Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Christmas with Yuri and Lara

This year’s family Christmas preparations involved troop movements and contingency planning at a degree of complexity in comparison with which the Normandy Invasion must be regarded more along the lines of a trip to Trader Joe’s.  I was merely a grateful observer of their expert execution by others.  The Montreal contingent arrived on Saturday night.  Joan had brilliantly snagged six last-minute bargain seats for the production of “A Christmas Carol” at the McCarter on Sunday. Everything went like clockwork including not merely the timely conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge but—mirabile dictu—even parking at the theater!  Next day, the Christmas Eve feast at Kingwood was a culinary tour de force by son Richard and an epic success, followed by a second when we whisked all the little ones off to the statutory church pageant featuring live manger animals and classic Christmas carols.

By then I had already undergone a strange catharis in no way formally connected with the holiday, yet still somehow useful for it.  Every life, however humble, must have its Eureka moments.  For me one came in my fifteenth year when the Modern Library edition of The Brothers Karamazov came into my hands.  I felt I had never before read anything so strange and wonderful.  Some of the exotic flavor, I would later learn, derived as much from the translator Constance Garnett as from Dostoyevsky; but no matter.  Here was this vast world of obsolete titles, puzzling patronymics, “degrees of frost”, visionary monks, and thirty different kinds of horse-drawn conveyance--and from its center vivid moral issues shining forth as bright as klieg lights.  I went on a reading jag: more Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol’s Dead Souls.  This must have been in the year 1951, height of the Cold War, the year of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness.  Gray-faced Russians in bad gray suits were throwing tantrums at the UN.  The Rosenbergs were on death row.  How could  Alyosha Karamazov have morphed into Andrey Vyshinsky?  I knew that if I ever wanted to get serious about this interest I would have to learn Russian.  I surprised myself with the realism of my decision.  I would not get really serious, but I would nonetheless continue to indulge my Anglophone Russophilia.  Otherwise, what’s the point of literary translation?  At Sewanee there was an old guy named Eugene Kayden, an economist but also somehow an expert on Russian poetry, and he helped me.  It was from him I first heard the name of Boris Pasternak.

On Saturday afternoon our “Montreal family” set off in the direction of Princeton.  I tend to get sleepy pretty early, but I was determined to be awake when they arrived.  So I did something to guarantee that I would not nod off.  I slid a DVD of “Doctor Zhivago” into the reader on my computer and settled in for a couple of hours of intense emotional immersion.  I take the probably heretical view that Doctor Zhivago is a good novel, but a great film.  Book and film need to be regarded as quite separate, though obviously related, works of art.  My opinion is that just about everything in Lean’s film is perfect.  I watch it about once in a year or eighteen months.  You cannot make caviar a daily commonplace.  It always made my eyes tear up.  This year I just let it rip, a solitary weeper in a darkened room.  The term “tear-jerker” was invented to try to shield us from the embarrassing reality of our own emotions.  If you can without weeping watch the scene in which Lara departs by horse-drawn sleigh from Varykino, leaving Zhivago to do his far, far better thing—well, you probably should make an appointment for a general physical check-up.

Is there a “tragic sense” of history?  I have studied enough of it to know that mostly it is a record of intense human struggle against formidable enemies: want, disease, ignorance, “natural” disasters and the unnatural ones launched in the darkness of the human heart.  This may be a grim view, but it seems to me the one upon which the Christmas “message” is posited.  And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.  That is the “comic sense” of history, and the one that keeps me from despair.  Be this as it may, no reader of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy is allowed to doubt that “there are tears in things”—as Virgil has put it, nearly two thousand years before them.  But there are degrees and styles of tragedy.  The tragedy of the political pathologies of modernity is on so colossal a scale as to beggar the imagination.  Only comparatively recently have I read the historian Martin Malia’s extraordinary book The Soviet Tragedy; but I had much earlier seen its central truths foreshadowed in Dostoyevsky’s Devils (The Possessed) and delineated in the twentieth-century pages of Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.   What David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” does with unmatched brilliance is to exemplify a vast intercontinental disaster through the private grief of two compelling characters worthy of Dickens or Victor Hugo or any of the great nineteenth-century heirs of the Romantic tradition.  It was only accidental that, this year, it also served as my version of keeping watch by night.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Christmas, Hurry!

 Albrecht Durer, "Holy Family with Three Hares"

Christmas is now less than a week away.  The practical meaning of this sentence is that you have no more time to be reading random blog posts than I have to be writing them.  But, then, again, I’m left with the conundrum of the old ars longa and the definite vita brevis, so one plunges on.  In this household we career through pre-Christmas from crisis to crisis, with this day’s crisis being the Christmas cards.  They really do need to be on their way within forty-eight hours.  I have been printing our own since about 1970, when the first Vandercook arrived ; but this year the premature descent of chaos, combining with age, infirmity, and a serious writing obligation conspired against me.  God rewarded me with a miracle.  While searching for a lost book—which I never did find of course—I stumbled upon a large cache of old cards unused by anyone but the spiders who seem to have been nesting in them for the last decade.

            Over the years we have had a wide variety of designs.  The old Christmas blocks from the Twenties and Thirties that I used to find among the junk bought at auction are now so retro as to look futurist.  And early in my Christmas card career I had a reasonably high quality set of four of Durer’s Christmas etchings reproduced.  Among the lesser known curses of the digital age is that the photoengraver has disappeared from the earth, so my line etchings are now antiques approaching the value of their prototypes.  But they are large, barely fitting into an A-6 envelope.

            Of the Durers my own favorite is the so-called “Holy Family with Three Hares,” which features a pretty well-fed Madonna and Child, and an emaciated Joseph looking approximately 102.  This was the image that led me to do extensive research into Joseph iconography, and the place to do that is in the pages of the Cahiers de Joséphologie.  I’ll wager I’ve got you there.  There is a certain genre of magazine that seems to exist only in the waiting rooms of dentists’ offices.  Mainly they have as their subject matter the latest trends in aluminum tubing or the undiscovered charm of picturesque shopping malls in Passaic County.  The plausible theory would seem to be that people who are waiting in dentists’ offices are probably so preoccupied with premonitions of the root canal that stocking Harper’s or The New Yorker, which actually require a paid subscription, would be a frivolous expense.  Since people are only pretending to read anyway, a dog-eared copy of Dental Prophylaxis Today for May, 2013, will serve quite well. But even in these grim antechambers, brilliant with fluorescent lighting and shiny plastic laminate chairs, you will not find the Cahiers de Joséphologie, a treat reserved exclusively for obscure medieval scholars and sub-sub-librarians.

            Durer shook off this mortal coil in 1528.  But don’t think that dead white males, just because they are my specialty, are the only artists in our salon.  We have, whenever possible, tried to patronize up-and-coming painters as well.  Somewhere around 1988 Luke Fleming, then about ten years old, produced for his Sunday School class at Trinity Church the now famous sequence known to art historians as “Luke’s Luke”—referring, of course, to the most tender and feminist of the four evangelists, and the one whose treatment of the Christmas legend is regarded by many scholars as the most poetic and inventive of the four of them.   Luke, who as we know from extra-canonical sources produced a portrait of the Virgin, was certainly the only practicing painter among them.  Fleming was particularly struck by what he called the “urgency of the kinetic moment” suggested by one textual detail (“And they came with haste…”, Luke 1:16)—a sentence written of the shepherds, though Fleming’s fecund imagination reassigned it to the magi of Saint Matthew.  Thus was born “Wise Man in a Hurry”.  I was, as I say, fortunate enough to stumble upon a store of our old cards, which, though mainly consisting of a more conventional (camelback) treatment by an unknown commercial artist from Fall River, MA, included several exemplars of “Hurry”.

 Luke Fleming the Younger, "Wise Man in a Hurry"

            Now, of course it is I who am in a hurry—too rushed to explain what I learned from the Cahiers de Joséphologie about the insistence of certain influential theologians of the fifteenth century that all paintings the Holy Family clearly depict in Joseph a geezer too old to cut the mustard.  We have to get our cards into the mail, among other things.  But it suddenly occurs to me that a blog post itself might serve as well as any three by five piece of printer’s stock to send holiday greetings to all our far-flung friends in many lands.  So to all of you a very merry Christmas, and throughout our whole needy planet let there be peace and good will to all.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Brief History of X


I first became interested in semiotics from the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible.  Of course I had never heard of “semiotics” at the time, and I am still not sure I understand everything meant by the term as used by some of my more learned colleagues.  Looking at its Greek root, I take it to mean the study or theory of signs, the most numerous of which are the words we use in our attempts at oral or written communication.  But of course there are also pictorial traffic signs, signs of good or bad weather, signs of life, signs of the times, and many others.  One of my favorite characters in Chaucer, who has spent some hours with an itchy mouth, says “that’s a sign of kissing, at the very least”.  Anyway, when Cain killed his brother Abel, God set a “sign” upon the murderer (Genesis 4:15).  That is the word used in the medieval Latin Bible.  In the Authorized English version the word is mark, and over the centuries there has been a good deal of inconclusive speculation as to what the sign or mark of Cain was.  It had a puzzling ambiguity.  Though it identified a murderer, its purpose was to protect him from anyone who might set out to kill him.  Anyone who dared to effect revenge for Abel would be “punished seven times worse”!  But what was the “mark of Cain?”

The old rabbis, later followed by Christian exegetes, suggested various possibilities.  One was that it was the image of a dog—a late suggestion pretty obviously influenced by the accidental similarity of the name “Cain” to the Greek  (kuon) and Latin (canis) words for “dog”.  More common was the idea that the “mark” was merely a hideous facial expression, accompanied by a palsied tremor, but this, too, was probably classically induced by a “dog word”—meaning something like “dog-faced” or “smiling in a dog-like manner”.  Many commentators agree that the mark, whatever it was, was on Cain’s forehead.

That may get us somewhere.  A scholarly essay I’m working on just now reviews the ideas that led Francis of Assisi to adopt the tau (a Greek and Hebrew letter equivalent to the Latin “T”) as his personal signature.  It was in imitation of the mysterious figure (Ezekiel 9:2), a “man…clothed with linen, with a writer’s inkhorn at his belt”.  The function of this scribe is to walk through Jerusalem and to “mark tau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh, and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof.”  Only this small band of penitents will be spared from general slaughter.

There is another important appearance of the forehead-writer in the Apocalypse, but I must move on to his secular traces, which are numerous and surprising.  One way of crossing two squiggles made a T.  Another formed the Greek letter chi, the initial of “Christ” in that language, and the parallel to Latin X.  Since there are quite a few words relating to Christ in Christianity, scribes were happy to use X as an abbreviation and save a little time with things like the “Count of Monte Xo,” “Xofer Columbus”, and even “Merry Xmas”—I speak of many years ago, before the regime of the PC police.  Already in ancient times several of the minimalist letters had been used to mean any graphic mark or sign.  That is, tau was a letter, but as a word it meant “mark” or “sign”.  The Vulgate phrase “the sign Thau” is an innocent pleonasm, like “the River Avon”—afon being the forgotten Celtic word for “river”.  When a Roman teenager put together his 1:1000 scale model of a trireme or whatever, the instruction was to “insert fold T into slot X” or “make sure the tri jot is correctly aligned with the reme tittle” or something like that.
So X—now no longer necessarily thought of as the sign of a cross—became the sign or mark for anything you wanted to sign or mark, beginning with the mathematical unknown that you were supposed figure out with the help of Y.  And of course X marks the spot where the body was found.  Our own particular, individual signs are our signatures.  But what about illiterates?  During World War II one of my aunts worked for some alphabetical New Deal outfit doing good among the primitive mountaineers on the south bank of the White River in northern Arkansas.  She used to speak of the “exers”—not a generation of aging hippies, but people who signed all legal papers with an “X”.  I think it was the immortal Irving Berlin who wrote: “My uncle out in Texas can’t even spell his name;  He signs his checks with X’s, but they cash them all the same.”  More recently a Country and Western song entitled “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” was nominated for a Grammy.  This has absolutely nothing to do with my subject, but it is a sobering reminder of just how few words rhyme with Texas.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Past President

 Augustine somewhere reminds us that all our cultural investments in the ceremonies of death—funerals, memorials, official periods of mourning, and the like—while we may think that they truly honor the dead, are actually and of necessity palliatives for the living.  This idea seems to be one of those obvious truths which we could well do without, and so usually do.  I think that in the Antique world, at least as regards members of those social classes who have left us the written and archaeological records out of which so much of our history is constructed, the ceremonies of death on the whole were more elaborate and protracted than they are with us.  There was in the first place rather more death, so to speak, certainly a greater awareness of the fragility of life and how it could be taken in an instant from a living person of any age at any time.  Honoring the dead is reassuring to the living at least to the extent that only the living can do it.

I think of all this, of course, as the body of one of our former presidents, George H. W. Bush, lies in state awaiting an elaborate funeral amid what the papers are calling “a national outpouring of emotion.”  I think that’s probably an exaggeration, but nonetheless I have seldom been more aware of the truth of Augustine’s observation.  The living are mourning for—the living.  Most of the “coverage” scarcely even tries to disguise the fact that what is on our minds is not a dead president but a living one.  One of the burdens of advancing age is a weakening of the memory.  “Old men forget, ” says Shakespeare’s Henry V in his immortal speech, "yet all shall be forgot.”  But not quite yet.  Anyone who was sentient in the year, say, 1990—not so very long ago—must be amazed, not to say mind-boggled, at the stream of hagiographical commentary from journalists and political oppositionists who barely had a civil word for the defunct during the relatively short course of his incumbency.  But the line “Middle-aged men forget” fails to scan.  It just doesn’t cut it at the poetic level.  As for the possibility of young men forgetting, you need not worry; most of them never knew in the first place.  As for us—meaning the living—we yearn for the hagiography and will welcome it on whatever terms are on offer.

I found very moving the press report of the former president’s final hours.  President Bush was with an old and dear friend, James Baker, like the former president himself an eminent American statesman animated by nearly antediluvian concepts of patrician public service, duty and honor, with whom he had a terse religious conversation.  Bush apparently declared that he would like to go to Heaven.  Baker apparently opined that he was about to do so.  The former president was ready to move on.  I never expected to hear so straightforward and unsophisticated an exchange reported on the PBS “News Hour,” but there it was.  And it really could have come straight out of medieval hagiography—specifically, from the deathbed accounts of various monastic saints.  Perhaps my favorite among these is the report of the last moments of Aelred of Rievaulx on January 12, 1167 given by his friend Walter Daniel.  Aelred has to have been one of the sweetest characters God ever made, and he was dearly loved by all the brothers.  As he lay dying, a pall of gloom blanketed the whole monastery, and everyone awaited a “word”.  In Cistercian religious houses a great deal of time was spent in silence.  The monks even developed a sign language that allowed them to combine taciturnity with various practical necessities.   But of course the Office was recited in Latin, which was also the ordinary language of discourse and even casual conversation.  Yet the last words of the dying saint were uttered in English.  They were: for Crist love.  The reason for this vernacular departure, so to speak, is that what the saint wanted to say required six syllables in Latin but only three in English.  Aelred was in a hurry to get on.

As a schoolboy I was made to memorize “Thanatopsis,” a poem about death by the early American poet William Cullen Bryant.  That may seem harsh, but remember that in those days it was not uncommon for an irate teacher to come after you with a razor strop.  Though I begrudge it the precious space the poem takes up in my contracting memory, there is nothing I can do to dislodge it.  So at this season of the waning year, of my own antiquity, and of the national “outpouring of emotion,” I am inclined to take encouragement from its final good advice and from the good example of our late president: “Sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Annals of Philanthropy

 Michael Bloomberg, philanthropist

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg just gave 1.8 billion dollars to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, thus removing for perpetuity and with one dramatic gesture the “tuition loan crisis” for future undergraduates at that great university.  In the future, forever, nobody will ever have to decline admission to Hopkins on financial grounds.  Fleming has two things to say about this: what a gift! and what a Mensch! 

I realize that my unalloyed enthusiasm violates canons of academic niggelkeit, which ought to be a German word meaning that ability to find the dark cloud that must necessarily accompany the most dazzling Sterling of silver linings, but I cannot help it.  Louis XIV, having advanced some fellow in aristocratic rank, is supposed to have lamented, “I have now made one man ungrateful and a dozen others jealous”.  Don’t allow it to be thus with regard to this princely gift.  I’ll explain why the worry even crosses my mind, but first I need to tell you about my lunch with Michael Bloomberg.

Shortly before I retired Mr. Bloomberg gave a hundred-room dormitory to Princeton in honor of his daughter, who had pursued a brilliant undergraduate career here.  I know it was “brilliant” because by chance I saw some of it first hand as the director of her senior thesis in Medieval Studies.  The dormitory, Bloomberg Hall, is actually named for her—a wonderful paternal touch, but also one that dramatizes the special undergraduate emphasis of our institution.  Compared with a gift of nearly two billion a splendid new dormitory costing merely many millions may suddenly seem small beer.  In fact, it is a very big deal.  When the building was finished, the University catered a small lunch party for the donor, the honoree, the donor’s formidably intelligent sister, some major officers of the institution, and a couple of spear-bearers, including me.  I don’t have a lot of high-and-mighty lunches, which is a pity if this was anything to go by.  It was really great.  After graciously and succinctly covering all the ceremonial topics required by the occasion, Mr. Bloomberg proposed that we have a general conversation, quite off any “record,” having to do with challenges facing the country and the city of which he was then the mayor.  What followed was an unforgettably stimulating academic seminar that did its best to avoid the academic even as it eschewed the partisan simplisms defining most of our current political discourse. I had heard a few glib politicians before.  Here was one who could think on his feet and carry on a smart conversation with other smart people.  That was the first and only occasion on which I have been in the presence of Michael Bloomberg; and it left me with a very high opinion of the man.

Hence the somewhat grudging reaction to this fantastic gift to Hopkins from various leaders in higher education caught me off guard.  I read about the gift in an op ed by Bloomberg on Monday.  Over the next few days—maybe even the next day—there was a cluster of vox pop letters to the editor.  I cannot find the relevant back copy of the Times, which I fear was used to wrap up discarded turkey bones; but I think I remember the letters well enough.  There were four of them.  Two were from “ordinary” readers.  The first of these was interesting but irrelevant, arguing that a college education is not a necessary prerequisite to social significance or economic success—a true observation, but one that Bloomberg’s munificent initiative had not questioned either in fact or by implication.  The gist of the other was what a gift! and what a Mensch!  But even this letter suggested that there was something problematic about the man’s charity—though the problem might be temporarily deferred while we applauded the charity   The niggelkeit factor was explicit in the two other letters in which two high-ranking academic administrators (provost of an important institution in New York City and president of a Seven Sisters college) weighed in.  Concerning the largest single private gift of money ever made to an academic institution at any time in history these worthies were, I thought, rather faint of praise.  The institutions they lead are very different from each other—as both are different from Johns Hopkins—but they joined together in a shared subtext: very generous, Mr. Bloomberg, but it would have been so much better, don’t you know, if you had given the money to us.

How well I can understand the feeling!  My first reaction to many a brilliant new publication is how much more deftly I could have handled the topic—never mind that that would require, contrary to fact, my having had the wit to come up with the topic in the first place.  It would seem inappropriate, however, to display my inner turmoil in this regard in the letters column of the newspaper of record.  Bloomberg has not resolved the issue of resource inequity among American institutions of higher education.  His aim is not so impersonal or so grandiose.  “My Hopkins diploma opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream,” he writes.  “I have always been grateful for that opportunity.”  Old-fashioned virtues—perhaps like the very notion of “the American dream” itself--are withering away.  I hope that one of the last to fade will be gratitude.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Brexit Jitters

During this past week the question of Brexit—that is, the process by which the British government is proposing to sever its ties with the European Union—has been much in the news, and in a pretty rancorous fashion.  What has surprised me is that American critics have been perhaps even more rancorous in their condemnation of the whole idea of Brexit, and more censorious in their language about it, than most of the British press.  In fact I have been surprised by the alacrity with which the American left has claimed instant omniscience about the issue, and treated it as though it were simply another aspect of the election of Donald Trump.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think that Brexit is a bad idea; but I also think that while it may not entirely be in the category of “none of our business,” it’s way less of our business than many people here seem to think.  A memorable personal experience sticks in my mind.  Very shortly after the admittedly confounding Brexit vote had taken place, an eminent academic from Cambridge (England) showed up to occupy an important post in Princeton.  Her appointment had been the fruit of a lengthy intergalactic search and (I presume) lots of making nice and inducements on the part of high university officials.  There are a certain aspects of superstar academic recruitment that are redolent of the plot of a Shakespeare comedy or a Victorian marriage novel. I was included in one of no doubt several gala dinner parties welcoming her to our shores and our institution.  But the festivity almost immediately took on a curious tone—that of a kind of secular auto da fé in which her fellow dinner guests took turns extracting from her and her husband incrementally earnest declarations that they were appalled, absolutely appalled, by the Brexit vote.  Signing on our dotted line had apparently been not quite enough.

We spend a fair amount of time in Britain.  Joan still has close family members there, and both of us have important and continuing friendships there going back more than a half a century.  The majority of these people are “remainers,” but several are not.  Among the “leavers” I know are a couple of techno-entrepreneurial types fed up with what they regard as a stultifying super-nanny central EU bureaucracy.  The charge of “racism” raised against such attitudes, which now on both sides of the Atlantic is rapidly becoming the slovenly explanation of why someone has the temerity to disagree with you about almost anything, would be ludicrous were there a scrap of ludus left in our political life.  To believe that those who differ sharply in their political opinions from yourself are necessarily deluded or misinformed or simply not very bright is presumptuous enough without the reinforcing conclusion that they are wicked people acting in bad faith to boot.  This said, it’s pretty obvious that almost everything about Brexit is a first-class mess, beginning with its inception in the pusillanimity of the former Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron.  Even this realization, however, intensifies my respect for the current Prime Minister.  My English friends tell me she is now being referred to as the “Maybot”—dutiful, uninspired, “over her head”.  Well, Maybot, maybe.  I am trying to think of any politician in Washington, of any political stripe, who has enough sense of duty to be “dutiful”.  When the worst thing you can say about your national leader is that she is dutiful in attempting to execute a divisive popular mandate which she herself opposed and her political opponents supported, you are in my opinion actually rather lucky.

But what of all this “oppressive regulation” business of which Brexiteers complain?  Somewhat bizarrely, I’ve just rubbed up against a little of it myself.  The book review editor of a learned journal in the medieval field recently asked me to review a new book on a topic on which I myself have published.  Book reviewing is  not my favorite genre, but just at the moment I am trying to keep mentally alert, and also welcoming small assignments.  The topic is of intrinsic interest, and its treatment in the new book appears to be comprehensive.  So I agreed, and conveyed my decision to the editor.  Obviously, over a long career a scholar is likely to have reviewed many books, and I thought I knew the drill; but almost immediately I discovered a new twist concerning this one.  The book is published in England by an eminent academic press.  It turns out that before I get so far as reading page one of the book I am supposed to fill out an elaborate on-line form supplied by the European Union, the apparent purpose of which is to aid the cyber security forces of Brussels in their attempt to shield my private and personal information from the prying eyes of roving gangs of Balkan book-review-readers who are up to no good.  I may not be understanding this perfectly, but I take the situation to be roughly the following.  The good guys at EU Central—I don’t know what to call the Brussels equivalent of a gnome of Zurich, maybe a sprout of Brussels?—cannot guarantee the safety of my private and personal information until they have it to protect.  Thus the necessary if insufficient prerequisite to my writing a book review of The Merovingian Cutting Edge: Tonsorial Policy Among the Long-Haired Kings (I think I’m remembering the title correctly) is my completion and electronic submission of a lengthy interrogatory.  Raises questions.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How Do You Like Them Apples?

Many years ago, in a junk shop near Cowan TN, I came upon a curious item--a small slab of semi-finished hardwood partially wrapped in brittle Kraft paper on which was written in purple Crayola: “From world’s most famous apple tree.”   This came to mind as I sat staring at the screen of my iMac looking for a blog topic only to find one staring me in the face in the form of the familiar Apple logo, which might be described as the image of a very common fruit in a state of semi-depredation.  In smaller print on the Kraft paper was a claim that it housed a piece of wood from the apple tree at Appomattox near which R. E. Lee awaited the arrival of U. S. Grant to negotiate the surrender of the Army of Virginia.  For some reason I resisted a unique opportunity to purchase this valuable relic, which might have secured my family fortune.  Later, by mere chance, I learned that however shaky the purple provenance of the sacred Confederate relic might have been, there actually had been some such tree. Maybe Chaucer’s Pardoner really did have a fragment of the sail from Saint Peter’s fishing skiff.

A few weeks ago there was a headline in the business section of the newspaper to this effect: “Apple: Solution or Problem?”  I suddenly realized that the considerable degree of ambiguity with which our digital cultures are being assessed everywhere in the press these days pretty well typifies the history of most metaphorical mythic apples in western culture, of which, Lord knows, there are plenty, and General Lee’s a mere also-ran.  Think of the “laryngeal prominence”—alias the Adam’s apple—so prominent in most males, including your bloguiste.  Does that refer merely to an anatomical site, a cartilage protrusion that is simply a feature of human males (adam in Hebrew) or is it rather specifically and theologically related to the man “Adam” in the Hebrew Scriptures as interpreted by early Fathers of the Church.   Surely the latter.

The Augustinian, or Calvininist doctrine of total depravity, without which surely John Winthrop would never have gotten to Massachusetts Bay nor Lindbergh back to Le Bourget, begins with the fruit tree of the third chapter of Genesis.  The sacred author did not actually identify the species, but everybody knew it had to be an apple.  “Adam lay ibowndyn, bowndyn in a bond/Fowre thowsand winter thowt he not to long”--so goes one of our most ancient Christmas songs.  “And al was for an appil, an appil that he tok, / As clerkes fyndyn wretyn in here book”.

History recapitulates philology.  The bad apple which has spoiled so many good ones was confirmed by a certain play on words in the Latin tongue.  Malum is the neuter form of the adjective for “injurious,” “bad” or “wicked.”  Mālum with a long vowel is the apple, fruit or tree.  As a verb mālo means “I choose” or “I prefer”.  Since the scriptural episode concerning the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” involves an evil choice of devastating consequence (“the Fruit of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast brought Death into the World, and all our woe” in Milton’s words), one can easily see how theology and philology joined forces.  It’s a challenge to make the “Turn of the Screw” even creepier than Henry James left it, but Benjamin Britten pulled it off in his operatic version by inventing a Latin lesson for the child Miles consisting of four haunting repetitions of the homophone "malo".

Of course the bad apple of Judaeo-Christian tradition has its parallel and probable antecedents in gentile mythology.  Like many Greek myths the tale of the Hesperides has come down in a confusing cascade of versions, but the main lines are clear.  The Hesperides, daughters of the golden sunset, are three beautiful sisters who look after Hera’s “garden in the West,” a glorious plantation strikingly similar to Dante’s Earthly Paradise in its geographical placement and general vibe.  In particular these girls guard the tree that bears the golden apples—the trouble being that they do not guard it well.  Zeus threw a big party to celebrate the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, but he did not include on the guest list Eris, goddess of Discord.  Understandable, perhaps, but fatal: it is always better, as LBJ knew, to have the camel inside the tent.  Eris got her hands on one of the golden apples and, tossing it like a grenade into the wedding feast, set off a ferocious rivalry among Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite as to which of them was most beautiful and therefore most deserving of the prize of the golden fruit.

This led to the mythological episode generally known as the Judgment of Paris—Paris being the shepherd lad plucked from obscurity to judge the beauty contest.  The contestants did their best to bribe the judge.  Hera offered him great political power.  Athena promised him wisdom.  Aphrodite offered him the world’s most beautiful woman.  It is difficult to explain this myth to modern undergraduates, most of whom are--beneath veneers of realism, feminism, progressivism, or vegetarianism—hardcore romantics.  They are inclined to think that Paris’s choice of Aphrodite (Venus), generally regarded as disastrous by the western cultural tradition, is a vindication of the unchanging majesty of the human heart.  The good news was that Paris got Helen.  The bad news, apparently at first overlooked in the small print on the back page, was that Helen’s friends and relations back home, who got very steamed up about all this, had a thousand warships at their disposal.  Thus, all for a golden apple, came the end of a great civilization.  It didn’t require much of a reach to “Christianize” this myth.  Note the serpent curled around the tree in the Burne-Jones.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Road to Xanadu

I have arrived at a surprising and surprisingly unanticipated stage of intellectual life that might be summarized in the following terms.  I can read any book I want to read but there is none I must feel obliged to read.  That is a wonderfully liberating feeling.  At the same time I am acutely aware that though the element of choice is theoretically absolute and the options nearly infinite, in actual, practical reality I face a narrowing and constriction.  There is only a certain amount more I’ll ever be able to read, and that decreases daily.  I suddenly feel obliged to make my reading count, so to speak.  I am surprising myself with some of my choices.  I am especially surprised to find myself revisiting with enthusiasm a scholarly book already a half century old when I first encountered it in graduate school: The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination (1927) by John Livingston Lowes.

As the eighteenth century came to its end S. T. Coleridge, still not yet thirty years of age, wrote what are probably his three most famous poems—“The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” the most famous of them all, and two extraordinary unfinished fragments, “Kubla Khan” and “Christabel.”  Anyone reading these pieces will immediately be struck by their technical brilliance, their boldness of imagery, and, quite frankly, their weirdness.  There are certain poets whose works fairly scream out a question: “Where did he come up with this wonderful stuff?”  Milton is one such poet; and the student of Paradise Lost knows the answer.  The poet immersed himself in years of intense post-graduate study to prepare for his epic labor, for he subscribed to the ancient belief that the writer’s first task was knowing something to write about.  Coleridge was among the most intellectually brilliant of all English poets and, so far as one can judge, he read as close to everything that had come off European presses since the Age of the Incunable as it was possible for an Enlightenment intellectual to read: science, philosophy, political economy, history, philology, theology, the vast new literature of travel and discovery.  The “Ancient Mariner” is on the surface a very bizarre story deployed at length in the form of a sing-song ballad; but it is absolutely brimming with arresting images of closely observed marine life and lore.  A reader simply knows intuitively that there is not a word in the poem that Coleridge had not pondered and fussed over, as when he describes the strange undulations of water snakes as differentially observed in the sea beneath the moonlight or within the huge, dark shadow cast by the ship itself: “blue, glossy green, and velvet black, / They coiled and swam; and every track / Was a flash of golden fire.”

Had landlocked Coleridge ever seen such a sight?  Had anyone?  Had the poet simply made it up, as poets are supposed to do?  Blue, and glossy green, and golden fire?  Snakes?  For a variety of good reasons Lowes was convinced that although Coleridge had never himself actually seen such things, his poetic imagination was being directed by his mind-boggling reading among authors who did claim to have done so: “travel writers” first among them, but also Enlightenment scientists of every stripe, navigators, marine biologists, zoologists, geographers, astronomers, botanists, theoreticians of optics, the surveyors of universal moral and mythical systems, biblical exegetes, naval architects—you name it, Coleridge had read it, mostly, it seems, by the time he was twenty-five years old.

Lowes was sixty when he published The Road to Xanadu, in which he tried to reconstruct the voracious reading that Coleridge had completed before 1800 and on which he drew—partly with scholarly intention, partly in inspired artistic intuition—in writing his extraordinary early poems.  “Kubla Khan” is a dope-fuelled fragment of less than sixty lines.  The Road to Xanadu is a plump book of 180,000 words plus about 150 dense pages of footnotes, many of them lapidary monuments to an awesome erudition.   And of course Lowes was doing nothing so crude as rummaging around for “sources”.  He had taken upon himself the far more subtle task of trying to retrace a powerful thinker’s “ways of the imagination.”

John Livingston Lowes (1867-1945)

Lots of aging professors of my generation are unhappy with the direction “advanced” literary study has taken in our colleges and universities.  You don’t need to hear me rehearse my tiresome complaints about the jargon, the tedious politicization, the obeisance to dubious theoretical models, the narrowness, the rampant aesthetic relativism, the indifference toward or even contempt of cultural traditions.  Dismiss this, if you choose, as the grousing of the superannuated.  But I will say one thing that is a simple objective fact.  While today many English professors may be “brilliant,” there are precious few who are truly erudite in the way my own graduate teachers were erudite.  These men (and one woman) were already the superstars of a second and third generation of great American literary scholars.  The true golden dawn, typified by Lowes and others on the graduate faculties at Harvard or Johns Hopkins, was about 1900-1920.  These giants were all multilingual polymaths.  Many, like Lowes himself, had had at least some of their training in Germany, the true nursery of the modern research university.  And, my God, did they ever know a lot!  

When, like Lowes, they were also confident writers whose prose was as daring, allusive, and challenging as that of Thomas Brown or a Walter Pater, they could produce works of literary scholarship barely distinguishable in aesthetic satisfaction from some of our most enduring masterpieces of imaginative fiction.  The Road to Xanadu is a trip, as the students used to say: a trip about a trip, to be more exact.  The cultivated American readership of the late Twenties recognized that fact.  The book was not exactly a New York Times “bestseller”, but the original runs were large enough that it’s still easy to snap up a copy on the second-hand market.  There are not many ninety-year-old learned tomes bristling with Latin and German footnotes of which you can—or for that matter would want to—say that.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Lignum vitae in medio paradisi

Last Saturday I got a very special gift.  Three of our beautiful granddaughters—the Fleming-Benite sisters, Sophia, Lulu, and Cora—made a special trip down from lower Manhattan.  They were accompanied by Sophia’s delightful boyfriend, Raymond.  Their mission was to bring cheer to their convalescent grandfather, and they did this in an ebullient fashion with various forms of highjinks and stimulating conversation.  It was actually Cora’s fourteenth birthday, and since I was temporarily unable to come to her, she came to me.  It’s not that a group of vital young New York women don’t have other options for an overcast Saturday, incidentally.  This was a gesture of pure, generous love that’s not for sale in any store.

Wherever today two or three young people are gathered together, there will you have also a sufficiency of smart phones, tools needed for tracking the scores of athletic contests in progress, for retrieving the menus of Chinese take-out restaurants, and for numerous other requirements of modern life.  Thus it was that there came leaking into our little idyll the electronic dribble of news—bad news, very bad news.  A madman in Pittsburgh had just shot to death a number of people gathered for worship in a house of prayer called the “Tree of Life”.  The number of victims was at that time still uncertain, and there was little information about the murderer beyond the fact that the police had captured him alive, though not before he had wounded some of them.  Before beginning the slaughter he was reported to have said “All Jews must die!”

All Jews must die.  It is theoretically possible, I suppose, to accept that statement as a philosophical summary of lugubrious truth, a recognition of the universality of human mortality.  “Golden lads and girls all must,” wrote Shakespeare, “As chimney-sweepers come to dust.”  But there isn’t very much theoretical or philosophical about the muzzle velocity of an assault rifle.  The man in Pittsburgh had meant what he said in the most hate-filled and homicidal sense.  He said it in a way that affronted the common humanity of mankind, the particular foul disgrace smeared on our nation being almost incidental.  His opinion was not one to be tolerated by anyone, anywhere, ever.  But it was particularly shocking to hear it in the context in which I heard it.  For one of the things about these golden girls of mine, this trio of lovely grandaughters, is that they happen to be our Jewish granddaughters.  So with an awful suddenness a grotesque if distant event reported from the other end of Pennsylvania seemed not so far away at all.  For the mystery of iniquity doth already work.

In the meantime the girls’ Dad, Zvi, was in Jerusalem where he had flown a few days earlier in order visit his parents—and in particular his father David, who is not mending well after a recent surgery.  So Zvi, who has a busy enough real life job as scholar and teacher, has been shuttling like a family Kissinger the roughly six thousand miles between ailing fathers.  When he is away, he usually sends me a cheering message now and then just for a chuckle.  That day’s message, which appeared either during or shortly after the slaughter, was in the form of a pair of photographs—easily worth a thousand words each—that have gone viral in Israel.  

 The murderer is supposed to have “explained” in a social media post that his more specific anti-Semitic rage was directed at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a charitable group that has tried to aid desperate Syrian refugees, for welcoming "invaders in that kill our people."  I have no idea what he means by “our people,” but in light of the horrible possibility he was talking about me, I allow myself the following remarks. 

I don’t know how many Christians have participated in a Passover seder or regularly share in an ordinary family Sabbath dinner, but whatever the number, it is not enough.  I say this from the perspective of a Christian seeking historical elucidation, of course, as well as of someone who likes a good meal.  The central Christian sacrament and unifying weekly religious rite is a symbolic meal of commemoration, one common name for which is “Communion”.  In our older churches its various ceremonies became settled only some centuries after the time of Jesus, but when they did so, they tended to become frozen in their particular historical moment.  Wearing very strange garments, the equivalent of the tuxedos worn by Roman aristocrats in the late Antique period, our priests preside over a solemn rite in which the elements of an actual communal meal are only symbolically and archaeologically apparent.  This ceremony must seem very weird indeed to anyone seeing it for the first time.  Jesus is credited with being its inventor, but as he was not a Christian but a Jew, he never saw anything like it.  You will see something Jesus was quite familiar with every Friday at our granddaughters' home.

All aspects of the Pittsburgh carnage are horrible, but one detail has an especially cruel irony.  That is the name of the synagogue: the Tree of Life.  That is a reference to one of the most famous trees in world literature: the lignum vitæ in medio Paradisi (Genesis 2:9).  I know a bit about it from the literary point of view because I have written about Bonaventure’s little masterpiece entitled Lignum vitæ.  As the ancient Hebrew image was continued in the Greek Scriptures we are told of this remarkable tree that “its leaves were for the healing of the nations.”  Nations.  Plural.