Wednesday, January 16, 2019
Immediately following the storming of the Bastille in July of 1789 there spread throughout vast areas of rural France a mass delusion known to historians as “the Great Fear”. Its acute phase lasted about three weeks. Rumors were rife that brigands were marauding through the countryside plundering villages, burning crops in the fields, and killing peasants. The grapevine typically claimed that the violence had already reached such-and-such a nearby village and was now headed “this way”. You can perhaps imagine the actual social consequences of such widespread panic—or perhaps you cannot. Suffice it to say they were considerably more revolutionary than the attack on the Bastille itself.
I am not particularly good at correctly predicting results of such things as athletic contests and political elections, but I do have a nose for codswallop and hogwash that many of my peers seem to lack. I well remember when just about Thanksgiving of 1987 I saw a report in the Times of the supposed kidnapping and sexual torture of a young woman named Tawana Brawley in Wappinger Falls, NY. I knew immediately that the story had to be a hoax—an obvious conclusion arrived at only much later and most reluctantly by the mainstream press, and only after having contributed generously to the creation of a horrible episode of racial tension and having promoted the Rev. Al Sharpton to his tenured position as race-hustling political guru among the American punditocracy.
Toward the end of last week several urgent messages from various centers of social gravitas in our upscale community of Princeton, NJ—the Y, the public library, the mayor’s office, the University’s “Tiger Alert” service—appeared in my email and, I supposed, in the boxes of many others.. They informed me that on the proximate Saturday, maybe even the next day, white supremicists were planning a hateful march through the center of our little town. Not to worry, however. The police were prepared to protect us. Plans for emergency street clearings and special parking restrictions had already been put in place. I had never before heard of the fascist entity sponsoring the march--the New Jersey European Heritage Association—but an instant’s Internet research confirmed the existence of such a sadsack sodality, or at least the existence of a website featuring a photograph of a pregnant blonde and a lament for the comparatively anemic Caucasian birth-rate in America. White Supremacy, while no laughing matter, is nonetheless ludicrous. Conspicuously absent, however, was the announcement of a March on Princeton, or indeed on anywhere else.
I already was beginning to have vague intimations of that Tawana Brawley feeling as I set out to discover the evidence triggering our very own local Great Fear. Of course a sizable political demonstration in the center of a bustling town, whether by white supremicists or the PTA, but especially one requiring police supervision at least as vigilant as that for the 10K “Turkey Trot” at Thanksgiving, would normally require prior planning. According to the mayor’s communication, no application had been made by the NJEHA or anybody else for a permit to march or demonstrate on this particular Saturday; but (and here the plot took a sinister turn toward the passive voice) fliers announcing a proposed march had appeared in the town. Anonymous, but appeared. How to assess the threat? Hume’s argument against miracles is an argument from probability. Is it more probable that a man walked on water or that the report of his having done so was mistaken or actually fraudulent? To my mind, the proposition that White Supremicists were going to have a political rally in Princeton, NJ, was a priori less probable than—well, than most ways you could finish the sentence. But Xeroxed fliers pushed me over the edge, as they might have done to others who have spent forty years on a college campus observing the potential for mischief inherent in anonymous fliers. In 1708, wicked Jonathan Swift published a flier predicting the imminent death of an annoying astrologer named Partridge. Nothing Partridge did thereafter could convince the public that he was not in fact dead. They wanted him to be dead, and they had seen his death predicted in a flier.
No pasarán! Palmer Square, Princeton, N. J., 12 January 2019
The White Supremicists were no shows, but there was still a pretty impressive counter-demonstration, presuming that one needs no actual demonstration to counter one. I was not there, but I got the following report from Tiger Alert: “More than 500 people chanting and holding signs marched around the square for more than an hour this afternoon. They went ahead with their demonstration even though the white supremacist group did not show up.” The racists were presumably back lurking under the bridges with the rest of the trolls, waiting for the Billy Goats Gruff. There may not have been such a flap in these parts since October 30, 1938. On that evening CBS transmitted a drama, a version of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds adapted for radio by the genius of Orson Welles, that convinced its listeners that hostile Martians had landed at Grover’s Mill, practically in spitting distance of the Princeton campus, and that they were headed “this way”. Old Mrs. Skillman, my landlady in graduate student days and an eye witness, told us all about it. No counter-attack, but lots of people apparently took refuge in the Catholic church two blocks north on Nassau Street for a hastily initiated prophylactic novena.
Wednesday, January 9, 2019
Not too long ago I found at the back of a drawer filled with miscellaneous junk one of my old pocketknives. I hadn’t seen it, or any other boy’s pocketknife in years, and it started me down a path of remembrance of things past that is becoming for me a familiar itinerary. How very different were the “old days” of even a single lifetime! A fortnight ago it was Christmas. Because of the diverse travel plans, housing arrangements, commissary assignments, and social priorities of the three families of our adult children, our Christmas morning gift exchange was, by common-sense general agreement, a scaled-down event to be achieved as modestly and expeditiously as the presence of several small, excited children might allow. But even if one stuck with the “one gift” policy, which not everyone did, our sitting room was soon overflowing with piles of hastily removed crumpled wrapping paper, and the carpet already littered with unprepossessing bits and pieces of brightly colored plastic, constituent parts of various games and gizmos designed to ignite a temporary excitement among their recipients and, in the longer term, swell the trade deficit with China.
I remember no plastic from seventy years ago. Our infantile amusements were, for the most part, self-designed and their implements home made. We actually made our own sleds, skis, and wheeled carts. Living on a run-down farm mainly consisted of fixing broken things and making do with what could be whittled out of ash and cedar blanks. A corner of the barn was always full of old metal rods, gears, and wheels patiently awaiting their inventive recycling. Nor was this phenomenon limited to the economically marginal in the American sticks. I don’t read a lot of political biography, and seldom long retain much of it when read; but I do remember a small detail from an autobiography of Harold Macmillan, who had been the British Prime Minister during my Oxford years. He had been born in the final years of the nineteenth century. The style of his upper-crust upbringing—a straight line from a nannied nursery through Eton to Balliol College, Oxford—avoided ostentatious displays of affluence; but the family was quite comfortable. He makes the point, nonetheless, that as a growing lad he and his peers always made their own toys and rarely saw a store-bought one. My Uncle John, though not an Etonian, shared this spirit. One day he found a cache of old iron horseshoes under a chicken shed he was repairing. That same day between dinner and sundown he had created a horseshoe pitch that gave pleasure for the next thirty years.
Most toys needed wooden parts, and this is where the pocketknife came in. I am not talking about the portable workshop that was the old Swiss Army knife, nor some sturdy, potentially lethal Opinel. I mean a fifty-cent flat piece of gun metal, three or four inches long and clad in faux antler, possibly sheathing but a single blade of high quality carbon steel that would accept, through patient honing, a super-keen edge and hold it. All cutting tools had to be kept sharp, but the goal for a pocketknife was a blade that could effortlessly slice though a piece of notebook paper. Everybody whittled, all the time—except when honing the blade with an Arkansas stone, also carried in a pocket. You got to be quite good just by eyesight at shaving things straight, and to a fairly fine tolerance.
The knife itself was a toy. Can I be writing these words? I am a modern parent of hyper-modern parents who carefully read all warning labels, ingredient lists, expiration dates and allergy alerts. But we boys once played Mumblety-Peg endlessly. Mumblety-Peg was like Country Ham. All aficionados of it knew its exact rules with dogmatic certainty, and no two sets of rules agreed. Essentially it was a game of considerable skill involving precision in knife-throwing at a defined or imagined target on the ground. Often the thrower adopted a contorted bodily posture to create a novelty feat that his competitor in the game had to match. The knife-throw could also have a role in another all-consuming pastime—“keeper’s” marbles. This term meant in theory that you actually took permanent possession of marbles won; but the natural justice of childhood, unlike the avarice of its elders, rebels at the obscenity of monopoly. So what it meant de facto was the endless ebb and flow of the supposed booty among the various participants. Anyway, going in for the kill in a defined “marble circle” might involve the expert sectioning of the circle by knife-throw.
“Gender roles” were not nearly so fixed as our contemporary academic theorists would have you believe. Most “motion” games—Kick the Can, Simon Says, Red Rover, and so on—were generally played by all. The total cost for the equipment for these games was zero dollars and zero cents. Hopscotch was primarily but not exclusively a girls’ pastime; but the kingdom over which girls ruled most awesomely was that of the skip-rope. As Joni Mitchell says, you don’t know what you’ve got til it's gone. I’ve lived in my present, pleasant neighborhood for thirty years now. Never once have I encountered on its broad sidewalks the traces of a chalked hopscotch grid. Nor anywhere, in the last half century, have I seen the vernacular choreography, as precise as that in any Hollywood review, of agile children leaping, seemingly without effort, in and out of a maelstrom of rapidly whirling rope. Out comes the doctor. Out comes the nurse. Out comes the lady with the alligator purse.
Wednesday, January 2, 2019
Dido and Aeneas, alfresco in Rome
Over the holidays I watched one of the free Netflix offerings, “The Little Hours,” which is an intermittently amusing pseudo-medieval comedy loosely based in Boccaccio’s Decameron. It got me thinking about the importance of horny nuns to the European literary tradition, and the problems that tradition raises for the current search for the “authentic female voice” in our early literatures.
Before you had nuns you had widows, the most influential of whom was the Carthaginian queen, Widow Dido. Though committed to the memory and ashes of her murdered husband Sychaeus, she immediately feels a hormonal stirring when Aeneas rides into town. (He washes up on the beach, actually.) In one of Virgil’s great lines Dido confesses to her sister Anna: Adgnosco veteri vestigia flammae (iv. 23) “I recognize the signs of the old flame.” Here is the ancient origin of the still current phrase old flame; but note that in Virgil it means not a particular old boyfriend but eroticism itself. But there is such a thing as spiritual eroticism as well. Near the end of the Purgatorio the pilgrim Dante, sensing the proximity of Beatrice, says to Virgil: Conosco i segni dell’antica fiamma. Virgil would surely have recognized one of his own greatest lines, but it is precisely at this point (Purgatorio xxx, 48-49) that Virgil has disappeared from the poem like a whiff of smoke. “Types and shadows have their ending,” as the Pange lingua puts it, “for the newer rite is here.”
Dante’s “use” of Dido, which is enabled in part by the linguistic closeness of Latin to his Florentine vernacular, is particularly brilliant; but any European who could read knew Dido’s tragic history. After indulging in a torrid sexual affair with her—which she called a “marriage”—Aeneas dumped her and sailed away to do his boy thing (founding the Roman Empire). Crazed by love, Dido committed suicide. Thus she became literature’s most famous abandoned woman—and abandoned in the double sense of giving herself over completely to passion and of being scorned by a faithless lover. This literary version of the “abandoned woman” was given its classical expression in Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of the imaginary letter exchanges between famous abandoned women and the jerks who shafted them. Prominent among them are the purported letters of Dido. For a thousand years pre-pubescent boys had Latin drills based in the erotic language of the fourth book of the Æneid. Augustine writes about it. So there is a great deal of the “voicing” of abandoned women, and all of it written by males, and all of it deriving ultimately from the male schools of classical Antiquity.
Abelard and Heloise, from a MS of the Roman de la Rose
Fast-forward to the first half of the twelfth century. In general the social conditions of women have not changed dramatically since Ovid’s day. It’s still a man’s world. But Christianization has created at least one very important innovation in this regard: the female religious house. In the thousands of nunneries of medieval Europe tens of thousands of women live by votive principle in single-sex communities having as little commerce with men as is practically possible. In these houses there are often important functions, “leadership roles” of teaching and administration, of financial management, of artisanal crafts that perforce have to be undertaken by women. From this situation arises a paradox. A form of life seemingly designed to demand maximal denial of, and impose maximal constraints upon its followers in fact enables many women to flourish in ways that would never be open to them in the world beyond the cloister. This is particularly true, perhaps, in the sphere of letters. Virginia Woolf famously yearned for “a room of her own.” In the Middle Ages it was fairly easy for a woman to get one, if it was a cell. So we get a Hrotsvitha, the learned tenth-century canoness of Gandersheim, and the author of erudite Latin dramas on the model of those of Plautus and Terence. In the twelfth century we get the polymath genius Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine nun who was among other things a poet, a musician, a scientist, and a speculative theologian.
This brings us to one of the most celebrated literary episodes of the Middle Ages, and back to horny nuns. I refer to the famous dossier of “correspondence” between Abelard and Heloise. Concerning this famous dossier I am a heretic, for I do not believe that Heloise’s letters are any more “real” than Dido’s letters in the Heroides. This is a blog post, not a scholarly essay, and I shall not argue the case. I freely admit that my heresy, which has proved on more than one occasion to be life-threatening when raised in the presence of feminist scholars, is a distinctly minority view; but I have to call them like I see them. One of Heloise’s great lines to Abelard is this: “Even if I could be Queen to the Emperor and have all the power and riches in the world, I’d rather be your whore.” That is one horny nun, and in its level of abandonment the “authentic voice” sounds to me like that of Ovid.
Be that as it may, the Abelard-Heloise correspondence had a huge fictional posterity. It is not going too far to see in it a precursor of the epistolary novel, which became so prominent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with writers like Richardson in Pamela and Choderlos de Laclos in Les liaisons dangereuses. The horny nun also became a staple of the love literature of those centuries. The most famous of a dozen examples is probably the Portuguese Letters (Lettres portugaises traduites en français) first published in Paris in 1669. The purportedly “authentic voice” of the letters was that of a jilted Portuguese nun named Mariana Alcoforado. The actual author was a French libertine and Ovid-reader named Gabriel de Lavergne, sieur de Guilleragues. Another male fantasy, actually.