Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A White Christmas and its Deneigement

Though I have managed to post a few blog essays under unprepossessing circumstances, I must acknowledge defeat when it is staring me straight in the face.  I lack the leisure to explain, even in the most cursory terms, how I came to find myself celebrating the Feast of the Nativity in Montreal, where it is the bleak midwinter (despite the fact that the season has not yet completed its first week).   Nor can I give any account of my state of digital deprivation.   The circumstances allow me, at best, a meteorological anecdote.   A Bing Crosby song of my youth, still soupily revived on AM stations throughout the Season, seriously oversold the idea of the white Christmas to at least three generations of my compatriots.  I can remember a few other white Christmases, but none so ferocious as this.

Snow has indeed fallen, snow on snow.  There are mountains of it.  It is also colder than the proverbial well-digger in Montana.  But the Canadians take this stuff to an altogether new threat level.  Rather remarkably, the ordinary locals seem to pay the snow no mind, aside from devoting a couple of hours a day to digging out their buried vehicles.  But there is also a professional corps of de-snowers.  That's my rough-and-ready English translation of what they call the practitioners of deneigement around here.

Deneigement is a very serious business in these parts, and it has been going on, rather ferociously, since Christmas Eve.  It is mainly a nocturnal event, partly because vehicular traffic is marginally subdued after nightfall, but mainly because Canada in the wintertime seems to be a night sport.  The services de deneigement have at their disposal various mechanical aids--ranging in size from feather-light plastic shovels to major earth-moving equipment designed to aid in the construction of hydro-electric dams.  The preferred machine appears to be the largest size of road-grader manufactured by the Caterpillar Corporation, equipped with blinding flashing lights and, quite literally, bells and whistles, in addition to the more conventional horn.  If you are having to get somewhere in the deneigement zones of the darkened city--as we were having to do last night--it is really pretty scary: loud metallic scraping noises, blinding lights shining out of the freezing void, the blaring of mechanical blarers.  If they could only manage to work in a few snarling German shepherds, you would have nearly the full aesthetic of a transport arriving at Sobibor.

In any event, out of this cold Québecois night we send our friends and readers our very best wishes for the inception of the New Year, when I shall hope to be able to return to the blog entirely deneiged.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

TR and the Tax Bill

I have more than once mentioned in these essays my extensive if unsystematic collection of our national literary patrimony in the Library of America.  Now and again I take one down from the shelf more or less at random.  This past week it was one of the two volumes of Teddy Roosevelt, the one containing The Rough Riders and his autobiography.  I found the latter, first published in 1913 not too long before his death, beautifully written, full of fascinating anecdote, and frequently rather profound in its political philosophy.  That this final quality should so surprise me is partly an indictment of my ignorance and partly an evidence of the degree to which I and many others have come to “define deviancy down”, in the memorable phrase of Patrick Moynihan.  The last place one seeks political profundity is in an American politician.

To the degree that I had already formed a conception of TR when I picked up the book, it was of a rugged individualist, outdoorsman, horseman, “environmentalist”, great white hunter, and ninety-seven-pound weakling transformed into a war hero in an embarrassing war.  There was nothing particularly mistaken about this conception, except for its utter inadequacy.  In his opening chapter, entitled “Boyhood and Youth”, he writes thus:  “As regards political economy, I was of course while in college taught the laissez-faire doctrines—one of them being free trade—then accepted as canonical.”  He is speaking about the intellectual atmosphere of his years at Harvard, from which he graduated in 1880.  “All this individual morality I was taught by the books I read at home and the books I studied at Harvard.  But there was almost no teaching of the need for collective action, and of the fact that in addition to, not as a substitute for, individual responsibility there is a collective responsibility.  Books such as Herbert Croly’s ‘Promise of American Life’ and Walter E. Weyl’s ‘New Democracy’ would generally at the time have been treated either as unintelligible or else as pure heresy.”

            I did not know who these guys were but soon found out.  They were progressive pundits and philosophers associated with the early years of The New Republic.  Weyl began his book (1912) thus: "America to-day is in a somber, soul-questioning mood. We are in a period of clamor, of bewilderment, of an almost tremulous unrest. We are hastily revising all our social conceptions.... We are profoundly disenchanted with the fruits of a century of independence.”  Well, it is now a century later.  During that century America fought two world wars, experienced the dislocations of profound and prolonged economic depression, confronted the twin political pathologies of modernity, experienced mind-boggling technological and sociological change, largely abandoned its spiritual heritage, and more than tripled its population.  That hardly describes a century of stasis.  Yet, plus ça change.  America today is in a somber, soul-questioning mood, with nearly bottomless wells of clamor, bewilderment, tremulous unrest, and profound disenchantment.

            In my opinion, a genuinely humble one, a large part of our dilemma is a failure to recognize a truth that Theodore Roosevelt stated as “the fact that in addition to, not as a substitute for, individual responsibility there is a collective responsibility.”  How can it be that the greatest democracy the world has yet known—a nursery and proving ground of seemingly infinite industrial, intellectual, and artistic invention and innovation--has a legislature that simply doesn’t work?  How can it be that for all our political passion, principles, polarities, and processes, not to mention the tweet storms, we seem incapable of addressing, or for that matter honestly identifying, the most acute actual problems our nation faces?  As I write this, our Congress is poised to enact “historic tax reform”.  Though they are readily available in our overheated press, I share no apocalyptic interpretation of the pending legislation.  That it will unleash a gusher of economic growth strikes me as most unlikely.  That it will make sharecroppers of the middle class is hardly less so.  Rearranged tax policies are not exactly irrelevant, but there are many more important things we should be talking about.  However, one thing about this legislation is indisputable.  The process by which it has been created is disgraceful.  You or I could make important decisions concerning our personal or professional life by analogous procedures only by abandoning all self-respect.

            “I grew into manhood thoroughly imbued with the feeling that a man must be respected for what he made of himself,” Roosevelt writes.  “But I had also, consciously or unconsciously, been taught that socially and industrially pretty much the whole duty of the man lay in thus making the best of himself; that he should be honesty in his dealings with others and charitable in the old-fashioned way to the unfortunate; but that it was no part of his business to join with others in trying to make things better for the many by curbing the abnormal and excessive development of individualism in a few.”

            The question of the relationship of the individual to society, the stuff of political philosophy and for that matter most great literature, likewise features prominently in the preamble to the Constitution.   Its authors there announce as their intention the formation of “a more perfect union”.  They were using the word perfect in its old Latin sense of “finished” or “complete,” and they could modify the adjective—more perfect--because they knew that the perfection could never be, well, perfect.  This left them, and us, to concentrate on the concept of union.

            Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Glory and the Freshness of a Dream

John Stuart Mill

Only rarely can I recall my dreams, but I have a vivid fragment of one from two nights ago.  It’s a hot, summer Ozark day, and I’m a small boy sitting on the slight slope of a stock pond.  My fishing equipment is primitive and makeshift, the pole a cut cane, the bobber an actual bottle cork.  Suddenly it bobs, at first faintly and hesitantly, then decisively, propelling little concentric rings spreading out about it on the surface of the muddy water.  Immediately there shoots through my infantile frame a current of nearly inexpressible joy and excitement.  I may have been remembering an actual event; I certainly was experiencing an actual but long dormant psychological state.  It was the wonderment of my young granddaughter Cora a year ago or so when she looked through the glass wall from dining room to atrium and beheld the miracle of a turtle which, she had no way of knowing, I had secretly introduced into that spot a few days earlier.

Jesus, who frequently said strange things, is reported as saying “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”  I don’t think this is a heavy moral admonition so much as an empirical observation.  Jesus had noted an unfortunate aspect of the “maturing process” or “child development,” concerning which Wordsworth has more to say than Freud or Spock.

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
    The earth, and every common sight,
            To me did seem
    Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
        Turn wheresoe'er I may,
            By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

If we are ever going to get back to the garden, as Joni Mitchell among other theologians tells us we must, we may need to read more poetry and think about the things poets write about.  “From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham…I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world.”  So wrote John Stuart Mill in his famous autobiography.  To be a “reformer of the world” is no small ambition, but by the autumn of 1826 all meaning and purpose had drained from Mill’s life.  Medicine had not yet defined clinical depression.  The common term was still melancholy, as in Burton’s famous Anatomy thereof.  Mill lacked even the words to describe his agony, though he would find them much later in Coleridge’s poem entitled Dejection: "A grief without a pang, void, dark and drear, a drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief, which finds no natural outlet or relief in word, or sigh, or tear  .” 

Mill had then still nearly half a century to live.  Had he been unable to overcome his depression the Victorian age would never have known one of its greatest intellects and philosophers.  But overcome it he did, and it was the nature of his self-medication that interests me here.  It involved no opiates or psychotropic drugs.  It consisted entirely in a self-directed course of readings in the English Romantic poets, especially the early Wordsworth.  Mill delineates his therapeutic experience in the fifth chapter of his autobiography.  He slowly worked through an early two-volume edition, at the end of which was the “Immortality Ode,” of which I have already cited the opening lines.


Mill wrote thus: “At the conclusion of the Poems came the famous Ode, falsely called Platonic, ‘Intimations of Immortality’: in which, along with more than his usual sweetness of melody and rhythm, and along with the two passages of grand imagery but bad philosophy so often quoted, I found that he too had had similar experience to mine; that he also had felt that the first freshness of youthful enjoyment of life was not lasting; but that he had sought for compensation, and found it, in the way in which he was now teaching me to find it. The result was that I gradually, but completely, emerged from my habitual depression, and was never again subject to it.”  The rest is, as they say, history.

I presume that one of the beautiful but bad passages—bad because it clearly suggests that there are more things in heaven and earth, John Stuart, than are dreamt of in your philosophy--is the following.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
        Hath had elsewhere its setting,
          And cometh from afar:
        Not in entire forgetfulness,
        And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
        From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
        Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
        He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
    Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
      And by the vision splendid
      Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

I cannot say precisely when the shades of the prison-house closed upon this growing boy, but it has been a very long time since a piece of cork bobbing on the surface of a stock pond could nearly ravish me with joy and wonder.  I can but be grateful for dream fragments.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Printing with Joan Didion

The weather gods apparently subscribe to the Gregorian calendar.  Friday last was the first of December, and that night we got our first reasonably sharp chill of the year.  I had been raking leaves off and on in a desultory way for a better part of a month, but I would estimate that the trees had dropped only about half their load by Thursday, when the town’s huge leaf-vacuum trucks made what was threatened to be the last curbside collection of the year.  Since then there has been a continuous blizzard of light gold and pale red oak leaves carpeting the front lawn.  You would hardly know that I had already removed a small mountain of them.

But the turning of the calendar page and its concomitant change in the weather also inspired me to more satisfying exertions, ones that left me with something to show for my efforts.  For the first time in more years than I can remember I (1) constructed an Advent wreath before the arrival of the first —or for that matter second or third—Sunday of the season; and I (2) printed the Christmas cards.  This latter achievement I regard as particularly spectacular, although we still have the opportunity to face the full angst of crisis by procrastinating on their preparation for mailing.

Though my study is dominated by printing presses, type cabinets, a huge composing table, and a paper cutter, it is mainly an overstuffed library that looks like a set for “Hoarders”.  The initial and continuing problem was negotiating the clutter.  I hadn’t done much serious printing in a while, as perhaps the fact that I did regard this assignment as “serious printing” might suggest.  It involved quite a lot: the marital squabble about the right line etching and the search to locate it when decided upon, the composition of some ten point type despite octogenarian eyesight and fingers, the delicate alignment and make-ready for some eighty pound stock that had to go three times through the press, and the tedious imposition of an elegant return address on five hundred A-6 envelopes with tapered flaps.  But it is amazing how much one can achieve once one resigns oneself to abandoning all serious work, such as getting a book finished.

I love printing all alone in the early morning hours “while the city sleeps”—or at least that part of the city with whom I share my life.  The ample flourescent lighting of my library-pressroom is as bright as a noonday desert in the largely darkened house and in the greater darkness beyond the windows.  There is a gentle but business-like hum to the variable speed motor, and the well-oiled clickity-clack of the Chandler and Price, punctuated decisively by the dull percussion of platen and type form at the moment of impact.  It’s not exactly rocket science, but it still requires attention and dexterity, even a little skill, to achieve a good product.

In recent years I have liked to have a video playing on my computer while I’m printing.  I alternate ten or fifteen minute segments between the old technology and the new.  The episodes of viewing offer refreshment from the more demanding episodes of printing.  For the printing of this year’s card I had settled upon a Netflix documentary about the life of Joan Didion—“The Center Will Not Hold”.  This occurred by pure chance, but there is something appropriate about the linkage of printing and authorship.  I am hardly alone in admiring the quality of Didion’s prose or the remarkable sensibility that it expresses.  She is, after all, one of the most celebrated of living writers.  But content is also a draw.  We are roughly of an age—she’s a year and a bit older than I—and I myself was fascinated by many of the cultural events of the Sixties and Seventies about which she has famously written.  Yet what struck me most forcibly in this video was determined I suppose by the eccentric circumstances under which I was viewing it.  It’s quite recent, having come out only this year.  Many of its scenes show the author in the last year or two.  She has aged dramatically.  In fact I would describe her as a frail old lady.  Her speech is utterly lucid, crisp, nuanced—finely pointed like her prose.  But she has a disconcerting mannerism of moving both her arms—especially the right one--in front of her while she talks.  It is hard to tell whether this is a neurological tic or a lifetime habit grown pronounced in old age.  I could see no obvious correspondence between this brachial motion and the content of what she was saying.  But it was strikingly similar to another pattern with which I am quite familiar: the arm motion required when operating a clam-shell press.  One must concentrate intently on feeding the press with the right hand while constantly ready to disengage the clutch lever with the left.  Failure to do so by half a second can result in a real mess.  What is called for is less a cooperation between the upper limbs than a competition between them, or better yet a feigned indifference between them.  Jesus had something else in mind when he said “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”, but he might have been describing Didion talking or Fleming printing.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

In the Dark About Advent

There is a three-way tie for the shortest word in the English language composed entirely of vowels, because three of the vowels themselves are complete words: a, I, and o.
            What are you, the giraffe asked the zoo-keeper?
            O, I am a man.
My favorite two-letter, two-vowel word is ai.  That’s a three-toed tree sloth that inhabits mainly the Guianas and crossword puzzles.  There’s no doubt about the longest such word: euouae. This shaggy-dog lexicography brings me to my subject.

We have an excellent adult education program at our parish church, which often exploits the resources provided by the faculty and students of the Princeton Theological Seminary.  Just at the moment we have four student “interns” on intellectual loan, and for the brief Advent season they are offering a four-part course on the Advent antiphons—antiphon being the fancy, churchy word for the short musical embellishment of a psalm.  The Advent antiphons are sometimes called the “O” antiphons on account of their monoliteral beginnings.  They were developed in the early phase of the Benedictine tradition, in which the psalter in its entirety is communally recited during the course of each week.  There are seven of them, and, addressing Christ by various of his poetic names, they express the fervent desire that he come into the world.  The antiphon under consideration this week happened to be my favorite, Oriens (dayspring, dawn, sunrise, sun of righteousness, light from the East).

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Dawn of the East, Brightness of the Light Eternal and Sun of Justice, come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

            It is hardly surprising that a metaphorical vocabulary of solar illumination is to be found in the world’s great religious texts and in its myth systems, but its saturation of early Christian texts is so prominent that one famous anthropological philosophe, Charles-François Dupuis, concluded that Jesus Christ was not an historical personage but a sun myth.  I myself choose to stop short of this conclusion, though I certainly admit the ubiquity of the vocabulary of light and dark.  To view the pattern, we need look no further than the most famous of medieval poems, Dante’s Divine Comedy.  It begins with the pilgrim-narrator lost in a dark wood at the beginning of “Hell” and bathed in a sea of photons at the end of “Paradise”.  In Dante’s poem, the moral valences of benightedness and illumination are probably too obvious to require comment, but I won’t let that stop me, for they have a vivacity that is probably unavailable to us.  The potency of poetic metaphor, after all, cannot be far removed from some apprehension of the material reality in which it is grounded.  Ancient texts, codified in the material conditions of pre-modern agrarianism, grow farther from us with each generation.  The Lord may be my Shepherd, but if I don’t see sheep on a daily basis and perhaps have never seen an actual shepherd, there is a certain ethereality to the idea.  And when it comes to the dark, practically none of us in the modern West has ever actually been there.

            I mean, of course, really in the dark—hours upon end with no access to light switch, flashlight, matchbox, or at least some little button on our keychains or watches to create a feeble flicker or beam.  But if the year were 1400, and you were living at near-subsistence level beneath the cloudy sky of a Flemish village, you did indeed know what the dark was.  This was also true of the monks who were singing “O Oriens,” though even the poorer ones could usually scrounge up a candle for the night office.  When the Carmelite John of the Cross wrote of the dark night of the soul, we have to presume he knew what he was talking about.

The invention of the electrical light has for many of us essentially erased the distinction between night and day, leaving us in a state of almost pathetic technological dependence in comparison to which the mere impoverishment of metaphor may seem slight.  The Great Blackout of November 9, 1965 in the northeastern United States—a temporary and partial failure of the main electrical grid that left untouched huge resources of battery power and emergency and reserve capacity for electrical generation, caused chaos and in some instances panic that is remembered to this day.  It shut down America’s greatest city, called out the National Guard, fostered a rich anthology of urban legend, and led to a noticeable uptick in the birth statistics for August, 1966, among other things.

But the darker the night, the brighter the dawn.  That is what Advent and its antiphons are all about.   O, what about euouae?  (Note the ending of the musical passage at the top.)  Well, I’m being a bit fast-and-loose in calling it a word, let alone an English word.  In fact, it is a kind of coded directive to the monks chanting the antiphon.  The formulaic end of many ancient prayers is “…world without end, amen.”  This is a translation of the more vivid Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum, amen.  In monastic chant, there were various “tunes” that might be used for this formulaic conclusion.  The euouae tells the chanter what particular notes to use for the final six syllabus: saEcUlOrUm AmEn.  Cunning fellows, those old monks.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Creepy Artists

I had already half decided on the topic of this week’s essay—the snappy title “Secular Donatism” had already sprung to mind—when Monday’s PBS “News Hour” definitively sealed the deal.   It began with what looked like a large framed photograph of Charlie Rose, television interviewer par excellence, and the news that this eminent senior citizen had just been suspended from practically everything, down to and including his Cub Scout pack, on account of accusations of sexual harassment.  The charges were numerous, specific, and sad.  In this instance there was at least no suggestion of pedophilia.  Most of his victims were, it is true, young enough to be his granddaughters.   But a couple fell credibly in the daughter range, and that was a relief.

            Our moral epidemic, which shows little sign of having yet peaked, has already propelled us to new heights of national hypocrisy and shamelessness and has created a truly surreal political casuistry.  Is a right-wing judicial grope more or less appalling than the left-wing senatorial genital flash?  Bird in hand, or two in bush?  The Access Hollywood tape!  Yes, but what about Bill Clinton?  Don’t forget JFK.  And how about Grover Cleveland while we’re at it.

Amidst all this there are a few engaging ponderables, mostly along the lines of hating sins while loving sinners.  A recent offering in the Times’s “Editorial Notebook” by Clyde Haberman--entitled “He’s a Creep, but Wow, What an Artist!—raises an interesting  philosophical question in a classical form.  Do you have to be a good person in order to be a good writer, painter, musician, or whatever?  A few purists, like Philip Sidney in the English Renaissance, thought that you did; but no one familiar with many biographies of modern artists is likely to agree.

When I first joined the Princeton faculty, two of my distinguished senior colleagues, Lawrence Thompson and Carlos Baker, were deep into the writing of the “authorized” biographies of two giants of twentieth-century American literature: Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway.  They had entered into their great enterprises flushed with enthusiasm and unalloyed admiration for their subjects.  But they then discovered that these guys were such sons of bitches where women were concerned that they gagged, metaphysically speaking.  The scholars carried on, of course, and produced prize-winning books.  But duty is not the same thing as delight.  In a small way I myself faced a similar unease in writing about Arthur Koestler.  Koestler was in my opinion one of the most remarkable literary geniuses of the twentieth century and the author of perhaps the most politically consequential novel in all of our literature.  He was also “a hell of a raper” as his friend Richard Crossman delicately put it.

Are you less admiring of the architectural boldness of the Guggenheim when you find out that Frank Lloyd Wright was an utter swine who abandoned his wife and children?  Coming at things from the other end, must I research the sex life of Frederick Law Olmstead—a task likely to prove quite difficult, boring, and probably inconclusive—before I can fully enjoy a stroll in Central Park?  At least I feel reasonably certain that authorial criminality doesn’t actually enhance artistic worth, as Norman Mailer seemed to believe.  In 1981 he helped gain the release from prison of an eloquent felon named Jack Abbott, who rather spoiled the socio-literary triumph with a recidivist murder.

            As a medievalist I have on the whole been protected from this sort of embarrassment.  My awed admiration of Chartres Cathedral is not compromised by my worries about the politics of its architect, not that it had an architect.  Much early literature is entirely anonymous.  Was the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a “creep”?  It seems unlikely, but no one would think to go there.  Contemporary literary biography often seems to me nearly obsessed with sexual details that tell us as much about modern readers as modern writers.  Earlier periods may seem woefully lacking in this regard, though I have to admit that my man Chaucer comes dangerously close to biographical modernity.  There is among the poet’s life records a legal document in which a woman named Cecily Champaine attests to the fact that he did not rape her.  I suppose that is better than one claiming that he did rape her, but it actually seems to me a rather near thing.  It is somewhat reminiscent of the notation in the ship’s log that “the Captain was sober tonight.”

It appears that revelations of sexual misbehavior took Charlie Rose’s career from sixty to zero in less than a single day.  Mr. Haberman, the author of the thoughtful essay on “creepy artists”, makes me pause in my evaluation of this extraordinary phenomenon.  Is it not perhaps based in an essentializing view of human character?  To embrace it is to deny what the wise have so long known: that the line between good and evil runs through every beating heart.

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.