Great War of which it was an episode.  Just at this moment certain aspects seem quite contemporary.  When we speak of the “timelessness” of a fine book it is rarely because we think it free of time’s bonds, but because those bonds seem to become ever more elastic.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Origen of Alexandria


            We had an excellent though more than usually exhausting Easter Festival.  The beautiful, protracted Vigil service began in the dark of night and ended with dawn fully broken on a day that would prove so hot and sunny that we actually had to make recourse to the air conditioning for the first time this year.  Soon after a delicious breakfast of crêpes prepared by daughter-in-law Melanie we unleashed the two littlest ones into the back garden is search of the sixty eggs—a third of which were real eggs--that I had “hidden” while their backs were turned.  The ‘teenagers have miraculously transformed from egg-hunters to child-watchers.  There is no joy more genuine than that of a young child discovering a puce plastic ovoid resting in a hammock.  The day held all the pleasures and awkward moments of large, multi-generational family gatherings attended by people of differing but definite opinions, and we fell into bed happy but dead tired.

            In the midst of this I had effectively suppressed all niggling thoughts of the imminence of blog day--given it not a thought.  I therefore was inclined to regard it as divine intervention when on Monday I was surprised in my electronic in-box by a message from a fellow medievalist and occasional correspondent, Manu Radhakrishnan, recently of Princeton and now a research fellow at the Austrian Institute for Medieval Research, including an interesting poem and an interesting suggestion concerning it.  The poem, by the well-known American Cistercian monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is entitled “Origen”*; the surprising suggestion was that I might write a blog essay about it.  I don’t know all that much about Origen, an early Church father (first half of the third century).  I know maybe a little more about Thomas Merton, though not enough ever to have read this poem before.  But I have enough sense to attend to oracles.

Thomas Merton, monk and poet


            Origen, an Alexandrian intellectual, ascetic, and theologian, was a brilliant and original thinker.  His first enemies, the Egyptian monks, were on the whole a know-nothing bunch, heroic in their abstemiousness but innocent of liberal thought.  Origen was not merely philosophical.  He was an actual philosopher who for a time hung out with other philosophers.  This shocked some of the monks.  He also had an infinitely optimistic view of the Creator and Redeemer of the world, and hoped that in time a love that was infinite would empty hell.  That was a huge theological no-no.  In the century after his death, then at various intervals throughout the Middle Ages, small-minded men repeatedly convicted him of heresy—heresy being, in Fleming’s definition, “the side that loses”.

            Thomas Merton, though a monk of the strict Cistercian observance, was mentally more akin to Origen than to Saint Simon Stylites.  His poem is a theological appreciation of the man’s genius, and a selective history of the Church’s repeated but happily failed attempts to rid itself of him.  Most of the poet’s references would require elaborate footnotes to clarify, but one of them may already be familiar.   Merton speaks of Origen’s “heroic mistake—the wild operation”, an episode that captured the imagination of medieval readers, and rather staggers that of the modern undergraduate.  In the nineteenth chapter of the gospel of Matthew Jesus offers some tough advice to a would-be disciple seeking moral perfection: sell everything you have, and give the proceeds to the poor.  His advice concerning sex was even more unsettling than that about material possessions.  “There are those…who have made of themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of God’s sake.  Let him who can accept it, accept it.”  Origen, who wanted to minister to some nuns without falling into dangerous temptation, accepted it.  He was a great allegorist, but here he slipped painfully into literalism.

 self-making of a eunuch (Comme Origenes se osta les genitoires)

            Though the self-righteous did their best over the centuries to cleanse the world of Origen’s writings, their best was not very good.  I have in my library a small format edition of his surviving works in twenty-five volumes (Berlin, 1831-1848).  He wrote in Greek, of course, but many of his works survive only in their early Latin translations.  The particular interest of these volumes to me is that they once were the property of Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924), author of the magisterial Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages (1895), one of the great and enduring works of Victorian historical scholarship.  Bookplates record his donation of them to Ripon Hall, a major theological seminary.  I bought them for a song, or at most an oratorio, from a second-hand dealer.  Rashdall was a great expert on Greek philosophy, and a liberal Anglican theologian and social thinker of considerable influence in his time.  You can see why Origen would have been his man.  I cannot pretend to have worked my way through the vast edition of Origen, but Rashdall himself pretty clearly did so.  Nearly every page has one or two pencil underlinings, and the narrow margins are crowded with tiny, tidy pencil notes of explication, appreciation, dissent, or philological inquiry—all reminders to the modern scholar that there were once giants in the earth of Academe, giants like Origen and Rashdall.
           

*“Origen”, by Thomas Merton  (text courtesy of Dr. Manu Radhakrishnan)

His sin was to speak first
Among mutes. Learning
Was heresy. A great Abbot
Flung his books in the Nile.
Philosophy destroyed him.
Yet when the smoke of fallen cities
Drifted over the Roman sea
From Gaul to Sicily, Rufinus
Awake in his Italian room
Lit this mad lighthouse, beatus
Ignis amoris
, for the whole West.

All who admired him gave him names
Of gems or metals:-- “Adamant.” Jerome
Said his guts were brass;
But having started with this pretty
Word he changed, another time,
To Hatred.
And the Greeks destroyed their jewel
For “Frightful blasphemy”
Since he had said hell-fire
Would at last go out,
And all the damned repent.

(Whores, heretics,” said Bede,
Otherwise a gentle thinker.
“All the crowd of the wicked,
Even the devil with his regiments
Go free in this detestable opinion.”)

To the same hell was Origen then sent
By various pontiffs
To try the truth of his own doctrine.
Yet saints had visions of him
Saying he “did not suffer so much”:
He had “erred out of love.”
Mechtilde of Magdeburg knew him altogether pardoned
(Though this was still secret
The Curia not having been informed).

As for his heroic mistake—the wild operation
Though brusque, was admitted practical
Fornicationem efficacissime fugiens.

In the end, the medieval West
Would not renounce him. All antagonists,
Bernards and Abelards together, met in this
One madness for the sweet poison
Of compassion in this man
Who thought he heard all beings
From stars to stones, angels to elements, alive
Crying for the Redeemer with a live grief.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Ascent of Mont Ventoux


Mont Ventoux


Mont Ventoux, nicknamed the “Giant of Provence,” is a big mountain in a part of the south of France where it seems rather out of place.  It is as though Whoever laid out the Alps later discovered there was one Alp left over and jettisoned it more or less randomly and all on its lonesome onto the inland plain above Marseille and Avignon.  No mountain ought to be where this one is, especially such a tall and imposing one.  Its name, “Windy,” is apt, as air currents swirl around its summit frequently and with significant force.  It has a considerable literary and athletic history.  In 1968 we lived in a rustic paradise on the edge of the small town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, nearby.  Ostensibly I was doing research at the Musée Calvet in Avignon, but it was the time of the Great Strike or Mini-Revolution, and we had to exercise flexibility and improvise somewhat.

 L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

The mountain’s athletic reputation is rather sinister.  At some point the organizers of the most famous bicycle race in the world, the Tour de France, deciding that their grueling event was insufficiently hellish, added a slog up Mont Ventoux to the official course.  I am not sufficiently schooled in the lore of the velodrome to tell you exactly when that was, but it was all the chatter of Vaucluse when we arrived there.  It seems that in the previous year, 1967, a well-known British cyclist named Tom Simpson had dropped dead on the steep upgrade.  A post-mortem examination suggested that ingested alcohol and amphetamine tablets had contributed to this sad result, but Ventoux itself played a major part, justifying its new appellation contrôlée of “Killer Mountain.”

There is now in situ a kind of shrine to Mr. Simpson, established by pious members of the cycling fraternity, but it is not the only, or even the most important historical memorial to famous ascenders.  At the foot of the mountain there stands (or stood) a monument erected by the Touring Club de France in honor of the famous medieval writer Francis Petrarch (1304-1374), lauded as the world’s “first alpinist”.  Petrarch, whom I love for all sorts of endearing medieval qualities, is beloved by many others for his alleged demonstration of a “modern sensibility,” one manifestation of which was his decision to climb a tall mountain just for the hell of it or, alternatively, because it was there.
Petrarch celebrating Arbor Day

Well, Petrarch did indeed write an elaborate Latin letter, addressed to his friend and confessor, the Augustinian hermit Dionysius of Borgo San Sepulchro, describing his ascent of Mont Ventoux.  It is a spiritually uplifting cock-and-bull story, though people who go for the modern sensibility part seem to be able to swallow it.  The fact that the letter’s supposed recipient was long dead at the time Petrarch wrote it is only one of several  reasons I regard it as fiction.

Petrarch’s story is the following.  He had retreated in a spirit of lay asceticism to a remote place in the Provençal sticks, the Fontaine de Vaucluse, which is in fact the source of the river Sorgue.  (This part is true).  Having decided he would climb Mont Ventoux, he began wracking his brain in search of the perfect climbing partner.  The nearest village, Malaucène, had an official population of eight, which included two old women and one lame dog, so there was not much on offer there.  (This part I made up.)  He finally remembered his brother Gherardo, a monk and a spiritual athlete: the ideal Sherpa.  Oh, yes, very important, and I almost forgot.  During the climb Petrarch will have in his pocket a small-format edition of the Confessions of Saint Augustine, given to him by friar Dionysius.  It is at this point, if not before, that the wise reader, however modern his sensibility, should tumble to the fact that Petrarch is having him on.  I don’t know whether Petrarch was the first alpinist, but he remains to this day the most allegorical alpinist.

The climb begins.  Brother Gherardo takes off up the steep path like an arrow from the bow.  Petrarch wanders around laterally for a while before eventually discovering that he has actually been descending—a good trick, when you are at the base of a mountain.  Quite clearly, in Petrarch’s epistle, progress in climbing the mountain is so closely bound up with progress in the spiritual life of ascetic practice that there is not a denarius’s worth of difference between them.  All you need to comprehend this is the feeblest vestige of medieval sensibility.  But Petrarch finally does get to the top, long awaited by his monkish brother, and looks out at the magnificent view.  To that magnificence I, who reached the summit in a Citroën Deux-Chevaux, can attest.  Petrarch then remembers the Augustine in his pocket, and opens it at random, his eyes falling by chance upon the following passage: And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.  So if you want to climb, go easy on the alcohol, and skip the amphetamines altogether. Know thyself!  Nosce teipsum. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Nice Guy Finishes First


Jim Magnuson


The years bridging the Sixties and the Seventies, which were turbulent ones on many American college campuses, were for me full of fun, adventure, and expansive experience in my role as the young master of an undergraduate residential college in my university.  Several of the students I came to know well then have become life-long friends.  But no friend of that Golden Age came to mean more to me and my family than did the writer James Magnuson, who spent part of that period in Princeton on a writing fellowship and for a time was the official “Playwright in Residence” of Wilson College.  Jim and, later, his wonderful wife Hester, then later still two splendid Magnuson offspring, have been enriching our lives for many years.  Friends so close have naturally popped up from time to time in my blog essays, but the gravity of the moment demands that I write one in which Magnuson is the subject.

For we just returned from a weekend on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin where we participated in the festivities marking Jim’s retirement from the University, where he has been the Director of the James A. Michener Center for Writers for more than two decades.  Literary fashions are fickle, and reputations fleeting.  Nonetheless almost everybody will recognize the name of James Michener (1907-1997), an extraordinarily prolific, popular, and (in the present context by no means least relevantly) financially successful writer of the post-War years.  Without him my generation would have been bereft of hearing Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin singing “Some Enchanted Evening,” but the country is even more deeply in his debt.  Mr. Michener donated many millions for several important cultural and educational endeavors.  One of these, the James A. Michener Center for Writers, has allowed the University of Texas to develop and maintain one of the nation’s premier programs for the Master of Fine Arts in Writing.

James A. Michener (1907-1997)

Money can enable a promising academic program, but it cannot achieve its success.  Success also requires vision and the rather mysterious quality of “leadership,” a thing not always boisterous or self-asserting.  Writing of the art of the great sculptor Pygmalion, Ovid dropped a wonderful line: ars adeo latet arte sua, “with his art he conceals his art.”  I deduce that Jim’s palpably effective leadership of the Michener Center has often been of the self-concealing sort.

We attended two major evening events.  At the first, an informal outdoor barbecue dinner held in the warm twilight of a Texas spring evening, a series of old students and colleagues spoke movingly about what Jim’s professional example, his generosity of spirit, his unfailing good humor, and his personal and professional wisdom had meant to a whole generation of aspiring young poets and fiction writers.  We heard more of the same at a second dinner, closer to the lines of the state banquet, where the guest list appeared to bend more in the direction of faculty colleagues and old personal and professional friends from many venues, distinguished deans, institutional trustees, benefactors and well-wishers from the amazingly rich cultural scene that is contemporary Austin.  In the testimonial remarks there was wide stylistic diversity but an underlying and unifying harmony.  An intruding alien who knew nothing about universities, writing, or writers might have mistaken the event for the culminating episode of a reality show called World’s Nicest Man.

Of course since it marked the retirement of the Director of a Writing Center, there was certain eavesdropped chatter in the room of books forthcoming, prizes runnered-up, movie contracts likely, publisher’s advances advanced, who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out.  Even in the purest of academies professional schools value professional success, of which there has been much on display at the Michener Center during the Magnuson years.  But it is only in Alice’s Wonderland that all must have prizes.  I was impressed by my brief conversations with several students unlikely to achieve authorial fame but conscious of the independent values of the study and practice of writing itself.   They cherished Magnuson for his wise and good-humored guidance, advice, encouragement and perhaps above all his example of perseverance in the hard, inglorious, sometimes tedious loyalty to the craft of writing.  As my author, Chaucer, puts it: The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne 

In his own lovely after-dinner remarks, Jim quoted a (to me) rather mysterious obiter dictum of Henry James about serious writers: "We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have.  Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.  The rest is the madness of art."  It was not the first time I have known him to invoke this gnomic gem.  Should you wish to sample Jim's own substantial body of work as a novelist over half a century, you could do worse than begin with something fairly recent, Famous Writers I Have Known (Norton, 2014).  To encourage you in this direction, I direct you to a brief radio review of the book on NPR.  In Famous Writers you will find Henry James again, and in a somewhat startling context.  At the satirical level, the book shares something of the genius of Randall Jarrell's classic academic novel Pictures from an Institution, but since it is set in a (wholly imaginary) Writing Program in Texas we learn a lot about the (probably actual) ambience in which its author labored for so many years.  It was our honor to be present at the honoring of so fine a friend, so fine a man.







Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Voices of the Page




Every stage of life brings new pleasures along with its new challenges, even senectitude, which on the whole is more on the challenging side.  One of the pleasures of a financially adequate retirement is that it allows us to play at a doll’s house version of being Patrons of the Arts.  We are officially designated Friends of most museums within a hundred-mile radius, and we give token financial support to numerous other cultural and educational institutions.  On Friday night we attended a local fundraiser for People and Stories/Gente y Cuentos, a group that “believes in the power of literature to change lives”—a mission statement most literature professors can get behind.

            For us this fundraiser was not hard duty.  It began with a low-key supper party given by a board member, a delightful friend who is also a superb cook, the other guests being amiable and interesting conversationalists.  Then it was off to the Nassau Club for further socializing and a reading by Richard Ford, a prize-winning author of considerable eminence, and a very nice fellow to boot.  He’s the right man for the job in more ways that one.  He has a fine southern voice, strong and audible but not domineering.  I knew about his niceness first hand, as I had a few encounters with him many years ago when he was settled in Princeton for a while.  And even though a crowded fund-raiser was hardly the occasion to puff at the embers of a tenuous acquaintance lapsed for at least three decades, I could inwardly bask in something of the satisfaction of the man in that Browning poem who “once saw Shelley plain.” 

 Richard Ford, writer and reader

            I happen to be a lover of the short story, which is naturally the genre of choice for “People and Stories,” and I had correctly anticipated that we would hear a couple of good ones.  In fact we heard precisely two: one by John Cheever, the other by Ford himself.  There was a salient connection between them.  They shared a title (“Reunion”) appropriate for their shared narrative situation and setting, a brief meeting of two men in Grand Central Station.  In Cheever the principal characters are father and son.  The narrator is Charlie, the teen-aged son, a child of divorce, who by pre-arrangement is meeting up for lunch with his long-absent father during a fortuitous layover between trains.  Ford’s story is both a beautiful homage to Cheever and a free-standing gem on its own.  And how classical, and how literary is that!   Everybody knows what “writing” is, but not everyone knows about “literature”.  Literature is artistic writing consciously engaging with other artistic writing, as Virgil engaged Homer, Dante engaged Virgil, Milton engaged Dante, and most English poets since have bobbed about in Milton’s wake.  In Ford’s “Reunion” the Grand Central encounter is a chance one between two men of middle years, their first meeting since in an indeterminate but not distant past the discovery of the Narrator’s adulterous affair with Man Two’s wife had precipitated unseemly fisticuffs, marital dissolution, and (possibly, but only possibly) increments in self-knowledge.

            There is probably general agreement that Cheever is one of the all-time great masters of the short story.  I certainly think so, even if I hold that John Updike is even greater.  It took me a while to warm to either of them.  Their cognate fictional social worlds of the East Coast bourgeoisie, as circumscribed as the world of Jane Austen and to me equally foreign, was hard for me to credit until I had absorbed a few years of encountering their offspring in Princeton classrooms and taken out my own subscription to the New Yorker.  Cheever and Updike are both gone, but not forgotten.  I have the Library of America editions of both on my shelves.

John Cheever (1912-1982)

            Many centuries ago even private reading was done aloud, and early writers sometimes call words “the voices of the page”.  Almost any good piece of writing is magnified by being read aloud.  Dramatic literature demands it.  Our literature was born in orality, the word spoken or sung, the word heard and engaged. Modern technology is perhaps returning us to a bardic culture in which recitation is scarcely subordinated to composition.  My wife, a voracious reader, does her reading mainly through earbuds.

            What happens in Cheever’s “Reunion”?  Practically nothing, and a very great deal.  A young lad who barely knows his father, yet yearns for connection to him, has a ninety-minute opportunity for connection between his trains in and out of the city.  The father will treat him to lunch.  But though they enter four different restaurants, there is no lunch.  What there is is a display of the father’s character so appalling, so awful, and so economical that the embarrassed reader learns in three pages what would require ten pages of discursus to lay out.  This is mostly achieved through the invented spoken words of one character. The mother never appears, but you intuitively grasp the essence of the marriage and the inevitability of the divorce.  You don’t even need to be told by the young narrator what in fact you are told in the story’s first and final lines: “that was the last time I saw my father.”

Though I did not remember having read Cheever’s “Reunion” before, I had a dim sense of déjà vu—or was it entendu?—while listening to Ford read.  When I went to the Internet in search of a text, I discovered a possible explanation.  There is actually a New Yorker podcast of Ford reading the story.  In fact, I take it he has made something of a set piece out of tandem public readings of the two “Reunions”.  You don’t need to take my word for it.  You can hear it for yourself.