Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Tongues in Trees

                                                               Rosalind.  Well, this is the Forest of Arden

            It still seems unclear whether or not we have reached a real turning point in beating back the plague.  Some signs are good, but as viral variants spread and vaccinations  lag, there is a persistently pessimistic tone in much of the press.  At best, the tentative liberations we are now enjoying reinforce the realization of the constraints, limitations, and contractions that have shriveled our lives.  That what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is an aspirational thought, but no more convincing than most in its genre—that of whistling in the dark.  It is truer to say that what doesn’t kill you can still do you a pretty severe damage.  The whole world has suffered, and continues to suffer, a wound that will leave its continuing scars.


            Ordinarily one can safely turn to the world of nature for philosophical comfort.  The old belief was that the balm for the sores created by human cupidity and its corrupted institutions is to be found in the simplicity of the natural world.  One of the most famous set pieces in Shakespeare, the Duke’s “Forest of Arden” speech early in As You Like It, gives classical expression to the idea of the superiority of the honest roughness of rustic nature to the smooth but noxious sophistications of high society.  Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head.  And the Duke goes on with a famous statement of the benign didacticism of Mother Nature.  “And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”


            A once famous twelfth-century poem, now known only to experts whose obscurity matches that of the objects of our attention, is called The Complaint of Nature.  Its author was a theologian named Alan, from Lille, in northern France.  The poem is built about a startling conceit.  Nature is imagined and personified as a radiant woman clad in a sumptuous panchromatic dress, the brilliant colors of which display the full beauty of the natural world in all their variety and sparkle.  It is, in fact, the whole of the material creation represented in textile form.  But Dame Nature has a great sadness, allegorized by a single glaring flaw in this garment—a tear or fissure in that part of it representing human beings.  The complaint or lament of Lady Nature’s soliloquy is that human beings alone, out of all  the natural creation, behave in perverse and unnatural fashions.  I hesitate to debate matters of divinity with Alain de Lille or any other medieval doctor of theology.  Still it seems to me that he may have missed something.  He didn’t face coronavirus, but he would have been quite familiar with several other nasty plagues and hideous illnesses.  But he still did anticipate the circumstance of a natural world damaged and wounded by human dereliction.  This is the world we read about in stories about raging forest fires, eroding seashores, and poisonous smogs.


            If you read my last post you will know that like the Duke I am one inclined to find tongues in trees and sermons in stones, and the walk I took yesterday was a little disturbing in this regard.  I wrote about the cicada phenomenon a couple of months ago.  It is over, but its evidences are still quite visible, and some of them are unpleasant.  The stinking corpses and the creepy little exoskeletons are mainly gone now, but there are other archaeological remains.  Any patch of bare earth on the footpaths through the woods is likely to be perforated by a dozen or more dark holes, about the thickness of a cigarette.  These are the mouths of the little tunnels from which the midget monsters emerged after their seventeen-year hibernation. The buzzing bugs emerge to lay their eggs along the tender twigs of trees, and they seem to favor some of the most beautiful ones in our parts, including old oaks and beeches.  By some process I do not understand, they make a series of little cuts, surgical incisions really, along the length of the twig ends.  These look almost mechanically precise, as though made with a sewing machine.  They so weaken the little stem ends that they often crack, especially if jostled by strong winds.   Sometimes they actually break off and fall to the ground, but mainly they simply hang there, dead and brown.  I remember reading somewhere in one of the tougher mystery writers—Chandler, perhaps?—that people who are serious about slitting their wrists always start at the wrist and drag the blade down along the length of the forearm.  The cicadas are very serious about laying their eggs.  The continuity of the species pretty much defines the whole duty of a cicada.  I don’t know that they can actually kill a mature tree, but they can certainly uglify it.  The dispiriting visual effect is depressing, and with trees free-standing in fields or house yards it is augmented by the nasty litter of dead and desiccated fronds about the tree base.



            The tongues in these trees do not tell so happy a story.  The portents are not good.  However poignant, the autumnal shedding of leaves has its commodiousness as well as its inevitability.  But these ugly dead twig ends attest to violence and pathology, not  a seasonal rhythm as old as time.  What we see here is abrupt, premature, disturbing.  I am writing this on a hot, sultry July day, but somehow I am forced to face adumbrations of summer’s end.  It’s not a very good feeling, though I know my reaction actually has less to do with the weather than with family movements.  We have seen a good deal of all three of our children this summer, but that long-awaited and too rapidly passing pleasure will soon enough come to an abrupt end.  Richard and Katie Dixon and daughter Ruby are seizing the rare opportunity of a respite in their professional lives to give themselves a kind of cultural sabbatical and educational enrichment program by moving to southern Spain for a few months!  They have already lined up what looks like a gorgeous house in Granada.  We shall soon add to our roster of polylingual grandchildren one who lisps in Castilian.  They leave in a couple of weeks.  Luke, Melanie, and their two delightful kids have been in the South visiting the maternal family home, and we shall have them briefly with us again on their long trek back to Canada.  But that family, too, will be gone before we know it.  Montreal is not all that far as the crow flies, but the crow doesn’t have to deal with the pandemic regulations that for the moment make Canada seem as far away from us as Canton.  Our Manhattanites are still in place, but there is a shake-up there as well, with one granddaughter off to college within a month and another already immersed in the excitements of a rising high-school senior.  There is still a fast lane out there somewhere, but it’s not for us.  We are the old folks at home.  That has a nice sound, but the reality of it is a little disquieting.


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Sign Me Up


            The title of one of Augustine’s most brilliant and accessible works—De doctrina christiana (On Christian Doctrine) is likely to mislead and possibly discourage potential readers who probably would find its contents fascinating.  In our English language doctrine usually means a specific dogmatic proposition or article of faith, but doctrina here refers less to what is taught than to what teaching itself is.  He begins by saying that all doctrina deals with one of two objects, res (things) and signa (signs).  Oversimplifying only wildly, the world of res is our STEM world: empirical observation, measurements, calculation, material analysis and so on.  The sign-world of signa is our humanistic world of interpretation and moral and aesthetic analysis and judgment.  Augustine was curious about the world of things (science), but this particular book is devoted to that of signs, concerning which he makes another two-part distinction.  All signs are either natural or conventional.  Smoke on the horizon is a natural sign of the thing fire.  Any sentient human being can interpret the sign correctly.  But how about the word “fire” (ignis in Latin)?  It too is a sign of fire, but only by convention among speakers of Latin.  Other groups, according to other conventions, will call it pyr, fuoco, brand, feu, ogién, and fire.  The identification of human language as conventional sign systems is what makes Augustine’s book an important contribution  to language theory to this day.


            Not everybody acknowledges the kinds of signs that animate this essay, but they permeate our language in such phrases as signs of life, signs of spring, signs of the times, or the tired joke that “it’s a sign that you’re getting _______ when you ________".  I have now enjoyed the excellent protections of our national Medicare insurance for many years.  For quite a while, eligible recipients could use their Social Security cards for purposes of Medicare identification.  A few years ago, however, partly in an effort to combat fraud and identity theft, the Federal government developed a special Medical Insurance card with an eleven-part identification code, a mixture of majuscule letters and Arabic numerals.  The transition complete, these new cards became, in theory, required for all Medicare business.  We swim in an ocean of little paper or plastic rectangles in order to go places by bus or subway, buy things, gain admission to museums, drive machines, or get a free cup of coffee as a reward for buying twenty overpriced ones.  One can carry about in one’s wallet those few that may be needed on a daily basis.  In addition I made two special little packets—one marked “Medical,” the other “New York”—to be fetched when needed from   their special box and returned to it.


            Trouble is, I hardly had gotten the new Medicare card when I lost the whole “Medical” pack.  I used it at a doctor’s office and when I went to fetch it a couple of weeks later, it was not in the designated box.  Lost!  If you are far enough along the spectrum that you make little packages of business cards in the first place, you’re certainly far enough along it to obsess over losing one of them.  The lady in the gospel who swept her house “diligently” in search of her dropped drachma had nothing on me.  I turned the place upside down.  No luck.  And there were annoying practical consequences.  Despairing of finding the card, I sought to replace it.  The Medicare website has to be among the top ten digital hells in the entire national bureaucracy; and that, as we say, is saying something.  Lasciate ogni speranza


            Months passed, and at this point my story becomes cloudy and serious because my wife had a serious health event that involved scary tests and the kind of scary specialist consultation concerning test results at which a husband wants also to be present.  My nervous preparations for this meeting included a desire to dress halfway decently.  I went to my rack of shirts and chose one of the better ones, long unused during the Pandemic.  The moment I took it from the hanger I could sense a slight surplus weight on the left side.  Something was in the pocket.  Without investigating, I immediately knew what it was, and more importantly that it was a sign, a very good one.  This consult was going to be okay.


            At first blush, this experience is so embarrassingly easy to demystify that I scarcely have the nerve make an anecdote of it.  I wore a certain shirt to a go to a medical appointment many months ago, and I chose the same shirt for the same purpose a week ago.  In the interval the shirt was simply hanging unvisited in its closet.  Yet those facts, which certainly are facts, have embarrassments of their own.  The shirt is not one that I would be likely to wear without a jacket.  I always (I thought) secured the little packet of documents in the inner left-hand pocket of a jacket.  So firm was my misplaced faith in the inviolability of this practice that when I was doing what I considered a root-and-branch search for the lost items, and ransacking the pockets of every jacket I own, including the highly improbable ones in dress suits and even (absurdly) a tuxedo, it never entered my mind to work through a row of shirts.


            The “signs” that Augustine was interested in were biblical.  Like his Jewish and Christian contemporaries he regarded the sacred text as a vast web of allegories.  The signs I have encountered during my life tend to be secular and often enough banal—the kind of amusing wake-up calls from the Universe that Carl Jung called “synchronicities” or meaningful coincidences.  I was very impressed years ago by Arthur Koestler’s book The Roots of Coincidence—at least to the extent that I could follow it.  Like all flirtations with ESP (“extra-sensory perception”) Jung‘s speculations concerning synchronicity have been assailed by materialistic physicists as pseudo-science.  But all dogma, whether spiritualistic or materialistic has to be assessed within the context of an individual life experience.  For there is more than one kind of empiricism.  Physical theory teaches us that effects have causes; that does not preclude them from having forms or echoes as well.  My own experience leads me to suppose, slightly paraphrasing Hamlet to Horatio, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your departments of philosophy.  It was a mathematical genius, Blaise Pascal, who wrote “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.”


            There is a difference between being open to the possibility of providential signals and the attempt to cultivate them through necromancy, the examination of the inner organs of birds and beasts, Tarot cards, ouija boards, or the I Ching.    Divination created a kind of extra-linguistic conventional sign system needing interpretation by an elite priestcraft.  The search for “signs” by state augurs and oracular interpreters was a major part of the Roman state religion, but some philosophers disdained it for its fatalistic “insider trading”.   Kings wanted to know in advance which side would win a prospective battle before deciding on fight or on flight.  In Lucan’s Pharsalia the great moral hero Cato declines the opportunity to consult the oracle of Jupiter Ammon, for his interest is in the justice rather than the prosperity of the cause for which he fights.  Our word “auspicious” derives from the Latin term for an interpreter of the predictive meaning of bird flights!  Self-interested clients wanted to know whether a prospective journey, marriage, horse purchase, or financial investment was auspicious.  One form seemed specially designed for literature professors: bibliomancy, or the use of great texts like the Odyssey or the Aeneid as philosophical bingo cards.  Virgil himself has some harsh things to say about ancient divination—though that of course is Dante’s Virgil (Inferno 20: 29-30).  The tedium of Medicare cards lost and found is typical of my small and banal sign-life, one far from shared and conventional but individual and eccentric.  Yet perhaps there is still time for an upgrade.  Jung thought you could by training fine-tune your resonance to synchronicities.  But then he himself had gotten off to a flying start by finding a gold bug on his windowsill at the very moment he was listening to a patient’s account of her dream of a golden scarab.  I have never stumbled upon a golden Medicare card.





Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Going Dutch


                                                        Blawenburg church in winter

            Last week one of our musical friends sent us an email letting us know that on the following Sunday he would be playing his violin as part of a trio during the morning service at the Reformed Church in Blawenburg.  We took the hint and showed up for nine o’clock.  It was the first time I had been to a religious service of that denomination.  The music, all Vivaldi, was well done, and nicely complemented a simple, dignified worship service and an excellent sermon.  Blawenburg is an unincorporated wide place in the road (two roads, actually) in Montgomery Township, Somerset County, NJ, on the outskirts of Princeton.  The Reformed Church, which used generally to be called the Dutch Reformed, descends from the mainstream of Low Countries Protestantism of the Reformation period.  It shares a good deal in common with English and Scottish Presbyterianism and their American descendants.  We recall that some of the English “Pilgrims” who came to New England in the early seventeenth century had first sought refuge in the Netherlands.  Today there is not all that much that is ethnically Dutch in the Reformed Church.  But just as you will still find traces of seventeenth-century French Catholicism in Québec, you might find traces of seventeenth-century Dutch Protestantism in Holland, Michigan.


            The Dutch colonial presence, which had been powerful in old New York, long remained visible in Brooklyn, Long Island,  and in parts of central New Jersey.  It survives today chiefly in place and family names, and in aging ecclesiastical buildings.  I am an aficionado of libraries.  There is a magnificent gem of a nineteenth-century theological collection preserved at the Dutch Reformed seminary in New Brunswick.  I suspect that the library acquisitions budget has been far from opulent for at least two generations, so that the collection itself has a kind of museum aura.  New Brunswick is an old town in which there is also a very large old Reformed parish church.  Indeed in the Princeton area there are many handsome old Dutch church buildings of similar design, most of them disproportionately large in reference not merely to today’s church-going population but to what might be called absolute population.  The last “official” population figure I have for Blawenburg is 190; the church I visited, built in 1832, could easily seat 300.  Sunday’s congregation, not counting the musicians, was about a dozen.  Fit audience if few, and certainly friendly.  I was reminded of a huge and absolutely empty seventeenth-century Dutch church built in stone that I saw in Colombo, in Sri Lanka.


                                                                      Reformed St. Bavo's, Haarlem

            Nowhere does architectural form more necessarily follow function than in ecclesiastical buildings.  Most of the church interiors one sees in old Dutch paintings are actually rather jarring to the informed eye: medieval buildings that were theologically “cleaned up” in the waves of rabid iconoclastic vandalism that were a distinctive   expression of the Protestant Revolt in the Low Countries.  A Gothic church emptied of its mysterious flickering lights, colored windows, dark side chapels and abundance of icons of various sorts can seem lifeless and antiseptic.  The public worship of the old Catholicism was built around a sacred performative mystery, and often enough mystification—what Browning memorably called “the blessed mutter of the Mass.”  The Protestant reformers demanded a radical return to the Bible, to its reading and to its explication by their preachers.  When they began to raise new church buildings, the difference in emphasis became obvious in the architecture: simple undecorated boxes, though often with lateral balconies, with the focus on central lecterns from which the Bible was read and pulpits from which it was preached.  There had been to some slight extent a medieval anticipation of this in the churches built by medieval Dominicans—members of the Order of Preachers—whose buildings have with exaggeration been called “preaching barns”.


            I am hardly an expert on the religious history of the Low Countries, but I did read a couple of books years ago that have stuck with me.  The first was The Rise of the Dutch Republic (1856), by John Lathrop Motley.  Motley was an accomplished statesman and amateur historian whose works, though now pretty much discarded, found a large popular audience in the nineteenth century.  The major theme of the work is the triumph of Protestant liberty over Catholic religious oppression in the Spanish Netherlands of the sixteenth century.  Despite certain biases, it is full of fascinating episodes vividly recounted.  The other book is an extraordinary and now sadly neglected novel first conceived in that same year of 1856, though published only a decade later: The Legend of Ulenspiegel by Charles de Coster.*  This brilliant work may be the Moby Dick of Belgian literature, though perhaps a little shorter.  The original text celebrates, in a pseudo-Renaissance French, the exploits of the famous folk hero and trickster Till Eulenspiegel.   The name is translated “Owlglass” in early English versions.  The iconographic attributes of an owl and a glass (i.e., mirror) characterize visual representations of this Wiley Coyote of popular Low German literature.  De Coster honors the bilingualism of his region while transforming a legendary picaresque figure into a hero of religious liberty in an actual historical situation: quite a remarkable feat, really.


                                                                Eulenspiegel and friends, by Lukas van Leiden

and in a Renaissance comic book


            All this came flooding into my mind along with the Vivaldi “Sarabande.”  Perhaps it was the noble simplicity of that piece that brought to my mind two other unavoidable (for me) cultural connections with the simplicity of Netherlandish Christianity.  These were the Beghards and the Beguines, on the one hand, and Erasmus of Rotterdam on the other.  It is possible that you have never heard of the former.  The Beghards (men) and the Beguines (women) were lay followers of the religious life in late medieval Europe—monks and nuns, so to speak, but living in the lay world.  They were to be found in many parts of Europe, but particularly in the Low Countries.  Their lives, like those of so many of the simple folk in The Legend of Ulenspiegel, were often considered scandalous by the official ecclesiastical authorities, but the official ecclesiastical authorities were experts in finding scandal.  As for Erasmus of Rotterdam, he is a household name.  He was one of the most learned men in Europe as the age of the Revival of Learning began, and his erudite works continue to challenge scholars to this very day.  He was the editor of the first modern scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament, a book that has probably been the most seriously studied text in the world for half a millennium.  But of all his own original works his favorite, and mine, is as simple in its aspect as an old whitewashed church building on a country road.  It is called the Enchiridion, or Handbook; and it lays out the vision of a simple Christian life very different from the stultifying logic-chopping of the dogmatic theologians of his day.  I think of it as especially Dutch.



*Charles de Coster, The Legend of Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzac, and Their Adventures Heroical, Joyous and Glorious in the Land of Flanders and Elsewhere, trans. by F. M. Atkinson (London: Heinemann: 1922).  The scholarly edition is La légende et les aventures héroiques, joyeuses et glorieuses d’Ulenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzk au pays de Flandres et ailleurs, ed. Joseph Hanse (Bruxelles: Renaissance du Livre, 1959).



Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Historical Shifts

            With the exception of Benjamin Franklin, perhaps, the only Founding Fathers to claim a place in the popular American memory are those who rose to presidential office.  For that reason the name of John Witherspoon (1723-1794), along with the large majority of the other names  appended to the Declaration of Independence, would probably go unrecognized by most Americans.  Does Button Gwinnett ring a bell?  Joseph Hewes?  But as Witherspoon was an early, long-serving , and consequential president of the educational institution now known as Princeton University, located in Princeton, N. J., where I live, his memory is indeed preserved here.  Not long before I retired the University installed a large and imposing statue of Witherspoon on a prominent campus site.  To the extent the town has a “downtown,” its center is the point at which Witherspoon Street begins its northward course at right angles with the main drag, Nassau Street, at the gates of the University campus.  One of the town’s public schools is named after Witherspoon—and here, of course, today’s essay begins.


            Witherspoon owned slaves.  The question of the degree to which this undoubted fact was consistent with his role as a prominent Presbyterian divine or an alumnus of the Scottish Enlightenment has not been wholly ignored; but it became decisive for the town’s school board, which voted to remove his name from “his” school.  The erasure is definitive, but I believe that dickering continues concerning the most appropriate replacement name.  Since there is no requirement that a school has to be named after anybody, something like  P.S. no. 3 might be the best bet to avoid future controversy.  Saint Augustine reminds us that all human funerary customs, while ostensibly honors for the defunct, are actually and necessarily palliatives for the living.  The same is largely true, I believe, of all memorials and memorializations; and it comes perilously close to being true of all written history.  As perceptions, needs, and tastes vary and change among historical populations, so also do their attitudes toward history.  Thus all written history must be in a sense provisional, and historical revisionism constant.  This does not mean that all historical facts are uncertain.  It should warn us, however, that many interpretations of those facts are debatable, and not a few grossly influenced by anachronism and the intellectual predispositions of the historian.


            The year 1992, which was among other things the five-hundredth anniversary of the first transatlantic voyage of Christopher Columbus, witnessed a large number of books, colloquia, lectures, and exhibitions relating to that event.  I was offered the exciting opportunity to serve as one of the curators of a major exhibition mounted at the Library of Congress.  It was entitled “1492-1992: the Ongoing Voyage”.  My credentials for this assignment were at best modest, but it was not a chance to be missed.  I had a strong interest in the “spiritual milieu” of the late medieval Mediterranean world, in which religion, politics, and a very active international and indeed intercontinental maritime economy stimulated both cultural cooperation and cultural conflict.  I had published some essays on Columbus’s religious ideas, which were quite strange and clearly related to a major strain of apocalyptic thinking widespread in the Franciscan Order of his day.  The project required a great deal more of me, of course, including wide reading in maritime history and the copious literature of travel and exploration of the European Renaissance.


            I was part of a large team, which included many academic types and civil servants.  It was in this milieu that I encountered for the first time the attitudes and vocabulary of political correctness at industrial scale.  Our view of the person of Columbus remains mysterious, remote, and fragmentary to this day.  I conclude that he was both a late medieval mystical autodidact, and one hell of a sailor.  But his practical expertise warred with fantastic preconceptions he had inherited from ancient geographers and “nature” writers who had taught him to expect to find, in the world’s distant islands, all sorts of monstruous human life: men with dogs’ heads, cyclopses, assorted weirdos.  The prevailing attitudes of 1992  rather reversed things.  The monsters were to be found in the Niña, the Pinta, and above all the Santa Maria, Columbus’s flagship.  The phrase “the discovery of America,” which had been in general use more or less forever, was not merely “Eurocentric” but oppressive to “native Americans”—the word native having for certain scholars overnight changed its etymological and customary meaning in the direction of aboriginal and therefore no longer applicable to the vast majority of Americans born in America.



            Trying to understand the meaning of Columbus at the time of the quincentenary of 1992 led me bone up a bit on previous centennial observations.  There actually was a tercentenary in1792, though one only modestly noted in a new republic with a great deal else on its mind. For all I know President Witherspoon may have adorned it with a few well-chosen words on the Princeton campus.  If so, I have not found them.  But the hagiographic celebration par excellence was the Columbian Exposition of 1892-93, which was a whing-ding the likes of which the world had never witnessed.  Though officially opening on “Columbus Day” of 1892, the main period of its visitation was 1893.  The venue was Chicago, in-your-face Chicago, “a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities” in Sandburg’s famous poem.  Within this actual city the town fathers built an ideal one, classical in its architecture and lavish in its expense, with a kind of Venetian lagoon at its center.  The ostensible occasion—the four hundredth anniversary of the European discovery of America—was quite obviously a mere front.  The real subject was the emergence of the United States as a super-power, industrial colossus, and paradise of the arts and sciences.  But of course there was plenty of Columbus, too, and what a Columbus he was.  Discovering in Columbus a superspreading genocidal maniac requires some preparatory political softening up, to be sure; but the vision is not wholly removed from subsequent developments in the long history of colonization and emigration in the Americas.  Discovering in him a plucky proto-Protestant entrepreneur and self-made industrial baron is another.  And that was the Columbian vibe of the Expo of 1893.


            In 1892 all the virtues that had been attributed to George Washington in Parson Weems’s famous biography of 1809 (source of the cherry-tree legend, among others) were found vibrant and expanded in the imagined character of a Genoese maritime adventurer.  American lexicographers know that in 1892 such racial slurs as wop and guinea were already widely applied by native Americans of the day to Americans of Italian birth; but for expositional Columbus, the olive oil line was breached.  The Knights of Columbus, the Catholic lay organization, had been founded ten years earlier; but he now became the Italian-American icon par excellence.  Meanwhile, for Protestant America the Columbian Exposition really solidified Columbus’s credentials as Yankee hero.   Memories of the 1892 Columbus were still vivid enough to moderate some of the recent iconoclastic intentions directed toward the 1992 Columbus, whose popular reputation has by no means improved over the last quarter century.  In various places statues of Columbus, prime candidates for erasure, were spared in deference to the possible feelings of the “Italian-American community,” still thought of as having some residual grievance leverage.  I doubt that the Scottish-American community has what it would take to rescue John Witherspoon.


                                                   Chicago, 1893

            One of Faulkner’s characters, speaking of the historical burden of the “Lost Cause” syndrome of the Old South, says: “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  This pithy sentiment, usually attributed to the novelist himself, is frequently quoted, and for good reason.  It’s one of those quotations that sounds really good, quite without the necessity of explaining what it might possibly mean.  I, for one, have only the vaguest idea.  I have spent the better part of my life studying the past, but I have found it a past, while quite past indeed, demanding of both sympathy and humility in trying to understand and assess it.









Wednesday, June 30, 2021



                                   John Henry                 /              Hazel


            We have six grandchildren—real ones, I mean—in addition to an indeterminate number of imaginary ones on whom this essay may briefly touch if I have time.  The grandchildren range in age commodiously from twenty-eight to seven, one full twenty-one- year span of childhood by the old legal reckoning.  Five of them are of the female sex, including both the eldest (Sophia) and the youngest (Hazel).  The plethora of granddaughters has been for me a special blessing.  In my family of birth there had been only sons, three of them.  The faint mysterious hint of a daughter, stillborn when I was two, a shadow and another sorrow is a mother's hard life, was barely even a spectral presence.  I regard the tutelage provided by so many highly accomplished girls and their mothers a special gift of my mature years.


            I have somewhere a little pewter plaque with the following assertion: “Happiness is Being a Grandfather”.  Not too long ago at the bottom of the yard in one of several now long-established weed beds, I stumbled upon a similar ensign claiming that particular little plot to be “Granpa’s Garden.”  You are surely familiar with the genre, which is widely to be found in its various forms on bumper stickers, belt buckles, sweatshirts, and coffee mugs throughout the land.  Call me a snob.  I ordinarily recoil from outsourcing proclamations of my sentimental life to the indentured rhymers at Hallmark cards or the proprietors of Interstate rest-stop tchotchke-sellers.  But the relationships between grandparent and grandchild actually does provide an opportunity for felicity sufficiently potent to overcome even the saccharine annoyances of American commercialism.


            Just at the moment we are enjoying a Covid-delayed visit from the Montrealers—that is, Luke and Melanie and their two kids, John Henry (8) and Hazel (7)—our only grandson and our youngest granddaughter.  I suppress political commentary in this blog, and so will not comment upon the combination of personal self-righteousness and practical incompetence with which the smarmy Canadian Prime Minister has supervised the pandemic in his land, leaving much of his unvaccinated population in lockdown behind a closed border.  Personal opinion.  In any event, it has been a long time since we have been able to visit with this family, and we are reveling in the opportunity.  The first thing that strikes one is that kids do grow.  Furthermore, their mental and ethical growth is as notable as their dramatic physical expansion.  They get more and more interesting and delightful.  They move from cute to acute.  They become great companions.


         On Monday, Luke and I set out with the two kids on what I think of as my “regular” walk.  Later on their mother Melanie, taking a slightly shorter route, caught up with us about half way along; we then proceeded together.  This is a hike of approximately three miles, most of it through lovely sylvan glades above the lake and along a short section of the Delaware and Raritan Canal.  Though they spend a lot of time in the great outdoors of Québec, John Henry and Hazel are of course city-dwellers for whom the zoological opulence of suburban New Jersey might as well be the Serengeti.  We set out with the conscious intention of cataloguing the animal and bird life we saw on the walk, and in the first five hundred yards we were able to record chipmunk, deer, groundhog, rabbit, and squirrel.  The birds were too numerous to count.  One special treat came when, looking down from the height of a cliffside path, we could clearly see four or five turtles, some of them quite large, sunning themselves on the trunk of a dead tree fallen into the water.  I was disappointed only by the absence of the cormorant that often joins them.  For the kids, the permanent interest of the natural beauty is at the moment complemented by the diminishing remnants of the cicada phenomenon of which I wrote in a recent post.  Everywhere along the beaten forest track are hundreds of the little holes from which the critters have emerged in their prehistoric exoticism.  The little corpses of the thousands which have briefly fulfilled their last full measure of procreative devotion lie scattered promiscuously everywhere, sometimes in such numbers as to create unpleasant whiffs of decomposition.


            Walking along the canal paths, we pursued a somewhat eccentric mission.  Our house has a small atrium, with its own tiny pond and turtles, through which a short path leads from the glass door to my study to a wooden exterior door on the other side.  I am trying, very slowly, to cover this path with a layer of the white sea pebbles to be found throughout this part of Jersey in much of the topsoil and practically all gravel.  I try to pick up a small bag full of these pebbles on every walk.  If I had enough grandkids, we could do it on an industrial scale!


            Yesterday was the hottest day of the year to date, both broiling and muggy.  I wasn’t feeling all that great, and I probably should not even have undertaken such an ambitious walk under the conditions.  I was soon huffing and puffing badly, and finding it difficult to carry on.  My son Luke was sensitive enough to intervene.  When we were a couple thousand yards from home, he suggested that he run home and fetch a car, while the rest of us await his return, sitting in the shade on the abutment of a bridge over a little creek.  I agreed with relief; I am gradually having to accept such necessary humiliations.  Young John Henry, not yet nine years old, was a little distressed on my behalf and tried to pretend that he, too, needed the relief.  Partly because my only grandson and I are both named John, and partly because a fragment of a recent sermon came to mind, and partly because I seem to specialize in bizarre patterns of thought, a certain Bible text text (John 3:30) leapt to my mind.  It is one that identifies John the Baptist in some well-known medieval and Renaissance paintings, including the unforgettable Isenheim altar-piece: Illum oportet crescere, me autem minui (“As he grows greater, I must grow less”).  Volumes of puzzling medieval exegesis were devoted to this puzzling verse, but I finally understood what it means, or at least what it means to me.  It is a simple truism of biological and historical life.  And a very comforting one at that.  Our vital continuity is that of our posterity.


            All grandparents probably think that their grandchildren are superior beings.  I certainly do.  I refer, of course, to my real as opposed to my imaginary grandchildren.  Many of my readers will be puzzled by the very concept of imaginary grandchildren, though I suspect that several of my fellow seniors will know immediately what I refer to—a grift vaguely related to the “Spanish prisoner,” the “Nigerian entrepreneur,” and various telemarketing schemes involving aluminum siding, ornamental plaques, or John Wayne memorabilia.  Not too long ago the AARP featured it in their popular “Geriatric Scam of the Week” feature.  I got my first call about five years ago, then two or three more each year since.  I picked up the landline and said “Hello”.  The immediate response, in a youngish adult male voice that I might place as originating somewhere along a line from Beaumont TX to Morgantown WV, was interrogative: “Grampa”?  I didn’t think so, as my only grandson at the time was about three.  “I think you have the wrong number,” I said, utterly without effect.  “No, Grampa,” he said.  “It’s me.  I ran into some trouble, and I need a little help.”  After a few more confusing remarks, I simply hung up.  But at length--by the fourth or fifth such call-- I had grasped the concept and developed my own little line of dialogue.  “I’d love to, but thing is, George, Butch double-crossed me on that last delivery, and the cartel is after me.  Watching every move I make.”  That was pretty good, I thought; but I could do better.  I finally settled on “I’d love to help you out, Sonny, but I spent my last damn dime bailing out Granny.  Possession with intention, initial hearing in about a month.  I was actually hoping to  borrow a little something from you.   And, honest, this time I’ll pay you back.”  If you are simply trying to round out your scumbag credentials, breaking into the alms boxes in impoverished country churches is all well and good; but prostituting the impulses of grandparental love really is beyond the pale.






Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Small Latin, Less Greek



                                                       Small Latin

            I had never come across the name of William Nicholas Selig (1864-1948), an important but mainly forgotten figure in the early history of the movie business, until a few weeks ago; but he was clearly a man of parts.  As is very frequently the case, my fleeting discovery of Selig was tangential to my ruminations on a couple of disparate bits of information that had crossed my consciousness at more or less the same time.  The first was an announcement coming out of Princeton University that in the future undergraduate concentrators (majors) in the classical languages and literatures would not in fact be required to undertake formal study in either the Latin or the Greek language.  This particular development has been the subject of a good deal of comment in the national press, where it has been connected, correctly, with many other “equity” initiatives undertaken here and elsewhere and supposed to address racial inequities in various aspects of higher education.  I have now been retired from the faculty for some years, and I was not in any event a member of the Classics Department.  My reactions to the announcement, aside from astonishment, are probably predictable, but of no special relevance to today’s topic anyway.  So I proceed immediately to the second bit of information—or in this instance perhaps, speculation.  It concerns Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan playwright.

            Marlowe was definitely a mysterious character.  That’s not too unusual for espionage agents, and Marlowe seems to have been one, among other things. Most famously of course he was the author of at least two extraordinary plays, as well as several less extraordinary, and some fine poetry.  Many scholars think that he had a part in the writing of some of the plays of his contemporary, Shakespeare.  He would appear to have been a rather naughty fellow, whose possible sexual proclivities and probable religious unorthodoxies are of the sort to fascinate contemporary scholarship.  What is definitely known—or at least I thought was definitely known—was the manner of his death.  He is supposed to have been stabbed to death in a violent quarrel in a house, possibly a public house or tavern, in Deptford on London’s South Bank on May 30, 1593.  The speculation which I encountered was that his death was actually staged.   According to this theory the coroner’s report of the supposed event—which an eminent Shakespeare scholar discovered in the archives nearly a century ago—was but one element in an elaborate ruse designed by shadowy but politically powerful personages.   They needed to secure for their asset Marlowe a most original kind of cover by disappearing him.  Activating a sleeper agent is child’s play compared with activating a dead one, which was their eventual goal.  In hiding, the supposedly defunct Marlowe continued to write plays, but of course they had to be attributed to other probable Shakespeare collaborators or ghosters such as Greene and Peele.

            This isn’t exactly Q-Anon, perhaps, but it did remind me that a few of the better conspiracy theories I have encountered flowed from the pens of my fellow literary scholars.  That’s how I happened brush up against the name invoked in the first sentence of this essay, that of William Nicholas Selig, one of the first moguls of the film industry.  Things often come together in very strange ways.  One of Selig’s pet projects, around the time of the tercentennial of Shakespeare’s death in 1913, was a plan to make a series of films of the Bard’s plays.  In this effort he felt moved to launch a lawsuit against George Fabyan (1867-1936), the heir of a textile tycoon and a pioneer of military cryptography.  Fabyan and Selig were actually old buddies, as well as fellow “cards”, as they used to be called.   An example of Fabyan’s cardism is this:  in 1905 he published a bound book of a hundred empty sheets entitled What I Know about the Future of Cotton and Domestic Goods.  Yes, blank pages!  Get it?  What a card.  As a cryptographer he had swallowed both hook and sinker of the main line of the “Bacon cypher”, the phantasmagoric “proof” that Sir Francis Bacon was the actual author of the plays that a hoodwinked world had for three centuries attributed to some theatrical nonentity called Will Shakespeare.  Selig was probably burnishing his own credentials as a card when he sued Fabyan on the grounds that Fabyan’s expert opinion threatened the reputation of Shakespeare and therefore of the prospective profits from the planned series of filmed plays.  Coverage of the lawsuit made great press for both men.

            What most Shakespeare scholars today call the “Baconian heresy” had a good run.  For at least half a century a lot of serious and consequential people maintained that since Shakespeare could not possibly have written the so-called plays of Shakespeare, somebody else must have done it, and that somebody else must have been Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626).  There would be a lot to talk about here, but my particular interest in this essay is not the who but the why.  Why was it impossible that Shakespeare could have written his own plays?  Answer: Because those plays are full of learned lore, and he was a commoner who had not gone to university!  More particularly, because he did not know Latin.  That is, the Baconians regarded Shakespeare with what in today’s lingo is sometimes called the soft bigotry of low expectations.  If you are convinced that either by nature or by nurture a fellow is incapable of doing something, you are unlikely to credit the fact that he has actually done it.


                                                           Large Latin

            The Baconian heresy really got going in mid-Victorian times, but it had had some seventeenth-century preparation.  In an introductory poem in the Shakespeare first folio (1623) the Bard’s great admirer Ben Jonson, himself deeply steeped in the classical tongues, famously marveled that a writer with “small Latine, and lesse Greeke” could have written such masterpieces.  By the time Milton wrote “L’Allegro” (1645) Shakespeare has progressed, or perhaps regressed, to the role of rustic vernacular prodigy, in contrast to the erudite classicist Jonson.  One of the things that L’Allegro the “cheerful man” likes to do is to take in a comedy at the local theater: “Then to the well-trod stage anon,/ If Jonson’s learned sock be on, /Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child, / Warble his native wood-notes wild.”  Here Jonson’s own classical learning—the sock being an erudite allusion to the footgear of comic actors on the ancient Greek stage—is contrasted to Shakespeare’s supposed naively gorgeous hillbilly English.   As a matter of fact Shakespeare’s small Latin was probably bigger than that of even some Princeton classics majors of yore, the ones who actually studied Latin, let alone those of our brave new future.

            There is probably still a general consensus among institutions of higher education on both sides of the Atlantic concerning their fundamental two-fold mission: the preservation of “old” knowledge on the one hand, and the search for and discovery of “new” knowledge on the other.  The recognition that there is such a thing as new knowledge necessarily implies pedagogic and curricular change as well as continuity, guaranteeing that there will in perpetuity always be some vanishing good old days for alumni to lament.  One of Princeton’s nineteenth-century alumni crises came when the faculty struck from the list of required prerequisites for application for admission to the place a demonstrated competence in ancient Greek. Many alumni were sure that civilization as previously recognized had ended.  The faculty, however, were merely acknowledging the reality of the expansion and increasing democratization of American public education.  Princeton students could do their Greek after arriving on campus.