Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Infantile Laughter

The Montréalers

In America the aging process has been minutely studied by the commercial sector.  It can be documented quite accurately through the larger rhythms of your junk mail.  And since practically nobody writes real letters anymore, except perhaps at Christmas, that means most of what shows up in the box.  The future is laid out before you in mimeographed flyers and glossy brochures.  At first this may seem rather curious to you.  At approximately forty you start getting regular communications from AARP—the American Association of Retired People.  They continue for the next twenty or thirty years, by which time you may actually be thinking about retirement.  You get a lot of stuff about insurance, naturally, supplementary medical plans, dental implants, hearing aids, and a bewildering number of ingenious gizmos and gadgets especially designed ease the burden of the increasingly arthritic housewife or gardener as we go around our daily chores. And since we live in an Age of Experiences—at least so far as the burgeoning travel industry is concerned—there are marvelous opportunities to search for whales off the coast of Alaska, or join in the Kangaroo Count in the Outback or to “discover” various islands that have been in a state of unceasing discovery since the fifteenth century.  And there are cruises galore.  We have just signed up for our first.

            We have the good fortune, by no means shared by all, of having pleasant experiences to pick and being able to afford to pick a few of them.  Not surprisingly growing old delivers plenty of experiences free of charge and on its own, and a certain number of them are frankly unpleasant.  That I’m having a few of those myself at the moment may be what has led me to this week’s essay, though what I am most conscious of is something very different: namely wonderful experiences unavailable to the young.  There are more of these than you might think, but at the top of the list is an indisputable one, the experience of having grandchildren.  On that score we have pretty well hit the jackpot.  We have six of them, by actual count.   And they are not merely numerous and delightful, but also proximate.  Four of them live in New York, less than sixty miles away.

            For purposes of specific identification we invoke geographical place names, as they did in the Middle Ages.  Thomas Aquinas got his name not from being the son of Mr. and Mrs. Giuseppe Aquinas but because he came from a place called Aquino.  Thus among our New York grandchildren we have the three Manhattanites (Sophia, Lulu, and Cora) and the Brooklynite (Ruby).   Rather farther afield we have the two Montréalers (John Henry and Hazel), though just at the moment they are not far afield at all, but actually under our roof.

            The Montréalers are still quite young—six and four—and they can make quite a lot of noise.  To be honest, the sonic production of young children, which can include wailing, squabbling, sudden shrieks of indignation, alarming coughs, the mysterious thuds of heavy things dropping—is not always welcome.  Such noises can lead to grandparental ire, parental admonition, or even a trip to the ER—all of which we have already had in a rather short period of time.  But it is all drowned out and forgotten in the blessed noise of spontaneous laughter of unseen children coming from some corner of the house.

            It was the sing-song voices of little children playing on the other side of his garden wall that led to the conversion of the young Augustine.  What a laugh that was!  Many years ago in England, when our two older kids were roughly the age of John Henry and Hazel, we visited one of Joan’s aged aunts and the aunt’s even more aged husband.  I have only vague memories of the visit, but one thing sticks in my mind.  The husband was infirm as well as antique.  I believe he had met his wife when he was already an invalid and she a care provider.  He was in a wheel chair.  He dressed in an old-fashioned, formal manner that reminded me of the rich guy on the Monopoly cards.  But he was greatly animated by our visit.  The children delighted him.  “Listen to that!” he commanded me, referring to the noise emanating from our offspring in another room.  “Listen to that infantile laughter!”  It was one of the few times in my life I have encountered the word infantile in its literal and affirmative sense.

            What I thought was white birds.  That is because I often am “triggered” to remember lines of poetry.  The poem that came to my mind was one that nobody else seems to have read: John Masefield’s “The Everlasting Mercy”.  To guarantee that you will never be tempted to repair that lacuna I can tell you that it is a kind of Edwardian Methodist update of “Piers Plowman”.

O Christ who holds the open gate

O Christ who drives the furrow straight,

O Christ, the plough, O Christ, the laughter

Of holy white birds flying after…

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Annals of Contemporary Verse

I hope that my indulgent readers can believe that my intentions for this week’s essay were good.  I had identified a topic (category: “general interest”) that might have bored you but was unlikely to antagonize you.  The entire country is inundated in waves of vitriolic controversy, everywhere amplified by screaming headlines, screaming demonstrators, and screaming heads on television programs.  We could all do with a holiday from politics, and from those widening manifestations of it known as the Culture Wars.  But I made the mistake of beginning my day by perusing the newspaper, wherein I found an article thus titled: “The Nation Magazine Betrays a Poet—and Itself,” by Grace Schulman, a former poetry editor at that magazine.  As I am a lover of poetry, as well as a professor of it, this caught my eye.

            It might seem unlikely that a story needing so much preliminary explanation could be of much weight, but here goes.  The Nation, historically one of the country’s important voices of left-wing politics, though fallen on hard ideological times, still has a small cultural following.  A recent issue included a short poem by one Anders Carlson-Wee, a name previously unknown to me, as are the names of most obscure young American poets.   The poem is slight, but I thought pretty interesting; and I’ll tell you about it in just a minute.  But first you need to know what happened.  The Nation has two poetry editors, a number that might seem excessive in terms of the journal’s marginal role in the contemporary literary scene.  Both of these women found the poem praise-worthy and recommended its publication.  But what is called a “Twitter storm” soon led to what is called a “critical reappraisal”.  After finding on their phones outraged comments from self-appointed spokespersons of various “communities” they concluded that Carlson-Wee’s poem—far from being good—was actually bad, really bad, probably racist, certainly “ableist,” and unquestionably appropriationist.  Culturally speaking, that is.  So the poetry editors actually published an apology in their journal for having published the poem!  That sentence probably requires two exclamation points, one for each editor.  But then what would I do with the fact that Mr. Carlson-Wee himself twittered out an abject apology dripping with socialist self-criticism?  That one merits a haud credibile.

            What was all this about?  I attach, obviously for “fair use” pedagogical purposes, the full text of Carlson-Wee’s poem as I find it on the Internet.  Though lacking the disciplinary constraints of a conventional sonnet, it is fourteen lines long.  Like, say, a Browning monologue, this poem has an imaginary voice, a voice that a reader will likely suppose is that of an uneducated but savvy black street person. This voice offers on the basis of personal experience cynical advice concerning more and less effective ploys for that species of passive panhandling characterized by down-and-outs sitting on the sidewalk while holding a cardboard sign identifying the sitter’s particular circumstances and/or difficulties.  As a literary critic I find the situation interesting and daring.  Though not without offenses against both lexicon and narrative plausibility, the poem has an ethos that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.  It certainly tries to “give voice to the marginalized” and “invert hierarchies” and do other good stuff like that.  It actually invokes something of the complex discomfort that I (and I suspect many others in the demographic of actual readers of the Nation and other journals of similar intellectual ambition) not infrequently experience on the streets of New York.  I think it’s a pretty good shot at socially conscious art.

            Yet both the poetry experts at the magazine and the poet himself turned on a dime when upbraided by censors.  In a blinding flash they grasped the profound political incorrectness of what they had done.  They had allowed a white man to drop from his declarative sentences various forms of the verb to be, a colloquial feature of non-standard dialect in the speech of millions of his fellow citizens.  They had let stand the word crippled, a barbaric linguistic fossil painful to the differently abled.  Above all they had not guaranteed that the poet “stay in his lane”.  They had allowed, nay encouraged, an artistic attempt beyond solipsism, one in which the artist attempted to imagine something other than himself.   In his tweeted mea culpa the poet wrote: “I am beginning a process of talking to people and reevaluating what it means to make art in this world from a place of privilege….I will be donating my publication honorarium to Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness.”  It is no mean feat to grovel and virtue-signal in the same utterance, but Mr. Carlson-Wee pulls it off.

            I thought of the writing assignment required of the child Augustine.  This young Roman boy was made to write a lament in the voice of Dido—a woman, a queen, a Carthaginian!  I thought of Max Eastman’s book entitled Artists in Uniform, in which he delineated the cruel victory of Marxist dogma over a brilliant poetic efflorescence.  I though of such triumphs of the imagination as Gulliver’s Travels and The Memoirs of a Midget by Walter de la Mare.  And I felt that I would weep.

If you got hiv, say aids.  If you a girl
say you’re pregnant—nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick.  People
passing fast.  Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny.  It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend.  Don’t say homeless, they know
you is.  What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop.  If you’re young say younger.
Old say older.  If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it.  Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice.  Don’t say you pray,
say you sin.  It’s about who they believe
they is.  You hardly even there.
                                    Anders Carlson-Wee

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

In Search of Elitism

Norman Rockwell, "Election Day"

Recently I have been reading a good deal about elites and elitism in the papers, and it seems pretty clear that a lot of folks don’t like them or it.  Many of these elites live in coastal states, where they drink Sancerre and macchiatos—ingestive behaviors that have so provoked the non-elites, who live in landlocked states and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon and Doctor Pepper, as to lead to the election of President Donald Trump.  The denizens of Flyover Country are “populists” or at least suckers for “populism”—making it all the more confusing that Mr. Trump did not in fact win the “popular” vote.

For a long time I though elite meant “little writing”.  This is on account of an old Smith-Corona portable typewriter that was lying around my grandmother’s house.  It was an elite typewriter—meaning that it produced a line of type with twelve characters to the inch.  This seemed more elegant than the standard burly pica, with only ten characters per inch.  Many years later, when I began to learn something about printing, all this became clearer.  But since nobody can tell me what a “populist” is, I have came to think of Trump voters as the Picas.

American politicians were already wooing the Picas before Andrew Jackson.  If you are old enough you may remember Spiro Agnew, a disgraceful and indeed disgraced Vice-President in the Age of Nixon, notable back in the day for his pithy invective.  It was he, for example, who memorably characterized his critics as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”  Of course he only said that.  The actual author of the words was William Safire, a Republican speech-writer and long-time “word maven” for the New York Times.  But Agnew did actually say a few things on his own.  When criticized for being a mediocrity he uttered a plea of no contest but pondered aloud whether his critics didn’t think that the large number of mediocre Americans were deserving of representation.

            This was met with howls of derision, though it was in fact a classic American gesture of anti-elitism of the sort that has given so many of our politicians their annoying folksiness.  Once the Founding Fathers were gotten out of the way, claiming to have been born in a log cabin became one of the first requirements for major political office. The log cabin was the only maternity ward suitable for a serious presidential aspirant.  Having forebears who arrived on Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower was far less prestigious than having arrived in Dry Gulch in a covered wagon.  Oklahoma became a state in 1907.  It immediately became de rigueur for gubernatorial candidates there to boast of a strain of “Indian blood” not always clearly demonstrated by the handwritten genealogies in their family Bibles.  The current senior senator from Massachusetts, born an Okie, has carried the tradition into the twenty-first century.  No elitist can beat us.

            But the cold comfort of philology is that the American political system is and must remain inescapably elitist—at least so long as we remain committed to an electoral process.  As is true of many modern English word families, the vocabulary of election includes some words directly derived from Latin and some others indirectly derived by way of medieval French.  The Latin verb eligere means to choose, select, or elect.  The idea is that of identifying a preference among options.  The past participle of eligere is electus, and from that we get elect in its nominative and adjectival forms in both its theological (“Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth…”) and social (the Mikado’s daughter-in-law-elect) senses.  The process of choosing is called election.  The word elite is an old French equivalent of the Latin electus, and it too has entered the English vocabulary.

            What goes without saying often goes unsaid.  The idea of election or choice implies a perceived superiority.  If you have a choice among several options, you want to choose the best, the biggest, the tastiest, the freshest, the cleanest, the most valuable, etc.  When we speak of “elite schools” it implies that we think that Harvard University is in some sense superior to Podunk County Community College.  And not to choose something is to neg+elect it.  We now hear that Donald Trump is the revenge of a neglected electorate.  This is all rather curious.  The associations of certain usages of the word elite—especially that of snobbish superiority—point to a paradox in the electoral process.  All politicians crave to be elected.  None dares claim to be elite.

You or I may find that elitism renders puzzling results.  In an age more innocent of political correctness a witty British journalist came up with a witty apothegm: How odd of God to choose the Jews.  To which the brilliant riposte soon came: Far from bizarre.  The goyim annoy Him.  We still await the bard of the election of 2016.


Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Ernest Renan


Ernest Renan
 Some ideas are truly tried and true.  “A good book,” Milton wrote in his Aereopagitica, “is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”  It seems wonderful to me that a man in his eighties can still discover “new” master spirits with all the pleasure and excitement of his twenties.  In my last days in Paris earlier this month I finally got around to reading some Ernest Renan (1823-1892), one of the iconic European intellectuals of the nineteenth century.  His literary and scholarly production in the fields of philology, philosophy, and history was enormous, and I have barely scraped its surface with what are perhaps his two most popular books: his Life of Jesus and his very charming Reminiscences of Childhood and Youth.* 
Renan was born in Tréguier in Brittany, a literal as well as a metaphoric backwater in the most westerly bump on the map of France.  His part of the country had not been entirely enthusiastic about the Revolution, and he was born and raised in a climate of colorful if reactionary Catholicism.  For a brilliant boy living in the sticks, the Church offered the nearly inevitable career path, and Renan began training for the priesthood.  History had other ideas, and Renan would become, in the judgment of Pope Pius IX, “the great blasphemer of Europe”.
            That was on account of Renan’s very popular biography of Jesus, and it is an opinion available only to someone who has not actually read it.  By the time Renan wrote it he had adopted the scientific principle that supernatural events that did not occur in his own century could not be safely attributed to earlier ones; but in this view he was far from a pioneer.  The scholarly demythologizing of Christianity was well under way in the eighteenth century, but what might be called its “popular” phases belong to the nineteenth.  A new biographical approach to the person of Jesus Christ would create a permanent distinction between the “historical Jesus” and the theologized figure at the center of the Christian creeds.  In 1835 a Protestant theologian in Germany, Friedrich Strauss, published an analysis of the gospels in which the life of Jesus was, to use his term, “critically examined”.  He denied the divinity of Jesus and characterized the supernatural elements in the gospels as folkloristic accretions dating from the early centuries of the Christian movement and expressing in poetic form their authors’ messianic hopes and beliefs.  Strauss’s book, the Leben Jesu, sent shock waves through the Protestant world.  An English translation, made after the fourth German edition, appeared in England in 1846.  The translation was the first published work of a brilliant young woman named Marian Evans who, under the pseudonym George Eliot, would become one of the greatest of English novelists.  In her greatest novel, Middlemarch, she dramatized the upheaval caused in the English church by “German scholarship.”

            The enormous erudition of Renan’s Life of Jesus has long been overtaken by the vastness of more than a century of intensive biblical scholarship; but his book’s generous spirit remains remarkable.  The first adjective that comes to my mind is reverent.  Renan was the heir of many intellectual trends, including that of humanistic Romanticism at its best.  Like Strauss and the other demythologizers he had to abandon the traditional ideas of Jesus’s divinity.  But he is so overwhelmed by the ethical purity he discovers in Jesus’s life that he allows as metaphor what he must forbid as theology.  He very nearly paraphrases Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.  

            Throughout his biography of Jesus the reader will find exemplified a principle—I will call it historical generosity--made explicit at the beginning of his short account of his own early years.  Historical generosity is a rare virtue, and there is little of it in our contemporary world.  The preface to his Reminiscences (Souvenirs) is built around the charming Breton folk legend of a vanished town called the ville d’Is, a kind of mini-Atlantis somewhere submerged along the coast of Brittany.  The old mariners would claim that on occasion they could faintly discern in the deep the church steeples of Is, and even hear the faint sounding of the church bells.  “Truth,” Renan writes, “whatever one says, is superior to fiction.  One should never regret seeing things more clearly.  In seeking to add to the treasure of truths which make up the wealth accumulated by humanity, we are the continuators of our pious ancestors who loved the good and the true under the received forms of their own times.  It is a very grievous error to believe that one serves one’s country by denigrating those who founded it.  Every era of a nation is a leaf in the same book.  The true progressives are those who take as their point of departure a profound respect for the past….For myself, I am never firmer in my liberal beliefs than when I dream of the miracles of the Old Faith, and never more eager for the work of the future than when I rest for a time to listen for the ringing of the bells in the ville d’Is.”

*Vie de Jésus published in 1863 as the first of many volumes of a study of Christian origins; Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse published in 1883.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Ravishing Theology

"Tamar & Amnon" by Jan Steen (+1679)

The triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church, my dwindling sub-tribe, has just wrapped up its meeting in Austin, Texas.  At some point, no doubt, we lumpen-laity will be briefed on the fruits of its deliberations.  As yet, I have seen only a few news releases, sent by relatives, friends, and acquaintances to needle me, in my email box.  I take it that one big issue is linguistic gender equity in reference to the Persons and attributes of the Divine Being—a big problem at least since the days of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and one worthy of current attention.

Another problem, likewise linguistic in nature, has me puzzled.  A cleric styled the Rev. Canon Michael Buerkel Hunn, who seems also to be the Bishop-elect of the Diocese of Rio Grande, was the chairman of the 79th General Convention's Worship Committee, charged with organizing the daily liturgies for the convention delegates, issued a fulsome apology for including a certain hymn in one of the services.  Though his contrition is profound, its actual cause—at least to someone like me not present at the event—remains highly obscure.  But I deduce—and it is only a deduction—that the part of this hymn that has sent Canon (or Bishop-Elect) Hunn into paroxysms of penitence is a phrase (my italics) in one of its verses. 
Forests and rivers are ravaged and die,
raped is the land till it bleeds in its clay
silenced the bird-song and plundered the sea…

The hymn, a modern one, was written by a woman named Shirley Erena Murray.  The words cited, though themselves penitential—they deplore human ecological depravity in the spirit of Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring--have (according to Canon Hunn) caused “real pain”, or could cause real pain, to certain people, namely “victims of sexual violence”.  I deduce that the particularly offensive word in this hymn, which should banish it from all future worship at General Conventions, is the word rape.

 However, though rape is never a joke, it is very often a metaphor.  The “rape of the land” has been suggested as a trenchant eco-feminist trope for patriarchal domination. Thirty years ago, one literary scholar found in the rural geographical expression “the lay of the land” the materials for a whole book.*

            Yet the principal meaning of rape (from Latin raptus), of which both forcible sexual violation and ecstatic rapture are particular applications, is “an act or instance of robbing or despoiling or carrying away a person by force.”  I do not know Shirley Erena Murray from Adam, or in this case Eve; but superficial research suggests that she is an eighty-seven year old New Zealander, a devout old lady, and a prolific, award-winning writer of hymns in the classical Protestant tradition.  I begin with an a priori assumption that sexual violence was not foremost in her mind in using an entirely conventional verbal image of human ecological depravity.  I should further suggest that such intimations of sexual violence can be found in the hymn only in the manner that odd meanings can be imposed upon the random inkblots of a Rorschach test.  Thus found, they may be a legitimate cause for pastoral concern, but hardly a sensible occasion for apology.

It is perhaps well and good that most Anglicans long since gave up on the theological correctness that caused such mayhem in the sixteenth century, but it is alarming to find it replaced by a dispiriting political correctness in the twenty-first.  We may soon require trigger warnings for such gospel readings as last week’s—the severed head of John the Baptist on a serving plate, a byproduct of the hot pants of Herod Antipas.  I know of no biblical examples of “the rape of the land,” though we perhaps come close in Genesis 38:9, where we learn that Onan “spilled his seed upon the ground.”  This is the text that inspired the feminist wit Dorothy Parker to name her pet canary “Onan”, because the bird did the same thing.  In the Bible there are numerous allusions to sexual violence, and a couple of extended narrative doozies (Judges 19 and 2 Samuel 13).   The latter text, an account of Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar, shows great narrative skill and complex psychological motivation.  It is widely reflected in early Christian literature and visual art—including in a brilliant imitation by Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde.  Far from being unmentionable, early moralists found in it a memorable exemplification of the way an individual instance of sexual violence could lead to broad social disaster, a theme at least as ancient as Homer, Paris, and Helen of Troy.

For better or for worse Christianity is irredeemably politically incorrect.  A religion that has at its core a deity incarnate, scourged, tortured, spat upon, and crucified can never purge itself of  “disturbing” words, images, and above all ideas that may cause distress to those who encounter them.   Obviously, one wants to be sensitive to people’s feelings.  But before we hurl Shirley Erena Murray into outer darkness, we would need first to banish Dante’s Commedia, Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” and approximately two thirds of the premodern paintings in our art galleries.  Even good intentions can generally be improved with the application of good sense.

*Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land: Metaphor As Experience and History in American Life and Letters (1984)


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

A Brief Account of Recent Travels

 The library, Trinity College, Cambridge

            Just before we left Paris there appeared in one of the national daily papers a lengthy article concerning the state of the tourist industry in France.  The tourist industry in France is, in a word, robust.  Not merely is France the number one tourist destination in the world, this year’s cohort of visitors is likely to prove the largest in recorded history.  No one staying in an apartment near the Eiffel Tower, as we were, would be tempted to suspect this was Fake News; but we didn’t grasp the full implications of it until we got to Charles de Gaulle airport about noon on Monday.  Even though the authorities had accelerated the perfunctory process of “passport control” to the speed of the production line in the factory in Modern Times, it took the better part of an hour and a half to run us through the mill.  And the torture of the egress from Paris was actually less wearing than that of the ingress to Newark.  But to dwell on the only unfortunate twelve hours of an otherwise blissful three-week-long trip would be all wrong.

            Our trip devolved in the three stages I outlined in an earlier post: an intensive educational tour in southern and eastern England, a short week of lotus-eating in the Var in the south of France, and a variegated week of cultural, social, and gastronomic immersion in the City of Light.

            A professional medievalist can perhaps be assumed to indulge somewhat rarified tastes, but I can now confess that even I was a little dubious about the sustaining power of our proposed tour of great libraries, even one sponsored by so cerebral an outfit as Princeton Journeys.  To be sure I myself find few things more engaging than old folios stoutly bound in calf.  But how about the famous species homme moyen sensuel, of which there must be one or two representatives among the body of Princeton alumni?  Well, I should have worried rather about whether I could match the erudition and the mental energy of my so-called “students”.   What wonderful places we went, what wonderful things we saw!  Between the expert and imaginative preparations of the travel professionals, and the cohesive bonhomie of our traveling bibliophiles, it turned out to be, as the saying goes, the trip of a lifetime.        

            I am an Oxford man, and over the years I have willingly if mindlessly participated in the kind of boring banter which the alumni of the two ancient universities sling back and forth.  But I have to say that the collegiate libraries of Cambridge seem to me to surpass those of Oxford both in beauty and variety.  Such comparisons are of course finally otiose.  Better to be simply thankful for the nearly miraculous preservation of Duke Humphrey in the top of the old Bodleian in Oxford or the Wrenn masterpiece at Trinity College Cambridge.

 The sitting room at Knebworth House, Herts.

            The tour included visits to various ancillary literary shrines: the archives of Canterbury Cathedral, the Dickens Museum in London, and the extraordinary stately home once the possession of Bulwer-Lytton, author of twenty-nine novels, twelve illegitimate children, and the immortal opening line “It was a dark and stormy night…”  We also took in a number of antiquarian book dealers in London, including Jarndyce (just across the street from the British Museum), whose extraordinary range of Dickens items was of particular interest to the several Dickens enthusiasts on the tour.  Though an English professor and a great admirer of the nineteenth-century novelists, I must confess that my own favorite unaffordable book was of a political genre, and related to my work on anti-Communist literature.  There was on offer at Peter Harrington’s on the Fulham Road in Chelsea a signed and inscribed first edition of Karl Marx’s Kapital, vol. the first, 1867.  The asking price for this rare item: £1,325,000.  One may view this bibliographical phenomenon either as a refutation of Marx’s labor theory of value or as a stunning confirmation of his analysis of the audacity of capitalist commodification. 

            This library trip did keep us on the run a bit—I gave a few lectures and tried to respond intelligently to the numerous questions that came up—and though I was sorry to see it end, I was more than ready for the down time that followed.  We had a wonderful week with our very old and very dear friend Andrew Seth at his paradisal establishment in the south of France: soft, lazy days, lots of reading, lots of challenging conversation, and probably too much good eating.  The final week was in Paris, where another very old friend was being fêted by her extensive family for her eightieth birthday.  I am not moving all that fast these days, and we limited our activities to a single event or museum per day.  There was a big Mary Cassatt show at the Jacquemart-André Museum.  At the Petit Palais there was a fascinating exhibition concerning French impressionists who had for longer or shorter periods been exiled in England, mainly as a result of the Franco-Prussian War and the collapse of the Paris Commune.  Who knew?  Not me.  So that’s the brief report.  I am back now to sweltering Jersey heat and humidity, and the blog has come back with me.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bambi's Cousin

For Americans of my generation the Walt Disney film Bambi (1942!) was a significant life experience.  It was one of the earliest of the fabulously successful artificial animation films (following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937, and Pinocchio, 1940) of the genre that made Disney famous and that has continued to go from strength to strength for the better part of a century into the age of Pixar.  A pictorially magnificent tear-jerker, Bildungsroman, and an early tract of eco-propaganda, Bambi made a huge impression on my young mind in, probably, 1944.  At that time I was entirely unaware that the movie was based on a book published by the Austrian writer Felix Salten in 1923. 

            Salten entered my consciousness, via a circuitous route, about sixty years later, when I was writing a book on anti-Communist literature.  I discovered that Whittaker Chambers—the antagonist of Alger Hiss and super-patriot or super-snitch depending upon your political metabolism—had for a certain period in the Twenties supplemented a meager income by translating German language books.  His one huge success was Bambi (1928), which became a Book-of-the-Month selection.  Until very late in the twentieth century few American academics and intellectuals could face up to the reality that Hiss had indeed been--as Chambers alleged--a secret Communist, a low-level Soviet agent, a traitor, and a world-class liar.   Their reluctance required of them more or less inventive theories of why and how Chambers had been able to frame Hiss with flamboyant untruths and a specially manufactured typewriter.  One theory was that his deranged mind had projected upon his friend Hiss bizarre plot elements of a fiction by another Austrian writer, Franz Werfel, (Der Abituriententag, 1928) translated by Chambers as “Class Reunion”.  A scholar must consider all evidence.  Having read “Class Reunion,” I thought I’d better read Bambi as well.  I found no political clues in either, but I did end up among what must surely be but a happy few who saw the film Bambi at age eight and read the novel Bambi at age sixty-eight, with pleasure and admiration in both instances.

            One interesting aspect of Bambi (the book) is its lore concerning the methods used by mother deer in raising their offspring.  That sentence, which in terms of the techniques of prose composition could be called a “transition,” requires some spatial movement as well—away from my library and in the direction of our large back yard and toward the several seriously forested acres of common ground lying between it and Lake Carnegie about a quarter of a mile to the south.  Today these grounds are home to a numerous and increasing herd of whitetail deer—in addition to several other species of wildlife.  These deer are not quite tame, but they show less and less fear of human habitations and the activities surrounding them.  The deer mate mainly in November and, after a gestation period of about 200 days, the does drop their fawns mainly in late spring or early summer.

            Our suburban deer face no predators, though the automotive slaughter on major roads is dramatic.  This year has witnessed a particularly large crop of deer babies—portending problems ahead for gardeners and possible short rations for the deer themselves.  A couple of weeks ago I was out combating the sprouting bamboo—the gestation schedule of the bamboo being roughly that of the deer themselves—when I practically fell over a curled up fawn along the edge of my back lawn not fifty feet from the house.  The newborns, though not entirely immobile, are barely ambulatory.  The mothers park them in some supposedly safe place, then leave from for hours on end, returning to nourish them and, as soon as they get control of their thin, wobbly legs, lead them off to the woods in the gloaming of dusk or the dawn’s faint light.  When I looked again after a couple of hours, the cradle was bare.

            New Jersey suburbanites

         But what sort of places, exactly, does a mother deer consider “safe”?  Our house is one in which the actual front door gets little use.  We generally enter through the garage, and go in and out from the garden side at the back.  On Saturday morning, however, probably to check for the mail, I did open the front door—only to be startled by an agitated russet motion and the clatter of ineffectual tiny hooves against the stone of the threshold.  An enterprising doe had decided to use our front porch as her maternity ward!  I made the discovery about ten-thirty in the morning.  How long had the fawn been there?  Had the letter-carrier simply reached over it to reach the box?  Later in the afternoon our daughter arrived from New York.  She has been a participant in earlier animal husbandry capers on the family acres.  We tried to reach Animal Rescue, but without success.  We then consulted the all-knowing Internet, and in particular an impressive essay on offer from some deer lovers in SouthCarolina.  Its advice was: Leave the fawn be.  Mother knows best.

            Periodically throughout the day we tiptoed around to the front of the house to take a peek or a photo.  The fawn sat there on the welcome mat hour after hour--serenely, patiently, with touching infantile dignity.  Our daughter drove back to New York.  As night fell the animal was still there.  But in the dawn of Sunday, made confident by the expertise of the South Carolinians, I boldly opened the front door and looked down to see what I expected, a slab of bluestone and a welcome mat.

A note to our esteemed readers.  I believe that 460 of the 462 posts of on this blog met a rigorous once-a-week schedule.  But I now find that fanaticism is among the characteristics that are waning with age.  It is my hope that I shall be leaving tomorrow on a tour of great libraries in Britain, followed by some serious down time in the Provençal countryside and the fleshpots of Paris.  The hope is that blog and blogger will reappear in about a month.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Library Crawl

Tenth-century glossed psalter in the British Library

In ten days’ time we leave for a long-scheduled European trip full of both promise and challenge.  The challenge part has to do with the infirmities of the aging, which have inexplicably become more noticeable of late.  The promise lies in the purpose of the trip and its various attractive destinations.  It will begin with a secular pilgrimage, of which I am to be the Harry Bailey, to several of the great centers of learning in southern England.  Many American educational and other cultural institutions are now active in promoting tours and cruises intended to combine learning and pleasure, and we have been involved with several in the past.  This one, called “Great Libraries and Literature,” will take us to London, Oxford, Cambridge, and Canterbury, among other places.  Having spent untold pleasant hours in many of the world’s great libraries, and having followed the profession of a teacher of literature, I probably have the superficial qualifications for my assignment.

But they are, truly, superficial.  Only as I have been forced to think about the matter in something like a comprehensive way, have I realized just how superficial.  I wish we knew more about the great Library of Alexandria.  We know basically two things: it contained a very large number of scrolls, and the scrolls were burnt to ashes in a disaster that occurred around the beginning of the common era.  It was a museum—i.e., an institution dedicated to the Muses, and therefore something at least vaguely similar to a modern research library.  The Christian world would have to wait a long time to see its like.

Half a century ago a distinguished British historian, J. H. Plumb, published under the title The Death of the Past a series of essays outlining an argument concerning the origins of the archive.  Somehow I was quite surprised to discover that the conservation of documents was so clearly motivated by, well, conservatism.  Plumb points out the interesting fact that nearly all of the world’s earliest surviving written documents—to the extent that a clay tablet or an inscribed marble qualifies as a “document”—are legal or legislative attestations of ownership, hierarchy, dynasty, and dominion.  The field beyond the rock pool belonged to my grandfather.  Then it belonged to my father.  Now it belongs to me.  It was the material utility of this kind of conservative imperative that gives birth to the archive.  Plumb further argues that until fairly recently few historians had serious ambitions of “objectivity”.  History often had an agenda similar to that of other earlier writings.

            Religious conservatism has a somewhat complicated relationship to political conservatism, but the two have in history been closely, sometimes inextricably, related.  We may start with the Bible.  The English word derives from a Greek plural meaning simply books, and the plural form has its importance.  The Bible is a comprehensive collection of biblical books, which is to say that it is itself a kind of library in itself.  Post-Protestant Americans, when and if they think of the Bible, are likely to envisage a large, heavy book, probably bound in black leather.  But such mini-libraries rarely existed before the age of printing.  It is possible that none of the Fathers of the Church—including Jerome, who translated the whole of the Bible into Latin—ever saw one.  In early Christianity, as in antecedent Judaism—the biblical unit was the individual book or the partial selection of them.

            The word manufactured obviously once meant “made by hand”.  Manufactured goods tend to have an economic value related to three things: the cost of the raw materials of which they are made, the amount and skill of the handiwork required to make them, and the social utility or prestige assigned to the finished good.  Though the materials used in the manufacture of early European books varied, the best were made of prepared animal hides, a relatively expensive commodity.  The labor needed to create a manuscript (literally a “written by hand”) was intensive and, in a largely illiterate world, so highly skilled as to carry with it a whiff of the esoteric.  Finally the social value assigned to the Bible on account of its absolute sacral claims was very high, and encouraged the utmost scrupulosity not merely in the creation of books but also in their preservation.

            One single book of the Bible was a huge factor in the growth of libraries.  I refer to the Psalter—the collection of a hundred and fifty Hebrew hymns attributed mainly to King David.  This book was at the practical center of Christian monastic life.  In the Benedictine centuries (beginning in the sixth century) thousands of monks in every nook and cranny of Europe were required to “perform” the Psalter communally and in its entirety during the course of each week.  Nothing so stimulates the creation of a new book as the example or provocation of an old one.  The “monastic library”—from which our modern warehouses of erudition derive in a fairly straight line—began with the Psalter.  The first examples of recorded vernacular text in almost every language of Europe are to be found in early psalm-books.  The monoglot children brought into the monasteries as oblates and novices needed interlinear vernacular glosses to grasp the meaning of the psalms’ hard Latin words.

            As we set out on our library crawl, we may perhaps wonder whether Karl Marx, sitting day in, day out, at his hard seat in the British Museum gathering the materials for works that would inspire a radical, cataclysmic, and continuing assault on the intellectual and social remnants of Old Europe, might ever have given a thought to those young Godrics, Bodos, and Jãos, pondering to understand the meaning—either in lexical or in moral terms--of  divitias in Psalm 36 [37]:16,  “Better is the little which the righteous has than the great wealth of the wicked.”