Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Bowled Over


This will be an essay about exquisite literary bowls and granddaughters of the same quality.  It is also about the creativity of youth and the contemplation of age.  The Preacher of Ecclesiastes—I refer to the biblical book of that name--is gloomy, but what a poet!  His justly famous admonition to the young is best understood by the old.  Remember your Creator, he says, before it is too late. Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.  Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.  Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher: all is vanity  (Ecc 12:6-8).  Around the image of the broken golden bowl Henry James created one of the marvels of our literature.


            That’s the background on literary bowls.  Now for the background on granddaughters, or rather one in particular.  Lulu Mae Fleming-Benite, our Number Two granddaughter, is a young woman of parts.  Fulsomeness in pursuing this theme is a grandfather’s prerogative; but I shall be brief.   She recently turned eighteen, shortly after learning of her early acceptance at her college of choice, Barnard, where she will begin a course of study next fall.  Like her two lively sisters, Lulu has a wide range of interests and abilities.  A talented visual artist in several media and an aspiring musician, she also has a frank intellectual passion that reminds me (yes) of my own adolescent self.  In Marseille, where she spent a visiting semester of her high school junior year, she became interested in philosophy—philosophy being a high school subject in France.  She is now in fact working on the English translation of a book written by her philosophy teacher.


            At Christmas Lulu presented, us,  her local grandparents—those on her father’s side live in Jerusalem—a pair of gifts that exhibit some of the range of her artistic talents.  Working from a photograph taken in our yard last year, she painted for me a unique souvenir of an affectionate moment  during a family summer dejeuner sur l’herbe, quite the peer, in my biased opinion,  of similar efforts of Manet or Seurat.  And she poured her love for her grandmother into a remarkable work of ceramic art.  It is a beautifully proportioned bowl, three inches deep, with an eight-inch diameter at its top.  Its glossy, slightly curving sides taper down to a base with a diameter of six inches.  But it is its literary iconography that makes it so distinctive.


            My wife Joan, Lulu’s grandmother, studied English at Oxford and has been a life-long lover of good literature.  Among her admired modern authors is Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), a writer of revolutionary importance in terms of the aesthetics of English language fiction.  Her early novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) is on the face of it not about very much: Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-crust London society lady, throws a cocktail party for a group of friends, most of whom are as conventional as herself.  But what was not on the face of it—subtly shifting points of view, the examination of inner life, a bold prose lyricism—was akin to a literary explosion.


             I am an admirer of the fine ceramics one sees in museums, and years ago, when they were still affordable in England, I gathered a few old blue and white ginger jars that add a little class to the shelves that flank our hearth.  But in truth I know little of ceramic technique, and have no idea how one potifies an image of Virginia Woolf.  I do, I think, grasp something of the meaning of the floral decorations around the bowl’s exterior.  Lulu has captured a whole bouquet with botanical exactitude, and even I can recognize many individual species: pansies, dahlias, asters, hydrangeas perhaps, a rose certainly.  I seemed to remember that Mrs. Dalloway is full of flowers, but until I pulled it from the shelf I had forgotten just how full.  The novel’s first sentence-- Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself—contains but the first of literally dozens of obviously significant floral references.  One sees them everywhere, even in hastily skimming the book, as I did.  Roses—the one flower Mrs. Dalloway really approves for cutting--seem to be particularly significant.


            I am no expert on Virginia Woolf, but there are many such experts out there, and I was sure that even casual Internet research would turn up a few.  It took me approximately a minute and a half to find several promising titles, including an entire master’s thesis on the topic.  I promised myself when I retired that I would never again read a student thesis, but of course I’ve already broken that rule a few times.  Truth is, there are some very good student theses including one that  Betty I. Rychen presented to the faculty of the English Department at the College of William and Mary in 1982.  It is entitled Mrs. Dalloway’s Flowers: An Attempt to Define a Symbol.


            Mrs. Dalloway is a stunning work of art, but I find it immensely sad, as I think most readers, especially other elderly ones, might.  It is about many things, but one of them is how the promise and daring of youth can be stifled by caution and social convention. The saddest victories of convention are those that coerce love.  Oversimplifying only grossly, Clarissa Dalloway married the wrong man thirty years ago.  He is a perfectly nice and decent man, not without a certain worldly eminence, but he is the wrong man.   Right in the middle of the book there is a moment when Peter Walsh, the one Clarissa should have married instead of Dalloway, and for whom her decision has had consequences no less sad than for herself, is about to hail a taxi near the Regents Park tube station, across from which “a tall quivering shape like a funnel”, an old woman, a hawker of newspapers, stood singing in “a voice of no age or sex” a song as old as the earth.  “Through all ages—when the pavement was grass, when it was a swamp, through the age of tusk  and mammoth, through the age of silent sunrise” the woman “stood singing of love” remembering walking with her dead lover through long summer days.  The day he disappeared was  “flaming, she remembered, with nothing but red asters.”  Peter is moved to press a shilling into the crone’s hand.


            One of the marvelous qualities of great art is that it is so often midwife to other art.  For the rest of her days Joan will enjoy this bowl, uniquely original in its unique allusiveness, the gift of a delightful young woman  and a beloved granddaughter.  Lulu is now at about the same age as Woolf’s character Clarissa in what might be called the first movement of Mrs. Dalloway.  Many great decisions of her life lie ahead of her, but the nearly mystic bond of kinship, as much of character as of blood, is one which her grandparents will always cherish and will be brought to mind with floral drama whenever they sit down around the table.




Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Slaughterhouse Five, and Counting


            Recent bounty from the Library of America was a fine set of Kurt Vonnegut, and I am fresh off a much enjoyed reading of Slaughterhouse Five (1969).  By the late winter of 1944 the Wehrmacht, doomed yet still dangerous, was in retreat on both its eastern and its western fronts.  In the Ardennes the Germans had stunned the advancing Americans in the Battle of the Bulge and demonstrated quite clearly that the fight was not yet over.  This was the context in which from its bases in England Allied Bomber Command ordered and executed a massive air attack  on Dresden, an ancient “city of culture” that until then had been barely touched by the war’s violence.  The raid began on Shrove Tuesday, almost exactly seventy-six years ago.  Much of the ordnance was incendiary, igniting a firestorm that resulted in vast material destruction and appalling human carnage among the city’s civilian population, swollen by hordes of refugees from the advancing Red Army.


            For many historical commentators this event lives in infamy, to coin a phrase.   Military justification for the raid was at best highly questionable.  Any country on a “total war” footing, as Germany certainly was, could perhaps be regarded as having military targets everywhere.  There were indeed strategic light industries in Dresden, especially various lens-grinding ateliers producing  high quality optical instruments, and British propagandists made as much of this as they could.  The claim that the city was a major transportation hub with a complex ganglia of rail routes linked to all parts of Germany was undeniable.  But everyone also knew that it was a residential, not an industrial city; and anyone with access to military intelligence reports knew as well that it was practically bursting with a huge influx of non-combatant refugees —especially women and children-- fleeing before the Russian advance.  That Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda czar, presented it as a Massacre of the Innocents was to be expected; but his “take” was in essence adopted by the few journalists from neutral countries (Switzerland and Sweden) posted in Germany. Churchill, who had been a prime mover of the increasingly ferocious tactics of Allied Bomber Command, did his best now to protect his historical reputation, seldom entirely distant in his mind..  RAF Air Marshal “Bomber” Harris thought no special scruples were required when targeting an enemy whose V-2 rocket bombs were being fired randomly in the direction of the English capital, and Carl Spaatz, Harris’s counterpart in the US Army Air Corps, seemed nonplussed by criticisms of the raid.


            Slaughterhouse Five is a terrific novel, enriched by Vonnegut’s unique dark humor and relentless but measured irony.  It has a complex narration.  It begins as autobiography, with Vonnegut explaining how he came to write “my famous Dresden book,” implicitly presented as having been completed some considerable time in the past.  But the book’s first two sentences do not encourage a lot of biographical confidence.  “All this happened, more or less.  The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.”  The book is truly famous indeed, and among the critical commonplaces concerning it, two are prominent.  The first is that it is about the Dresden raid.  The second is that it is “an anti-war classic”.  The claims are not exactly wrong, but in my opinion they hardly do justice to the book.  The extent to which it is an anti-war classic has little to do with didactic intention or the book’s narrative posture.  What I shall call the empirical Kurt Vonnegut was at the beginning of 1945 an American infantryman captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, shipped all the way across Germany to Dresden in Saxony, and confined with other POWs in a makeshift prison in an old commercial abattoir.  There, with a morbid irony, the prisoners safely waited out the devastation that had turned a great city into a slaughterhouse for so many of its own inhabitants.  Though skating across a surface of obviously autobiographical experience, Vonnegut the novelist is steady in his effort to generalize, mythologize, and indeed fantasize the narrative.  A good deal of the book, perhaps too much in my view, is given over to its hero’s sci-fi persecution by space aliens from the Planet Tralfamadore.  Once past the first chapter, which ends by declaring the failure of the book still ahead for the reader, the narration switches to the third person and the “Vonnegut figure” is a very ordinary joe named Billy Pilgrim.  With this name  Vonnegut invokes a classic literary tradition of peregrine commentators on worldly folly that includes Pilgrim’s Progress and Candide.  That war is hell is not the point of the book, but its premise.



            The statistical comparison of hecatombs is a sordid business at best, but even atrocities can be characterized by degree.  Vonnegut actually cites The Destruction of Dresden (1963) by David Irving, who had not yet been branded as a “Holocaust denier” or accused of racist neo-Nazism.  The lowest plausible estimate of civilian deaths in the Dresden raid is enormous, about 25,000.  At various times Irving multiplied that number tenfold, and his own rock bottom was 135,000, one of the lower figures originating from the Goebbels propaganda machine and backed by fraudulent documents.  By fictionalizing it, Vonnegut also spread the canard that American fighter planes had strafed civilians in the streets.   One may wonder whether the  subtitle of his book (“The Children’s Crusade”)  is more comforting than “Massacre of the Innocents.”  Only when stimulated by this extraordinary work of fiction did I realize, with a start, that it was the probable source of what little I thought I had known and certainly believed about the Dresden raid for most of my life.  Novelists have equal license to use history, or abuse it.  Their obligation is to their art.  One serious military historian characterized my view of the matter, which is to say Billy Pilgrim’s, as one “absorbed by countless undergraduates for whom the book has been received wisdom since its publication in 1969”.*  Those are sobering words for an English professor.


            For me the absorption had not even been conscious, but a kind of accidental and unpleasant cultural transfer, like stepping on a gob of chewing gum.  The bombing of Dresden was simply criminal.  Why, then, do I continue to demur in face of the nearly universal opinion concerning Hiroshima and its yet more flagrant slaughter?  For the comparison seems obvious to all, as it certainly did to Vonnegut, who raises it with heavy irony in Slaughterhouse Five in a baroque episode of the post-War life of Billy Pilgrim, the same episode in which he endorses the work of David Irving.


            The condemnation of Truman’s decision to use the Bomb has now become nearly universal, but it is actually the fruit of generational change.   Few veterans of Guadalcanal or Tarawa found the bombing of Hiroshima obscene, but such men are now very thin on the ground.  Scarcely a person living today was a mature adult in summer of 1945, when the decision was implemented.  Japanese military policy was controlled by a fanatic medieval warrior code in which bloodless capitulation was unthinkable.  In the invasion of Okinawa, the Americans had suffered 50,000 casualties.  About 100,000 impressed Japanese civilians, some of whom had been armed only with pointed bamboo sticks, many of them compelled by their brutal army overlords to commit suicide, were dead.  Okinawa was a fairly remote place in the Ryukyus.  One could but imagine what would happen in invading the home islands, where the warlords declared there was no such thing as a civilian, and that every Japanese man, woman, and child must fight to the death for every yard of their native soil.  Truman’s decision might be justified on classical utilitarian grounds.  He made a bet that the Bomb could end the war, and he won.

                                                                       Kamikaze pilot dons the headband of death

          I was quite young during the War and unable to appreciate either the arduousness or the brilliance of the American naval war in the Pacific.  Certainly I was innocent of moral subtlety.  What I knew was that my Dad was there, in the thick of frightful things that made my Mother anxious, silent, and teary-eyed; and strange place names like Midway, “the Marshalls,” “the Solomons,” “the Marianas,” Iwo Jima, the Leyte Gulf, though lacking all geographical specificity, troubled my imagination.  I knew I wanted “us” to bomb the hell out of the Japs, and right away.  I suppose that had to be the way little British boys thought about Dresden.


            The past can be lamented, regretted, or even deplored.  Or it can be imaginatively remade in serious make-believe by a fine writer.  But it cannot be cancelled, as so many well-intentioned but misguided souls now pretend.  For what does not exist loses all pedagogic potential.  What does not live in memory can too easily revive by recurrence.  Obligatory oblivion likewise wars against human nature as expressed in a famous saying of the Roman writer Terence: “I am human, and I reckon that nothing human can be  alien to me.”  So it goes, as Billy Pilgrim might say.



*Marshall De Bruhl, Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden (New York: Random House, 2006), p. 278.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Robots at the Gates



            Everyone wants power, and they should.  Yet we need to think about it in ways rather different from those animating so much of our current political discourse.  My view is that the more we can increase physical power while encouraging equable distribution of metaphorical power, the better off we shall be.  One of the features of influential modern thought-systems generally has been their shared investment in the notion of dynamically interacting polarities.  Darwinian biology is a struggle for survival.  Freudian psychology is a foggy battlefield  where shadowy adversaries clash unseen.  Above all there is Marx: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”  We saw some results produced by this mode of thinking of “class war” in the hecatombs in the last century, in Russia, in China, in Cambodia.   I don’t know how much we learned, though.  In the post-modern synthesis now dominant in our academic institutions, two categories have been added, race and sex, providing a broader pallet for our “identitities” and larger battlefields for “power struggle”.


            In its physical sense power is the application of force to achieve  a physical end.  The sources of such power are finite, first of all the muscles of the individual human body, multiplied by the cooperation or coercion of other human or animal bodies and amplified by tools.  The only sources of supplementary physical power, in the past or in the future,  are the  four elements of the material environment as imagined by the ancients: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.


            For a very long time the world’s human community, though never in stasis, ticked or staggered along  in a generally steady state of  population and of life of expectancy, both of them so low as perhaps to challenge our credulity today.  The bare necessities of human life—sustenance, shelter, and often raiment—were long the principal but unfortunately not the only  objects of the human exercise of power.   Our history is deeply stained by slaughter and destruction; yet human survival is the result of cooperation, especially the cooperation between men and women.  Such cooperation has been the absolute necessity for  survival, an irrefutable fact sometimes obscured in contemporary political theory.


            As a medievalist I insist on recognizing the dramatic exploitation of wind and water, as also the invention of powerful machines,  in many parts of the ancient world.  But for the unleashing of  power the European Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century is of unique significance, moving over a century from windmills to steam, through electricity, to internal combustion.  This was not renaissance, but new birth of power and, in effect, a new world.


            The development of agriculture in the mists of Antiquity had been a major revolution on its own,  Its necessary expansion  now required an unprecedented expenditure of power..  Can we even imagine the power required to transform eighty acres of old growth forest into arable fields suitable for commercial plantation?  You are doing this along the bank of a major tributary creek in ante-bellum Georgia.  The land is crowded with eighty-foot pines of two-foot diameter, each weighting about a ton.  Nobody has ever heard of backhoes or bulldozers, John Deere or the Caterpillar Corporation.  Still, you’re better off than your Yankee pioneer counterpart in Western Reserve of Ohio aiming for a arable field.  He’s facing some hardwoods of four-foot diameter, and closer to twenty tons.  The felling is still done mainly with axes, adequate two-man crosscuts still needing perfection.  And after months of grotesque labor you are left with a field of stumps.  Dynamite?  Never heard of it?


            Occasionally we have reminders of the efforts once expended on building the pyramids or moving the monoliths to Stonehenge in certain modern pharaonic undertakings of modernity in transition.  Read about the construction of Magnitogorsk, Stalin’s “magnetic mountain” steel center of the Five Year Plans.  When I was a boy I met a retired engineering officer who had spent some time in pre-War China supervising the construction of roads and an aerodrome.  He told me about the real “Asiatic mode of production” as he had experienced it, and it had little to do with Karl Marx.  Faced with a dire lack of heavy equipment, he was able to progress only because of  a nearly infinite supply of brute human labor fueled by a modest distribution of rice and bamboo shoots.  He distributed differing sizes of pebbles and gravel among hundreds of coolies with instructions to scour the hillsides and creek bottoms to gather small stones of similar size and shape.  Thus without mechanical crushers or screeners they piled up veritable mountains of graded stone, one pebble at a time, for compacting or creating aggregate.  The expenditure of foot-pounds is staggering to contemplate.


            That there are moral paradoxes involved in the expansion of our human power is almost too banal a point to make, and we don’t have to look to the age of atomic energy before recoiling from their glare.   Hand-picking the seeds from a cotton boll required no superhuman strength; but from any practical point of view it is impossibly difficult, slow and tedious.  The invention of a machine that could do it  revolutionized the textile industry, but also greatly extended chattel slavery in the southern parts of the nascent American republic.  Physical forces are indifferent.  Whether power liberates or enslaves is a choice to be made by rational moral minds.  Unfortunately history suggests that our power too often outstrips our wisdom. 


            Many very smart people think we are about to embark on a power trip of greater significance and much more rapid development than the old Industrial Revolution.  Even old-fashioned people like myself, who are far from fluent in such matters, may find themselves intrigued and hopeful.   Thus far human beings have gained much of our power by thinking hard about creating new machines and processes.  What we are calling “artificial intelligence” is the extrapolation and application of human intelligence in an effectively new way.  We have machines that can do some of our thinking, calculating, and computing tasks with the comparative ease with which Eli Whitney’s metal-fingered machine could separate cotton seed.   But brave new worlds require forethought.  Since even before the Luddites attacked the looms in Nottinghamshire and John Henry died with his hammer in his hand the relationship between industrial efficiency and perceived human felicity has been a contested one.


            Medieval thinkers often made a distinction between two kinds of knowing: scientia (factual knowledge) and sapientia (wisdom,  philosophical insight). The promise implicit in the former sometimes depends upon the exercise of the latter.  Does anyone think that the seriously mixed effects of what we call “social media” could not have been improved by forethought and a serious sense of social responsibility?  The avalanche of power on the horizon is inevitable, and it probably will require of us a kind of unconventional thinking at least in some degree commensurate with its own unconventionality.  I keep hearing that driverless vehicles will evaporate the livelihoods of a million truckers.  Such a massive dislocation of labor is hardly something that can be shrugged off as a necessary debt to social Darwinism, as it was when the advent of the motor car rendered obsolete half a dozen populous professions involving literal horsepower, including the legendary workers in buggy-whip factories, if there ever really was such a thing as a buggy-whip factory.  For decades now our high schools have been educating students in fewer and fewer skills for which actual employers are willing to pay, so we might just give that some thought while we are at it.  Without underestimating the malign effects of obvious social pathologies, including racial prejudice, the correlation of “inequality” (usually first thought of in financial terms) with the “education gap” should be obvious.  The idea of a guaranteed minimum salary for all Americans used to fill me with dread on doctrinaire grounds that now strike me as slightly beside the point—the point being that a happy and harmonious  society is more important than one with a few more billionaires and a lot more opiate addicts.  Though I shall not be around to see it, I imagine the possibility of a land both rich and very smart, smart enough to marshal its enormous new power not in a zero-sum struggle among “identities” but in wide webs of fraternal cooperation, battling not one against another but against the common scourges of the one human race.


Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Covid Pains



That the coronavirus pandemic is testing social resilience is perhaps an observation too banal to command your attention; but what might be called the etiology of the crisis itself is fascinating.  We have become accustomed to accepting a spurious certainty as applied to very uncertain situations, often by assigning them to the ready-made categories of our political polarization.  Two complex issues that come to mind are those of vaccinations and of school closings.


            After a nearly miraculous scientific feat in so rapidly developing several effective vaccines, we seem to be floundering before the requirements of mass production and, especially, distribution.  As an ailing geezer I do have a dog in this fight, or maybe only a puppy,  but I am far from having a certain idea of what should be done.  I saw a fairly convincing newspaper opinion piece arguing random, opportunistic vaccination as the most sensible course in our current circumstances of limited supplies of vaccine and makeshift protocols for distributing and administering them.  Vaccinate anybody you can whenever you can, and eventually you’ll get there.  That is not what we have, at least in New Jersey.  Here there is an elaborately bureaucratized scheme with clearly identified priority groups, telephone numbers to call, and on-line lists on which to enroll for appointments, none of which seems to have any relation to actual reality.  That reality is—if not yet quite dog-eat-dog—so opaque and capricious that it cannot possibly encourage the demonstration of patience, cooperation, confidence, and that sense of shared adversity circumstances require.  The only consistent advice one gets is to be as squeaky a wheel as possible.  There is, however, a gleam of light in my little corner.  The University has announced its intention of establishing its own vaccination center.  There is no vaccine yet, of course, and no knowledge of when there will be any; but unlike such offices of the State of New Jersey with which I have had to deal over the years, Princeton University is a highly efficient organization where most people, including several known personally to me,  actually answer their phones.  The regular annual “Flu Fest” mass vaccination organized by the University each year is a marvel of convenience and efficiency.


            My second topic is the mandated closure of the public schools and many other educational institutions.  I have a vested interest in this one too, as I have grandchildren in New York City and in Montreal, two cities separated by an international boundary, four hundred miles, and differing ideas of the civic good.  The issue of school lockdowns is full of paradoxes and uncertainties, though you might not know that from listening to spokesmen of the teachers’ union in Chicago or San Francisco.  The problem of protracted school lockdowns is coming to a boil in many places here and abroad, as the desperation of parents becomes more acute and the danger to children more apparent.  That there was a brief segment about the crisis on last night’s PBS “News Hour” may portend the beginning of a wider and more honest national discussion.  There are of course already some voices of troubled, honest inquiry, and I recently heard a few in some sobering interviews on the British UnHerd website.  UnHerd (you grasp the pun, of course) is an eclectic heterodox platform that the ideologues of moral certainty have not yet been able to silence on the grounds that it on occasion lets Wrong People write.


            You are perhaps aware that in this moment of national awokening, the woke are calling out crimes of intellectual associations.  When last summer various thought leaders signed the “Harper’s letter”-- in my opinion a rather anodyne defense of free speech and plea for civil debate about debatable civic matters--the Super-Woke attacked some signers thus: “How could you append your signature to a document signed also by X, who, as all the Enlightened recognize, is a well-known fascist shill?”  Well, how indeed!  How could you drink water?  Don’t you know Hitler drank water?  Testy old Saint Jerome, when it was pointed out that he attacked a position taken by the great Augustine, said: “I address myself to what is written, not the person who wrote it.”


            In the video referenced, an appealing, intelligent, and articulate young man interviews three women teachers on the question of the “morality” of the school lockdowns.  Unlike many talking head, the three women interviewed are credentialed by experience, like Chaucer’s Parson.  First he wrought, and afterwards he taught.   Of course what they wrought was also teaching.  Katharine Birbalsingh, is the head of a state school in an unposh part of London; Miriam Cates, a science teacher turned Tory MP from the north of England; and Alex Gutentag, a teacher in the public school system of Oakland, California.  All three were just as impressively thoughtful and articulate as their interviewer.  They addressed the  question posed to them—the closing of the public schools in the cause of the public good—with the nuanced thinking and acknowledgment of competing goods that it deserves.  It would be a disservice to their intellectual scrupulosity to pretend to summarize their views in a few short paragraphs; if the topic interests you, I strongly recommend the video.


            All three make a plea for honesty, beginning by asking whether the supposed social protection secured by school lockdown outweigh the possible long-term harms being inflicted on a whole generation of children.  Are we simply kidding ourselves that passing out free laptops is a serious educational benefit, that zoomed classrooms are sites for anything approaching adequate learning, and that on-line school really is school?  Ms. Birbalsingh, obviously a person with great experience and love of students, yet very deferential to the opinions of medical and political experts, says baldly: “I don’t think there’s any such thing as good on-line learning.”  She also points out that the neediest students—the disadvantaged and immigrants—are the most severely affected, exacerbating yet further the chasm between haves and havenots.  It is quite astonishing to hear the expression of so many deeply informed and disquieting opinions expressed with such a winning lack of dogmatism.  All three teachers thought that the situation had already created a serious juvenile mental health crisis with uncertain but likely severe long-term social implications.  Does Ms. Cates, a Conservative politician who can talk about issues of moral philosophy in a sincere and nuanced way, have any even vague analogues on this side of the Atlantic among conservatives in Congress?  “Why do we live?” she asks?  “It’s not just to avoid death.”  All three of them had strong, articulate concerns of community, cooperation, a shared aspiration  for making things better.   These are not bomb-throwers, though Ms. Gutentag shows a little edge in her lonely, brave questioning of the omniscience of the governor of our most populous state,  the position taken by the officers of her own teachers’ union, and the majority consensus of her colleagues.


            One of the advantages of being out of the swim is that it becomes very hard to drown.  My own uncertainty and probable fallibility on the question of school closings is without much risk, and certainly without practical import of any kind.  And even the effects of the possible incompetence and errancy of the swimmers that we spectators feel licensed to lament from the cheap seats are mitigated by the frequent demonstration of kindness and fellow feeling one finds from family, friends, neighbors, and not infrequently total strangers.  Even among the chaos we see many evidences of those “little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love” that, according to Wordsworth, make up the best portion of a good life.








Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Voices of the Page

                                                      A Covidish inferno from the Hortus deliciarum


            In his viral rampage throughout the world, apparently making special exertions in our own native land, the Grim Reaper has not abandoned what might be called the normal rhythms of mortality.  Two more of my friends, both eminent scholars and one of them a close kindred spirit, have died within the past two weeks.  Covid was not the immediate cause of death in either instance, but the generalized sense of Covid gloom and constriction exacerbates all mourning even as it forbids its palliating rituals.  One of the turning points of old age comes with the somber realization that most of one’s youthful companions, classmates, close professional colleagues, siblings perhaps, other dear relatives certainly, are now gone.  Giles Constable, former Director of Dumbarton Oaks and long-time senior member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced study, was one of only two close friends with whom I have co-taught courses.  I can hear his rich, reverberating voice in my spiritual ear as I write this.  In Latin vox means both voice and sounds voiced, words, utterances, accent.  Medieval writers sometimes call words voces paginis, the voices of the page.  It is a beautiful thought that in old books we can still hear the voices of old friends, including some we actually knew.  It was with  this thought, amidst the gloom, that I took down from my library shelf two big, beautiful volumes that are among the marvels of twentieth-century humanistic scholarship.


            Toward the end of the twelfth century, which is to say somewhat more than 800 years ago, an enterprising and learned German nun in Alsace conceived, commissioned, and supervised the production of a very remarkable book intended for the edification of the young sisters in the Cistercian house of which she was the abbess.  Her name was Herrad of Landsberg, or of Hohenbourg, the site of the religious house over which she presided.  The religious site is known also as Mont Sainte-Odile.  (Odile is a slightly iffy Alsatian saint of pre-Carolingian times, especially helpful to those who read a lot, the saint for sore eyes.)  Herrad’s  book was a huge biblical and theological encyclopedia.  She entitled it Hortus deliciarum, The Garden of Delights.  It was remarkable for several reasons.  In the first place it was a learned work directed by a woman with females as its intended readers.  It was strikingly ambitious in its range of subject matter, anthologizing the disparate works of many famous theologians and exegetes, several of them from the twelfth century, meaning essentially the “latest word” in monastic learning.  Finally, the work was lavishly illustrated, or perhaps one should say lavishly pictorial, as the verbal texts and pictorial images collude in a shared pedagogic enterprise.  One incidental feature of the book has been very important to Germanic philologists.  The Hortus was of course written in Latin.  But Herrad’s mother tongue, and that of most if not all of the nuns under her supervision, was German.  The book contains more than a thousand vernacular glosses, or subsidiary vernacular translations, of words or phrases meant to help a reader whose Latin might not yet be perfect.  These are precious materials for scholars of the earlier forms of German.  It was a huge book on large, heavy vellum sheets, and it must have been very expensive to produce.


            I have had to employ all these sad preterits because the manuscript is no more.  In 1870 there was a short but brutal conflict, the Franco-Prussian War, a sad presage of the Great War that would consume most of Europe not half a century later.  The precious Hortus deliciarum, which had survived so many dangers and dislocations during the centuries—the Protestant Reformation and its attendant religious violence, the decline of monastic life in France, the neglect of secular scholarship, above all the systematic anti-religious fanaticism of the French Revolution—perished when the library in Strassburg was destroyed by artillery bombardment.  If you know even a little about medieval manuscripts and think about it for a moment, it’s really a miracle and perhaps yet another demonstration of the existence of a divinity that any of them have survived, let alone the thousands we luckily still have.


            About forty years ago a team of medievalists, after many years of painstaking labor, was able to bring out a stunning two-volume reconstruction of the Hortus deliciarum,*a feat hardly less astonishing than Jesus’s raising of Lazarus, and of similar genre.  These were the two volumes I took down from my shelves.  To reconstruct a huge manuscript of more than 300 folios was an audacious enterprise requiring a team of experts in codicology, medieval theology, and Latin and German philology.  It could not even have been undertaken were it not for the labors of two nineteenth-century enthusiasts working  before the Age of Photography.  A serious German medievalist, C. M. Engelhart, who published a study of Herrad in 1818, made many transcriptions and tracings of the pictures in the manuscript.  An aristocratic French antiquarian, with (for English readers) the somewhat startling name of the Compte de Bastard, who began studying the manuscript in 1840, made or had made a great many more.  Many of the copies attempted to reproduce color schemes.  A few other scholars had from time to time copied out some of the Latin text or described illustrations. So the materials for a plausible reconstruction were there, though any such project would require both textual and iconographic erudition, informed intuition, and some good luck.


            Two of my close friends were members of the team.  Dr. Rosalie Green, the Director of the Index of Christian Art, was the group captain, so to speak,  and the principal editor.   The Hortus was in a sense her life’s work.  She had first started pondering the possibility of resurrecting Herrad’s legacy during her graduate years in Chicago.  Some of the happiest times of my own early career were spent working at the Index.  Ms. Green was a rather private person, and after her retirement in 1981, after thirty years as Director, she became almost reclusive.  I saw far too little of her in her last years.  She died in 2012 at the age of 94.  Michael Curschmann, who was by three months my senior, was one of the leading experts of medieval art and literature of his generation.  The body of work he left behind is destined for permanent significance.  Even more important, from my point of view, was our personal friendship.  Our regular lunches were for decades nearly a weekly feature and became even more meaningful in our retirement years.   He and his wife Beryl, an accomplished potter who had been born and raised in Wales, were among our dearest family friends.  She died suddenly in 2013.  Four years later, while I was away lecturing in the Midwest, Michael died with equal suddenness, in his home alone.  The old church litanies contain a clause seeking protection against sudden death.  Its basis was the old belief that the dying person needs time for careful penitential preparation.  But as most of us must at one time or another learn, sudden death is actually a grievous assault on the living, who are often left with an inner sense of irreparable loss, of things done or undone, things said or left unsaid.  What is one to make of the statistics we read daily in our papers?  Well over two million Covid deaths worldwide, and invisible behind each and every digit grieving relatives, friends, associates, acquaintances, or mere fellow human beings.

 Michael Curshmann (1936-2017)

          The reconstructed edition of the Hortus deliciarum is not light reading.  It is a large, structurally complex scholarly work dense with Latin theological texts and heavy with learned footnotes in foreign languages and technical bibliographical notations.  Like all encyclopedias, it is a reference work, a highly specialized one, not something to take to the beach.  Its intended audience is pretty specialized: scholars of medieval literature and art.  Herrad's original audiene was yet more specialized: about sixty Cistercian canonesses.  Even so, leafing through the introductory essays, I could from time to time distinctly hear, rising above the decorous, dignified hum of the academic prose, the distinctive voces paginis of two old friends, still resonant from the grave.  Milton famously said that "A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life."  I have always thought that what he must have had in mind was the book's content or ideas.  The phrase "life beyond life" is of course ambiguous.  The immortality would seem to be that of the work rather than of the worker, as when Pope thus praises the Aeneid: "When first young Maro in his boundless mind / A work t'outlast immortal Rome design'd..."  But what I could at times hear so clearly in the voices of the pages of academic tomes many would regard as dry-as-dust were two old friends.  That was quite a comfort in a season of Plague.



            This post is actually a digression of sorts.   I started out to write about something in a short tale of Guy de Maupassant, whose most famous story may well be “Boule de Suif,” which is in part about the beastliness of the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War.  One form of beastliness reminded me of another: the bombardment of Strassburg in 1870, and the destruction of the Hortus deliciarum.  I’ll try to get back to de Maupassant next week. 



*Herrad of Landsberg, Hortus deliciarum, edd. Rosalie Green, Michael Evans, Christine Bischoff & Michael Curschmann, under the direction of Rosalie Green, 2 vols. (London and Leiden, The Warburg Institute and E. J. Brill, 1979)


Keep your eyes on Saint Odile


Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Great Ladies and Little Houses


Little House in the Ozarks, Mansfield MO


Candid readers have on occasion told me that they are never quite sure what my essays are about.  So I shall tell you right up-front about today’s effort, which has three disparate purposes.  The first is simply to avoid any topic with an explicit political dimension.  Within a few hours of posting, we shall (d. v.) have a new president and the chance of new beginnings—weighty subjects, indeed, though hardly in need of explication by me.  I also want to relate a small example of  “meaningful coincidence” or Jungian synchronicity, which are perhaps over-fancy terms for certain riddling experiences we all encounter in our lives.  My third purpose is to honor the memory of two remarkable women journalists,   Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968) and Louise Fleming (1917-2006).


            Though my career determined our permanent residence on the East coast, I tried for many years to make regular trips to my family home in northern Arkansas.  I continued to do so even after both my parents were dead in order to visit two beloved aunts, Edith Fleming Jarabek and Louise Fleming, who lived together to great ages and in increasingly delightful eccentricity in the old farmhouse.  Especially with my Aunt Louise I grew ever closer in affection, admiration, confidence, and conspiracy during the last decades of her life.  Our kinship was more than one of blood alone.  She had not had the educational opportunities that were lavished on me, but she was a voracious and discriminating reader, and we were bound together by books.  She was also a serious if at times acerb commentator on our national cultural and political life.  This was before the rise of Branson as a “destination”, and the nearest airport of any size was Springfield, Missouri, where upon arrival I would rent a car and drive about an hour east to pick up State Route 5, which gave you a straight shot south to the Arkansas line.  The junction point was a hamlet called Mansfield.   This place had a certain unexploited literary connection to which I had been alerted by Aunt Louise.  Mansfield was the last stop in the pioneering peregrination of the celebrated American writer Laura Ingalls Wilder.  There can be but few literate Americans, especially if they happen also to be parents, who are not familiar with the “Little House” books, first published between 1932 and 1943, which in semi-fictional form related the experiences of an American family moving from one hard-scrabble farm to another through the frigid plains and daunting backwoods of Middle America in the late nineteenth century.  Laura Wilder’s house still stands in Mansfield, and she is buried in the town’s cemetery.


wild prairie rose (rosa arkansana)

            Aunt Louise died in 2006, the year I retired.  I had already begun contemplating what turned out to be my first post-retirement project, The Anti-Communist Manifestoes, a study of four influential anti-Communist books of the 1940s and 50s.  One of them, Out of the Night, though now seldom remembered, was the biggest American best-seller of 1941.  Its author was a German ex-Communist, Richard Krebs, who wrote under the nom de plume of Jan Valtin.  In addition to being a best-selling author, however, he was an illegal immigrant with a most unsavory and mysterious background.  His book purports to be the autobiography of a Communist agitator and spy.  In his legal and propaganda battles Krebs had powerful enemies, including the American Communist Party and its legion of literary votaries, who did their best to discredit the book and deport its author.  But he also had very effective allies.  One of these was his Connecticut neighbor, Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura and  one of the more important dramatis personae in the Little House books.  My task obligated me to conduct at least a modicum of research into her life.  Among the facts I learned was that it was actually daughter Rose who had secured the Missouri property in which her parents spent their last years.  Among the suspicions I developed was that Rose had so robustly helped revise her mother’s writings as to become, in effect, the unacknowledged co-author of some of them.


Rose Wilder Lane

            Rose Wilder Lane was a great original of a sort once produced in the land by the dozen but now increasingly rare.  Her pioneer youth you will know from the Little House books.  By the time she met and championed Valtin (Krebs) she had spent some years living essentially as a survivalist on a small plot of New England soil which provided her sole sustenance.  She had chosen this “life style” in order to preclude having any monetary income at all, as she regarded both the Income Tax and Social Security as monstrous impositions on her freedom.  A good deal had happened in her life since she left various little houses behind in the first years of the twentieth century.


            There be mysteries in this world, and so far as I am concerned one of them is that so many extraordinary women marry very ordinary (or worse) men.  The laws of demography as well as of thought would seem to require that there would be a roughly equal number of countervailing instances, but that has not been my observed experience.  There was, briefly, a Mr. Lane, about whom I know nothing save that he was soon discarded, though Rose Wilder, apparently partial to monosyllables, kept his surname for legal purposes.  Rose Wilder’s life was forever afterward what is usually called “fiercely independent”.  She flouted a world which could view an unmarried female professional (let alone a divorcĂ©e) as scandalous, earning her bread as a telegrapher, a journalist, and a novelist.  Her early appearances on the political scene are as a radical, a Communist friend of John Reed (possibly known to you as the author of Ten Days That Shook the World or as creatively trivialized for your amusement by Warren Beatty in the movie Reds).  But unlike Reed, who died before he had time to be disillusioned, Rose soon jumped ship.  She is now usually described as one of the founders of American Libertarianism.


            Her dramatic political peregrinations were matched by those in the geographical sphere.  Just as she did things  ladies were not supposed to do, she sometimes chose exotic places in which to do them.  She traveled, for instance, in pre-war Albania where his royal highness Zog, having promoted himself from President to King, proposed matrimony to her.   Self-proclaimed Balkan royalty had little charm for a personal friend of Herbert Hoover. She’d had better offers in De Smet, ND.  She politely declined.   Her prolific journalistic work needs to be gathered together and studied, but two of her best books can be consulted in libraries.  Let the Hurricane Roar (1933) is an excellent novel.  Give Me Liberty (1936) delineates her bracing political credo.


            My Aunt Louise died during the time I was “discovering” Rose Wilder, and I could not avoid thinking of the congruences between the two.  Louise, too, was an American original, an eccentric unmarried lady who lived on a modest plot in the boondocks and earned an even more modest living as a journalist.  For years she was a general dog’s-body at a paper called the Baxter Bulletin.  At various times her duties included coffee-making, book keeping, repairing a linotype machine, writing ad copy, and diplomatically rescuing male superiors from exposing in print their most embarrassing solecisms.  Eventually she began writing  a weekly column, A Little Off Center—in my unbiased opinion easily the best thing in the paper.  Her essays deal mainly with commonplace or quirky  aspects of rural life.  In one of her letters Jane Austen wrote of her subject matter as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.”  There is a similar sense of extravagant modesty in Louise’s prose.  I just looked up her little posy of on-line memorials put together by the funeral home, one of which reads thus: “I have often wished that I could have known or at least met some person that I only read about or saw on tv. I think Louise Fleming was one of those persons. I only knew her from her columns in the newspaper. I will miss reading about her wonderful life and family. I wish I could have known her in person.”


            I, who was lucky enough to do so, would apply to her the farewell that one of our language’s greatest writers, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), gave to one of our literature’s greatest heroines—the central character in Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke.  Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.


View from Louise's front door; now the home of beloved niece Mildred Jarabek Rockafellow