Wednesday, October 17, 2018


Yesterday, finally, after more than a fortnight of hard time, my family was able to spring me from the hospital.  Purity and simplicity of desire are perhaps rather rare but I longed to be home “as the hart panteth after the water brooks”.  The old verb may be apt in light of my (I hope temporarily) iffy pulmonary function, but even more so in the intensity of its modest objects: to be home among my books, with my long view of the sloping garden, and the aroma of a good soup from the kitchen.

            Contemporary medicine, of which I have been enjoying the most profligate and privileged applications, deserves to be called “awesome”—if there is any force left in an adjective so abused by trivial misuse.  One day I might try to write about my experience of it.  But as any of you generous enough to stick with me today will soon see, I am heading in a “political” direction; and I shall make in passing only a “political” point on this topic.  It is this: the undoubted excellence of American medicine, and especially the remarkable level of care available in the large teaching hospitals, would disappear like a whiff of smoke were it not for significant levels of recent high-skill immigration, especially from sub-continental and East Asia.

            Relief from the occasional angst and more frequent tedium of medical confinement came in two forms, television and books.  I made daily recourse to both.
The cable offerings were limited.  I may be one of few Americans who had never before experienced a full daily dose of either Fox News or MSNBC.  But I just had a crash course, and it was an appalling experience.  I will not say six of one and half a dozen of the other.  Fox News is essentially a low-brow propaganda outlet pure and simple.  MSNBC, slightly less vacuous and somewhat more intellectually serious, is a step up but still pretty close to the bottom of the staircase of serious journalism.  Both shocked me with their vulgarity.  I am referring here to the networks’ tediously repeating day-long morning and afternoon panels of talking heads.  Some of their prime-time “stars”—such as Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow--are highly intelligent partisan polemicists of considerable forensic agility.  They provide something of the experience of an Oxford Union debate, which is to say of engaging sophism that can be quite impressive in its power to confirm the rectitude of one’s pre-existing political biases.  MSNBC has the further ethical advantage of being able to expose and lambast presidential prevarications, while Fox must ignore or rationalize them.  But don’t confuse any of this with principled journalism.  Robert Hutchins once remarked of the two most popular “news” organs of my youth that “America has two great news magazines—Time magazine, for people who can’t think, and Life magazine, for people who can’t read.”  Such, roughly was my “discovery” of MSNBC and Fox.

            Fortunately, there was plenty to think about in the books I read.  I read five books by Jean-Francois Revel (1924-2006), a magnificent journalist and one of the great public intellectuals of post-War France.  He was probably best known in this country for his rather amazing book Without Marx or Jesus.  Like the great Raymond Aron (1905-1983), author of The Opium of the Intellectuals, Revel was a champion of “liberalism” in its European sense—a political philosophy based in individual ethical agency and in political and economic liberty.  (This is roughly what is known in the English political vocabulary as “classical conservatism.”)  Unless you have experienced French socialist groupthink in its massive, stolid immobility—as I was forced to do with relation to Arthur Koestler in The Anti-Communist Manifestos—you can have no conception of the sheer intellectual courage of these two men.

            The institution of academic tenure in American universities was intended to protect unpopular or transgressive thinkers from the persecution of political yahoos.  Its effect, on the other hand, has been to institutionalize a leftist conformism that aspires to absolute monopoly and a “multicultural diversity” as diverse as any two pieces of Velveeta cheese.  Since the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the triumph of savage capitalism in the People’s Republic of China, actual “real world” Marxists are pretty thin on the ground.  But universities, whether European or American, rarely aspire to quotidian reality.  I hope our humanities departments are not all destined to become the rag and bone shops in which the great achievements over long centuries of human intellect, art, and science are endlessly stretched upon the rack of “race, class, and gender,” with occasional further oppressive hierarchies still waiting to be fully exposed.  Against all this, in its full frontal Gallic form, Revel battled valiantly for long decades.

            Without Marx or Jesus was published in 1970.  Its opening sentences are these: “The revolution of the twentieth century will take place in the United States.  It is only there that it can happen.  And it has already begun.  Whether or not that revolution spreads to the rest of the world depends on whether or not it succeeds first in America.”  The one advantage of being fifty years late in reading the book, as I was, is that I could avoid the suspense.  The revolution did not succeed.  We blew it all on a big “tax break”, and the world reverted to the old tribalist busy-work.  “It is clear,” says Revel, “that the nation-state henceforth can serve only to polarize the most regressive tendencies of people and their rulers, and that it favors the selection of rulers from among the most aggressive, cynical, and unscrupulous sort of men—that is to say, from among those least capable of understanding the world as it is today and of ameliorating its condition.”  Sad.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The River and the Ocean

I think that it is somewhere in Freud’s correspondence that he writes about the “oceanic feeling”, a vague but comforting perception of unity with the universe in which the sense of individual identity, while not quite obliterated, succumbs to an all-encompassing vastness. I believe he theorized that it was a fetal memory of the security of the amniotic pool, but it is frequently experienced in end-of-life scenarios as well. Someone once described it as the religious experience of the non-religious. But why not as well the non-religious feeling of the religious? That is how I am feeling it, only for me it is as much about the river as about the ocean. Coleridge’s greatest poem, or rather maybe his best-known poem, the fragmentary vision called “Xanadu,” begins with a description of the building site chosen by the Great Khan for his fabulous “pleasure dome,” a landscape through which “Alph, the sacred river ran / Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea.” The river cascades, “And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean ;/ And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far/Ancestral voices prophesying war!"  “Sunless” and “lifeless” are hardly upbeat images.

For me the river—with its energy, its vitality, its ceaseless Heraclitean movement--is to be preferred, but I am not in a situation where preference is the decisive factor. This is not an autobiographical blog, but I probably need to be a little less oblique in addressing a kind readership, not all of whom can be familiar with the obsolete medieval Latin of the universities. I refer to “Aegrotat”, which turns out not to have been universally comprehensible. The blunter truth is that I am in the midst of an already extended stay in hospital, to which I was admitted on an emergency basis for a condition arising as one of the dreaded “side effects” of chemotherapy. Having brought under control the presenting problem, they returned last night to the therapy, and that doubtless is why my midnight mind returned to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” one of the great hop head poems in our tongue. As he started writing the poet was powerfully animated by the ingestion of opium, but he was inopportunely interrupted by “a person from Porlock” knocking on his front door. Nobody knows who exactly this unfortunate visitor was, but he has a lot to answer for. He stayed for a full hour, by which time the poet’s buzz was gone, and with it his pizzaz. Hence the fragmentary nature of “Kubla Khan”. 

 The future of “Gladlylerne” naturally depends upon the uncertain future of the writer of “Gladlyteche.” But modern medicine is truly miraculous, and there is at least some hope that I might return to topics of wider interest than my hallucinatory dreams—such topics as those raised by my readings in the Library of America’s Civil War volumes, which have been reflected in a few earlier posts. There is some concrete evidence here. Yesterday my old friend Sean Wilentz visited me, bearing in hand a precious gift. This was a copy—signed and with a flattering inscription-- of his most recent book: No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding (Harvard University Press, 2018). I rarely finish reading a book within a day of receiving it, but then again I am rarely confined to a bed. This book is not a page-turner. It requires too much thought and too much attention to its copious detail for that. Nor am I a professional American historian--among whose ranks Wilentz is eminent--qualified to identify with precision every point of the book’s originality and the finesse of its revisionism. But like a lot of gloomy Americans I have long believed that the Founders, adopting a transactional attitude half way between mere expediency and sheer hypocrisy, abandoned our precious founding documents to the censorship of slaveholders. Wilentz shows how far that is from being true, beginning with his incremental exegesis of the phrase “property in man” as an apparent euphemism for chattel slavery. Words matter. They mattered in 1790. And words that recognized the existence of a nearly universal social reality were by no means words that could long approve, propagate, or eventually protect slavery. Guided by Wilentz’s careful tutelage a reader of the papers of the Constitutional Congress may with Kubla Khan very well “hear from far/Ancestral voices prophesying war!” 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Confirmation Bias Festival

We say that “seeing is believing”.  But there are far too many times when, in fact, “believing is seeing”—that is, when our interpretation of evidence or our adjudication of conflicting claims is crucially influenced by what we already believe and want to be able to continue to believe.  That is, we are happier to entertain ratifications of our ideas than challenges to them.  Psychologists have offered a technical term to describe the tendency: confirmation bias.  At the time of the posting of this essay (around six am on September 26) much of the nation is noisily participating in a Confirmation Bias Festival, and millions have self-righteously settled into a certain and fixed opinion on one side or other of disputed matters that are simply indecipherable on the basis of the evidence as yet made public.  One of the features of the PBS “News Hour” on Fridays is “Brooks and Shields”--a conversation between a “liberal pundit” (Mark Shields) and a “conservative pundit” (David Brooks) concerning the week’s news.  These conversations usually differ markedly in tone from the standard cable shouting matches by being intelligent, civil, and even on occasion witty.  On Friday Ramesh Punnuru (pinch hitting for for the regular “conservative,” David Brooks) said this: “One of the things that's most dismaying about this entire debate is that almost everybody's views about what did or didn't happen thirty-six years ago line up perfectly with what they think ought to happen to Roe v. Wade now.”

That remark took me aback for about a second and a half, until it sunk in that the man had nailed it.  The briefest moment of further thought led me to perceive that the statement would probably hold true for the whole of the current “confirmation hearings” and most other hearings I have observed in the last two decades.  What everybody is trying to confirm is not the nominee but what they already believe about the nominee.  And even though I make no claims to clairvoyance, I already knew at that moment that an inevitable “second accuser” must even now be waiting in the wings.  By Monday she had appeared in the digital pages of the Journal of Sexual Archaeology, better known as The New Yorker.

For the boy is father to the man, and a mere few weeks distance the prep school senior from the college freshman—in this instance, preppy pawing from fresher flashing.  This time the victim was a female Yale classmate who, though very pious, had unwisely joined with the nominee and others in a drinking game.  The story is too gross to repeat in a family blog.  But it is an ill wind that blows no one any good, and the reported episode has already catapulted the New York Post into the front-runner’s position in this year’s national competition for the “Most Dubious Single Journalistic Sentence of the Year” Award. “‘That’s not a real penis,’ the devout Catholic recalled thinking”.  

As a medievalist, most of what I know about the recalled thinking of devout Catholic girls comes from my professional readings in the autobiographies of notable nuns—as, for instance, the celebrated autobiography of Teresa of Avila.  That’s a really long book, and I’ve read it twice without finding anything half so arresting.  And, please, do not accuse me of making light of serious matters, or of failing to “listen”.   I would think that the prose of the New York Post is pretty risible even if we weren’t threatened by constitutional crisis.  Facing the relentless and long-term coarsening of our political culture—in the 1991 Judiciary Committee hearings the star turn involved not dildos but pubic hair on a Coke can, you may recall—the two viable choices are laughing and weeping.  It’s a tough call, perhaps, but I have to opt for the prospect of the better health outcomes associated with the former.

Partisan political passion, which we see displayed before us in nearly equal opposing force on a Senate committee, is among the most powerful stimulants of confirmation bias.  So, in another way, is my own long experience as a Princeton college master, which left me convinced that serious incidents of student sexual misbehavior are so closely connected with alcohol abuse that it is pedantic to regard them as separate issues.  Unfortunately the adjudication of such episodes sometimes fades into the blur from which they emerged.  So far, the signs in Washington are not good.  “The Democrats are working hard to destroy a wonderful man,” says the President. “I believe Dr. Blasey Ford,” says Senator Gillibrand, “because she’s telling the truth.”  These statements are, respectively, a partisan political opinion and a grammatically meaningless tautology.

I accept on faith the social science findings that false accusations of sexual assault are rare.  But if they never happened at all the Trustees of Duke University would not have had to pay out millions in damages to defamed members of an athletic team.  The Duke Lacrosse Rape Hoax—swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the “quality” press and fanned by the ideological passions of prominent university professors and administrators—was an orgy of confirmation bias.  Nor could have Sabrina Erdely’s disgraceful essay “A Rape on Campus,” a grotesque Gothic fiction purportedly illustrating a national campus “rape culture” as evidenced at the University of Virginia, been welcomed to the pages of a once-respected journal of contemporary culture.

I think we can count on our politics remaining foul however this episode ends, as it must do soon.  We might be spared a little national embarrassment by going slow on the premature certainty.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Tabula Rasa

Nature or nurture?  The vexed question thus posed in shorthand was thorny enough even before it became supercharged by certain topics of bitter debate in the current Academy.  I have been thinking about two of these Third Rail issues—the theory of the radical “social construction of gender” and the investigation of large data sets concerning the distribution of varying intelligence quotients among human populations—but in terms of a blog “publication” I have sufficient good sense to stick to my cobbler’s last, which I take to be philology. 

The question is whether we human beings come into this world furnished or unfurnished with cognitive content, so to speak.  Are there such things as innate ideas?  Are certain skills—a capacity for language, for instance—“hard-wired” at birth?  Or was everything “within” us once “outside” us?  The old idealist tradition, carried on and Christianized by so many of the medieval writers I most admire, generally believed in innate ideas, but believed also in a kind of curse of ethical amnesia that so dimmed and blurred them as to leave us struggling in a moral fog as we become ever more mired in the world and its experiences.  That is a main theme of Wordsworth’s great “Immortality Ode.”  The child enters the world “trailing clouds of glory”—with a soul “not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness” but, alas, pretty close to it.  Perhaps the best-known philosophical denier of innate ideas was John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), a work of enormous influence on modern political thought, especially radical thought.  The less “essential” human nature there is, the more formless and malleable it is taken to be, the better it is for political radicals like the Marxists.  If “human nature” is entirely created by socio-economic forces external to the individual, social engineering is not merely acceptable but laudable

What interests me now are the metaphors that have been used to describe the human mind in its supposedly original empty state, for they are scriptorial and bibliographical images: the tabula rasa, the clean slate, the blank page.  Other metaphors for filling a void might seem more apt: filling up an empty vessel with liquid from a pitcher, for example.  But we find in the figurative language a kind of mini-history of writing methods.  The tabula, or wax-covered board, was an accouterment of ancient and medieval schools.  A student could incise the wax with a hardwood or metal stylus, creating legible signs.  We still can use the word tablet of certain notebooks.  If you then heated the wax you could easily scrape it flat again, creating a new usable surface or tabula rasa, rasa being the feminine participle of rado, “to scrape or shave”.  At a later date the more common writing surface in the schoolroom was slate, a small slab of fine-grained, foliated metamorphic rock on which chalk marks could be easily made and easily erased.  A big piece of slate used for this purpose is usually called a blackboard.

It turns out that certain common ideas and terms are surprisingly hard to nail down securely.  I am just at the moment not able to get to the library so frequently as I would wish, and my Internet search for the actual first known use of the phrase tabula rasa to denote the infant consciousness in an “originary” state has been inconclusive.  Younger readers may be startled to learn that there are things, including some important ones, that aren’t on the Internet.  (Alternatively, I might be entirely unsurprised to realize that they are there, but that I am incapable of finding them!)  I suspect that tabula rasa must show up in one of the medieval Latin translations of Aristotle; but that is just a guess.   Locke himself, though the purported inventor of the tabula rasa theory, was too modern to bother with waxed boards or thinly-sliced rocks.  As somebody who did a lot of writing, he knew what it was that people actually preferred to write upon.  Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas:—How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience.”

Alas, my own mind is far too often very like “white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas”.  Except that the experienced void appears closer to cotton wool or the styrofoam packaging peanuts that follow me through life.  Impelled by random forces of static electricity they fall to the carpet or cling in chains to the Amazon box.  These things certainly do look “socially constructed” to me.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Haitian Art

          A hundred years ago and more the Pioneer Works  in Brooklyn’s Red Hook district housed a massive heavy metal industrial site at which, among other things, locomotive engines and cars were built and repaired.   In many parts of the country the architectural reclamation and imaginative repurposing of such industrial white mastodons is one of the impressive cultural achievements of our own age.    I have written about this one—on Pioneer Street off Van Brunt, Red Hook’s main drag--once before, as the venue of the wedding dinner of our son Richard and his bride Katie Dixon.  Six years later its evolution toward its proposed artistic mission is much more articulate.  On Friday last there was the opening at the Pioneer Works of a striking new exhibition entitled “PòtoPrens—the Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince”.  Its principal curator, Leah Gordon, a leading expert on contemporary Haitian art, is a friend of Richard’s.
               Unfortunately we were not able to make it to the opening, which was apparently mobbed, but as the show will be running through November 11 we shall certainly have our chance for a proper visit.  What I did have is a kind of privileged and informal preview a couple of days earlier.  I was in the City for an appointment scheduled at an upper-east-side venue for the late morning on Wednesday.  I was able to stay with the Brooklynites over Tuesday night and then hang out for about an hour at the Pioneer Works to watch Rich help with the installation of his own imaginative contribution to the show. 

               I have a few times been in museums on a Monday, when they are usually closed to the public but sometimes make special arrangements for visiting firemen in the categories of donor, big-wig, or academic authority.  You can easily guess my supposed category.  But even for those at the bottom of the privilege chain, the feeling of entitlement is nearly obscene.  I had never before, however, experienced a privileged survey of a large holding area crammed with the focused materials of a substantial art exhibition in embryo--huge sculpted stone heads, recycled bright bricolage of every genre (though with a specialized subspecialty of multiform constructions made of old bicycle parts), and importunate panchromatic panels of a sort guaranteed to make the vicar blush—all of it, presumably, awaiting its carefully premeditated gallery deployment within the next forty-eight hours.  In this exhibition of a collection of the work of more than twenty contemporary Haitian artists, the Pioneer Works is breaking new grounds.  The potential exhibition space—once an enclosed quadrangular garage that could accommodate the assembly of a couple of steam locomotive engines at a time—is vast, with walls soaring upward from a shining floor of highly finished concrete burnished by diamond polishing pads.

               But Richard’s contribution is not mounted in the interior space of the Pioneer Works, but in its intriguing outdoor garden.  In this surprising setting—essentially a patch of brownfield transformed into luxurious Mediterranean greenery—carpenters have constructed a replica of a typical Haitian barbershop.  Barbershops, which have historically played an important social role in the lives of various communities—including especially, in our country, various African-American communities—are of particular importance in urban Haiti.  Concerning the model building erected upon the gravel of the Pioneer Works courtyard, the curatorial notes read as follows:


The innumerable barbershops competing for attention amidst the visual chaos of Port-au-Prince are the fundamental small business of the city. Built from recycled shipping containers, box trucks or sheets of plywood, decorated with giant portraits of celebrities and haircuts, they are often a kind of neighborhood social club. They are also sculptural objects in their own right.

The Salon de Beauté Marie Rogère at Pioneer Works extends a long-term collaboration between documentarian Richard Fleming and Grand Rue portraitist Michel Lafleur, the Amazing Barbershop Project. This Unisex shop honors Lafleur’s mother, Destin Marie Rogère, who passed away in June.

               The “Amazing Barbershop Project” here referenced is a continuing initiative which my son has pursued on a long-term basis in Port-au-Prince.  You can learn more about the project via Instagram (@amazingbarbershop).  It has several thrusts, but one of the most important is the encouragement, appreciation, and wider recognition of the Haitian barbershop painting—half vernacular portraiture, half “pop art”—that is a distinctive feature of the “visual chaos” of the capital city.  When I saw it mid-morning Wednesday a week ago the building was up and framed, but that was about all.  The speed and skill with which the carpenters finished the job is evident from the photographs taken a day later.  I am told that it is authentic in all respects, including the most important one.  When you visit the show, if you happen to hit things just right, you might also be able to get a haircut there at the hands of highly experienced Haitian barber Patrick Goby, whose permanent shop is a couple of miles away in Flatbush.

The exhibition PòtoPrens runs at the Pioneer Works, 158 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn, until November 11.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Benefit of Clergy (With and Without)

Perhaps if I begin this time with the digression—get it out of the way early, so to speak--my eventual topic may emerge more clearly.  I first encountered the odd phrase benefit of clergy in the title of a Kipling short story by Rudyard Kipling.  Kipling was one of two very great writers, contemporaries—the other being Joseph Conrad—who are suffering what I pray is temporary academic neglect for their crimes of political incorrectness.  The full title of his story is “Without Benefit of Clergy,” and its subject is amazingly “modern” and shockingly “transgressive” for something published in 1890.  It is about a British colonial bureaucrat, John Holden, with a secret double life.  Everyone takes Holden for a bachelor, but actually he is shacked up with a young Muslim girl, Ameera, whom he bought, in a little house on the edge of town.  She gives birth to their child, and for a while they are blissful.  Then the baby dies.  Then the girl-mother dies.  End of idyll, end of story.  It’s as though it all never happened.

The phrase “without benefit of clergy,” of course alluded to the irregular sexual union at the center of the story, unsanctified by religion and therefore presumably deeply shocking to Victorian readers, or at least those unfamiliar with Kipling’s 1892 poem “Road to Mandalay” in which he has an ordinary British sailor wistfully hoping to be shipped “somewhere East of Suez, where the best is like the worst, Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst.”  Actual Victorians were not all that Victorian.

I have seen the idea of “benefit of clergy” used in a similar manner in many other places, though such usage misunderstands the phrase.  Benefit of clergy is actually a technical legal term dating from the Middle Ages.  It refers to the legally enshrined clerical privilege of exemption from the civil courts or their penalties for felonies under certain circumstances.  The clerus in Christian Latin, the generic word for the clerical estate, suggested a special degree of education.  The “clerics” or “clergy” were the educated ones, and they were afforded special legal advantages.  So there was one law for the lettered men and another for the lewd men or lay men.  The origins of this legal peculiarity are obscure.  But there is a probably relevant biblical passage in the First Book of Chronicles (16:22) that reads “Touch not mine anointed, and do no evil to my prophets” (Nolite tangere christos meos, et in prophetis meis nolite malignari).  The Chronicles (or Paralipomenon as they were generally called in the Latin Bible) are of course history books, and for the most part not merely prose but distinctly prosaic.  But most of this one chapter is a pretty fancy poem, a kind of misplaced psalm, that seems to suggest that the special function of the “anointed” is literary: to proclaim among the nations the glory and dominion of the Lord.  And, indeed, the special office of the medieval clergy—actually called that, “the Office,” was the faithful recitation of the psalter.

All this is speculative, but it fits in so nicely with another aspect of the “benefit of clergy” that I cannot resist bringing it up.  That aspect is the means by which an accused person could actually claim clerical exemption from the penalties of the secular law.  Remember that English law was pretty sanguinary, becoming ever more so with the advancement of modernity.  Somebody has made an actual census, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century there were two hundred and twenty-two statutory crimes for which the penalty was hanging.  It is a number that sticks in the mind.  In the gentler, good old medieval days of Merry England there were probably only half that number, but every town had its gibbet, and many of them more than one.  So if you were a Friar Tuck type, prone upon occasion to poach a rabbit or two in Lord Oswald’s timber reserve, you needed some definite means of demonstrating that you were too erudite to swing.

The legal convention that emerged was this: a defendant could establish claim to benefit of clergy by being able to read the opening verse or verses of the Miserere, the fiftieth psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness: in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.  Thoroughly wash me from my guilt, and of my guilt cleanse me” et caetera.  The Miserere is the most famous of the penitential psalms, and indeed it grew out of a matter needing much penance.  Its medieval rubric identified it as “a psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after his sin with Bathsheba,” discreetly leaving unmentioned the fact that David had also arranged to have Bathsheba’s husband killed by way of anticipatory cover up.  Thus by being able to bewail your guilt in biblical Latin, you might dodge guilt’s hempen and vernacular guerdon.  This biblical passage was aptly called “the neck verse,” and it makes numerous witty appearances in medieval literature.  One of them is this: Miserere is the very first word spoken by the pilgrim-narrator of the Divine Comedy (Inferno, 1:65).  I suspect that Kipling himself was aware of the cultural background of “benefit of clergy,” and were there but world enough and time I might even write an essay about it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Third Man

T. S. Eliot
I got to thinking about the third man.  What third man? you might ask, and that’s the whole point.  There are so many of them.  A small convention of third men joined in my consciousness last week in a curious fashion.

At the time I first became seriously interested in poetry, in the 1950s, T. S. Eliot still wielded great prestige among academic intellectuals.  I didn’t like Eliot, and I certainly didn’t understand him; but I knew I was supposed to, and I soldiered on.  But he is not a poet for a tutorless adolescent in a hick highschool, and it was only in my fifties and sixties that I really “got” it.  These days any casual rereading is likely to yield a new surprise.  Last week I was dipping into “The Wasteland,” where in the final section  (“What the Thunder said”) you find this:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count there are only you and I together…
These lines, Eliot says, “were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton’s): it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.”
Orson Welles
            I’ll return to this somewhat obscure third man in a moment, but he raised in my mind a more obvious one, Orson Welles’s The Third Man, the most famous British film ever made, and among the contenders for best made anywhere.   I first saw it, probably, in 1952.  No one reading this essay will need to be told about it, or its haunting musical theme.  The plot involves the topos of the dead man who is not actually dead.  It established important elements of the iconography of the Cold War for many of us who lived through that period.  In 1951 two British diplomats, Burgess and Maclean, who happened also to be two Soviet spies, disappeared just before they could be arrested by British intelligence agents.  Obviously, they had been tipped off.  By whom?  By a Third Man, of course.  This eventually turned out to have been super-spy Kim Philby.  This affair was certainly the most famous episode in the lively history of Cold War espionage, and the fact that there eventually turned out to be a fourth man, a fifth man, and for all we know a fourteenth man did nothing to dull the world’s definitive fascination with the concept of the Third Man.  How else than by early and obsessive engagement with the Cold War could a medievalist come to write a book about Cold War literature? 
"Road to Emmaus" by Duccio
            The third man of Orson Welles was mysterious and malign; Kim Philby was mysterious and malign.  What about Eliot’s?  He is mysterious to be sure, perhaps even spectral; but since he is Jesus, he is definitely benign.  The allusion is not even all that obscure.  It is to the great but puzzling story (Luke, cap 24) of the encounter of two disciples (Cleopas and possibly Luke himself) with the risen Christ as, shortly after the Crucifixion, they were walking along the road from Jerusalem to the nearby village of Emmaus.  All this vaguely coalesced in my mind in this most recent casual dip into Eliot; but why does the poet’s note talk about Antarctic exploration rather than the gospel of Luke?  For elucidation I turned to my son Richard, the only Antarctic explorer of my immediate acquaintance.  He didn’t know off the top of his head, but he performed a twelve second google, which did the trick—a little embarrassing, since I am the one who is supposed to be the literary scholar in the family.  Rich sent me to an excellent brief essay by Sandra Lockwood, a Canadian graduate student at Simon Fraser University, entitled “Third Man Phenomenon.” (  The essay includes bibliographical notes of an illuminating nature.  Of Shackleton she writes thus:Shackleton’s story is one of the great epics of human survival and the best-known example of Third Man phenomena. However, his experience is not unique. Mountaineers, astronauts, athletes, sailors, and 9/11 ‘Twin Tower’ survivors have recorded similar encounters with a life saving presence. This presence is often described as that of a guardian angel, a helper ghost, a shadow being, a heavenly guide, and a divine companion.”  

 A Day at the Beach, South Georgia Island
           Shackleton’s is perhaps the best known example of the phenomenon as it applies to physical danger and distress, but if we expand the field to include the spiritual, surely the twenty-fourth chapter of Luke, which has attracted reams of exegetical commentary and a significant visual iconography, would claim precedence.  I presume Ms. Lockwood invokes Eliot, though not the Emmaus story, because the poet himself speaks of the Shackleton episode (rather inexactly) in his notes.  But the section called “What the Thunder said” begins with a medley of scriptural allusions to the Passion narrative, which the poet assumes do not need footnoting—the Agony in the Garden, the betrayal on the Mount of Olives, and the hubbub at Pilate’s palace: “He who was living is now dead /We who were living are now dying”.  The narrative counterpoint is the Third Man of the Emmaus road, and the man who was dead and is now living.

            Whatever the case, my third men were dragging me back over decades to the 1950s—when I first read Eliot, when I first saw the Orson Welles film, and when I first became immersed in the dubious battles of the Cold War.  And if Sterne could write a whole shaggy dog novel (Tristram Shandy) on the basis of Locke’s whimsical theory of the “association of ideas,” surely I can get by with a short blog post?