Wednesday, January 19, 2022


                                                                   Middle Colonies Map (1749) detail

I have never been good at dates, a liability manifested early in my meager social life as an adolescent and later in my repeated chronological confusions in mastering the canon of Chaucer’s poetry.  With Medjools I have done somewhat better--but who wouldn’t?  Yet from time to time a calendrical date does stick in my mind, and the sticky one at the moment is 1749.


            I have several times written essays relating to the beautiful colonial farmstead that our elder son Richard and our daughter-in-law Katie Dixon have in Hunterdon County NJ near Frenchtown on the Delaware River.   Well, very good friends of ours in Baltimore, Charlie and Lydia (Belknap) Duff, know about it too; and they just made Richard and Katie a lovely gift.  Since the gift’s recipients were living in Spain at the time, it came to me as an intermediary.  It is an elegant large-format scholarly monograph written by Lawrence Henry Gipson and published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1939.  Its title, and of course its subject, is Lewis Evans.  I had never heard of Evans, but I knew a little about Gipson, enough to make me read the book myself.  Lewis Evans was a pre-Revolutionary Welsh-American surveyor and geographer who in 1749 published in Philadelphia what I learn is a famous monument of early American engraved cartography—a map of the “middle colonies,” New York, New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.  More or less in the map’s center is the Hunterdon County forest at Kingwood, where Richard and Katie’s house would rise some thirty years later.  While engaged in a library downsizing operation, our generous Baltimore friends thought of this Kingwood property.  There are pioneers and pioneers.  The cartographer Evans anticipated the Lewis and Clark expedition by half a century!  I already knew something, a little, of L. H. Gipson, a famous American historian of the first half of the twentieth century.  Admittedly I had never read a page of his fifteen-volume magnum opus about the British Empire before 1776.  What I knew was that in 1964, when I was teaching in my first job at the University of Wisconsin, Gipson had been one of the small band of surviving members of the first American class of Rhodes Scholars (1903) to matriculate at Oxford.  There had been a reunion of these legendary veterans that had been much bruited about in the Rhodes world, and I had followed it in the press.


            Evans, though he left a spare biography, was well known among the fledgling scientists of pre-republican North America.  The naturalist John Bartram, with whom he published A Journey from Pennsylvania to Onondaga in 1743 (printed by Benjamin Franklin) called him “a queer fellow”--perhaps a compliment roughly equivalent to “ingenious” among early boffins.  His map is hardly beyond criticism.  You certainly wouldn’t want to use it to try to drive to Allentown.  But you can see from this lavish book how extraordinary it must have appeared to the frontiersmen of 1749.


            I already knew when examining this book that one publication of 1749 must bring another to mind.  For I am a true believer in the theory of the association of ideas often attributed to Locke, and perhaps for me most memorably preserved in our classical literature in the opening pages of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.  During the very coital act destined to bring Tristram into the world his mother’s mind is seized by a pressing question: did anybody wind the clock?  For forty years I have been telling students that this is a marvelous comic exemplification of Locke’s associative theory, and urging them to watch out for stray thoughts wanting to intrude upon their private moments. That’s not exactly wrong, but just now, in nosing about a bit, I discovered that the more powerful expression of the associative theory was in David Hartley’s Observations on Man published (naturally) in 1749.


                                                        François-André Danican Philidor (1726-1795)


            Hartley was new to me but my mind was already seized of another epoch-making publication of that year.  I am a chess player, and my son Luke is a really good chess player.  One of the great figures in the history of chess, whom I have studied intensively, is the French musician François-André Danican (1726-1795), best known as Philidor, the honorific name bestowed upon his numerous musical family forebears in an earlier generation.  This Philidor was one of the tragic geniuses of the late Enlightenment.  To be the premier opera writer of eighteenth-century France is not the same thing as being the premier opera writer of eighteenth-century Italy, but it’s not chopped liver either.  And to be that and a chess genius and the author at age twenty-three of the revolutionary Analyze des Echecs—probably best translated simply as Chess Theory—is really something.  I am not a rare book collector, but I do own a copy of the first edition, published  in 1749 in French but in London, under the patronage of the Duke of Cumberland, third son of George II, alias the Butcher of Cullodon.  That is one of few bibliographical distinctions my private library could share with those of Rousseau, Diderot, the Baron d’Holbach, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, among dozens of the chess fanatics of the late Enlightenment.  Philidor’s revolutionary approach to the game was summarized in his epigrammatic doctrine: the pawn is the soul of chess.  I am convinced that the book was literally revolutionary and an influence on the famous pamphlet published forty years later, a few months before the storming of the Bastille in 1789, by the Abbé Sieyès: What Is the Third Estate?   The third estate was of course the vast majority of ordinary Frenchmen who were not nobles or clergy.  Sieyès didn’t say it was the soul of the state,  but he came close.  Yet Philidor, insufficiently woke for the likes of Robespierre and the Committee on Public Safety, died a banished man in London with a price on his head in his native land.


            Sitting here at the distance of the new year of 2022, that’s a fair amount of excitement for the year 1749; but you could doubtless find commodious, interesting, or provocative synchronic connections for practically any date of your choice.  There are of course printed annals, and now Wikipedia pages—organized precisely by year and indeed by month--designed to help you do just that.  I must say, I cannot recommend Wikipedia for this, however.  The eccentric nature of its editorial criteria is perhaps suggested by its treatment of May 20, 1936: Wikipedia’ entry records the implementation of the Rural Electrification Act but is mute concerning my birth.  Go figure!  The online annal for 1749 says nothing of Evans’s map or Philidor’s analysis, let alone of Hartley’s forgotten work on associative psychology.  But there is one book that necessarily makes the cut: Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  There can scarcely be more than, say, twenty plausible candidates for the greatest novel ever written, and this is one of them.  There are not many seven-hundred-page books whose readers truly wish they could have been just a little longer.  Like so many great books, like such competitors as Dante’s Commedia and Cervantes’s Quixote and Melville’s Moby Dick, it is the story of a road trip (remembering that in Old English one term for the ocean is “the whale’s road”).  Tom Jones conquered the European literary world in 1749, and one of those conquered was François-André Danican Philidor, who seems to have read it while he was seeing his Analyze des Echecs through the press.  If you have heard of him at all, it is probably because of the opera into which he later transformed the novel.





Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Begging the Question


In the near isolation imposed by Covid I have been doing  more on-line reading of current newspapers and “thought” journals than usual, enough to get a clearer sense than I usually have of actual linguistic trends.  I have noticed for example, that there is a good deal of questionable question-begging going on.  I shall try to elucidate this doubtlessly cryptic remark in a moment or two, after stating a truth about language in general.  Complex language is one of the definitive characteristics of our human species.  Some have said that it is the definitive characteristic, the one that separates us from all other biological life.  Not so much homo sapiens (a thinking human) as homo loquens (a talking one).   Yet as an element of culture, spoken language is markedly mutable.  Language is ever changing.  Our own English language has changed so dramatically over the centuries as to make many of our early documents and texts incomprehensible to today’s native speakers.  But it is easier to spot the linguistic change when reading the Canterbury Tales than when reading the current New Yorker.


            In my experience most Americans seem to believe there is such a thing as good or correct English, and that the sole conceivable job of an English professor must be to know what it is.  I deduce that from years of meeting strangers at cocktail parties who, upon hearing of my profession, would answer uneasily, “Well, I better watch my grammar.”   Surely, however, it should be obvious that nobody is invigilating our national speech, certainly not English professors.  The fact of linguistic change, indeed,  makes even English professors hesitate about prescribing what is and what is not prescriptive “good” English.  Good English is a real thing, but also a moving target.  Good English is the English spoken by careful and educated speakers.  It is written in books, but not chiseled in stone, so to speak. I was taught that should I pick up the phone to the question “May I speak to John?” the correct answer was “This is he.”  Alfred the Great didn’t have a phone, but had he had one, he would have said the equivalent of “That’s me”.  That was the Queen’s English in the ninth century and even kings spoke it.


            There is a difference between sensible flexibility and abandoning the very idea of a linguistic standard.  Though it is difficult to document, I think that the quality of the spoken language is in noticeable decline in this country, especially among the young.  The decline is not simply a matter of slovenly grammar or overused slang.  Many people seem not to realize that the purpose of spoken language is to communicate their needs, ideas, observations, requests—all things requiring a minimal degree of precision and discrimination.  We do need to hold the line somewhere.  The linguistic hill on which I fear I shall die is the necessary but apparently doomed distinction between the verbs lie (intransitive) and lay (transitive).  That seems to be a lost cause.  Could I have better luck with begging the question?  All of a sudden people—including people one might think ought to know better—are saying that such-and-such begs the question when what they mean is that such-and-such raises or invites the question.  The answer to my own question—can I do anything about it?—is of course No.  But it practically begs for a quixotic blog essay.  


            Begging the question is actually the English translation of a learned Latin term from the classical rhetoricians: petitio principii.  One expert defines petitio principii as “a form of logical fallacy or circular reasoning in which the resolution of contestable matter is assumed in the premise in which it is advanced.”  Sort of like one of the witticisms of Sir John Harrington: “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason?  For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”  Begging the question—not a good thing, a habit of weak thinkers, fraudsters, and political hacks.  This is very different from the neutral and declarative way in which I see the phrase used today.  “The power exercised by a single senator from West Virginia begs the question of the viability of current Senate filibuster rules.”  How does this come about, linguistically speaking?


            Words can outlast the objects of their signification, often for a long time.  Fifteen miles north of us there was for a long time an intimidating traffic circle at the junction of two major roads and a couple of minor ones.  Nearby was a large automobile dealership called Circle Ford.  Eventually the highway department rebuilt the site as a more conventional junction governed by traffic lights.  The erasure of the traffic circle had no effect on Circle Ford, of course.  Think of all the places in America still bearing the names of milling operations that disappeared a century or two ago.  A notable linguistic scholar of the Victorian period, the Rev. Isaac Taylor, wrote a wonderful book, Words and Places,* showing the remarkable continuity of place-names, among the oldest surviving words in our languages, so ancient as to be in effect prehistoric.


            But just as history leaves behind the material things our nouns denote, so also does it abandon the beliefs, ideas, whole world views they reference.  The orphaned words may simply die, but they often find foster homes.  At least since the time of the Renaissance and until fairly recently, some rudimentary training in classical rhetoric was a part of youth’s basic education.  When Falstaff says to Prince Hal (1Henry IV: 2, 4) I deny your major, what was supposed to be funny even to the groundlings in Shakespeare’s audience is the old sot’s ignorant garbling of some technical Latin rhetorical terms relating to the major and minor premises of logical propositions.  My own parents, rural high school graduates of the 1920s, were actually taught things called “elocution” and “public speaking,” the arts of speaking in a precise and effective manner.  To beg the question is simply too good a phrase to abandon simply because you don’t know what it means.  Make it mean something else.  Or keep it even in an apparently meaningless form if it speaks to you.  According to legend we get one of the greatest of all British pub names from the pious Puritan apothegm God encompasseth us.  












*Isaac Taylor [1829-1901], Words and Places, or Etymological Illustrations of History, Ethnology, and Geography, a true golden oldie first published in 1864 with frequent re-editions, some with expansions, into the 20th century.  There were several erudite Isaac Taylors, including this man’s more famous father, also a clergyman, and also well worth reading if there be world enough and time.



Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Annals of Gastronomy: the Nativity Variant



            Janus, the god after whom our first month takes its name, has the bizarre iconographic form of a man with two faces, one face looking back in retrospection, the other peering into the future with—well, with what exactly?  The custom of the “New Year’s resolution” reflects a general perception that the inadequacies of our previous behavior may perhaps be rescued by intentional life changes: more time doing this, and less doing that.  I have to ask myself anew whether publishing a weekly essay, as I have now done for the last six hundred weeks and more, is of the slightest conceivable social significance.  The honest answer is “Probably not,” but…

            Word comes to me second hand that a friend, who is a regular reader, found my recent excursus on the hypnotic trance in its supposed relationship with recovered memory and clairvoyance heavy weather.  That was the very term used: heavy weather.  Go figure.  I myself of course found it fascinating.  Most people who write things, even or perhaps especially when they publish them, know that they are actually writing for themselves.  I’ll probably keep doing that but let me at least begin the New Year with the relief of some light weather: the story of our Christmas dinner in the garage. 


            This is a family story and like most family stories, alas, requires a certain amount of background information.  I’ll be brief.  Item, you may have already heard about a Covid pandemic?  Well, there is one, and it is a real killjoy in terms of its effects on human sociability.  Item, some members of my family observe Jewish dietary law; others do not.  Item, our exemplary children are fanatically protective of their aging and immunocompromised elders.  Throw these three items together into the planning of a family Christmas dinner and you may end up with one situation.


            We had no hope for our locked-down and snowed-in Canadians, but there seemed an excellent chance of convening the other 66.6% of our offspring families for a Christmas feast.  One of them would be returning for Christmas more or less at the last moment after a lengthy stay in Spain.  From the cook’s perspective that would mean the smallest turkey we could find (probably still too large) or the largest roasting chicken (possibly a little meager).  However, things change from hour to hour in Covid crisis.  We know from Gerard Manley Hopkins that Nature is a Heraclitian fire: changes, changes, constant changes. What might be called Omicron Angst flared up, and the chief executive among our children made the prudential but disappointing decision that the whole event be postponed to sometime in January, sine die.   


            One does what one can to transform life’s lemons to lemonade.  In the previous week I had happened to glance at the NYTimes annual article on “Ten Great Christmas Dishes,” one of which was ham with a root beer glaze*, which sounded both scrumptious and trendy .  I used to live in a farming community where many people raised a hog or two and processed their own pork—a delicious Christmas ham being a special delicacy.  Covid was an ill wind, indeed, but not so ill as to blow no good.  As we would now be on our own, how about a succulent Christmas ham for the first time in approximately fifty years?  We already had the chicken, but it could keep.  I now set out on one final lightning grocery strike, grabbing a small but expensive ham, together with the right mustard, the right brown sugar, the right exotic vinegar, and a king-sized plastic bottle of A&W.  But by the time I got home Heraclitus had struck again.  The aforementioned daughter-executive called again to say that though her spouse (the principal kosher-observer) would be in recusal recovering from Covid redux, we could have a modified family Christmas dinner if we were willing to observe a couple of simple but non-negotiable health precautions, to wit (1) nobody under eighty years old could actually enter our house, and (2) the feast would be served off garden tables in the open-air of the car-port.


            Flexibility being my middle name, on Christmas morning I was up before Santa or his elves preparing the glaze for the religitimated ham.  It was necessary that the kitchen be cleared before ten o’clock for the unencumbered preparation of the main event: chicken and many vegetables.  So I threw myself into the preparation of the glaze.  You begin with a deep frying pan containing about two inches of the root beer, which you bring to the boil before introducing the other ingredients, then keep boiling for quite a while until it suddenly thickens to a goo.  To explain what happened next, I must appeal to the benevolent reader’s good sense and common knowledge.  What, I ask you, does A&W stand for?  The answer, of course: ROOT BEER.  A&W Root Beer Stands dot the map of our great nation.  It was only while I was pouring the liquid into the pan that I found that for some inexplicable reason the label on the soda bottle said A&W CREAM SODA!  My rush through the supermarket had been a little too rushed.  There was no rich, manly aroma of root beer!  The sense of betrayal was acute.  I had the sinking feeling that “ham with cream soda glaze” was not among the Times’s ten greatest culinary hits, nor even those of the Gopher Springs Gazette.  But I soldiered on and am so glad I did.  I hope you read in school Charles Lamb’s classic essay entitled “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig” in his Essays of Elia.  It posits that the discovery of roast pork was a happy (if expensive) accident, the unanticipated invention of  a young lad in Old China who was “fond of playing with fire, as younkers of his age commonly are.”  Well, if such a carnivore’s delight came into existence through inadvertence, why not its perfectly inadvertent gastronomic ornamental glaze.  I wonder if I need a patent lawyer.

            After clearing the carport of its cars, expelling from its tarmac floor half a cubic yard of miscellaneous pulverized crud with a leaf blower, and setting up separate folding tables for purposes of gift exchange and of eating, our chief problem was the cold.  Richard softened the cryotherapy imaginatively by setting up on the tarmac apron of the garage the fire pit he had given us for the previous Christmas.   An animated blaze at the mouth of the carport offered a possible illusion of warmth, and as you know, illusion is at least halfway there.  Between the oohing and aahing over various modest gifts, and the oohing and aahing over the absolutely delicious meal, the echoing carport was noisy with the animal satisfaction of feasting Flemings.  Corny wit accompanied the corny ale, fruit juices, and bottled water laid up for the occasion.  My best hope had been to pluck mere survivable defeat from the jaws of disaster.  Instead of the whole thing being a flameout, it was a flagrant success.  By no means everyone sneaked a taste of the Cream Soda Glaze.  But the happy few who did had to agree that it was delicious—kind of like light brown sugar mixed with dark brown sugar on a bed of crusted white sugar.  Experience of the Nativity Variant led to a family parliament in which it was proposed that all future family feasts be held in the garage—a decision facing possible reversal should the Republicans recapture the House.


Wednesday, December 29, 2021

What Didier Did or Didn't




Alexis Didier (1826-1886) in his mature years



            Last week I wrote about a German novelist who claimed to have been able under medical hypnosis to reconstruct from memory the lengthy unique manuscript of a novel that had been confiscated from him by his captors years earlier.  This topic came fortuitously into my life at a time when I was already mulling over the mysterious relationships between sleep and heightened consciousness.  This week it is a nineteenth-century French youth, Alexis Didier, said to be the most remarkable clairvoyant to emerge from the great century of celebrity mediums, table rapping, ectoplasm, spirit photography, trance writing, Spiritualism, and the heyday of the Society for Psychical Research..


            I depend on my son Luke, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Montreal for all sorts of intellectual tips.  He is big on French intellectuals, supplying me many great recommendations, and occasionally one that is a little out there.  That is how I would characterize Bertrand Méheust, a French expert on the history of parapsychology and (according to his Wikipedia page) an ufologue—a wonderful word meaning, one presumes, an expert on UFOs.  He is also an expert on Alexis Didier, to whom I shall come presently.  His book about Didier is raggedly written, though a piece of cake compared with his Mad Professor English-language lecture on the same subject.*  But I must not bite the hand that feeds me.  There are not a lot of Didier experts.


            Of several individual seances discussed by Méheust, one invigilated with suspicion by the famous illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin in May of 1847 can perhaps serve as well as any to exemplify at once the mystery, the questionability, and the eventual practical banality of the young man’s powers.   Didier was twenty-one, and his fame was growing.  Robert-Houdin, in his early forties, was already established as the most famous illusionist and prestidigitator in Europe.  That is, he was a theatrical performer whose claims to achieve actual “magic”  were generally understood by everybody to be rhetorical adornments of unfathomable tricks of skill rather than physical miracles.  But since nobody knew how he did it, the difference between the two might often seem moot.  Didier on the other hand, not a  conspicuous showman, presented himself as a psychic, a person possessed of extraordinary, inexplicable mental powers rather than a baffling thespian genius.  To have Robert-Houdin investigate Didier was as much as to say it takes a thief to catch a thief.  At this séance a blindfolded Didier, in addition to other “blind” perceptions (1) correctly identified by suit and value many specific playing cards that he had not seen and could not have seen; (2) described in convincing detail the eccentric decoration of a distant room he had never seen and never could have seen; (3) was partially successful in reading phrases from specifically identified pages of a book unknown to him; (4) was able to identify by name the writer of a letter—a person wholly unknown to him--when touching its unseen paper sheets to his forehead.    Robert-Houdin was very far from catching a thief.  Convinced that he was a witness to the paranormal, he signed a testimonial that it was impossible to classify Didier’s feats “among those that are the object of my own art and labors,” meaning of course theatrical magic.


            Didier was a somnambulist, meaning not that he was a sleepwalker, but a sleepseer—somnus being roughly a Latin equivalent of Greek hypnos, words meaning both sleep and the trance or mental alteration of sleep, somnambulism or hypnotism.  Some version of this indeterminate state, perhaps that of which Saint Paul writes:--“whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows”—was required for Heinrich Gerlach to recover the lost memories of his novel about Stalingrad and for the psychic Didier to read from the pages of tightly closed books.  This led me to my question in the last essay: Do we know things when we are asleep that we cannot know when we are awake?


                                                             D. D. Home raising the roof


            Perhaps the first scholarly article I published was inadvertently about ESP (Extra-Sensory Perception).  It is a linguistic essay about Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue of 1864, “Mr. Sludge, the Medium,” a barely disguised attack on Daniel Dunglas Home, an American spiritualist, psychic medium, and levitator, who conned his way through high-society seances on two continents.  Browning  heaped contempt upon this fraudster.  (The oblique point of my own essay was not about ESP; it concerned Browning’s attempts to capture distinctive Americanisms in Sludge’s English speech.)  More than forty years later, animated by very different interests, I published a book called The Dark Side of the Enlightenment, in which I did deal a little more directly with the history of the “paranormal” quest.  That the quest was a serious project of Enlightenment is itself telling.  The theory of  “animal magnetism” of the German physician F. A. Mesmer (1734-1815), embraced by an army of progressive “magnetizers” (hypnotists), is now regarded as one of the exotic mental aberrations of history, something akin to alchemy, also an Enlightenment enthusiasm.  But Mesmerism beat at the doors of the Temple of Science for decades  and came surprisingly near to gaining admission.  The only actual distinction between alchemy and chemistry is that one retained its Arabic article.  And as the alchemists developed laboratory techniques and procedures that greatly advanced the chemists, so also is there a line of reluctantly acknowledged filiation from Mesmer to Freud and Jung, to all ideas of subconscious or unconscious mind in its relationship to curated sleep, hypnosis.


            Méheust is particularly good on one point.  Most psychics, including Didier, failed more often than they even appeared to succeed.  A large number were exposed as active frauds, often of a cruel and mercenary sort, and we are right to harbor suspicions of many others.  But only by an illegitimate extrapolation can a thousand exposed frauds be thought to disprove even one evidentiary claim made on behalf of Didier or dozens of others.  One of Chaucer’s subtlest stories, that of the Canon’s Yeoman, presents us with an alchemist who practices fraud not because he does not believe in the power of the Great Art but because he does believe.  All he needs are the resources to finance one more experiment, and, yes, one more….What did the mathematician Blaise Pascal mean when he said “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of…”?  The same thing, I think, as Jesus when he said “Man does not live by bread alone.”  The French Academy in the nineteenth century became so irritated and embarrassed by the erudite madness in which certain topics floundered and drowned that they actually cancelled the topics, forbidding their discussion in their august lecture halls and publications.  One such topic was the origin of human language, another the hypnotic trance of animal magnetism.

tabling the motion


*B. Méheust, Un voyant prodigieux: Alexis Didier 1826-1886.  (Paris: Le Seuil, 2003); for the lecture:




Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Breakout, Breakthrough, or Breakdown?



For an aging Red-state Episcopalian who tries to limit his principal reading to works written before 1600, I have ended up knowing, conversing with, and learning from a pretty large number of very with-it postmodern intellectuals.  One of these guys, whom I have never actually met in corporeal form, is a googlable Finno-Swedish journalist, rock poet, and afficionado of modern European history named Dennis Renfors, multi-talented and multi-lingual of course.  The intermediary of our liaison was Jan Valtin, in whom we share an interest.  Dennis put me onto a very remarkable novel that has much occupied me during the last week.  The book (in its English translation) is Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad (Durchbach bei Stalingrad in the German), a searing fictional treatment of that famous battle by someone who knew a lot about it.  This novel has a complicated history that even without my own erratic tendencies would be likely to invite a strange essay.


            I claim little expertise concerning modern military history, but I do know more about Stalingrad than other World War II battles.  It really was the turning point of the European war.  We like to think “we” won the war against Hitler, but it was really the Red Army, apparently infinite in number and prepared to take infinite casualties.  Among post-War Communists in Western Europe the idea was widespread that the Russian victory could be attributed to their soldiers’ love of socialism, whereas the actual explanation is to be found in more brutal material and military realities.  Arthur Koestler called the propagandist point of view “the Stalingrad syndrome,” and I touched upon it in my Anti-Communist Manifestoes.  To that end I studied the great history of the battle by Sir Antony Beevor (1998).  A few years ago he and I were both speakers at an academic conference, and I seized the opportunity of an informal seminar over lunch.  But back to Heinrich Gerlach.


            Gerlach was a highly capable German intelligence officer—a Latin teacher in civilian life—who was present at all phases of the herculean battle.  When General Paulus’s decimated, demoralized, frozen but still numerous survivors surrendered in February of 1943, the Soviet authorities, at this point novices at capturing Germans, gave special treatment to certain officers whom they hoped to re-educate and “turn” into tacit or actual allies.  Gerlach was in a prison camp until the end of the war,  and treated reasonably well, though endlessly interrogated, debriefed, and propagandized.  During those two years he had what seemed the extraordinary luxury of writing a long, beautifully crafted, panoramic fiction about Stalingrad on the basis of his own experiences and those related by fellow prisoners.  In this regard it has certain similarities to Jan Valtin’s Out of the Night (1941), which Valtin, however, tried to pass off as pure autobiography.  Much could be said to praise Gerlach’s book from the point of view of literary criticism, but other matters must occupy my attention.


            The campaign of political reformation, and even some recruitment efforts, did yield a small harvest in the prison camps, but came to little in practical terms.  And few German prisoners were quickly returned to the Fatherland at the War’s end.  Gerlach would face five more years of detention in Russia.  More to the point of this story, the Russians confiscated the manuscript of his novel when they moved him from the camp.  When he finally got back to Germany in 1950, he was in a pretty traumatized state of mind.  He had fancied, rashly, that he would be able to reconstruct his novel from memory.  He would later claim he had done so.  But had he?


                                        Gerlach and Schmitz in hypnotic pursuit


            So-called “recovered memory” has now become so controversial in the medico-legal world that it has been classified as a syndrome, the charge being that the “recovered” memories often have actually been instilled in the subjects by the therapeutic techniques (leading questions, psychotropic drugs) used by the analysts.  Just this week, in the closely watched Ghislaine Maxwell trial in Manhattan a credentialled  academic memory expert testified that “she had conducted hundreds of experiments on memory and determined that exposure to falsehoods can cause people to form false memories that they regard as real.”  In 1951 Gerlach had been led through a magazine article to approach a Munich physician, Karl Schmitz, who appeared to be having great success recovering memories through hypnosis.  Working together, Gerlach and Schmitz claimed to have reconstructed most of the novel in more or less exact form, and recovered suppressed memories that allowed Gerlach to reformulate the rest.  “It all came back to me…” he said.  So he published it, and watched in amazement as it become an instant best-seller.  But the divided Germany of 1952 was very far from what it had been in 1942.  Its eastern parts were now a Communist satellite state.  In the West, the denazification efforts were intense, involving strenuous psychological efforts by many to maintain some distinction between a comparatively small cohort of fanatical Nazi leaders and the much larger population of “ordinary” Germans whom they had duped or coerced.  Millions of living war veterans and relatives of dead soldiers had to ponder—or resist pondering--the extent to which they and their amazing Wehrmacht might have been complicit in the crimes of Hitler, Goebbels, or Eichmann.   Gerlach thought it best to rechristen his reborn book in a direction of German victimhood.  It was now called The Forsaken Army (Der verratene Armee)—forsaken and betrayed by the arch-criminal Adolf Hitler!


            Heinrich Gerlach died in 1991, his death coinciding almost precisely with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Among so many other aftershocks of that political earthquake was one small literary miracle.    In 2012 an industrious German literary scholar, Carsten Gansel, sniffing about in Soviet military archives previously  unavailable, discovered the complete original manuscript of Durchbach bei Stalingrad seized from Gerlach in 1945!  Swiftly published under its original title, this Second Coming of a modern masterpiece was greeted with mixed elation and discomfort.  Consider for a moment the two works with the different titles as separate books.  In many respects the text seized in the prison camp (DbS) and that later resurrected or recreated under clinical hypnotism (VA) were amazingly similar in narrative, structure, dramatis personae, and even at times paragraph sequence and word-for-word sentences.  But the prison camp original returned again and again to a theme largely muted in its hypnotic restoration: the theme of the moral guilt of Germany and the Germans.  This theme is principally articulated through the thoughts of its central character, the German officer who is obviously a fictionalized reflex of the author, Heinrich Gerlach.  It is precisely this theme that for many readers would make DbS a significantly different work from the blood, guts, and camaraderie “war story” of VA.


            Yet where did this theme come from?  From the humanistic soul of a student of the classics?  Unfortunately, another suggestion is likewise inevitable: from the relentless NKVD re-education apparatus in Gerlach’s prison camp.  Anyone familiar with the judicial practices of the NKVD in Purge time knows their penchant for forcing suspects to write out autobiographical, casuistical essays of political self-examination and self-accusation.  Could Gerlach’s original manuscript show the remarkable influence of that strange literary genre?  One German scholar goes so far as to speak of “the repressed Soviet origins” of the novel!*  How extraordinary it would be if the supposed “recoveries” of the hypnotic writing process were actually procedures of literary revision, suppression and cleansings—a recoup of the “war story” novel he had wanted to write.   Do we know things when we are asleep that we cannot know when we are awake?  That is a question I hope to pursue in a very different venue next week.

*Jochen Hellbeck, “Breakthrough at Stalingrad: The Repressed Soviet Origins of a Bestselling West German War Tale,” Contemporary European History 22 (2013): 1-32.



Gladlylerne sends warmest Christmas greetings to all its readers.


Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Amazon or Adamastor?



            We have been discovering various silver linings around the dark clouds of the Pandemic, such as the apparent fact that it’s not really necessary to go to the office to do office work, so to speak.  Who knew?  (Negative findings are also appreciated.  You really do have to go to school to go to school.  I knew.)  One silver lining involves household detritus.  The single-stream recycling system in force in our area allows, in fact seems to encourage you to throw all recyclable materials promiscuously into the same bin.  One result of this, at least in my neighborhood, has been a certain amount of rain-sodden, catsup-stained newspaper advertisements blowing around the streets after windy, wet recycling days. In my opinion the best way of minimizing the potential mess is to enclose the paper materials in a cardboard box sealed without tape by the “organic” spiraled flap technique.  My system works very well indeed, but of course it does depend upon the availability of suitably sized cardboard boxes.  That has proved to be no problem at all since I became a regular Amazon customer. 

            But I am more than an Amazon customer.  I am an Amazon fan, and that is a second-degree felony in the awokening circles in which I travel.  Or used to—traveling having been abolished for the same reason that I became an Amazon customer.  Though one must be impressed by entrepreneurial daring and success on such a vast scale, I have no particular admiration for Mr. Bezos; and I do believe there is often truth in the phrase “filthy rich”.  Our current gilded age seems not much of an improvement, in terms of its ethical tone, over the one in the late nineteenth century.   I do not like trusts, cartels, or de facto monopolies.  On the other hand I do not hold it against Bezos—as many of my more politically alert neighbors seem to do—that he offers employment to a million and a half of our fellow citizens who need and want productive work in a segment of the labor market not universally characterized by decent wages or working conditions.  A telling evidence that some prominent politicians in one of our major political parties might be losing the “ordinary working Americans” plot could be detected about two years ago in the olympian tone with which they put the kibosh on an Amazon “mega-center” proposed for the borough of Queens in New York City.  I also have to note the dramatic contrasts, so far as speed, efficiency, and competence are concerned, between my dealings with Amazon and those involving any branch of federal, state, or local government.

            I keep reading about the damage I am doing to “Main Street” and to “Mom and Pop stores” by heavy dependence upon the behemoth of Amazon.  I know all about Mom and Pop stores.  For a long time I lived way out in the country where the nearest store—though not very near—was the Shady Grove Gas and Gro.  (Gro would have been “Grocery” had there been more space on the sign.)  There one could find (in addition to most forms of junk food known to man) an inadequate selection of some staples at elevated prices, with the rip-off softened by the rustic bonhomie of Mom or Pop and their clientele of soda-swilling regulars who hung out there during most opening hours.  The same was true of the mini-mart “alimentaries” in little places in France and Italy that I have loved and frequented in years gone by.  Like the romantic medievalists of the nineteenth century, like Minever Cheevey, like any self-respecting reactionary, I can yearn for the Mass-and-Maypole world of a gentler, simpler time.  The truth is, however, just at the moment the Mom and Pop I am most worried about are a couple of less than athletic octogenarians admonished by authority figures from Dr. Fauci to their juvenile grandchildren to stay at home, avoid all venues of normal social life, indeed avoid if possible all human contact and probably that of cats and dogs just to be extra safe. Amazon has done wonders for this couple, which is to say for us.


            I am not an entirely satisfied customer.  I do wish that Amazon had another name.  Presumably you know that the possibly folk etymology of “Amazon” is “with one boob amputated”—such a body modification being helpful for purposes of martial archery.  Be that as it may, there can be no doubt that Amazons were female and they were bellicose.  Neither of these Amazonian characteristics is of particular relevance to, whereas gigantism is.  When it was operating out of Bezos’s garage as a bookstore, “Amazon” was actually pretty cheeky and aspirational.  But what it has become is certainly an epic enterprise, and all epic enterprises require  monsters and giants.  Homer had his Harpies and his Cyclops, Vergil his Cerberus and his Cacus.  Dante, harvesting his gleanings from the tradition of both poets, became probably the most prolific recycler and inventor of monsters and giants in all of our literature.

            But the greatest of all literary monster/giants, in my view, is Adamastor, even though one less familiar to readers than he might be.  He was one of the Titans, a god-giant from the dawn of time.  In my view, should by rights be called  As a poetic personification Adamastor is the sixteenth-century brain-child of Luis de Camões in his great mytho-historical treatment of the eastern navigation undertaken by Vasco da Gama in 1497, his epic poem the Lusiads.  The meaning of “Lusiads” is something like “the feats of the heirs of Lusus (i.e., the Portuguese)”.   To get to India from Portugal Vasco da Gama had to sail south along the vast length of the whole of the western coasts of Africa, round the southern Cape, and then turn northeast through the channel between the African mainland and Madagascar into the Indian Ocean and toward the southwestern tip of the Subcontinent and Calicut (Calcutta).  The storm-tossed seas off the Cape of Good Hope were the most ferocious the mariners had to face.


            It requires only a bit of poetic imagination to see in the cartographic tips of both southern Africa and southern India a huge human head with a pointed beard.  The crews on the endangered Portuguese ships are terrified by the sight of a furious giant rising out of the sea.  This Adamastor is the gigantic and threatening anthropomorphic manifestation of the Cape’s geography and meteorology.  “I am that vast cape,” the monster bellows in his tremendous voice,  “locked in secrecy, that Cape of Hurricanes your people call…I round out Africa’s extremity in my hid headland, where the shore lines fall away, toward the Antarctic Pole prolonged, which your audacity has deeply wronged.”*  The actual name Adamastor could be based in philological error or it could be pseudo-Greek for “uncontrollable.”  The goal of the Portuguese mariners in the Lusiads is the establishment of commercial trade on a previously unimaginable scale.  It would be difficult to come up with an industrial mascot more fitting for an international commercial empire so voracious, ruthless, and terrifying.  For I fully admit that is “problematical,” to invoke a journalistic term of art useful when one wants to complain without being exactly clear what he is complaining about.  One of the big problems it causes me is the surfeit of cardboard boxes.


*V, 50, translation by Leonard Bacon, The Lusiads (N.Y.: Hispanic Society of America, 1950), p. 187.