Wednesday, September 6, 2017

O youth!

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Guy de Maupassant

The writer's tomb, Montparnasse cemetery

Though it provides plenty of fodder for legitimate satire, French intellectual life must remain admirable and even inspirational to an American observer.  To begin with it is deeper and certainly more socially approved than in our country.  You still meet a fair number of people who without self-consciousness actually refer to themselves and others as “intellectuals”.  The American “public intellectuals,” fairly recent cultural arrivals-- one might call them nouveaux intelligents—may change this.  But the French news kiosks and television programs are practically clogged with public pundits and rock-star professors.

The French truly do love, respect, and cherish their rich literary heritage.  One very often sees what look like ordinary people sitting in the Métro deeply absorbed in some classic work of philosophy or fiction.  Our publishing industry appears unduly to prize novelty---what’s new.  In France even the trendiest of publishers is likely to have an excellent sideline of “classics”.  Several years ago I discovered a series simply called “Bouquins” from the publisher Robert Laffont.  It includes two fat volumes of Guy de Maupassant.  This is not the “complete works,” of which several multi-volume editions have been published.  But it has about as much of a prolific author as one could conceivably schlepp onto an airplane.   I think it has most of the short stories (he wrote three hundred some), several of the well-known novellas, and a couple of full novels.  Furthermore there is a no-holds-barred scholarly apparatus of the kind one would find only in an academic book here.  This is dipable de Maupassant, but you can dip almost as deep as you want.

               Guy de Maupassant experienced a fair amount of history for a man who died at forty-two.   He was born in 1850 during the short-lived Second Republic, grew up during the Second Empire of Napoleon III, and lived out his nearly frantic literary career in the Third Republic, which had been born in the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War and continued for most of the writer’s life in a serious and prolonged economic depression.   He is usually and rightly regarded as one of the great realists, though the realism is more on the psychological and moral side than on that of the historical and material.  One concrete historical moment does seem to be of particular significance: the Franco-Prussian War.  It is the setting for the story called “Boule de Suif” (“Ball of Fat”), the hugely successful piece that put him on the literary map in 1880, and for several of his others.

Like all readers of short stories, I was already familiar with several of his better-known pieces.  Many people have enjoyed “The Diamond Necklace” (“La Parure” in French), which has one of the great trick or surprise endings in the genre.  It makes pretty clear where O. Henry was coming from.  In a general sense it typifies a couple of Maupassant’s recurrent characteristics, precision and economy of plot.  His frequent sexual themes, which once gave him a reputation for naughtiness and lubricity, now seem pretty tame if mildly obsessive.  What I was unprepared for was such a coherent and grand tragic vision of the human condition in short-story form.

Guy de Maupassant came by his neuroses honestly.  He was an upper middle class heir to a sharply contested revolutionary tradition; a syphilitic; a free-thinker tempted by the occult; and a workaholic.  Though bathed in professional success, he worried constantly about his health and essentially withdrew from society for the last decade of his short life.  Although he died relatively young, one of his most fully mastered themes is the inexorability of growing old.

It is a theme recurrent in the short stories and central to one of novels for which the editor of this anthology, large as it is, could find no room, though his commentary has sent me to it :  Fort comme la mort (Strong as Death).  I had never even heard of this book, though I recognized the biblical citation from the Song of Songs:  Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.”

Fort comme la mort was published in 1889.  That was the same year that Sigmund Freud gave his first son the French name Jean-Martin after his old professor Jean-Martin Charcot, the same Charcot whose lectures Guy de Maupassant had attended at the Salpêtrière.  I don’t usually go for instant intellectual history in microwavable plastic cups, but it really is all there in this novel: love, death, incest, Electra, the Pygmalion myth, the doomed search for immortality through art.  I have not read all that many works of fiction that brilliantly depict growing old.  The best one that comes to mind is Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale.  It is pretty clear that Strong as Death, which I have not yet finished, will give Bennett a run for his money.  I won’t pretend to tell you what it is “about” (senescence), but the three points of the tragic triangle are an aging painter, his aging married mistress, and her nubile daughter.  A contemporary Parisian critic called it “the chastest of Mons. de Maupassant’s works but also the most awful”.  That is the kind of review to die for.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Statuary Rape

During my working life, which included stints as a low-level academic administrator and therefore of self-pity, I used to keep a facetious list of jobs in comparison to which mine was a breeze.  Director of Admissions was high on the list, just below the Parking Czarina.  Right at the moment I am particularly glad not to be the president of, say, Washington and Lee University.  

My own alma mater, the University of the South (Sewanee), was founded in 1857.  Its cornerstone was laid in 1860, more or less in time for the Yankees to blow it up a few years later.  There’s location, location, location—which Sewanee certainly had.  But there is also timing, timing, timing—in which it was somewhat wanting.  In the context of the Civil War the demolition of the ceremonial cornerstone of an incipient educational and religious institution may be regarded as a deed of philistine vandalism or of potent political righteousness, depending upon point of view.  And one must acknowledge that there is a good deal of point of view on display in the current controversy concerning the decommissioning of Confederate war memorials.

In my undergraduate years the chapel at Sewanee was something of a museum of memorials, as many historic ecclesiastical buildings are.  There were lots of funerary and memorial plaques, many of them cryptic to us, such as “She hath done what she could”.  That turns out to be Mark 14:8, but the sacrilegious adolescent imagination could run wild.  One read “And they rise to their feet as He passes by, gentlemen unafraid.”  Forty years later I discovered it in Kipling, but I still have no idea what it means or what it was doing there.  High up on the wall along both sides of the nave were some clearer emblems: old state flags, all of them from Confederate states, and some of them actual antique battlefield flags in what appeared to be battle-distressed condition. 

All Saints' Chapel (flagless version)

What did these dusty, ragged flags mean?  Neither I nor anybody I ever knew considered for a moment that they “meant” white nationalism or indeed anything political.  Their symbolic purpose, as I understood it, was to identify individual dioceses among a multiplicity of church dioceses, a large number of which had persevered through the frantic distractions of national crisis, war, defeat, destruction, destitution, and military occupation to found a liberal arts college.  But I am a professional scholar of iconography.  I know how difficult it is to be sure that the interpreter of an artistic symbol is on the same page as its creator.  On this subject it is quite possible for even an eminent professor of literature to smear egg all over his face, especially when he smells a “political” possibility.

How about the statuary monuments to Confederate generals?  What do they mean?  Here the semiotics immediately become murky.  In the best-case scenario an equestrian Lee might conjure up the Romantic visions of honor, courage, devotion to duty, military genius, dignity in defeat, or steadfastness in a lost cause that the old aristocrats found in reading Walter Scott.  But that is assuming the statue is really about Lee.  In the last several days in the Times two knowledgeable historians (Eric Foner and Jon Meacham) have published essays that, despite differing aims and emphases, agree in the plausible claim that the erection of the Charlottesville statue was not an homage to the historical Robert E. Lee but a reactionary gesture meant to offer symbolic life support for the lost cause, just as the whole racial set-up in the South of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was designed through technically legal mechanisms to preserve as much as possible of the spirit and effect of the legally abolished institution of slavery.  One somehow doubts that torch-lit marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil!” were much into the biographical Lee.  

Since iconoclasm is making a bid to reclaim the status of virtue, might we try agreeing on some guidelines?    Could we make a preliminary distinction between public, civic sites and literally consecrated ground—meaning churches and cemeteries?  Whoever took a hammer to the bust of Lee in the Duke University chapel is in my opinion a small-time criminal zealot in a long, self-righteous, puritanical tradition that includes the fanatical image-smashers of the Scheldt churches in the sixteenth century and the Taliban bombers of the Bamiyan buddhas in our own.  But that is probably a minority opinion.  Shared public civic spaces, on the other hand—town squares, public parks, government buildings and grounds—are in a different category.  In a democracy such places should so far as is possible actually belong to the citizenry and, insofar as possible, be regulated by democratic procedures, always remembering, as the Founders did, that democracy should not be synonymous with the “tyranny of the majority”.

I am hardly one who is indifferent to the past.  I have spent my life trying to study aspects of the remote past in their autonomy, integrity, and irrecoverable subtlety.  Life, however, is for the living.  The American Civil War is, as they say, history.  But so is the history of the American Civil War.  That is why historical monuments removed from public places should be archived, not destroyed or  “disappeared”.  Surely our great nation ought long ago to have faced its spiritual Appomattox and endured its spiritual Reconstruction and emerged a few steps closer to that “more perfect union” of our original national intention.  Surely we can do so yet.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Cry, the Beloved Country

Millions of Americans must be deeply disturbed by recent events in Charlottesville, though we doubtless grieve in different ways.   I am discovering a kind of “elder grief”.  Among the more or less contemporary novels that made a big impression on me when I was young was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.  It was published in 1948, and I must have read it in the early Fifties, at a time of considerable civil rights “turmoil” in Arkansas.  The novel is about many things, but principally the situation of disintegrating black communities in South Africa on the eve of the imposition of the formal apartheid system.  There was a lot in it I didn’t get, starting with the (for me) exotic and unpronounceable African place and personal names.  But there was a lot I did get, beginning with an unvarnished but not unsympathetic depiction of the historical burden of racial fear.

What sticks with me still is the book’s title.  The aging process is complicated, and full of mellow surprises; but it makes vivid the apprehension of mortality that for most of one’s life is a mere abstract inevitability.  One hopes to cast off the mortal coil with one’s affairs in reasonable order.   And one’s affairs extend far beyond a few legal documents.  They begin with one’s beloved family, but extend certainly to one’s beloved country, and well beyond that.  How can one fail to see that our beloved country is in a bad way, is spiritually ill?  You might say I’m burdened with  gerontic fright.  In a plangent, lyrical passage from which he took his title Paton wrote: “Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear”.

There is a temptation to exaggerate, of course.  There is some comfort to be had, I suppose, in the realization that the country has at times been sicker, as for example in 1858, say, yet still pulled through.  John Brown, at the foot of the scaffold in 1859, spoke not of sickness but of guilt—that is, of moral rather than physical pathology.  “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.”  It does seem very sad that even a century and a half after a cataclysmic civil war remarkable for its human hecatombs and prodigious material destruction we are still mired in its detritus and haunted by its ghosts.  But a sticky, gooey adhesiveness is far too often a characteristic of history.  Our great imaginative writers have often understood this more clearly than our political leaders.  “The past is never dead” wrote Faulkner; “it’s not even past.”

One of the more famous remarks of Karl Marx is this: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”  The idea of  “changing the world” seems on the one hand grandiose and preposterous and on the other noble and necessary.  What I most admire in the several generations of students I have had the good fortune to encounter is the large incidence of a vivid, optimistic idealism that I believe must necessarily leave the world a better place than they found it.  On the other hand in surveying the huge social changes that have come across America in the comparatively brief span between the birth of my grandparents and the majority of my eldest grandchild I find that most of it is to be explained in terms of large and impersonal forces like “technology” and “demography” rather than in those of identifiable, benign human volition.

I want to resist the more reckless analogies, of which there are plenty going around, involving Nazi Germany; but it does seem possible that we shall see more unpleasant vignettes reminiscent of pre-Nazi Germany.  In Charlottesville a “disturbed youth”—of whom we seem to have a nearly endless supply in this country—murdered a woman he cannot have known and probably could not have seen even as he was murdering her with a speeding automobile.  Political fanaticism so pure as to justify murder is a frightening thing indeed.  And there is no great distance between justifying murder and demanding it.  Some years ago I wrote a book about four important anti-Communist writers of the Forties and Fifties.  The whole project was an accident.  It started with my stumbling upon a forgotten bestseller—Jan Valtin’s Out of the Night, 1940—a book that had a significant influence on popular American views of Soviet Communism.  It purports to be the autobiography of a German Communist agitator and secret agent active in the northern seaports from Danzig to Antwerp in the Twenties and Thirties.  The book is in fact an historical novel; but some of its most vivid parts are undoubtedly direct reflections of the author’s experience.  Prominent among these are the accounts of Hamburg street brawls between demonstrating and counter-demonstrating Communists and Nazis—two groups whose ostensibly bitter ideological opposition masked for too many their deadly affinities of political fanaticism.  These bloody battles took place in many German cities, often with appalling carnage.  Though as we know the Brown Shirts eventually emerged as the undisputed masters of barbarism, things were for a time touch-and-go, and the honors for the atrocities were pretty evenly divided.  Valtin reports that Heinz Neumann, a leading Communist propagandist, gave the following pep talk to his marchers: “I want to see bodies!”  That’s not a very appealing political vision.  Our situation in America is I hope and believe very different.  Political violence is still a shocking aberration condemned by all sensible people rather than an accepted cultural norm to be adjudicated according to some ideological balance sheet.  (“Trump Again Says Two Sides at Fault in Rally Violence” is this morning’s blaring headline.)  But I still fear we may not have not seen the last body in the streets.   Cry, the beloved country, indeed.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Legacy Admissions

The renewed discussion of “affirmative action” in college admissions policies offers me the opportunity to think out loud about a topic that has long troubled me: “legacy” admissions.  In Monday’s newspaper there was a particularly stimulating letter to the editor of the Times, given the heading “Legacy Admissions: Affirmative Action for Whites,” by T. H. Rawls, a one-time admissions officer at Princeton, and (if my memory serves) before that an undergraduate of whom I was aware in the late Sixties.  I could give no better summary of this thoughtful letter than is offered by its editorial heading; but I highly recommend you read it in full.

            I don’t know whether Rawls is related to the famous Princeton alumnus who wrote A Theory of Justice, but the letter raises, in the context of current racial issues, fundamental ethical questions.  Is it really fair in the college admissions process at old Bindwood U to give any weight to the fact that an applicant’s parent, grandparent, or other kinsman graduated from the place?

            Although the American family is in dangerous decline, it still counts for a lot.  Nobody thinks it odd that Hiram Highpockets, Jr., might succeed Hiram Highpockets, Sr., as CEO over at Highpockets Hosiery, Inc., even if everybody knows that a well-advertised national search would have produced hundreds of better businessmen.  In the political sphere of the upstart American democracy we got all the way to our second president (John Adams) before beginning a system of political legacy.  This gives me a rare opportunity to say something nice about Donald Trump. He is neither the brother and son of former presidents nor the spouse of one.  There are at least a hundred million potential presidential candidates in this country, but two “legacy” candidates were our effective options before he entered the race.

Questions of a meritocratic nature were not raised when Ted Kennedy breezed into a lifetime job in the Senate, even as no one did so when, like his father and brothers before him, he had earlier matriculated at Harvard.  Here the analogy becomes more interesting.  Harvard College, which has ethical standards higher than those of the Senate, did expel him when he revealed dishonorable character.  And it is the higher ethical standard most of us associate with the idea of higher education that makes the question of legacy admissions troubling.  Princeton, like most of the other most prestigious institutions in the country, is a private corporation—not a public facility.  It ought to be able to do pretty much what it pleases.  But my forty-year stretch on the faculty was one long, voluntary worry about admissions standards—first as regarded the admission of women, then as regarded the vigorous recruitment of certain racial minorities, especially black Americans.

There are clear ethical arguments to support affirmative action for blacks along the lines of historical and restorative justice.  Perhaps curiously, however, the institutional argument usually made is of a more selfish sort: “diversity” is good for the institution, and therefore by ethical trickle-down, for everybody at it.

I think it obvious that the thoughtful admission of qualified “legacies” is likewise good for the institution.  Though not a ticket of admission, it should not be a negative aspect of young Schnackenfuss’s application that her granddaddy was the quarterback of Bindwood’s undefeated team of 1967, or that his uncle’s princely gift founded the Schnackenfuss Center for Computational Analysis on the south edge of the Bindwood campus.  A very remarkable thing about American higher education, still the envy of the world, is that we have so many excellent private colleges and universities.  Something that has struck me forcefully about the current discussion of the student loan crisis is the apparent belief in some quarters that the costs of higher education are somehow factitious, like the drug prices set by Martin Shkreli at Turing Pharmaceuticals.  In fact those costs are all too real, and they rise inexorably.  That is why college presidents spend so much time fund-raising.          

Unexamined ethical questions may surround the gargantuan endowments, in the billions of dollars, of a Yale, Stanford, Notre Dame, or Duke.  But that money did not come from taxpayers in a congressional bail-out.  Its source is private philanthropy, great and small.  All these institutions are in fact giant charities whose long-term function has been to redistribute wealth in the form of professional training and social capital.  The highest quality American higher education is paid for, in large measure, by people who have experienced it themselves and want to ensure it for future generations—usually beginning with their own.  That is neither a surprising nor a wicked sociological fact.  At Princeton the percentage of alumni who make annual gifts for institutional operations and development is extraordinary, and the sum total of gifts staggering, at least to me.

Yale could, with no difficulty at all, limit its entering class to high school valedictorians.  They probably could fill half of it with left-handed valedictorians.  As long as there are private educational institutions with far more aspiring applicants than there are places, and as long as so many uncertain variables render the admissions process arcane if not occult, there is little danger that most people, let alone everyone, will declare it satisfactory or “fair”.   But there is a tremendous effort made by large numbers of smart and ethical people to square the circle.  Unfortunately, even college professors often talk about the issue of alumni financial support for educational institutions crudely (and ignorantly) in transactional terms.  They may be more reticent in noting the significant number of faculty children in each successive freshman class.  Many large institutions, industrial no less than educational, like to use the metaphor of the family: the “General Motors family,” the “Bindwood family”.  All metaphors reach their terminus, some quite quickly.  But in my view, and it is a view based on some experience, the more closely an educational institution can uphold the family model as opposed to the corporate model the better off it will be.  That does not mean keeping it within the family, but expanding the idea of what a family is.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Communications (Dept. of)

At this time of the year in central New Jersey the fruiting of the tomatoes ought to advance more rapidly than the spread of crisis through the West Wing of the White House, but this week the Big Boys in my garden have been dramatically outpaced by the Bad Boys in Washington.  In particular, in the short week since I last presumed to put pixel to screen I learned that the President had just appointed a new Director of White House Communications and that he had fired his Director of White House Communications.  Being, like, a really smart person, I soon enough figured out that these reports involved the same guy.

His name was, and undoubtedly still is, Anthony Scaramucci.  I don’t think I had ever heard of him before.  As one definitively not in the know I certainly did not know that he was a freebooting financier rich beyond the dreams of avarice, that his friends (both of them) call him “the Mooch,” that his wife recently filed for divorce from her couch of accouchement, or numerous other details easily gleaned from news outlets factual or factitious.   I have to acknowledge a serious deficit in my knowledge of what I shall call popular culture—the category to which I am inclined to assign much current political news.  One should not try to make a virtue of ignorance of any sort, but with the limited and apparently shrinking bandwidth of my cerebellum I have had to be pretty ruthless about sticking with my priorities.  It is not too easy to shock today’s students, but about thirty years ago I appalled a whole roomful of them by not knowing who Michael Jackson was.  I apparently thought it more important to know who Michael Palaiologus and Robert H. Jackson were—information, in the context of that particular classroom, of which I was apparently the sole possessor.

In any event, Mr. Scaramucci, though his portfolio involved the facilitation of “communication,” was clearly outraged that there had been some.  Communication, I mean.  So he called up one of the communicants, a journalist at the New Yorker, demanding to known the identity of the communicator.  He pursued his telephonic inquisition into leaks and leakers with vigor and determination—not to mention with considerable obscenity and verbal violence.  A junior high school teacher of mine once expressed horror over an eavesdropped exchange between two of my rowdier classmates by saying “That’s the kind of language army men in barracks use!”  She set my imagination racing.  As my life developed I never made it into the army or even into a barracks, but I am pretty sure Mr. Scaramucci met the standard.  The New Yorker journalist, eager that we the people should know the truth, reported the conversation more or less verbatim.  Then the New York Times, similarly motived, gave a full report of the New Yorker’s report.  Rather to my surprise there was a swift popular uproar from a citizenry I had thought deeply submerged in revulsion-fatigue.

In a gesture of apology born of a firestorm of outrage, Mr. Scaramucci allowed as how he might be guilty of using “colorful language.”  Uhn uhn.  You want colorful language?  Read the opening lines of the Purgatorio.   You want obscene, disgusting, violent, and degrading language—language that exposes the speaker and sullies the hearer?  Read the transcript of Mr. Scaramucci’s “interview” with a journalist.

One group who have been somewhat muted in their criticism is the official league of conservative pundits.  But then I have been pretty disappointed in many of them since the revelation of the President’s “Access Hollywood” tape when, to cite Edmund Burke on a thematically related topic, I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards.  The foundations of the conservative frame of mind, to which I find myself ever more explicitly attuned as I grow older, are respect for the human past, the just appreciation of its achievements, and a recognition of the fundamental value, for communities no less than for individuals, of grounding, stability, and tradition.  One of the presumed founders of Toryism, Lord Falkland in the seventeenth century, is believed to have articulated the conservative principle thus: “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”  The specific topic he was addressing, ecclesiastical governance, is today a large yawn, but his principle is one, with aphoristic repackaging, espoused even by many self-identified “progressives”: if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

Neither the President nor the Mooch is responsible for the lamentable degradation of American verbal discourse.  The rot set in long ago, and the agents of decay are many and varied.  I think my old-fashioned teacher would now find that the linguistic norm of most middle schools in the country is a cut below that of army men in barracks.  But they are responsible for adopting it, if only for ten days, as the appropriate mode of “communication” from President to people.  Sad.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


It was about ten years ago, in Paris.  My eldest granddaughter and I were walking briskly through the Champ de Mars, the Eiffel Tower looming large to our left.  But there was something wrong.  I realized that I was short of breath, not feeling well at all, and that the episode of malaise was in fact only a more extreme version of several others I had experienced in recent days and could no longer plausibly deny.  I told Sophia what was wrong.  She is a very sensible, no-nonsense young woman.  “That’s not good,” she said.  “You better see a doctor.”  Very soon after that, through the intermediation of her mother, a no-nonsense type on steroids, I found myself in a hospital consulting room in the presence of an important academic cardiologist.  It was then that I learned that I had developed atrial fibrillation, an arrhythmia of the heart that is common among the elderly.  The condition is not in and of itself intrinsically serious, but it increases the possibility of the formation of blood clots, which in turn can trigger strokes—very serious indeed.  The preventive therapy there is the use of chemical blood thinners.  Furthermore for some people, including me, the actual symptoms can seriously impact the quality of daily life.

My doctor, like so many other European specialists, had at some point spent time in Boston at “Mass General”—that is, the Massachusetts General Hospital, the largest and most famous of Harvard’s teaching hospitals.  Though we can’t seem to get it together to have a good national health system, we still seem to be near the top of high-end boutique specialties.  I don’t know how long he spent there, but it is possible that his English was better than my French.  He certainly wanted to believe so.  The initial results were, however, not encouraging.  After absorbing the symptoms, he moved confidently to diagnosis.  “I zink I know what is wrong with you,” he said.  “Your heart is not working any more.”  After that I switched to French, enabling blunders of a more amusing sort.  One of his secretaries offered me some “Scotch,” assuring me that they had plenty in the office.  I thought she was offering me a reinforcing drink.  She was actually proffering transparent tape to seal up a rapidly expanding folder of papers.

Anyway, it was in this conversation that I first consciously registered the word ablation.  I registered it in French, of course, and had no idea what it meant, although the exact same word is in common medical use in English.  The human mind, when faced with the unfamiliar or the unknown does its best to transfer registers, and to cram the new thing into categories that are familiar or at least known.  What was quite familiar to me was the oblation.  I am after all an Anglican who has from time immemorial been encouraged, “Let us with gladness present the offerings and oblations of our life and labor to the Lord" --i.e., put something in the collection plate.  My doctor told me that uhblation was one of the recognized therapies for atrial fibrillation, but one that he himself regarded as rather radical and to be avoided when possible.  I was given to believe that, as with so much else in the opulence of French culture, it was a matter of local taste and custom.  If I were in Bordeaux rather than Paris, he said, they probably would be uhblating me that very moment.

Words like ablation and oblation demonstrate the power of tiny Latin prefixes.  The Latin verb ferre (meaning bear, carry, or bring, among other things) is a common but troublesome one with an oddball perfect participle, latus, which shows up in the –lation part of the two words.  But an oblation is something offered or brought to, whereas an ablation is something removed, erased, or taken away from.  You can see, perhaps, why I was initially somewhat confused by my French medical advice.  But I have had ample time to be brought up to speed during the past decade, and especially during the past two days, when I was in the New York University hospital having a cardiac ablation.  When it comes to hearts I am forced to believe that sometimes less can be more.  In any event that is why this week’s post is so self-reflexive, and a few hours tardy.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Prince Fred's Knob

Prince Fred on the Geological Survey Map

            I just returned from a short trip to New York City.  I had an appointment late on Monday afternoon, and had taken advantage of circumstances to plan an overnight with Rich, Katie and young Ruby in Red Hook.  It had been a while since I was there.  Rich, my eldest, is a man of various profitable skills, among them expertise as a sound-recording engineer.  Still, I was taken by surprise when he asked me whether I would be willing to spend a while recording my reminiscences of some family experiences of his earliest years.

            What he wanted me to talk about specifically was “Prince Fred,” also known as “Prince Fred’s Knob”.  This is the place name for a small, conical mountain in Marion County, Arkansas, now a part of the wilderness above the Buffalo National River.  I can trace this name back only to the 1890s.  From a long-defunct title deed for the forty-acre plot of land I owned for some years in the 1960s and 1970s I can see that it was part of a larger parcel recognized in 1892 as a valid mining claim by the Prince Fred Placer Mining Corporation—an enterprise of which I have been able to find no other record whatsoever.  I know that there were some active lead and zinc mines in the Ozarks in earlier times, but Prince Fred cannot have been one of them.  There was some modest evidence on the property of an ancient feint at excavation, including perhaps a single dynamite blast, but to label the results a mine would be to allow the imagination to run riot.

            No, for us Prince Fred was simply a wild, remote, beautiful and challenging place where over a period of several summers Joan and I, I together with two small children and a shifting crew of undergraduate friends, pitted ourselves against the elements in the ostensible effort to erect a log house.  As parents we have long been convinced that the adventurousness, the practical competence, and the wanderlust of our two elder children flow directly from this early experience.  They think so too.

 miles of green

            In my own childhood years I had always vaguely hoped that I might own a piece of my own land in “my” mountains, but it was only when I was married with children and a professor of medieval literature at an institution twelve hundred miles away—that is to say, when the hope became entirely impractical and quixotic—that I acted upon it.  My beloved aunt Louise, who at that time was working for the Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home, Arkansas, knew of my land-lust.  One day a man walked into the newspaper office with a “for sale” ad: forty wilderness acres, two thousand dollars, in a virtually inaccessible part of the neighboring county—Marion.   That was the first and only time in my life that I enjoyed the shady advantage of insider trader’s information.

Prince Fred was perhaps six miles from our old home farm, from which its top was clearly visible, but to get even near it by motor vehicle you had to drive for probably thirty.  It is in the high ground above the river-front that briefly in the 1990s became nationally famous in the Whitewater Land Development Deal featuring among others Bill and Hillary Clinton.  The Ozarks are, from the geological point of view, very ancient.  Geologists conjecture that in eons past they might have been the size of today’s Rockies, worn down like old boot heels over millennia of mysterious abrasion.  Sometimes from a distance the hills present an aspect of strange regular verticality like a pencil point—the shape favored by Al Capp in the old “Li'l Abner” comics and in other hillbilly cartoons.  My aunt pointed it out to me from the road to our house—a misty green pyramid in a vastness of misty green.  I could snap up a good chunk of the far side of it for the pittance of my life’s savings.  Today I marvel that my younger self was capable of such an act of brilliant improvidence.

In yesterday’s interview we didn’t get all that far into the story.  The moment I began thinking about it, details came flooding back, but along with many uncertainties of dates and narrative sequences, anecdotes, and personalities.  These will need sorting out.  The interview will have to be continued and so also, perhaps, the narrative in this blog.  But I can tell you the ending in advance.   Sometimes our government does good things.  In the early Seventies the Buffalo was declared a “national river”—our nation’s first.  The valley side along its confluence with the White River became wilderness parkland.  The Government began a process of forced purchase of all private lands within the proposed park.  I stalled for a while but didn’t even think about seriously resisting.  They were compensating at a rate of a hundred dollars an acre.  That means I doubled my money—almost as good as the Whitewater investors  would do—and still ended up co-owner (along with three hundred million fellow citizens, of course) of one of the most gorgeous tracts of land God ever made.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Voting Crisis

            Around the Fourth of July the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, one of the respected polling outfits, conducted a brief inquiry into the American public’s knowledge of their national origins.  The inquisition was not particularly probing.  The pollsters asked the following question: “From what country did the United States declare its independence?”  A quarter of the people randomly polled did not know the answer to that question.  Among this group most declared they had no clue; but others suggested Russia, Afghanistan, Mexico, China, and Japan.

            Many Americans seem to sense that there is a crisis in our democracy, though most of us don’t seem to know what it is or what to do about it.  One person who claims to know is President Trump.  He thinks the problem is “voter fraud,” which is why in May he established a “Commission on Election Integrity” to look into voting irregularities.

There were roughly a hundred and thirty-seven million votes cast in the recent presidential election.  Roughly sixty-six million went to Ms. Clinton and sixty-three million to Mr. Trump, though the geographical distribution of the votes was such that Mr. Trump won handily among the constitutionally mandated electors.  About a hundred and eight million eligible voters—approaching half the national total—cast no vote.  According to Mr. Trump, about three million of Ms. Clinton’s votes—by no coincidence whatsoever her margin of plurality in the popular vote--were fraudulent, cast by people ineligible to vote or who voted more than once or both.  While there is no official position on this question taken by the Democratic Party, there is an obvious consensus among Democratic politicians that the “voting crisis” is of a very different sort.  The real scandal is one of “voter suppression”.  The claim is that Republicans, especially at the level of state and local government where the actual mechanics of the election process are established, have systematically sought to limit electoral participation by likely Democratic voters, especially members of racial minorities.

The half-baked Commission on Election Integrity is a waste of time and money, and it is quite predictably foundering in a legal quagmire.  The absurd premise upon which it was founded—massive fraudulent voting in the millions—was bound to foster further absurdities along the way.  Transparent partisanship is a Washington norm, but even so….At the same time I am unable to embrace without cavil the theory of a conspiracy of voter suppression touted by many of my liberal brethren.  Voting is indeed a general right of citizens, but that does not mean it is free of all responsibility.  Is it really a “burden” to register to vote?  More so, say, than purchasing something through Amazon on the Internet?  Would the requirement that a voter be able to verify identity be no better than a poll tax?  I cannot check out a book at the library or use my senior discount on New Jersey Transit—never mind get on an airplane—without official identification.  Recently I was asked for two forms of identification to get into a doctor’s office.  The “Motor-Voter” laws (to which I do not object) are based on the assumption that we can make democracy more vibrant and participatory by linking it legally and thematically with something  of real social importance: owning or driving a car.

To return to the true crisis of American democracy is to return to the Marist Poll.  Intellectual snobbery is not the least noxious form of snobbery, and it is all too easy for comparative enlightenment to mock flamboyant ignorance; but I am not comfortable entrusting the fate of the land to people who think the battle of Gettysburg was fought in Viet Nam.  There are other polls.  At the height of the second Iraq war, half of Americans of voting age could not find Iraq on a map.  If you think the Fourth of July celebrates our independence from Spain, you are unlikely to have studied the Declaration or the Constitution very deeply and may be unaware of how warily the Founders viewed the direct democracy of the crowd.  The whole national enterprise was based on the assumption of a reasonably literate electorate and representative government constrained by explicit divisions of power and limitations in its exercise.

The elderly hover between an optimism born of hope and a pessimism tutored by experience.  Benjamin Franklin was exactly my age—and here the parallel ends--when he gave his final address to the Constitutional Convention.  He was far from believing that the document he had helped hammer out was a “miracle in Philadelphia.”  It was more along the lines of “the best we can do under the circumstances”.  What circumstances?  “When you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom,” he said, “you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.”  That’s a pretty good description of the “democratic” process, though democracy was not a word much in use in Franklin’s day.  The speech I cited above is pretty well attested.  There is a related and possibly apocryphal anecdote.  One of a group of citizens, curious about what was going on in the Convention, is supposed to have asked Franklin what sort of government the conclave was going to propose.  “A republic,” was his supposed reply, “if you can keep it.”  It is most unlikely that in offering this somber reply Franklin was worrying about the British army—and quite certain that he was not worrying about the armies of Afghanistan, Mexico, or Viet Nam.  He was thinking of an electorate moved by prejudice, passion, errors, faction, and selfishness.   And that was way back then.