Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Pedants Observed

 

 

There are all sorts of reasons to become an habitual reader of books in your youth, and I am discovering one of the best of them right now.  (A little later in the essay I shall touch upon possible dangers in doing so.) But when age and infirmity begin to attack your physical energy and dull your mental acuity, you can very easily retire to a comfortable chair in your library, physical or electronic, and read to your heart’s content.  And since you may have forgotten some of the crucial details of that Conrad story you read thirty years ago, you can read it with the pleasurable shock of eventual recognition.  I recently had a satisfying experience in this genre, one that links good books with good friends.

 

I have a younger friend, John Raimo, a one-time undergraduate student here, who is at an advanced stage in completing an ambitious doctoral dissertation in the Department of History at NYU.  His topic is a broad one, dealing with some major trends and figures in modern European intellectual history; and it involves a good deal about academic writers and their publishers.  He is a great polylingual reader himself, and every couple of months or so he sends me a report on current studies, and not infrequently a sample of it in book form.

 

That is, we exchange news about our current reading and writing.  In a recent email John reminded me of a book that I believe I had once recommended to him some years ago but had hardly entered my mind since: the late A. D. Nuttall’s charming though trenchant study of some works of English literature dealing with “Scholars and Scholarship in Literature and the Popular Imagination.”*

 

Nuttall must have been an undergraduate at Oxford at the time Joan and I were  there, though I never met him.  He was, I think, a classicist, who went on to become one of the leading scholars of English literature.  He was wide-ranging in his interests and very original in his approach, especially to Shakespeare.  His early death was a real loss to literary scholarship.

 

I suppose it is the easy target pedantry presents that has attracted so many clever writers to poke fun at teachers and scholars, but there are certainly a large number of their satirical victims, from Shakespeare’s Holofernes to Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.  I have trouble thinking of prominent counter-examples. Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxford, perhaps, or  Mr Chips?

 

            The intriguing title of Nuttall’s book -–Dead from the Waist Down--is a line from Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “A Grammarian’s Funeral”.  The unidentified speaker is an old student of the likewise unnamed defunctus, who was a probably Italian expert in Greek philology.  The dead scholar emerges as a dry-as-dust pedant, like Edward Causaubon in Middlemarch, one of the other satirized fictional scholars to whom Nuttall gives extensive attention.  The temporal setting of the poem is “shortly after the renewal of learning in Europe”—so, probably the fifteenth century at a guess.  The improbable setting is a funeral cortege bearing the body up a steep rise to an elevated gravesite explicitly symbolic of the scholar’s above-it-all separation from normal life.  The situation approaches the surreal.  This is Browning, so that a certain amount of obscurity is inevitable, but the major issue raised in the poem is quite clear.  It is in essence the conflict of the Active and Contemplative lives.  The adjudication of their ordering has been a major occupation of Western literature.  The dead grammarian’s choice has been clear:  “This man decided not to Live but Know.”

 

Of him Browning writes that “He gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De / Dead from the waist down.”  You hardly need to master the arcane linguistic jargon to realize that a doctrine of the ancient Greek enclitic De, whatever that might be, is unlikely to be as important as the law of supply and demand.  The grammatical definition of an enclitic is “a word pronounced with so little emphasis that it is shortened and forms part of the preceding word”, as the not in can’t, for example.  It is the mere hint or shadow of a word, as the grammarian is a hint or shadow of a man.  The achievements of the grammarian are puny except to other pedants.  That he is dead from the waist down in another poet might hint at a sexual meaning, but Browning is even crueler, suggesting a comprehensive rejection of action in the world, a spiritual crippling and voluntary immobility.

 

 

The hierarchy of the Active and Contemplative lives is an old one much discussed by early philosophers and especially ascetic theologians of the early Christian centuries.  The biblical prototypes are Mary (contemplative) and Martha (active) in a well-known passage in the gospel of Luke (10:42) in which Jesus says that Mary has chosen the “good part.”—the parallels in the Hebrew Scriptures being Leah and Rachel.  Medieval art and literature are rich in these “types”, as for example in Dante’s Commedia (Purgatorio, 27).  There is small comfort in this pronouncement for secular scholars like myself who are likely at times to question the efficacy of the “life of the mind”—Greek enclitics and all—in a troubled world in which so many human bodies are in distress or danger.  Things need to be done, and not merely thought about.  The words engraved upon Marx’s tomb, the famous apothegm from the Theses on Feuerbach, are these: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”  But one hopes that the change will be for the better.  The history of the twentieth century suggests that the enactment in political fact of what is thought of in the mind is not always positive.  There are so many things that seemed like a good idea at the time.

 

The treatment of the theme of the contrasting modes of life in modern literature, though seldom frontal and direct, is ubiquitous.  Many years ago another dear friend introduced me to Hermann Hesse’s remarkable novel  Narcissus and Goldmund. (1930).  This book with its medieval setting and almost violently modern treatment of the ancient theme, is among the most intellectually provocative novels I have ever read.

 

 

Nuttall’s book is of course witty, urbane in its erudition, and it does not deal explicitly with the contemporary Anglo-American arena of higher education.  Nonetheless I find it highly relevant to that subject.  The modern university, however “engaged,” “woke”, or “activist" its denizens be, is still housed in its Ivory Tower.  There are just below the surface the clearest filiations of attitude between the ascetic organization in which the Parisian schools incubated and contemporary Anglo-American academia.  While most professors today hardly follow the ascetic life, most of us silently believe that we have sacrificed the power and emoluments we could have for the asking in the world of business and high affairs for the self-abnegation of high cultural service to the world at large.  There is of course no external evidence for that comforting belief, but never mind.  After all, mastering the enclitics is so much fun.

 

 

 

        

 

*A. D. Nuttall , Dead from the Waist Down (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Settler Colonialism

"Purchase of Manhattan Island" (Historical Society of N.Y.)
 

 I recently read with interest a polemical essay by Bret Stephens, a Times opinion writer, responding to the frequent charge that Israel is a “settler colonial” state and therefore by implication an illegitimate state.  The term is used in some left-wing circles to denote territory in which a native or “indigenous” population has been replaced or overwhelmed by invaders or immigrants.  It is not my purpose to re-enter the discussion about the War in Gaza from a particular point of view, nor do I wish to endorse or refute the larger political drift of Mr. Stephens’s essay; but I do want to say a word or two about “settler colonialism,” the process that is in actuality the principal dynamic force in recorded history.

Among European historians there is still in use a German term—Volkswanderung, or the “migration of peoples,” used to describe the gradual demographic construction of what we now call “Europe.”  This word is translated in one standard dictionary of American English as “the migration of nations especially the movement into southern and western Europe of the Teutonic peoples, Huns, and Slavs from the 2d century a.d. to about the 11th century reaching the peak in the 5th and 6th centuries and closing with the settling of Norsemen in England and France.” 


About twenty-five miles north of the ancient city of York and about one hundred and twenty five miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed on the border with Scotland is one my favorite British archaeological sites, the ruins of the magnificent Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx.  The Cistercians, whose name derive derives from the Order’s mother house at Cîteaux, about fifteen miles south of Dijon in Burgundy, was a major source of spiritual renewal in the twelfth century.  The ruined abbey is spectacular, and its larger geographical context one of subtle and changing beauty.  In his fine little book Medieval England 1066-1485* the great British medievalist Professor Sir Maurice Powicke invoked this modest stretch of land in the North Riding of Yorkshire, the Vale of Pickering from Rievaulx eastward, as an historical summary of “the curiosity, the invasions of men and things which we call the history of England.” In this one small area there is to be found evidence of prehistoric cromlechs erected by human beings of unknown ethnicity,  of multiple Viking  raids and permanent settlements, of Pictish slaughter, and Saxon conflict.  There are dozens of ancient stone enclosures from many periods in the hundred-mile stretch between Rievaulx and Hadrian’s Wall.  Scandinavian influence on the vocabulary of northern English dialects is profound.  The history of ancient strife, of invasion, expulsion, resistance and the growth of new communities is written upon the landscape in stone.  It is thus in miniature a model for the  larger human history of the world, which is the history of “settler colonialism”.  The best guess of the population of today’s Europe in the time of Emperor Augustus was about forty-five million.  Today it is about eight hundred million.  The processes by which this vast increment in human population came about are of course many and complex, but the Volkswanderung has not ceased, nor ceased to have an agonistic dimension, whether on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa or in Eagle Pass, TX.


                                                          Rievaulx

The dictionary definition of colonialism is “control by one power over a dependent  area or population.”  Broad as it is, this definition is inadequate to describe the “Arab-Israeli problem.”  If we apply to the situation in the Gaza Strip the normal economic explanation of colonialism—the desire to exploit for financial gain—the inadequacy of the definition becomes yet more apparent.  The origins of the catastrophe of the "Arab-Israeli" problem are to be found in a series of earlier catastrophes beginning no later than the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius and extending down to and beyond Hitler's Holocaust.

I long ago became dubious about grand historical theories, yet it does seem that in its long development history exhibits certain broad principles.  These include at times the ruthless Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest.  It is thus that homo sapiens the species has survived, developed,  and adapted over aeons.  Is it really true, as Marx  and Engels maintained, that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles”?  John Ball, the egalitarian priest prominent in the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 is credited with the potent distych: “When Adam delved and Eva span/ Who was then the gentle-man?”  William Morris and other early Socialists claimed him as an ancestor.


 Relatively small advantages in technology could have huge political and social results.  How could fifty rough adventurers from Extremadura in an astonishingly brief period of time overcome the mighty Aztec Empire with its thousands of ferocious warriors?  How could the Empire of which the conquistadors were a spearhead decay into political debility over a couple of centuries, yet leaving behind around half  a billion native speakers of their language?  And how could that vast number yet be only roughly a half the number of the native speakers of Chinese? 

On the whole the history of the treatment of many American Indians by the European immigrants who eventually overwhelmed them is the history of crimes against humanity.  Less well-known, because largely unrecorded, is the widespread ferocious warfare among American tribal groups before they were overwhelmed by European immigrants.  I do wish more of our citizens would read our early, now classical historians, William Prescott and especially Francis Parkman.  Particularly mind-opening is the second volume of Parkman’s England and France in North America , entitled The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century. Parkman’s principal sources were the eye-witness accounts of Jesuit missionaries intimately familiar with the cultures of and genocidal warfare and barbarous cruelty among various groups of Indian tribes in what is now Québec, Ontario and the contiguous tier of bordering states in this country.  The “story” that emerges is often terrible indeed, but it defies the simplism of “land-stealers” and noble savages alike.  The annoying complexity of historical reality is what makes “Black Robe” a film of comparative historical integrity and ambition and “Dances with Wolves” a romantic idyll in the lineage of “savage” Romanticism found in Chateaubriand’s Atala or Les Natchez or for that matter Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans.

 

The high school graduation ceremony of one of my granddaughters, which took place al fresco on a Hudson River venue in lower Manhattan, began with the familiar prohemium recited by the headmaster, that we were gathered on stolen land, the despoiled in this instance being Lenape Indians.  This statement of course conflicts with the clear visual evidence of the event in 1626,  admittedly recorded some years later by an artist who knew what really happened.  The Dutchman Peter Minuit actually bought the island for a handful of bling from an all-purpose treasure chest he never traveled without.  As closing on such a choice property was a ceremonial occasion, the seventeenth-century sellers thought it best to wear their nineteenth-century Comanche warrior best.  To discern the facetiousness in grave matters is different from taking them lightly.  When we accept legend as “history”—whether the legend be the predisposition of the contemporary politically correct or of the nineteenth-century romantic—we are unlikely to be much the wiser.

         The “Arab-Israeli conflict” might actually be more tractable were it primarily an issue of “settler colonialism.”  In fact, it is of a different and in some ways unique character.  Two groups of people lay claim to the same fairly small piece of land which for differing reasons—history, religious conviction, the approbation or disapprobation of the world community, or the principle of the Caucasian Chalk Circle—they believe is theirs by right.  The certainty and passion with which such beliefs are acted upon lie behind the absolutely unconscionable barbarity of the Hamas attack of October 7 and the unconscionable “collateral” slaughter attendant upon the Israeli military response.  There are by now perhaps twenty thousand or more killed, mostly women and children, among the Gazan population.  And this “episode” is but one—albeit a sensational one--of many in the course of my own lifetime.  And, alas, the bitterness of this conflict, its continuing incubation of long invested hatreds, its recurrently sanguinary episodes, and the apparent ineffectiveness of the international community, have themselves become perpetuating motives for its continuation.  But the simplistic phrase “settler colonialism” does little to explain, and nothing to resolve.  Pray for more plowshares, fewer spears.


Negev Desert of Israel

 

 

BEFORE AND AFTER IN PALESTINE

 


Beit Hanoun, Gaza (BBC photo) 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*London 1948, in the popular series “Home  University Library” intended for a general audience, with several later reprintings.

 

 

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

The Inner Sanctum Edition

                                                              War and Peace (Inner Sanctum edition)
 

When I last week announced the prospect of an essay about “the world’s greatest novel,” I still felt somewhat tentative about actually writing it, but I soon felt forced to do so under the goading of an eminent reader who immediately emailed me “Ah, finally, we’ll have a blog post about The Count of Monte Cristo!”  Comments like that make it difficult to maintain the intended air of bloggatorial pomposity for which I aim.  In fact, I lack the credentials to write anything  of general interest about Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the novel to which I was of course alluding.  I do not know Russian, and I am no expert in Russian literature even in translation.  But I have read the Maude translation of War and Peace several times over the years, with each reading bringing augmented appreciation and admiration.  So I am a mere Tolstoy enthusiast, not a Tolstory scholar.   But what I shall talk about here is my association with a particular edition of War and Peace in the frequently published English translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude.                    

                                   Leo Tolstoy (1)-----Aylmer Maude (0)
 

There are of course many translations in English, and perhaps one who does not read Russian should be shy of  pontificating about translations; but just watch me.  The Maude translation of Tolstoy reads, as it obviously should, like other great door-stopper novels of the Victorian period, like  Vanity Fair (1847), or The Cloister and the Hearth (1861) or Les Miserables (1862) or Middlemarch (1871).  Long resident in Russia, the Maudes were fluent speakers of its language  as spoken by Tolstoy himself in his own social milieu.  Both translators  were highly educated and both were widely read in the European fiction of their age.  Both of them were personal friends of Tolstoy.  Aylmer Maude was a close friend.  Both were on Tolstoy’s elevated ethical plain.  Both had literary interests of their own.  Those credentials impress me. 

 

But I am talking about not merely a particular translation but a particular edition.  I refer to the “Inner Sanctum” edition of the novel published in New York in 1942 by Simon and Schuster.  Everything about this book is pleasing to me.  It is physically imposing.  Its 1370 pages make a paper block two and a half inches thick.  It is heavy enough to serve as a door-stopper.  The typeface (Electra, in ten point) was one of the two most famous faces created by the brilliant American typographer William Addison Twiggins (the other being Caledonia).

I first read War and Peace in this edition by serendipity, having borrowed it from an Arkansas neighbor, whose father had picked it up at the end of the War on a military base in the Philippines!  At that time I had no particular interest in typography, and didn’t even read the introduction or note the name of its author.    But education is a continuous process, and I was destined later to find myself interested  both topics—printing and Clifton Fadiman, editor of the Inner Sanctum edition.  Fadiman’s name is no longer as famous as it was in the days when I was becoming a serious reader and encountered it in essays and reviews everywhere, or listened to his popular radio game show, “Information, Please.”  He was a polymath literary intellectual in the Edwardian style.  Such popularizing “super readers” are no longer in the national cultural sphere.  He died at a great age in 1999.  A line from his Times obituary: “In the1940's and 50's, Mr. Fadiman's presence in and influence on American intellectual life were ubiquitous. He prided himself on his skill as a popularizer and on his ability to make lofty subjects accessible to people who lacked his education and acuity.”  He was among the extraordinary influential group of Columbia University professors, students, and drop-outs and “adjacents”  (including Whittaker Chambers, Mark Van Doren, and Lionel Trilling) famous in the mid-twentieth century. 

 

                                                Clifton Fadiman

Fadiman had to have written his long and illuminating introductory essay on War and Peace no later than the very beginning of 1942.  By then the German army was at the gates of Moscow, but still distant from Stalingrad to the east and south, with the outcome of the titanic struggle far from certain.  But nearly half the essay is devoted to the parallels (at the date of its writing) between Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812—which is course the principal event of the war part of War and Peace-- and the Wehrmacht’s advance in late 1941.  Fadiman’s essay—illustrated by an extraordinary map on the volume’s endpapers, is thus, in retrospect, an astonishing if only implicit historical prophecy.  I don’t have exact sales figures for this hugely successful book, but judging from the comparatively large numbers still available on the second-hand market over the years (40 on Abebooks at the moment), they must have been very good.   There were many successive press runs.  Over the years I myself have bought at least fifteen used copies to give to friends.  Unfortunately even battered copies are no longer dirt cheap, as they were thirty years ago.  But my point here is that many Americans must have been reading it during the six months (August 1942 to February 1943) of the Battle of Stalingrad, the beginning of the end of Hitler.  The  defeat of the German Sixth Army under Friedrich Paulus was even more catastrophic than that of Napoleon’s Grande Armée.  A good number of Frenchmen did return to their homeland alive, if barely.  Readers of Fadiman’s “Foreword” might rightly regard him as a prophet.

 By the time I was writing The Anti-Communist Manifestos (2009) I knew a good deal about Fadiman, who was peripherally involved with some of the Thirties intellectuals with whom I dealt.  I concluded that by 1941 he was “gracefully sloughing off, without  any dramatic gestures of political conversion, the hard leftism of the mid-thirties.”  I don’t believe that he had ever been a member of the Communist Party, but he certainly was very far left; and like so many other Western leftists he had been deeply shaken by the Hitler-Stalin “Devil’s Pact” of 1939.

 This Inner Sanctum edition of War and Peace has several special features.  Though not “illustrated” it has a striking jacket, end papers and title page art.  The table of contents is unusually detailed.  At the end of the book is a detailed dramatis personae or list of its myriad characters as they appear sequentially in the text.  Don’t buy—or at least don’t pay more than ten bucks for-- a copy unless it  includes the separate twelve-page brochure (“A Readers’ Guide and Bookmark”) containing this same list of characters and maps of Napoleon’s campaigns of 1805 and 1812.

 

         I don’t know that War and Peace, a novel of three quarters of a million words, can be called a “subtext” or a sub-anything, but it, the novel, Tolstoy’s majestic creation, is what has stimulated me to my curious historical discussion of one of what are probably dozens of its English language editions.  I feel justified in this odd approach not merely because of the book’s genre (historical fiction) but also because history might be said to be an active character in it.  Many readers, including me, find a challenge if not a stumbling block at the novel’s end: two substantial final chapters, more than a hundred pages in all, dealing with the philosophy and at times it seems theology of history.  Among several major themes of the first epilogue is the role of chance in history.  It suggests a sort of cosmic capriciousness very different from such common Providential (God is mysteriously in charge) or Marxist (“dialectical materialism” is scientifically in charge) theories of historical purposefulness.

In case my own essay is not yet sufficiently  perplexing, I shall add a comment illustrating the strange byways that history can take by mentioning two old bed frames—a twin set of once beautiful Scandinavian  maplewood Thirties “modern” design—that have been mouldering in our musty crawlspace for the last thirty years.  They were  given to us (perhaps “unloaded on” would be the better phrase) in an early stage of our married life by Joan’s one-time employer, Hans Rosenhaupt.  He was at the time  the head of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation.  They had come into the possession of the Rosenhaupts in an earlier unloading in the 1940s by their friend and neighbor in Leonia, NJ—one Clifton Fadiman!

 

 

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The Gospel in Brief

 

Leo Tolstoy


     After disappointing postponements caused by the weather, illness, and other forces hostile to conviviality, our Montreal branch—younger son Luke, Melanie, and grandkids John Henry and Hazel—were at last able to make a Christmas visit to Princeton a couple of weeks ago.  The visit was short but jolly, and coincided with a magical but manageable snowfall that allowed the kids to practice their various Canadian chops in  the lakeside forest behind our house.  Who could imagine that suburban New Jersey would have anything to teach Montrealers about snow?  I think the woods made the difference.

 

    Luke’s present for me was a paperback book of modest appearance and size: The Gospel in Brief, by Leo Tolstoy.*  Luke knew I have found myself deeply interested in the literary evidences of the influence of the nineteenth-century “historical” or demythologized Jesus, especially that of Ernest Renan, whose Life of Jesus (1863) brought down upon his head Pius IX’s execration as “the arch-blasphemer of Europe” but probably allowed thousands of others the route to a viable personal reconstruction of their own inherited faith.  By the time Tolstoy entered his intensely religious period, Renan’s approach was “mainstream” among European intellectuals.

 

    Tolstoy’s remarkable book, of which I am embarrassed to say I was previously unaware, presents a single continuous narrative of Jesus’s life as Tolstoy had abstracted and unified it from the four gospels, making narrative  adjustments in the first three designed to increase the sense of a sequential story.  He found to his delight that John’s gospel already had the clear and accurate chronology of his rearrangement of the synoptics.  But that was by no means all he did.  He edited out all the miraculous episodes, and many of his “translations” are in fact radical reformulations in which it is difficult to discern the textual skeleton of the original texts.  The actual structuring principal of the book is based on the sequential phrases of the Lord’s Prayer (paternoster).  But the book is so “heretical” that it stood absolutely no chance of being tolerated by any of the churches, and certainly not by the Orthodox Church.  He not so much as tried to publish it in Russia, and in fact it was not published even in Western Europe until after his death.  In its organizational principles it is a brilliant literary tour-de force.  The Bible is the most widely published, and the most widely written about book in the world.  It is not easy to do something fundamentally new with it.  But it is far more than literary cleverness and innovation.  It is a profoundly reverent and honest emblem of a great mind and a great heart struggling with the claims of Christianity.  It is likely to challenge any Christian believer—and I am one—to examine what it is, precisely that he or she actually believes.  For it is also an essay on the meaning of belief.  Tolstoy is everywhere alert to the liveliness of spirit and moribundity of letter.  What is the meaning for  a “believer” in, say, Judges 9:8?  (“The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign thou over us’.”)

 

    I don’t like simply to gush about books, but in this instance I find support in one of the A-List intellectuals of the twentieth century.  Luke supplemented his gift of the book with an anecdote—well known to students of philosophy, perhaps, but new to me.  Today’s graduate students in my line of work—that is, the analysis of works of literature as possibly illuminated by the intellectual, philosophical, and linguistic contexts in which they are created—find they must also confront a phalanx of famed German-language philosophers, theologians, political analysts, linguistic theorists, and social critics whose works, when translated into English, still seem somehow to remain in German.   I refer to such intellectual heavy-weights and cultural superstars as  Adorno, Buber, Carnap, Dilthey, Engels, Feuerbach, and Gadamer.   It appears that the importance of knowing what these people have had to say is equalled only by the difficulty in fully grasping their mode of saying it.  There must be at least one such genius for every letter of the alphabet, but as I cannot off the top of my head come up for one with “I”, let me  skip directly to  “W” where we find, among others, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), generally regarded as among the most important of twentieth-century philosophers.  He dealt with big issues, as might be suggested by the unfriendly title of his most frequently name-dropped work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

 

Ludwig Wittgenstein

 

         Wittgenstein was an Austrian nominal Catholic of extraordinary intellectual acuity and distinguished social background.  He was also  a person of emphatic social presence.   In 1911 he sought out the already famous Bertrand Russell in Cambridge, with whom he studied, argued, and collaborated.  Russell would later write of him that “He was perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.”  The first World War broke out in his late twenties.  Though the very epitome of international European intellectuality, he served with distinction in the army of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian army.  As he was readying himself to be sent off to his military duties he was in the small old city of Tarnow, now in Poland.  At the last minute  he hurriedly tried to find a good book to while away the journey he faced.  Time was short and options limited.  He went into some kind of bric-a-brac shop where there was to be found for sale precisely one book; so he bought it.  It was Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief.  It blew his mind, as we used to say.  He carried it with him throughout his war service, including its final phase as a prisoner of war in Italy, rereading and studying it as opportunity allowed.  It eventually displaced his  superficial and abandoned childish Christian formation.  What it replaced it with is not easy to pin down.  His reaction was a stage in some kind of a religious conversion, but not an easy or conventional one.  Well, if the gospel in Tolstoy’s book could catch a whale like Ludwig Wittgenstein, I feel justified in my own minnow-level amazement at its discovery.

 

         I spent a career in large part trying to convince young people that the world’s literature is an inexhaustible treasure and that its masterpieces carry no “sell by” date.  In truth the idea required no hard sell. Still, one of the pleasures of old age—and there are a few—is to confirm the validity of my own clichés peddled to students throughout my own life.   Others have expressed the idea far better than I ever could.  It would be difficult to improve on the famous words of John Milton, a man who knew a good deal about  books.  A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to life beyond life.”

 

         There are many “master spirits,” remembering always that the primary sense of the Latin from which the word master derives is “teacher.”  Our great literary teachers come in both sexes, and from many times and  many lands.   They have left their gifts in many languages.  Leo Tolstoy was a master spirit in more than one sense; but he is probably most widely known as the author of the world’s greatest novel.  Whether there even is such a thing as the world’s greatest novel is irrelevant, but I am more than willing to entertain the hypothesis.  And I think I’ll devote my next essay to it—sort of.

        

 

 

*Leo Tolstoy, The Gospel in Brief , trans. Dustin Condren (NY:Harper, 2011), pp. 180

 

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Immolated Women



If you have read Sterne’s Tristram Shandy you may remember the quixotic way Sterne plays with John Locke’s discussion of the “association of ideas”—essentially how one thought can lead to another in a wandering, circuitous and sometimes comic direction.  Throughout the book there is running, slightly off-color, and entirely whimsical joke involving grandfather clocks and marital sex.  But “Lockean”  associations can also be tragic.  I have just been taken along a circuitous mental path of tragedy, and I do mean circuitous.  It began with memories of my grandmother’s house in Denver where I spent some of the War years of the 1940s. Among a relatively few decorations adorning its walls were a couple of cheaply reproduced images of the Virgin Mary.  One of these was Tiepolo’s famous “Immaculate Conception.”  The other, which I remember less clearly, showed Mary as a seamstress, a theme, as I learned many years later, common in the folkloristic iconography of medieval Europe.  The illustration I found for this essay is not identical to the print in my grandmother’s house.

 

In 1854 Pope Pius IX (the famously long-serving Pio Nono)  dogmatized the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Thus, Tiepolo’s painting is of an idea rather than an event.  Allow me briefly to explain this doctrine, since I have found that many knowledgeable people, and even a few learned ones, mistakenly think it refers directly to the Virgin Birth of Jesus.  It does not. It was a “pious belief,” a tenet of popular thought, that has been widely but informally believed by some Christians for centuries.  It became theologically “hot” in the thirteenth century, though only official dogma in the nineteenth.   It refers to the supposed supernatural intervention by which Mary’s own birth was shielded from the Original Sin inherited from Adam and Eve.  The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception seemed to be necessitated  by Scholastic logic in order to guarantee the human sinlessness of Jesus.  In the later Middle Ages the Franciscans were particularly zealous in championing the doctrine.   A good deal of my scholarly work has related to the medieval Franciscan Order, so that I have perhaps read more treatises on the Immaculate Conception than are good for me.

 

 The Feast of the Immaculate Conception was assigned the date of December 8.  On that day in 1863,  in the huge church of Santiago (Chile) that had been built by the Jesuits before their Order’s expulsion from South America, there was a packed festival Mass attended by most of the city’s elite, with many of the female worshippers wearing elaborate gowns and dresses.  A dropped candle or oil lamp kindled a flash fire that “almost instantly” engulfed the entire building.  Partly because of seating arrangements and partly because of the flammability of the women’s clothing, the loss of life was much higher for females than for males.  We lack exact numbers, but at least twenty-five hundred, and possibly as many as four thousand worshippers were immolated.  It was perhaps history’s largest known single building incendiary disaster.  European anticlericalism, especially in Italy and France, but also in republican circles in Latin America, was bourgeoning.  Garibaldi had originally had high hopes for Pio Nono, but as the pope aged into bleak political reaction he and his republican followers came to despise him.  Blasphemous radicals scandalized the pious throughout the Catholic world by suggesting that the catastrophe was a judgement on the pope and his dogma of the Immaculate Conception!

 


 

         The fire in the Church of the Company of Jesus in Santiago de Chile, for all its horror, led to no particular reforms so far as I know.  But  about fifty years later another disastrous immolation of women, this one in Greenwich Village in New York, would prove to be an important impetus in the advancement of the American labor movement.  I refer to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (25 March 1911), which ravaged a factory in the upper floors of a building on Washington Place now owned by New York University.  I am personally acquainted with the site of the old building, as it is very near the large apartment house, also owned by NYU, in which our daughter and son-in-law have lived for many years.  (The roster of earlier residents of note in that  building include Eleanor Roosevelt.  Every inch of lower Manhattan is “historic”.)  The product manufactured by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, the shirtwaist, is, or rather mainly was (as it is no longer common) an item of female apparel.  The shirtwaist is a long-sleeved blouse, sometimes with wide shoulders, narrowing tightly at the waist—often quite a sexy item in my view, by which I mean the view of book illustrators and Hollywood costumers.  In the late nineteenth century low-paid workers, mostly young immigrant women in  sweatshops in New York and Philadelphia, produced untold thousands of them.  Most of the workers at the Triangle Company were young women, southern Italians and Central European Jews, working for long hours seated at constantly humming sewing machines.

 


 

         The precise origin of the Triangle fire is uncertain.  The post-fire investigation found that safety precautions were casual.  There was a single and as it proved feeble exterior fire escape.  Scraps of material, some highly flammable, littered the floors beneath the sewing tables.  There were dust piles.  Strict prohibitions against smoking were at times violated.  But what guaranteed unspeakable disaster when fire broke out was the fact that the factory owners had locked the main exit doors during working hours.  The owners said the motive was to discourage theft.  Some historians have claimed it was to keep labor organizers out.  Once again, nearly total conflagration was said to be almost instant.  Between those actually incinerated and those forced to leap to their deaths nearly 150 perished, the large majority women and girls.

 

         It was at such a terrible price that significant improvements in working conditions of the American garment industry were achieved.  The Triangle fire encouraged the reformation of some of the more appalling practices  of the sweatshops and hastened the organization and powerful expansion of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, generally regarded as a major positive force in American labor history.

 

         The site of the Triangle fire now boasts an impressive and  moving memorial to its victims of more than a century ago.  And in the whimsical ways in which the Lockean association of ideas leads from one way to another I find that I myself have a thematic link to that moment in history.  For it just so happens that I am the emeritus Louis W. Fairchild professor at my institution.  Mr. Fairchild, who died in 1981 and whom I never met, was the publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, one of the most famous trade journals in the country  I never met his son either, though he was the one who established “my” chair in his father’s name.  He was apparently for decades a prominent and highly public figure in the New York fashion world.


 

 

 

 

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The End of Merit?

Meritorious striver and his creator, Horatio Alger
 

“DEI” is hot—or perhaps the verb should be plural, DEI are hot, as each letter stands for its own nominal concept: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.  This trinity of fair dealing designed to limit the damage inflicted by decades of white prejudice  is potentially applicable to many aspects of personal and social life; but just at the moment it is especially current in discussions of higher education, and more especially in relation to the racial categories of students accepted by institutions of higher learning and to the racial compositions of college faculties.  Oversimplifying only slightly, the aspiration of the DEI regime would be to achieve a social mix of both students and faculty that would reflect approximately the same ethnic profile on campus as is to be found in the general population.  At the moment roughly 14% of our American population is of African and 6 or 7% of Asian ancestry.

 

I would be happier with the slogan if its last term were to be inclusivity rather than inclusion.  My preference is not wholly based in euphony.  That slight change would underscore the revolutionary aim of the project by echoing the rhythms of the motto of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, fraternité—an inspiring motto still prominent on thousands of public buildings in France.  But the really problematic English term is equity, a word used with differing connotations.  Its most general sense, fairness, is one to which we can all subscribe.  But to some who are advancing the DEI regime equity is taken to promise equality of outcomes.  It is one thing to guarantee an equable opportunity of access to an open competition and another to foreordain the results to conform to skin-color statistics.

 

The latter, mind you, is by no means an indefensible position.  The dream of absolute social equality, though never achieved, lies latent in the democratic dogma. The distribution of physical prowess, mental acuity, skills and talents is not uniform among the human race; but it would be at least theoretically possible to make a social division of the world’s material goods on grounds of strict equality.  One of the famous apothegms of Karl Marx is that allotment of resources should be made on a socially equable basis: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”  Such a revolutionary redistribution of material resources might seem to guarantee that no one could be “born on third base” because there would be no bases.  That situation might last as long as fifteen minutes.

 

The History of the French Revolution by Jules Michelet, still among the most famous books devoted to what is probably the defining cultural event of Western modernity, surprisingly begins with an essay in historical theology: “Concerning the religion of the Middle Ages”.  This may seem curious.  The historian had abandoned Christian belief  early and was a ferocious enemy of the Jesuits.  In his introductory chapter Michelet contrasts the discarded medieval world as a regime of grace (as in “grace and favor”) with a regime of revolutionary justice.  Many well-meaning enthusiasts of DEI seem to think of equity as justice in Michelet’s sense.  But for me the historical evidence of the results of the Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions suggests that the theory leads to neither equity nor to justice but to the annihilation of the specific individual in the sea of statistical abstraction.  Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, one of the truly consequential novels of the twentieth century, is perhaps the most forceful literary amplification  of the idea in practice.  Koestler’s French publisher changed its title to Le Zéro et l’InfinieZero and Infinity--the individual being nothing, and the “masses” everything.  This is a point developed in one of the more philosophical moments in a dialogue between the doomed central character and his NKVD interrogator.

 

I stick with the now embattled idea that when all is said and done, human beings are to be judged, in Martin Luther King’s famous phrase, “on the content of their character.”  To do so is to acknowledge individual merit.  One of the best-selling American writers of the later nineteenth century was Horatio Alger, and although few people today have read any of his books, his name is still known by many as a specialist in the rags-to-riches plot.  The typical Alger hero was a young man who by his pluck, talent, and industry overcame the disadvantaged circumstances of his origins to achieve material and social success.  This has been called “bootstrap capitalism,” but it always depends upon a Helping Hand.   The Horatio Alger template is partly hokum, but only partly.  In my experience it is more convincing than the oppressor-oppressed model.  But of course we all tend to turn our individual life experience into a useful social template.  I want to consider myself a meritocrat.  Surely we all want to consider ourselves meritocrats.

 

   A great deal has changed since I was young.  To judge from the press it is now something newsworthy to be the first college graduate in your family.  It was common among my contemporaries.  The “GI Bill” alone must have expanded the sociology of American college graduates hugely.  I remember being at a conference of Danforth Fellows in the late 1950s.  This was a group of highly select doctoral students in the humanities bankrolled by a midwestern foundation established by an agricultural tycoon.  At our conference the Harvard Dean of Arts and Sciences (a job of storied eminence later held by Claudine Gay on her rise to the presidency) said in a lecture to the  assembled fellows that the great challenge facing American higher education in the 1960s and 70s would be producing PhDs rapidly enough to meet the ever-expanding need for more college professors.  Could this be done at scale while sustaining true standards of excellence?  We felt we were part of a large wave of dynamic, positive social change.  Even Homer nods, but I personally still feel that way.

 

In the polemical atmosphere both evidenced and exacerbated by the de facto firing of Harvard’s president it is not surprising that academic DEI regimes are loudly defended as effective instruments of social justice by one group and decried as gravy trains for race hustlers by others.  But the debate, if one can dignify it with that name, is likely to be unproductive so long as the credentialed proponents of “diversity” think that word means “more people who think just like me.”