Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Joseph B. Trahern

One of the sad effects of the Pandemic disruptions, especially as complicated by the distractions and challenges of age, is that it becomes ever harder to remain in frequent communication with old friends.  Thus it was that I did not learn of the death in Knoxville of a very old and dear friend, Professor Joseph B. Trahern, until about two weeks after it had occurred.  The father of one of my excellent daughters-in-law, a prominent retired physician in Murphreesboro, saw the big obituary in the Nashville Tennesseean, and drew it to my attention.  I had known that Joe was seriously ill, but I had not been in touch with him by telephone for about two months.


I must have first met Joe in the Princeton Ph. D. program in the fall of 1961, but without knowing it we already had a good deal in common.  He was from a prominent family in Clarksville TN, an old town about fifty miles northwest of Nashville, near the Kentucky line.  While I had been at Sewanee, he had been at Vanderbilt.  We both graduated in 1958.  Of course we did not know each other then.  I am not sure when he spent a year at Worcester College, Oxford, as a Fulbright Scholar; but it must have been during my last year at Jesus College.  But we would meet only as fellow aspiring medievalists at Princeton.


Joe was married to a southern belle named Marjorie, and both were destined to become our lifelong friends.  Marjorie died in 2009.  Joe had a few more years in a happy second marriage to a fine woman named Peggy, whom I have known but slightly from correspondence and telephone conversations.  The graduate program Joe and I shared was quite intense in our day, and friendships developed in it were deep.  Joe was the unofficial photographer at our wedding in 1962, and was probaby among the last living persons to have been in attendance.  Our careers continued in parallel lines.  In 1963 I began teaching at the University of Wisconsin and Joe at the University of Illinois.


Joe’s most important contribution to his graduate alma mater, and to me personally during the years when I was chairman of its English Department, was his long service heading our departmental Advisory Committee.  He did this with flair and, I think, real gusto.  Yet because Joe spent so much of his long and productive career in the higher administrative echelons of two large state-university systems, grappling with large strategic plans and battling budgets, his earlier work as a teacher-scholar has been given too short shrift in the notices I have so far seen.  I want to make a small gesture of reparation.


Joe was deeply learned in a somewhat arcane field of our literature—Old English Studies, that is, the literary cultures of Britain before the Norman Conquest.  His doctoral dissertation was a learned edition of the “Phoenix,” one of the Old English poems in the Exeter Book, a precious anthology of our earliest literature preserved over the centuries in Exeter Cathedral.  Like the great majority of Old English religious texts, the “Phoenix” is the product of the monastic milieu that dominated the surviving literature of pre-Conquest Britain.  It is a learned  English poem one of the Latin sources for which is probably the “De ave phoenice” written by Lactantius, an early Church father (third and fourth centuries), and an advisor to the first Christian Emperor of Rome, Constantine.  The poem assumes, rather than explicates, the Christian interpretation that often became explicit in the later bestiary tradition.  The fabulous Arabian bird, the phoenix, dies in flames only to be reborn from its own ashes.  This ready-made ornithological type of the Resurrection of Christ enjoyed many centuries of popularity as an image of hope in Christian art.  I find it particularly appropriate to this occasion.


Joe worked under the supervision of Prof. J. J. Campbell, an expert in Old English philology.  His learned commentary on the poem’s contents, extended in subsequent scholarly articles, reveals an impressive knowledge of early works of patristic exegesis.  Joe had also done extensive work with my own supervisor, the great Chaucerian D. W. Robertson, Jr.  Joe’s work on the “Phoenix” is of permanent value.


That, I think, covers most of the material that will be remembered in the notices in the journals of the several professional scholarly and academic organizations in which Joe played a role, but of course it tells you little about what made him such an admirable human being and unforgettable friend.  I don’t know if there is a category of virtue in the medieval hagiographies denominated “heroic decency,” but Joe Trahern had it to a remarkable degree.  One’s first impression upon meeting him was not of philological erudition or administrative expertise.  The first impression was of a rather large, deep-voiced but soft-spoken Good Ole Boy from the South.  I cannot rule out the possibility that there is, somewhere, another person equally expert in the compositions of the Venerable Bede and those of Doc Watson; but somehow I doubt it.  His first wife Marjorie, who was a serious viola player, joined with him in taking the lead in fostering the advancement of opera in Tennessee and the South generally.  The musical gene shows up prominently in the next generation.  You can easily find on the Internet the biography of their daughter Sarah, alias “The Business Queen of Country Music:” i.e., CEO of the Country Music Association.


Joe’s helpfulness and kindness to colleagues and students was the stuff of legend.  There are some people who by nature or grace are destined to leave our needy world a better place than they found it, and Joe was of their number.  The personal charity of some of the American super-rich cannot be too lavishly praised, though it is less extraordinary in my view than the modest and often self-effacing community-minded generosity of a significant cohort of our middle class, whose gifts are so much more than a tax deduction.  Only by accident did I discover that Joe and Marjorie were what can only be called life-long philanthropists, with a special focus on local cultural and educational institutions. 


The joys of private friendships are by nature private.  In our retirement years our friendship took on a particularly mellow character.  For many years the Traherns lived in a large and beautiful house right on the Tennessee River in Knoxville.  I used to fly down to Knoxville to spend a day two with them before Joe and I drove, sometimes with another medievalist, a hundred and fifty miles southwest to the Sewanee Medieval Conference.  Often I made the return trip as well.  There is a certain kind of conversation old friends have, and a certain kind of conversation encouraged by the moving isolation of a car interior.  At a moment of inevitable stock-taking in my own life, I find myself remembering my delightful friend and our talks with vivacity, great pleasure, and much laughter.


Joseph Baxter Trahern (1937-2023).  Requiescat in pace

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Death of Poetry?



      About three weeks ago, an occasional Times op ed writer, Matthew Walter, published a provocative essay entitled “Poetry Died 100 Years Ago This Month.”  I knew immediately what this essay was going to say, that (with some slight reservations) I was going to agree with it, and that we could soon expect a small avalanche of dissent and denial from poets and poetry lovers writing to the editor.  All three of my premonitions were spot on; but instead of feeling smart, I felt merely wistful and resigned.  Many people protested that they write poetry all the time; others frequently read the daily poem posted on the website of the National Poetry Foundation.  Poetry dead?  Walter’s calendrical allusion was to T. S. Eliot’s publication of “The Wasteland” in late 1922, and he well knew that it did not really mark the “death of poetry”.  But metaphorically, definitely.  To maintain that poetry is a vital part of our national cultural life is wishful thinking.  But that is not T. S. Eliot’s fault.  Eliot’s brilliant modernist poem dazzled a small group of literary “experts,” but he could not claim the popular audience that had made poetry such an important part of English cultural life.  Poetry became obscure, arcane, forbiddingly high-brow.  To attempt to explain the causes of poetry’s serious cultural decline since the nineteenth century would require a book rather than a short essay, but the truth is that there may be as many people in America today who write poetry as there are those who regularly read it.  In hundreds of colleges American poets, many highly talented, eke out a living leading poetry workshops for students who would give an eye tooth to publish something in an on-line magazine you never heard of.

            The word poetry originally meant “something made,” verbal artifice.  And in its classical origins it comes in two main forms, epic (a long story) and lyric (a song).  For centuries Homer and Virgil, tellers of large and noble tales, epics, set the standard.  In England the author of Beowulf, Chaucer, Spenser, Milton—they all told ambitious stories in carefully crafted language.  A special form of poetic narrative was dramatic, as exemplified by Shakespeare.  At least since the late eighteenth century, and certainly today, when most people think “poetry”, they think lyric.  The last epic poem even to approach a popular audience in this country was Benet’s John Brown’s Body (1928).  It is an excellent, and super-woke epic of the American Civil War, and I doubt that there are ten undergraduates in the country who have ever heard of it.

            Articulate speech is a crucial definer of the human species, and I think we all have a natural instinct to use and enjoy language to the full.  The more poetry you read, the more you will marvel at the gift that language is.  We are not going to reinstate poetry to its former glory, but we can all cultivate an interest in some favorite poets and poems.  There is God’s plenty to choose from. Try this: memorize a good short poem; make it a part of your mental furniture.  Poetry  has ceased to be a significant part of the cultural storehouse of literate people.  You will find few major prose writers of the nineteenth century whose works are not laced with poetic quotations and allusions, mainly from memory.  We value what we memorize.  The first piece I was required to memorize had a strange name and forbidding content: “Thanatopsis” (1817) by William Cullen Bryant, probably the most famous poem written in the early American Republic.  In unforgettable language Bryant puts into the framework of Nature’s operations the universality of death, reformulating in elegant romantic diction the inexorable decree of Ecclesiastes: “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.”  Nobody in my public school  seemed to think it inappropriate or “triggering” that a twelve-year old boy should be required inwardly and equably to meditate upon his destiny

To be a brother to the insensible rock   

And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain   

Turns with his share, and treads upon.

    Perhaps they might have surmised that such lines could give  comfort and resolve to that fellow should he ever become eighty-six and ill, though more immediately he needed to find out what a swain was, and figure out the swain’s share was a plow-blade, and that he was allowed, as he glanced around at his mates, to free-associate over the phrase sluggish clod; because that was how poetry worked.


                Poetry “works” in many ways, of course, and most poetry lovers used to be consciously aware of several of them.  You appreciate anything more if you know even a little bit about its inner workings.  Poetry as “making”, verbal artifice, requires the agile and intelligent use of words in a special fashion, often by discovering things in them that usually go unnoticed.  A fine poet can be “poetic” with the simplest of words.  Virgil does it with the most banal of words, res “things”.  As Æneas stands with his friend Achates before the terrible sculpted history of the Trojan War in Dido’s palace, he shudders before the artistic depiction of the slaughter:  Sunt lachrymae rerum, et mentem mortalia tangent (Aeneid I, 462).  “These are the tears in things, or there are tears of things—and they touch the hearts of other mortals.”  Who would not weep to see Hector’s body dragged about the city walls?—in actual deadly “life” or in life’s imitation in crafted words or sculpted stone?  The tears of things, indeed.  Virgil does that with the word res.  But great poets need not always be so solemn.  In the “Miller’s Tale,” maybe the world’s funniest dirty story, one of several butts of humor is a fancy long-haired, sweet-smelling, skirt-chasing young dandy named Absalon, a clerk of the parish church and the major acolyte in charge of the incense.  He pays special attention to any good-looking females in the congregation.  Exploiting the phonological identity between a censer (meaning the thurifer or guy with the incense, or the hot pot with the incense itself) and a senser (a guy who revels in the sensory experience of checking out the attractive females) Chaucer has these shameless lines:

This Absalon that jolif was and gay

Goeth with a sencer on the haliday

Sensynge the wyves of the parishe faste…


This kind of poetic wit is still to be found in some of our great song-writers like Bob Dylan or the Beatles.  My nomination for the greatest popular song line of the twentieth century has to go to Laurenz Hart (of Rodgers & Hart):

When love congeals
It soon reveals
The faint aroma of performing seals
The double-crossing of a pair of heels
I wish I were in love again.


What a line!  What a genius!  And he has dozens of others.  Not far behind is my Princeton colleague, the poet Paul Muldoon:


She was a systems analyst
For a dot com company
She said, "You think because we've kissed
I'll be yours eternally
I'll sign another pre-nup
And we'll merge our P.L.C.s
That's why most girls go belly-up
In this economy.”


There are tears in things—but also laughs!  But this delightful piece lacks the metrical regularity of perfect performable song.  It gestures toward iambic tetrameter (four feet of duh-dum, …go-bel ly up) though only two lines are actually in that form. But the art of lyric poetry invites attention to both meter (song rhythm) and of lexicon (verbal content).  Here is a “perfect” lyric stanza of iambic tetrameter, the beginning of one of Tennyson’s early Arthurian fantasies, “The Lady of Shallot”:


On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky.
And thro' the field the road runs by
                To manytowered Camelot.

Does anyone read Tennyson today?  If not, why not?  He was one hell of an artificer.  There is a great line in Ovid, in which the poet characterizes the work of the sculptor Pygmalion, who made an ivory maiden so skillfully that one would not believe she was not living flesh and blood.  “With his art, he concealed his artifice”.  Tennyson doesn’t do all that much concealing.  He wants verbal and metrical perfection, and he is happy to “show his work.”  In the second line he is willing to force a stress upon the humble conjunction and, which in the next two lines reverts to its humdrum unstressed banality.  Wold was already a very old word in Tennyson’s time, mainly preserved in place names (such as the Cotswolds), meaning uncultivated moorland.  It’s probably a little precious here, but the poet wants (and gets) the delicious half rhyme clothe/wold and also the idea of long strip fields defining the edge between nature untamed and  nature tamed by human industry in its variety: of barley
and of rye.  And isn’t it just his good luck that there is a disyllabic English cereal grain (barley), itself a trochee, that can be so positioned as to help create two iambs! 


Now no reader, let alone any poet,  would ever actually scrape over these tender, slightly soupy lines with a heavy harrow of such an analysis as I have just given.  Most students already think poetry is “hard”. To obfuscate if further with fancy technical literary terms adds the insult of pedantry to the injury of difficulty.  But a poem is a thing manufactured, made by the creative “hand” of a poet.  The reason that manufactured goods are more or less pleasing and efficient lies in their maker’s knowledge of its material parts and how they work in interconnection.  In a poem those parts are linguistic.  Pygmalion’s art conceals his art—but it is still there.  A poem should not mean, but be*, says one of our fine poets, but without dropping even a clue about how one comes to be.


*Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica”

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Murder They Wrote



            A particularly violent and shocking mass murder of four Idaho college students has captured the attention of much of the nation.  It is unlikely that you are learning this from me, but it is at least possible.  Among my good friends are some who on principle try to avoid popular “true crime” journalism.  The way this story has been handled in much of the press is sufficient to explain their attitude.  The raucous babble of a Nancy Grace would put you off chocolate cake were that her subject.  But I must confess my own strong interest in a “true crime” saga possibly destined to become the focus of some important literary work in the future.  The accused killer, indicted and held without bond as he begins his slow crawl through our criminal justice system, is one Bryan Kohberger, a first-year graduate student in a Ph. D. program in criminal justice.  As he awaits trial Mr. Kohberger enjoys the presumption of innocence.  In this instance even more than in some other highly publicized cases this presumption is a legal fiction that will impede no informed person from supposing him guilty on the basis of the powerful evidence made public in the affidavit of probable cause.  But even with the who of this who-dunnit known with near certainty, the larger Mystery of Iniquity remains perhaps more mysterious than ever.  And as it required several tight-lipped weeks for investigators to develop their forensic evidence, there was plenty of time for the impatient Internet to explode with theories, many of them of the tinfoil hat variety.  Unspeakable death has taken on a life of its own.  Yet if the subject of murder authorizes much prurient sensationalism and conspiratorial lunacy, it has also been the stuff of some fine works of literature.


            I am not alluding to the genre of the murder mystery, a popular form that continues to bring mental stimulation and pleasure to millions, and which not infrequently displays considerable artistic achievement.  For the most part, however, the classic murder mystery places its focus on the mystery part.  Murder is a background; the foreground is a mystery or puzzle to be explicated by a process of detection: Colonel Mustard, in the library, with a candlestick.  One does not spend a lot of time agonizing over the victim in a Sherlock Holmes adventure.  One is too busy marveling at Sherlock’s deductions.


Real murder is very different.  For most people, surely, the very idea of homicide is so hideous and so aberrant as to challenge our concepts of  human nature itself.  Even people who deny the realm of the sacred talk about the sanctity of human life.  Thus many powerful writers have found in actual, historical homicides the materials not merely of gripping narrative but also for profound social and ethical analysis.  I have a list of five books, each of them having its origins in actual homicides, each in its time as shocking or notorious as the November slaughter in Moscow, Idaho.


At the beginning of the list, and still at the top in my estimation, is Crime and Punishment (1866).  As the person accused in the Idaho slaughter is a doctoral student in criminology, said by some professional peers to be both highly intelligent and arrogant, there has been speculation that the crime was performative, intended to demonstrate the ability of a Nietzschean superman to achieve a “perfect” murder with impunity.  Do you think these Keystone Cops are a match for my genius?  Gratuitous murder to prove one’s release from the superstition of morality is a theme in Crime and Punishment, and in The Brothers Karamazov the principle animating the author’s anguish is obliquely implied by Ivan: if God does not exist, everything is permissible.  There have undoubtedly been enough “successful” Nietzschean murders; but several of the failures have commanded the attention of writers of merit.


Thrill Killers


In 1924, in  Chicago,  two precocious and over-privileged University of Chicago students, Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, eighteen and twenty years of age, who combined intellectual brilliance and  frat boy insouciance, kidnapped and killed a fourteen-year-old schoolboy, Bobby Franks, just for the hell of it.  Franks was Loeb’s second cousin and his near neighbor in their  ritzy neighborhood.  This “perfect” murder was so badly achieved that the supposedly unfindable body was discovered on the following day; and almost immediately a decisive clue put the detectives on the right trail, even before complex ancillary parts of the murderers’ elaborate plan to disguise a thrill killing as venal kidnapping could be put into effect.  There swiftly followed the “trial of the century”, of which there are seldom fewer than three per decade in our land.


Cataracts of ink splashed over this amazing crime, just as a dense mist of pixels now befogs that of Moscow, Idaho.  Meyer Levin, a Chicago journalist of the Thirties and a largely forgotten but serious novelist, virtually marinated himself in the details of the old case and more than thirty years after it published one of our earlier “non-fiction” novels, Compulsion (1956).  The fascination of crimes for which motivelessness is the motive has commanded the imaginations of many writers.  Levin brilliantly focuses on the Punishment no less than the Crime part.  These boys really needed a good lawyer, and they got one.  That they were two very rich homosexual Jews did little to endear them to public opinion of the age.  Thanks in part to the oratory of the famous defense lawyer Clarence Darrow the trial marked a significant step away from our legal system’s raw embrace of the death penalty—not to mention that it gave Orson Welles a great movie role.


Theodore Dreiser

The motive for many murders is the fact that the victim’s existence is highly inconvenient for the murderer.  Cherchez la femme—either as murderer (especially if there’s lots of juicy life insurance) or as murdered, (especially if there is another femme in the waiting room.)  A very great novel of the latter category is Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), the historical sources of which he found in a sensational murder case from the Adirondack boondocks two decades earlier.  Putting it crudely, a cad had drowned the naïve girl he had knocked up.  Inconvenient.  Dreiser did not fictionalize this case.  He invented his own in its shadow, a masterpiece—perhaps two or three hundred pages too long, but a masterpiece—about the uncertainty of human motivations, about the social conditions of post-Industrialized America, about the nature of the American legal system and (as almost always with Dreiser) about the horrors of rampant capitalism.  The word “tragedy” is now used by journalists to mean “something bad that happened”.  The word has lost its ethical dimension.  But in the life of Dreiser’s hapless anti-hero, Clyde Griffith, we see real tragedy—which is moral, Boethian, Shakespearian, and of course just a little bit Marxian.


Some literal-minded critics have noted that a “non-fiction” novel whose characters have fictitious names and do a lot of imaginary things might actually be fiction.  So various writers have pushed the envelope by writing history that they call fiction—thus reversing the procedure of many historians.  The emerging genre of “true crime” attempts, unsuccessfully, to avoid such ambiguities.  Two such imaginative books by writers of great talent deserve more space here than I am able to give them:  Truman Capote’s, In Cold Blood  (1966) and Norman Mailer’s, The Executioner’s Song (1979).  It is probably inevitable, but also perverse, that our literature of murder expends much energy on perpetrators and little on their victims.   


Most of us want to think well of our fellow beings.  The argument that allows writers to move beyond intense interest in a murderer to some sort of friendship with him begins with the Pelagian Heresy, the current expression of which is I Blame Society.  Many women, in particular, seem to think they were put on earth to play the role of Goethe’s Gretchen for all the Fausts of Riker’s Island.  That is why so many villains on Death Row receive marriage proposals from women they have never met.

  Truman Capote and date


Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) is the story of two low-life jailbirds (Good Criminal, Bad Criminal) whose infantile cupidity leads them, with singular brutality, to wipe out an inoffensive little farm family in Kansas.  Capote followed the case with intensity, and his strangely developed friendship with Good Criminal continued to the last hour in the Death House.  I use the term low-life without apology but not without recognizing that the killers were part of a large American criminal class of young men whose cultural and moral poverty left them with scarcely a chance.  Certainly Gary Gilmore, who gained fame by insisting that he be executed by a Utah firing squad for two particularly brutal and gratuitous murders was of their number.  He is the central figure in Norman Mailer’s non-fiction novel The Executioner’s Song.  Mailer’s book vacillates between society-blaming and the remorseless unveiling of the peculiarly horrid graininess of the rootless criminality of the New West.  Mailer faced some embarrassment later when he championed another killer, Jack Abbott, author of In the Belly of the Beast—the “beast” being our prison system.  After being patronized by Mailer and absurdly overpraised as an emergent American writer of first-rate talent, Abbott rather spoiled things with a recidivist murder.  Yet there remains something noble and at least allegorically redemptive in the literary attempt to turn our social lemons into literary lemonade.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The Hon. Gent. from Munchausen



Were I to write about what has most been on my mind over the past few days I would have to write about the opening session of the hundredth and eighteenth Congress of the United States.  I spent more time than I am willing to admit watching the mainly dull livestream of the proceedings of the people’s representatives, gathered in conclave in what was frequently if unconvincingly denominated by various of them as “the People’s House,” as they went through the process of electing a Speaker.  This process finally concluded in the wee hours of Saturday morning.  I missed the denouement because I was in bed sleeping.  It is strange that a process can be at the same time both suspenseful and utterly tedious.  But there was real suspense.  I at least was surprised by the outcome.  That outcome was, of course the election of the Honorable Kevin McCarthy of California as the Speaker of the House of Representatives.


            There are probably many lessons to be drawn from this messy experience.  The ones I draw are not necessarily those prominent in the press.  The principal issue that strikes me is the disappearance of effective embarrassment from American politics.  Of political lessons, some commentators have stressed the strength of the united front of the Democrats as it opposed the obvious disunity of the Republicans.  I am more interested in the former, but I’ll say a few words about the latter first. 


The fact that the Republicans were squabbling in public does not strike me as a bad thing in and of itself.  There is an important distinction between unity and unanimity.  Given the fact that we have in effect agreed to give over the governance of a huge and hugely diverse country to only two political parties, you would be right to be wary of consistent party unity on all important, broad questions.   The most unified political parties in the world are those in totalitarian states.  There is no Joe Manchin in the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly, no Lynn Cheyney.  A decisive evidence of Stalin’s growing despotism as he consolidated his power was his demand that all Politburo votes be unanimous.  There once had been sharp debate and division in that powerful group, with decisions taken by majority vote.  But the Republican opponents of Speaker McCarthy were not simply practicing robust democracy, as the spin would now have it.  They were trying (successfully) to exploit the circumstance of a tiny Party majority to impose their distinctly minority demands.  Ordinarily it seems a well established political truth that you cannot beat somebody by running nobody against him.  But it turns out, under certain circumstances,  that you can do so by electing him.


If you remember, McCarthy was supposed to be a shoo-in for this job at least as long ago as the political demise of John Boehner, who resigned from the speakership in the fall of 2015.  Was there any length to which he would not go to secure it?  I had not at first been able to credit that anyone, even a politician,  would be willing to abase himself so publicly for so protracted a period—fifteen tedious ballots in the end; but of course I should have known better.  My dear old dad had a wonderful appraisal of such situations.  “What would embarrass him,” he would opine, “would shame a hog to death.”


When I stopped to think of it, though, Mr. McCarthy was at best an also-ran in the self-humiliation sweepstakes.  One of the peculiarities of the situation of having no Speaker of the House for several days was that the newly elected representatives, whose formal induction as member of the People’s House it should have been the new speaker’s task to supervise, just had to hang around.  First there was the awkwardness of how they themselves were to vote.  It seemed obvious that they deserved a vote.  On the other hand, it seemed obvious that they didn’t, since they had not yet been officially received.  I think maybe the famous Rules Committee needs to give this matter a little thought as it gets dangerously close to Catch 22 territory.  But I digress.  Everybody was waiting for something to happen, but I presume the waiting of the newbies had a special quality of its own.  Among this group one man was already a celebrity.  Quite often there is a special buzz about one or two of the newly elected members.  I am sure you well remember the preemptive fame that greeted New York Democrat representative-elect (14th District) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019.  There was great excitement about her youth, her dynamism, her unapologetically radical political ideas.  The AOC buzz was, in my view, highly affirmative.  This year’s buzz, sounding more like a hiss, surrounds New York Republican representative elect (3rd District) George Santos.


Representative-elect Santos is the Baron Munchausen of American politics.  He himself has admitted to somewhat inflating the resumé he presented as a political candidate.  This can hardly shock us.  A certain amount of self-aggrandizement is expected of political candidates, expected and tacitly tolerated.  Even on the frontier there can scarcely have been a large enough supply of log cabins (the mandatory birthing sites of all serious American politicians for about eighty years of our history) to accommodate the demand.  In my part of the world, when I was a lad, an unstated prerequisite for running for the governorship of Oklahoma was an indeterminate but not insignificant quotient of “Cherokee blood” pumping through one’s arteries.  (This is now optional but still desirable for politicians from Oklahoma; you may remember Senator Warren’s .00096%--iffy.)  Naturally all candidates like to be war-heroes, baby-rescuers, bootstrap-lifters, but of course only a few actually are.


The new Dishonorable Gentleman from Queens is not among the few.  He has taken things to an altogether new frontier of prevarication.  The list of his self-promoting lies is awesome but also a little pathetic.  The idea that you would pad your resumé with non-existent employment at Goldman Sachs boggles the mind—at least my mind.  How about the Navy Seals, or the Tottenham Hotspurs, something along those lines?  The only hope for the new Republican leadership in the House is that Santos, who has lied about practically everything else, is actually lying about being a member of the Republican Party.  But he did vote for McCarthy, and since McCarthy was elected by a single vote.…In one of the several different livestream sessions I saw,  the camera was following George Santos as he wandered aimlessly around the periphery of the House chamber.  In the Middle Ages lepers were required to carry a constantly tingling bell that would alert anyone in the street of their presence or approach.  I had never actually imagined how this might work, but I now have a pretty good idea.  Mr. Santos appears not merely to have been “cancelled” by his new colleagues, but actually rendered invisible to them.  The possible criminal charges against him in Brazil at least acknowledge his existence.  There is a grandeur about Shakespearean ambition and certainly a flare to the iniquity the Bard’s villains deploy in pursuing it.  Why must our own Macbeths and Iagos be so dull and predictable?  Goldman Sachs?

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Joseph Ratzinger, Scholar


Joseph Ratzinger, better known to most people as Pope Benedict XVI, died in Rome on the last day of 2022 at the age of 95.  He will be buried there tomorrow.  His status as a major figure on the world scene has guaranteed that his death receive wide notice and comment, and you have probably already read at least one of the journalistic death notices, which range from short squibs to long-prepared obituaries of thousands of words.  In adding my widow’s mite, I am keenly aware that I am no theologian nor an expert on ecclesiastical politics or even a member of the former pope’s church.  But I owe a great debt to this man for one of his fields of accomplishment that I find mentioned only in passing if at all in what I have read so far: his role as an intellectual and a scholar.  I’ll come to that in a minute.


Holding the principal leadership role in a large and complicated international organization with vast financial operations, political dealings, complex diplomacy and endless monitoring of personnel is hardly conducive to either an unremitting focus on personal sanctification—the traditional role of the Church’s commanding ascetic institutions through history—or a deep and unworldly immersion in academic scholarship, which is in many respects the secular heir to medieval asceticism in the post-Christian world.  It would be unreasonable to expect that the historical papacy could reveal many saints or scholars.  Of course if your definition of a saint is a “canonized person”, the odds get better.  But it must be hard to concentrate on holiness if you have to be concentrating on fixing leaky church roofs most of the time.  Early Church history is full of  people like Augustine who actually tried to hide out from ecclesiastical search committees, having to be metaphorically dragged kicking and screaming into episcopal orders.


            Just about a decade ago word leaked out that Pope Benedict was planning to resign.  The very thought of a papal resignation was unthinkable, but the fact of it was not unprecedented.  It was then that much of the world heard for the first time of an obscure Pope Celestin V, who resigned after a tenure of less than a year in 1294.  If you had already heard of Celestin, it is probably because you had read Dante’s Inferno, in which he is one of the first actual historical personages to be introduced.  Virgil and Dante have barely set out on their infernal pilgrimage.  There in Limbo, Hell’s waiting room so to speak, are the Trimmers, the morally inert, the lukewarms, the neither fish nor fowls.  Their mingled blood and tears drip down to attract stinking worms around their feet.  Not nice.  Dante gives us only one representative human member of these tormented sadsacks.  He recognizes “the shade of him who, through cowardice, made the great refusal [gran rifiuto].”  In reality, Celestin V was anything but a coward.  He was an octogenarian holy hermit, and it didn’t take him long to conclude that the chair of Peter was, in that age, no place for a seriously religious person.  The cardinals agreed; they didn’t elect another one for quite a while.  Dante didn’t really seem to know squat about Celestin V.  He was simply furious that Boniface VIII, who he thought was a really bad guy, was able to leap into the breach.  Much of the displeasure of the many critics of Benedict’s resignation came from a similar source—fear of what would come next.  The evaluation of papal elections, like those of Supreme Court appointments, are mainly political.




I am aware that Benedict was criticized by many as a hide-bound traditionalist trapped in yesterday’s moral theology.  But in resigning he struck a powerful blow for modernity.  The idea that the pope is a spiritual hostage-monarch who must hold up his orb in his palsied hand until dementia or prostate cancer finally carries him off lacks theological warrant, common sense, or simple Christian charity.


            For centuries the clerical orders of the Roman Church provided a seedbed of erudition and scholarship indispensable for our cultural construction; but the chariness with which the cardinals have elevated men of outstanding intellect and scholarly achievement to the papacy is a puzzle to outsiders.  When Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury resigned in 2010, it caused considerable hand-wringing among Anglicans.  But he was a brilliant academic and scholar, and as he went on to become the head of a Cambridge college it was possible to regard the move, at least by me, as an episode in an upward trajectory.  But of course I am a college professor, which is what Benedict also was so many years ago.  That’s why I may have “known” him before many of you did.  I knew him as Professor Joseph Ratzinger, the author of a brilliant book* about St. Bonaventure’s theology of history.  This is one of those books that—granting a preliminary interest in its admittedly arcane subject matter—simply knocks you off your feet.  There are only a few books the reading of which actually changes the direction of a scholar’s work.  To give an intelligible account of this one would take up far more space than I have, and test my readers’ patience to the breaking point.  But for me Ratzinger’s account of Bonaventure’s thought was such a book.  Without it I hardly would have dipped my toe into the subject of Franciscan studies, which has been one of my major fields of study and sources of intellectual satisfaction.


            I had no idea who Ratzinger was, of course.  I didn’t particularly want to know.  One of the joys of academic study is the encounter with the minds and erudition of other people a thousand miles or a thousand years away, completely independent of personal or biographical speculation.  He had been pope for two or three years before I tumbled to the amazing fact he was the same person as my earlier scholarly mentor.  It seems unfortunate to me that practically everything I have so far read about his life in the notices of his death concentrates on ecclesiastical politics, usually casting him in the implicitly dubious role of a “conservative” or a “traditionalist” succeeded and countered by a more with-it Francis I.  It is not necessary to enter into questions of ecclesiastical politics to recognize the merit of his scholarship, or the value of the life he had to abandon in response to the higher call of duty.




*Geschichtstheologie des heiligen Bonaventura (1959); English translation The Theology of History in Saint Bonaventure (1971).  This was his Habilitationsschrift (roughly doctoral thesis), and it is enough to make me blush as the thought of my own.


Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Boston Adventure

Jean Stafford

Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit: “Man proposes but God disposes”.  This daunting aphorism, which became a vernacular proverb in most of the languages of Europe, apparently first appeared in print  in the widely read Imitation of Christ of Thomas à Kempis in the early fifteenth century.  But surely by then folks had already long known that the best-laid plans of men, as well as of mice, often go astray.  The whole proposed drive to Montreal described in last week’s essay never happened.  Whited out, so to speak.  Instead we had  a marvelously mellow Christmas Eve in an apartment on frozen and empty Washington Square in Manhattan, a drive-by Christmas morning greeting with the family in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and a delicious afternoon onion soup for seven of us around the fire in Princeton.


An unanticipated Christmas present had come early.  It is the latest arrival (volume 324) from the Library of America, the Complete Novels of Jean Stafford.  I had never read a word of Jean Stafford (1915-1979), though of course I had a vague “name recognition.”  Though she has now mainly disappeared from literary conversations, she was a writer both popular and highly regarded in my own literary infancy.  Her most famous book, and the one in which I am currently wholly engrossed, was Boston Adventure, published when I was eight years old (1944).  She later appeared in my literary education as having been the battered wife, during the 1940s, of the bi-polar Boston Brahmin poet Robert Lowell.  She had her own mental health and substance abuse problems.  She also has connections with the southern Agrarians, and their adherents, especially Allen Tate and Peter Taylor, names frequently bandied about Sewanee in my time there. 


   where Sonie lived

I have not yet finished digesting Boston Adventure, but I find it remarkably good, and good in ways that are not common even in our most highly respected novelists.  This novel is a kind of sour Bildungsroman—the fancy German word literary scholars use for a “a novel dealing with one person's formative years or spiritual education.”  It is the history of a highly sensitive and intelligent young girl, Sonia (Sonie) Marburg, who dreams of transcending her miserable material and cultural circumstances only to discover….The background details are rich and engaging but still a little slippery, and occasionally melodramatic and surreal.  Geographically, the novel is split between two Boston locations, defining the book’s two long narrative movements—a fictional, grubby working-class community called Chichester on the water, and the posh Pinckney Street dwelling of a Brahmin spinster, Miss Pride.  Miss Pride summers at the Hotel Barstow, a fading Chichester beach hostelry at which both Sonia’s mother and the young girl herself work as domestics.  It is there that Sonie becomes fascinated by her imagined vision of Miss Pride’s cultural and social elegance.   Sonia’s father is a disillusioned German immigrant, an ineffectual cobbler, who met her mother, a shallow-minded and neurotic Russian, on the boat from Europe.  The family lives in a kind of physical and spiritual hovel. The marriage is poisonous, a cauldron of failed daydreams and recriminations, and early in the novel the husband simply walks away from his daughter and his pregnant wife and is never again heard of.  After much storm and stress, Sonia almost miraculously wins the favor of Miss Pride to such a degree that the spinster takes her into her private city home as combination secretary, companion, general dog’s body, and pile of clay to be molded to her patroness’s design.

      where Miss Pride lived 


Stafford’s style is strikingly realistic.  The descriptions of the bleakness of the Marburg menage—a kind of shabbiness to which frank squalor would actually be preferable—is bone-chilling.  The revelation of character, at least of most of the characters, is brilliant and subtle.  Yet there is a dimension of the fantastic, and at times of the grotesque, in the presentation of the worlds both of the shanties and of the mansions.  The narration is brilliant but problematic.  The narrator is Sonia, but at what point in her life one cannot say.  Most of the section entitled “Hotel Bristow” takes place when Sonia is in her earliest ‘teens.   She reaches an indeterminate very young womanhood in the second half, “Pinckney Street.”  The novel seems to begin about 1919 or 1920.  One would expect some prominent presence of the Sacco and Vanzetti affair at the end of the Twenties, but very little happens in the "real world" in this book.  The thoughts and general sensibilities attributed to the young Sonie seem far beyond her age.  Are they coming from the somewhat older self on Pinckney Street—or a considerably older self long after both movements?  Does the narrator realize the tragi-comic meaning of her story, or is that for Stafford’s readers alone?


Boston Adventure was a big best-seller, meaning that it must have captured a large “popular” audience, but it is very high-brow in its literary ancestry.  It’s a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman, so you can’t miss a whiff of James Joyce.  But there’s more than a whiff of two other great modernists—Henry James and Marcel Proust.  This is a book about the subtle interactions of memory, desire, and “art” very broadly conceived.  Early in her acquaintance with Miss Pride, and in hopes of perhaps being able to impress her, Sonia borrows James’s The Awkward Age from the library.  Awkward, indeed!  “After a tormenting evening of poring over the completely unintelligible sentences of the novel…I did not try again to read Miss Pride’s favorite authors…”  I myself was forty before I could grasp Henry James.


The quality of the writing is superb.  Stafford’s verbal versatility seems inexhaustible.  Whole paragraphs are gems.  Even her short sentences can have a punch.  Mac, Miss Pride’s chauffeur,  brings her car around to the hotel entrance.  “He was a thin, sharp, silvery young man who, in his gray livery, looked like an upright rat.”  And the quality of the imaginative achievement is extraordinary.  In the current moment the limits of the artistic imagination seem to be defined by the categories of identity politics.  Only women can write about women with “authenticity”, only blacks can write about blacks.  What actually makes literature possible are certain universally shared facts of the human condition.  What makes it engaging and illuminating is the nearly limitless cultural variety amid which those facts are displayed.  Sonia’s quest for self-realization and cultural salvation is obviously the author’s “own” experience in a sense partially real as well as symbolical.  But the way in which a highly educated mid-century, middle-class Anglo-American can imagine both the exterior and interior lives of failing European immigrants of a rapidly vanishing earlier generation is extraordinary.  If you are going to write a book about whalers it undoubtedly helps if you have actually seen a whale-hunt; but seeing a hundred whale hunts won’t expose the greatness of Moby Dick any more than the jagged rocks behind the Mona Lisa explicate her enigmatic smile.


In Monday’s newspaper a front-page article documented an early result of the great educational abdication of the Pandemic: the expanding need for remedial literacy courses in many American high schools.   Perhaps I could do worse in the first essay of 2023 than once again to encourage all patriotic Americans who love our language and literature to acquire during the coming year a volume or two of the Library of America.  The LofA is a non-profit enterprise that produces splendid and affordable editions of important American writers who have passed the test of time or are making their serious bid to do so. There is a lot of clucking these days about our “endangered democracy,” as though democracy’s vulnerability were some new thing, and that democracy can be rescued with more relaxed voter registration laws.  American democracy was born in daring and in vulnerability.  It has been in danger since the get-go.  When Franklin said (allegedly) that he and his colleagues had come up with a Republic if you can keep it –he was worried less about the redcoats than about the very hard work involved in being and remaining free.  There is no greater defense of democracy than literacy, robustly exercised.  So defend democracy.  Read a good book.