Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Descent of the Dove

                                         Piero della Francesca (15th c.)


The two blog posts I mounted from Salernes were achieved only under acute technological distress.  I cannot explain its nature, of course, since if I could, it would not have been distress.  If the situation led me to draw any general conclusion, I suppose it would be this: an octet of octogenarians rarely includes sufficient technological expertise to resolve computer mysteries.  (All the news is not so discouraging: we do continue to be able to change a light bulb if allowed to mass our forces first).  But I am now home and in a more friendly cybernetic landscape. I hope for the best. We arrived last Thursday evening just a little later than we had hoped for.  The flight from Nice sat on the tarmac blasting its fumes into the otherwise refreshing air of the Cote d’Azur for the better part of an inexplicable hour, then dawdled a while more at Orly Airport (Paris) where it stopped to refuel and pick up the bulk of the passengers bound for Newark.  So I felt that I had already put in my sufficient daily quota of airline-seat torture even before we took off for an eight-hour flight to Newark.  But the ground transportation arrangements worked like clockwork—or, if my own twelve-dollar watch counts—better than clockwork.  And there is always something sweet about returning home, even if it isn’t the Provençal countryside.


Indeed, a very sweet event was awaiting us: the baptism of nine-year-old granddaughter Hazel was scheduled for the next Sunday.  There was a slight wrinkle in this event, so far as we were concerned.  Hazel lives in Montreal, and the baptism was to take place in Christ Church Cathedral in that city; so our participation in it would be as spectators via Youtube.  But if computer technology had challenged me in France, Covid had made us all reasonably competent at Zoom, and watching a video is a piece of cake.


Baptism is the rite of Christian initiation, and since the Middle Ages, in churches of Catholic tradition, it has mostly been administered to infants, with the vows being made by proxies.  The real meaning of “god parent” is baptismal sponsor.  Like millions of others, I have to take my own baptism on faith, bolstered by the “oral tradition” and written testimony registered on an ancient paper certificate.  But in the early Church this was not the case.  Preparation for receiving the sacrament—the rite often was administered at Easter—was generally rather demanding.  Augustine’s philosophical seminars at Cassiciacum, touched upon in my last post, were a prelude to his baptism.  Hazel, though not yet up to Augustine’s erudition, was old enough to make an uncoerced volitional choice.  To the extent that anyone can be said to know the meaning of spiritual events, she had to know what she was doing and want to do it.  So I’m a little jealous.  How proud were her grandparents when we heard her, speaking with a clear and confident voice, promise to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil.  I can but hope that she will be more constant and successful in this intention than I have managed to be.


            Baptism is the first sacrament of what eventually became seven.  The word is derived from the Latin “solemn oath” and the equivalent of the Greek word for “mystery”.  Indeed it is both.  One theological definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”  Though there are seven sacraments, only two (baptism and the Eucharist) are by biblical warrant required for all Christians.  As a student of poetry, I am inclined to think of a sacrament  as a material allegory in which meaning is conveyed not only by words but by things like water, bread, wine, oil, and so forth.  The most “sacramental” writer with whom most readers are likely to be familiar is Dante, a real man who in his famous poem becomes an allegorical emblem of the human situation.  Early in his poem, when he finds out he is required by Virgil (another real/fictional character) to undertake an arduous journey for which he feels incapable, he cries out in distress “Am I Paul?  Am I Æneas?”  The answer implied by the logic of the poet is: “Yes, you are both of those real  people”—symbolically or sacramentally, without ever ceasing to be “Dante”.



            Baptism is, of course, a pre-Christian rite, versions of which or parallels to which are found in many of the world’s religious traditions today.  Perhaps the first act of Jesus’s public life was his baptism by the desert prophet John in the Jordan River.  According to the gospels, the spirit of God audibly approved the ceremonial act while descending on Jesus in the form of a dove.  This is a not infrequent scene in Christian iconography, my personal favorite being a great painting by Piero della Francesca.  The descent of the divine dove, a bizarre event, is naturally much discussed by early theologians.  One of the evangelists, John, adds a detail likely to disquiet anyone who has ever seen the effects of pigeons repeatedly taking roost on public monuments: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him”.  Many commentators were eager to insist that the bird was wholly spiritual and immaterial.  But Thomas Aquinas insisted otherwise.  The dove was literal, an actual bird of bone and feather.  That was because it would be beneath the dignity of the Divine Artificer to use anything that wasn’t real.  A famous Dante scholar of an earlier generation, Charles Singleton, used this theological argument in explaining the nature of Dante’s Commedia, a poem in which “real” history and allegory are sutured into an indivisible unity.


            In this instance the binding was also generational.  The figurative language of the baptismal liturgy is in the strange word that Dante used of his own poem—“polysemous,” having many layers of meaning.  Baptism is a symbolic cleansing or washing.  It is a symbolic death, burial, and resurrection.  It is a renovation of what is old.  It is the spiritual exemplification of being “born again”—a concept that must have baffled many of Jesus’s first admirers.  “Nicodemus saith unto him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?’”  It is easier to see that Nicodemus didn’t at first get it than to get it oneself.  His words are just as strange to an eighty- as to an eight-year-old, but strange in a very different way.  Grasping the  idea of putting off the old self in favor of a new self requires living for a few seasons in the skin of an old self.  Wordsworth knew this and expressed it in a few short lines of what seems on the surface a rather simple poem, a verbal sacrament:


My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.



Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Cassiciacum in France

                                            at Cassiciacum today

We approach the end of our Provençal idyll. Two of our number left early this morning for the station at Les Arcs, thence to be whisked by TGV to Paris and some quick museum hopping before a later departure on the Eurostar and home to London. We who remain—Joan and I and the hosts—are feeling more than a little wistful suddenly facing the approaching end of another—another what exactly? House party? Long country home week-end? How to characterize a unique event that is at once refreshing and exhausting, at once a party and a taxing seminar? A partially useful parallel comes to my mind. Just about this time of the year somewhat more than sixteen centuries ago, in a landscape not unlike the one in which we now find ourselves, the young Augustine began an extensive rural vacation at a large country house near Milan in northern Italy. The spot was called Cassiciacum, and it deserves its place in the geography of intellectual history alongside the Stoa, the rue Saint-Jacques, the Berlin Akademie, or the two Cambridges. For it was at Cassiciacum in the year 386 that the young Augustine came to certain conclusions destined to have a huge impact on more than a thousand years of our intellectual history. Augustine retreated to Cassiiacum with quite an entourage in tow: including his mother, his son, his frequent sidekick Alypius, and another friend and colleague, a rhetorician named Verecundus. The seekers after truth met daily, mostly in the open-air classroom of a small garden nook. But sometimes, presumably led by Verecundus, their discussions took place in the partial shade of the still laden or recently despoiled grapevines that were an important part of the place’s agricultural activities. Just as the poetry of Homer has played an important role in all aspects of Greek education—including that being pursued by doctors and lawyers in training—the Aeneid of Virgil had become the fundamental textbook for Latin learners. How we might wish to have the lecture notes of Verecundus or of Augustine himself! How sweet an idea it is: reading through and discussing a book of Virgil’s epic lounging among the vineyards! Our daily seminars at Salernes in the “middle” Var, though perhaps less philosophically consequential, were probably a good deal more vinous. We have been a smaller group than that organized by Augustine, smaller and considerably older. There are, or were before today, eight of us distributed into four couples, We are all octogenarians, Some of us have been friends for more than sixty years, with the origins of friendship in our shared undergraduate days at Oxford. Several others are united by collegial ties in the British business world going back many decades, And the topics we have discussed endlessly have been fairly light on theology and very heavy on politics. With the world in such a mess this is perhaps inevitable. From that point of view the parallel with Augustine’s Cassiciacum is inexact. But there was also much great talk about books and music, endless captivating anecdotes from personal and professional experience. We are emerging from a fortnight’s festival of friendship. And, given our ages and the way of the world, we can hardly be certain that there might be another, or even others, in the increasingly uncertain future. So we face our own departure for America tomorrow with hearts full of gratitude to our hosts Andrew Seth and his partner Lee Godden, but also with a wistfulness ever to see associated with the unique sights, sounds, and perhaps above all the smells of an old Provençal farmstead.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Temporizing in Provence

        We arrived; we looked around; we were immediately conquered once more by this particular familiar  and enlessly charming part of Gallia.  Under these circumstances it seems absurd to worry about s blog post; so I won't.  I promise that with luck I might have a more substantial offering to share next week.  For the moment I must follow the advice of an important guru in my life: When in doubt, get horizontal.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The Beauty of the Lillies


                                                                                      Little Mac

I make little effort to “keep up” with current literature.  Ars longa, vita brevis est.  With so many great books of the last two thousand years still on my to-do list, it seems inefficient to limit the field to the last two issues of the New York Review of Books.  I think my principle is sound, but of course it means that I will never get around to some very important books published during my own lifetime.  But every now and then the Library of America allows me to catch up just a little.  I must have been in junior high school when the first volume of Bruce Catton’s three-volume history of the Army of the Potomac appeared (Mr. Lincoln’s Army [1951]), soon followed by Glory Road [1952] and A Stillness at Appomattox [1953]).  This trilogy made quite a sensation, winning for its author both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.  Later Catton wrote considerably more about the American Civil War.  He was not an academic historian but a journalist with historian's chops and a powerful narrative style.  Some have regarded his work as “middle-brow”; but now that I have belatedly gotten around to it, I find it rather wonderful.


The opportunity was thrust upon me by the Library of America, which recently republished the trilogy in its usual elegant format in a single volume.*  This alone would be sufficient to declare the work(s) a classic.  The Civil War must be the most written about topic in American history.  The centennial events of the 1960s inspired a publishing binge, one that continued through the very popular television mini-series by Ken Burns.  The last thing I read about the Civil War was another Pulitzer Prize book, Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), by my colleague and friend James McPherson.  There will be no actual last word on the subject, but to my amateur eye Battle Cry of Freedom comes close.  Let a thousand flowers bloom.  One epic event will spawn many epic books.  Horace said that the Trojan War was the only subject for the epic.


Part of the brilliance of McPherson’s book is its range.  Its subject is a fairly broad historical period—the subtitle is “The Civil War Era”--and it deals much more seriously than does Catton’s with political and social history.  Catton—in this trilogy—rarely strays far from military history.  Mr. Lincoln’s Army deals with the first year of the War, focusing on the early battles, and especially on the peninsular campaign (the failed attempt of the Union army to capture the Confederate capital, Richmond, by marching from the southeast up the peninsula between the James and York Rivers).  The subtitle could have been “The Conundrum/Tragedy/Paradox of George McClellan.” I refer, of course to General George B. McClellan, the supreme commander of the Union forces in the War’s first year, the unsuccessful Democrat presidential candidate in 1864, and more than ten years later Governor of New Jersey.  During the War he was also known as “Young Napoleon” or “Little Mac,” the Big Mac still happily unknown. 


History (meaning here the work of historians) now takes myriad forms, but I still believe that historians should always recognize, as etymology does, its connection with story, a crafted narrative.  Catton is a great story-teller, and the story he tells about George McClellan is fascinating both as structured narrative and psychological suggestion.  And much of his story seems highly relevant to the current national moment, which often seems to suggest that we are in the grip of a cold civil war.  The only divisions in the America of 1861 were not limited to those between North and South.  Within the Union Army leadership there were serious conflicts of thought, mistrust, and dislike just as there were hotter heads and cooler heads among the intrusive politicians in Washington and in the state houses.  I found the third long  chapter in the first volume, “The Era of Suspicion,” particularly illuminating.  For there was suspicion galore.  Lincoln was not spared his share, nor was McClellan.  What does he know about fighting?  Why won’t he fight?  Suspicion ruled the sublime and the ridiculous?  Why are certain officers so solicitous of the civilian property of the enemy, including the chicken sheds and the fat hens therein ?  Why are the camp fires of that Illinois bunch so smoky?  What is the war really about?  Lincoln’s official line was that the war was necessary to “preserve the union”, regarded as an unquestioned, sufficient terminal good in itself.  The line in the Confederacy was that the issue was “states’ rights,” an issue current in southern political thought long into the twentieth century.  But just beneath the surface the war was always about  the South’s “peculiar institution”, human bondage, whether this was actually stated or not; South Carolina did not secede over an abstract political theory.  The issue was far more material.  A huge part of the material wealth of the South resided in the fungible assets of the enslaved souls on which it was founded.


McClellan was in many ways an admirable soldier and man.  But he absorbed the notion that he uniquely had been personally entrusted with the possibly divine mission of saving the United States of America.  He didn’t quite have a God complex; but it certainly was at the archangelic level.  With such frangible cargo in his hold, he tried never to sail on storm-tossed waters.  War, alas, is by nature a tempest.  Soldiers under his command loved him for his sincere and cautious concern, or prudential restraint, and he basked in their hurrahs.  He was not about to act rashly.  The exasperated President came to fear he would never act at all.  He famously told McClellan: “but you must act”.  The general was impressive in his wind-up.  But where was the delivery?  He was ever preparing, marching, camping, decamping, laying log highways, and waiting for better weather.  He generally overestimated the strength of opposing forces, sometimes ludicrously overestimated it.  There developed between President and Generalissimo what might be called a healthy mutual disrespect.  On the question of slavery McClellan seems to have been a “moderate”:  he was of course against it, but moderately.  He regarded the baying abolitionists in New England as a part of the cross he bore.  But right from the start there was a large and principled presence within his own Union army that was immoderately hostile to slavery.  Attitudes toward John Brown, executed in 1859, are a good indication of opinion.  R. E. Lee had called Brown’s exploit the “most infamous crime” in American history.  But to thousands in blue he was a martyred hero.  A sizeable section of the Union Army came from the “new” frontier states on which the slavery debate had in recent decades been focused.  Anti-slavery sentiment was particularly strong in the regiments of German-Americans under McClellan’s command.  Those who fled Old Europe in the long wake of the reactionary aftermath of the 1848 revolutions had not come to America in admiration of its curious sectional deference to chattel slavery.  One is apt to be impressed by what people say and do in the face of mortal danger, and especially when actually marching toward it; what large numbers in the Army of the Potomac were already doing was belting out “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free!”—part of Julia Ward Howe’s new words to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.  That was at the beginning of 1862. 


McClellan was finally forced to act.  The Peninsular Campaign—attacking the South from the south, so to speak—was not without its brilliance of design.  McClellan almost certainly could have captured Richmond had he not been spooked by the Yankee ghost horde of his imagination and the perennially faulty intelligence on which he relied.  (Grant took the Confederate capital only in April of 1865.) But history, and most of all military history, is full of what-ifs.  For the lack of a nail…McClellan had the ironic success of indirectly making R. E. Lee, strategic genius, the Confederate commander-in-chief who would bedevil the Yankees for a long season yet.  So Lincoln finally had to invite more abusive second guessing by replacing “Little Mac”, and to begin the surprisingly long search for a commander with the sufficient strategic skill accompanied by the killer instinct.  On to the next volumes.



*Bruce Catton, The Army of the Potomac Trilogy.  Library of America, 359. (New York, 2022), pp. 1277.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Freak Occurrence



 If reading is a serious part of your life, chances are good that you are familiar with, which aggregates on a single website the holdings of most of the second-hand book dealers in the Anglophone world.  I would not venture to estimate the size of the stock thus organized, but it surely must be in the millions.  I am trying not to acquire any more books, or at least to dispose of enough to ensure that the ones I require do not increase the total book space, already too large, in the house.  But for many books I want, or think I want, the prices are so low that from the financial-exertional point of view, it is more rational to order a book than go through the effort of making a special library trip to track it down.  And when I am writing something scholarly, or even contemplating doing that, I often need, or think I need, to gather a mini-collection of books relevant to the project.


I have bought some hundreds of books in this fashion over the years, most of them later recycled as donations to the annual Bryn Mawr Book Sale.  Abebooks is quite efficient, but every now and then there is a goof-up in the system or an ordered book is a no-show.  This past week I had a new experience.  We are soon to leave for France where in my leisure I want to think about a little project on religious themes in nineteenth-century European literature.  So I ordered a few light-weight books I shall want to have with me.  The typical price for such books is eight dollars, including shipping.  As they have been arriving, I have simply been opening them, setting them aside, and immediately discarding the sometimes bulky packing materials.  This past week I got three books.  I thought they all related to the project just mentioned; but I only looked at them, really, after a few days.  By then the packing materials had been recycled.  I now discover that one of the three recently arrived books is one I never heard of and certainly never ordered.  It must have been sent to me by mistake, but with the packaging discarded, I now have no way of knowing from which of thousands of bookshops, as no transaction concerning it features in the usually highly accurate Abebook records.  It’s like a gift from a Secret Santa.


Here is a freak occurrence in a double sense.  Because the book (whose compiler is somebody named Marc Hartman) is entitled American Sideshow: An Encyclopedia of History’s Most Wondrous and Curiously Strange Performers.  What it is really about is freak-shows and the famous human freaks featured in them.  And before any reader freaks out over my use of the word freak, silently censured by the virtuous but philologically naïve along with other useful words like retarded and handicapped, the politically correct euphemisms of an earlier age, I might point out that the meaning that shocks them is historically novel.  The more traditional meanings of the word are joke, jape, or stunt and a human being of unusual and imposing appearance.  Or it can mean anything very strange, unexpected, or uncommon, such as a “freak accident”.  Onions, in the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, thinks the origins of freak are probably “dialectical”.  (I presume it is probably northern, as I seem to remember that in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the terrifying green giant is a freke.  But the poet uses the word frequently, often meaning simply “a guy”.)


The book is mainly an anthology of the better-known freak-shows organized by P. T. Barnum (1810-1891), often associated with his museum on lower Broadway in New York City.  Of course, Barnum was merely the most famous, successful, and influential of the entertainment professionals who made this peculiar theatrical performance ubiquitous for nearly a century in this country.  It is true that Barnum himself did not use the term “freak-show”, though everybody else, including his business successors did.  He called his offerings “sideshows” or “congresses of living wonders.”  He sought out and exploited people with unusual physical features and medical anomalies: Siamese twins, giants, midgets, bearded ladies, that sort of thing.  Remarkably, he developed them not merely as oddities to be gawked at, but as actual performers, some of whom were compelling as speakers and actors.  He always spoke of them as one would of professional actors of high quality.  Perhaps on account of this, the morale among his odd-ball troupers was generally high, and many were well remunerated.  Many were grateful that Barnum turned their physical abnormalities, which so limited their possibilities for normal social life, into remunerated professions.  But of course Barnum was no stranger to fraud, to which he probably relapsed as need dictated.  His first prominent show featured the “Fejee Mermaid,” which according to the author “was nothing more than a monkey’s torso with a fish tail attached”.  There were undoubtedly some frauds among his later specimens as well; but he actually does seem to have tracked down and put under contract the tallest, the shortest, the fattest, the thinnest, and in general the weirdest-looking human beings alive.  Barnum was a huckster, and it is not surprising that he had considerable success in politics.  He was also principled, to a point.  He was, for example, a fierce and outspoken abolitionist.  However, that did not keep him from beginning his career essentially by buying an old black woman, Joice Heth,  whom for years he put on display as the ancient nursemaid of the infant George Washington and, at 161, the oldest living person in the world.  (She died in 1836, probably in her eighties).


Autres pays, autres moeurs: other lands, other customs.  Though our politicians often still speak as though we are in unbroken contact with the early Republic, it was in many ways a strange and foreign land.  Barnum is supposed to have said “There is a sucker born every minute.”  That appears to be one of the things he perhaps should have said, though probably didn’t.  For our young country was full of hayseeds and rubes who lapped up the pseudo-exoticism of Persian dwarves and quadrupedal Malay princesses and other museum attractions on offer.  Americans were not yet three generations away from the London mobs which relished public executions at Tyburn, toured mental asylyms for sport,  and who enjoyed dog fights and bear-baiting.  It is not surprising, I suppose, that they could find unabashed amusement in the mere fact of grotesque human deformity.  I would not ordinarily seek out an encyclopedia of freak shows but having had one freakishly thrust upon me, I have to say I learned a lot about the texture of mid-nineteenth-century American life.  Barnum’s spirit lived on well into the twentieth century, indeed into my own lifetime, with the Believe It or Not! books, radio broadcasts, and newspaper features by Robert Ripley.  According to its own estimation, the “Believe It or Not Museum,” a “museum of living wonders and curious oddities,” is to this very day the biggest attraction in Amsterdam!  Bigger than the Rijksmuseum?



Wednesday, August 16, 2023



This week’s little story, though still in progress, is a very happy one so far and, if nothing else, allows me to approach my weekly scrawl in a wholly upbeat mood.  Amidst all the forest fires, drowning migrants, and legal indictments, the story is a reminder of how many nice people, some of them strangers, one stills runs into on a daily basis.  It is also in some ways an autumnal story.  For summer is winding down, and already, amid the continuing heat and almost daily thunderstorms, I begin to experience that autumn-tinged, slightly wistful feeling that began with my first view of Princeton in the late summer of 1961, when I arrived to begin a doctoral program.  At the time, I couldn’t understand the wistful part.  A lot of good things were happening.  I had just completed three glorious years at Oxford, glorious in part because I had done so much traveling and “goofing off,” as we then called a relaxed attitude towards the more serious invitation of academic work.  But now I was getting ready to be very serious indeed.  The plan, successfully carried out, was to complete the comprehensive  general examination within a single year, get married when that had been accomplished, and begin immediately on a doctoral dissertation (subject as yet unknown) before setting off a professorial career I knew not where.  Expectation but uncertainty: the very stuff of youth.


More than sixty years later things are very different—save for the weather.  All of life has become more contingent and slow-moving.  One knows pretty much what to expect.  Just at the moment our expectations are high.  We have tickets—rather expensive ones I have to say—for a flight from Newark to Nice over the night of September first.  Our destination is a lovely farmhouse in Salernes (Var), the sunny property of our dear friend Andrew Seth, who for the past three years has gathered together a house party including several ancient retainers who forged our associations together sixty years ago at Jesus College, Oxford.  I have written about this Provençal mini-paradise place before.  And while one always hopes there might be more yet to come, there is also a certain strain of octogenarian realism that sensibly focuses on the present.


One night just about two months ago I suddenly awoke stricken by a night terror.  Dream or reality?  Surely you know the feeling.  You just discovered your wallet is missing.  Your old car has just broken down in the middle of the night out in the deep country.  You slept through the exam.  That sort of thing, only worse.  I actually got up in the middle of the night and crept as silently as I could to the desk drawer in Joan’s study where we are wont to keep various seldom-used but important documents, including our passports.  My worst fears didn’t need confirming; though shallowly covered in denial, I knew what I was going to find. My passport  had expired three weeks earlier!  I could see this even by the faint light of a single bulb and without my glasses.  Expiry date: May 20, 2023.


People were not traveling much during Covid.  But I’d actually seen an article in the paper about how now everybody was wanting to travel, and to travel next Tuesday.  The minimum wait time for passports was nine weeks!  (I later would learn that that was the expedited service, with an extra fee of two hundred and seventy-two dollars.)  The backlog was something like pi rounded out to three lines of twelve-point type, but without the decimal point.  The reality of the situation dulled my senses.  Yes, I know that Amazon has next day delivery, but we are talking now about the government of the United States of America.  As I lay sleepless through the dawn, I tried to practice in my mind how to convey this news to my spouse.  At nine o’clock I was at the camera shop buying two very expenses photographs of my very pale and morose visage.  At nine thirty I was at the post office in the little village of Kingston, N. J., headquarters of our nearest official passport agent, Tari Pantaleo, and, as it happens, one of the nicest people God ever made.  Ms. Pantaleo did not exactly put me at ease.  That would have been impossible.  But she was clearly deeply experienced with the flustered old man syndrome.  She was pretty confident that—bearing in mind the aforementioned two hundred and seventy-two dollars part—I would yet be able to frolic in Provence.  Since in my fluster I had taken off for Kingston without my wallet, I had the further humiliation—after going through the psychodrama of imagining I had lost it--of having to phone my already sufficiently annoyed wife to ask her if she could possibly, pretty please, drive up to Kingston with it.


Enter stage left very nice person number two.  That would be Rekha Arapurakal, our long-time friend and travel agent.  She told me that once the papers that Ms. P. had sent on to Philadelphia reached the passport office, I could reasonably hope to be supplied by email with a “tracking number,” and that once I had a tracking number, Cory Booker might be able to expedite matters further.  Cory Booker?!  Cory Booker is one of the United States senators from the State of New Jersey.  He is an outstanding national figure.  Of course in a state where the baseline for satisfactory senatorial performance is simply to remain unindicted, he would be a natural superstar under any circumstances.  But that he could possibly be concerned with my expired passport was news to me.  However, I did meet him once at a Rhodes Scholar thing, and I was game for a try.  I went to his website and, sure enough, among the helpful services advertised on offer through his Newark office was the category “help with a governmental agency.”  There was a telephone number listed.  I called it, and nice person number three picked up the phone.  I know only his first name—Zaire—but I’m putting him up for the Croix de Guerre with three oak-leaf clusters.  Zaire was friendly.  He was cautious, but also hopeful.  Naturally there was a form I had to send him—in the post within the hour.  A week later I had an email from Zaire.  He had sent my information to the Passport Office in New Orleans!  Why New Orleans, of all places?  I thought (best case scenario) I would have to trek over to Philadelphia, and was dreading it.  Then silence for about ten days.  The wait was disquieting, but in my mind I established August 21st as official panic day, and did my best to postpone the anxiety.  On August 9th I received an email notification  informing me that a package addressed to me had been sent from New Orleans and arrived in Hot Springs, Arkansas on August 9th.  Hot Springs!  Arkansas!  Who knew?  This package would be delivered to me no later than 6 pm on Thursday, August 10th.  In fact the passport arrived midmorning on that day.  The new passport has some new security features, including a strange double photograph, half of which appears spectral and nearly transparent, marked by the pallor of terror.  Looks pretty grim, but I’ve got fairly decent hair, considering. 


I like to remind myself that our word travel has an alternative version of travail, the pains of childbirth, or (in the French) exertive work of any kind.  All traveling was once hard traveling.  Sometimes it still is, especially for the infirm and the elderly.  Hospitality and hospitals, the venues of hospitality’s principal practice, were especially associated with those spiritually motivated  travelers called pilgrims.  Travelers can need a lot of help.  I am not sure that I had ever before read the message from the Secretary of State printed within my passport.  It is highly relevant to my experience, for it is itself a request for help.  “The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.”  How grateful I am that in a moment of need so many very capable and benevolent people arrived to help me. 



Wednesday, August 9, 2023


Elitism strikes again


            The Supreme Court decision about the legality of race-based college admissions has been almost universally—and in more than one instance probably hypocritically—deplored by American college and university administrators; but of course it has been accepted, for now, as the inconvenient law of the land.  But I doubt that much as been “settled.”  Quite apart from the widespread hope for a different court and a different decision at some point in the future, a large and well remunerated section of our legal fraternity have as their principal task finding ways of skirting such inconvenient laws as have not already been obviated by the friendly commerce of our large and well remunerated lobbying fraternity with the elected members of our Congress.  I don’t think we have any hard data on how the public rates lawyers on mass, only a frequently cited sanguinary suggestion in one of Shakespeare’s history plays.  But on Congress we do have a statistic: nineteen percent of Americans approve of the job it is doing.


            For the moment, the outrage of the aggrieved has shifted to another subject: legacy admissions.  That is the practice of giving some degree of preference to candidates for admission who have a plausible connection to the institution already.  This usually means that they are the children or grandchildren of alumni of the institution.  Oversimplifying somewhat: if you cannot have “affirmative action” for the underprivileged, how do you justify it for the overprivileged?  I am not entering the debate on the substance of the issues involved.  Neither one seems to me open-and-shut one way or the other.  The one dealt with by the Supreme Court was decided by a majority but not by a unanimous vote.  But I do want to talk about a topic front and center in the discussions: that is elitism.  Everybody seems to be against elitism, a very curious opinion to be held by citizens of the United States of America.  It seems to me that a lot of people don’t know what the word elite means.  For a long time I didn’t either.  I thought it referred only to the small type face on an old Remington portable typewriter.


            Elite is a French loan word, the past participle of the verb elire, which derives from the Latin eligo, the past participle of which is electus.  If electus sounds to you that it might have something to do with English elect, you are absolutely right.  What is elected or elite has been chosen from among plural options on some supposed belief in its comparative desirability.  The system of the American Constitutional political system is explicitly elitist.  We choose our legislators and our chief executives on the supposition of their superiority to alternative possibilities who are not elite or elected.  If you have ever voted for anything, if you have ever chosen one garment over another, if you have ever asked for chips rather than rice on the blue-plate special, you are an elitist.  If you put the Latin reflexive pronoun se at the front of eligo you get seligo, to select.  If you can in today’s English find a dime’s worth of difference between elect and select, please let me know. 


            Think of a few instances in which election or selection is involved.  Do you prefer any particular commercial good over another similar to it?  Is  the National Football League Draft “rigged” in favor of good football players?  If you prefer your soft-boiled egg pointy-side up in the eggcup, are you exercising malign discrimination against Big-Endians?  Is it unfair of your teacher to grade your course paper by a means other than the tossed-down-stairway method?  Now very manifestly the process of college admissions has to be an elite process that renders elite results.  Of course electing applicants for admission solely on the basis of their skin color would also be an exercise in elitism, as would specializing on the applicant’s eye color, whether their zipcodes begin with an even or an odd number, or possibly their shoe size.  This is not sophistry or philological arcana.  People who complain about “elitism” in American higher education, and in the practices of selective admission in general, are really complaining about something else, namely the social and sociological results they rightly or wrongly associate with a “good” college education.  But if it seems reasonable to you that the owners and managers of the New York Yankees hire their team members on the basis of their anticipated capacities to play baseball well, or that the Met choose its opera performers on its evaluation of their abilities to sing well, what possible objection can there be to a college admissions committee that tries in good faith to assess candidates on their probable abilities to thrive in, contribute to, and make the most of the educational opportunities in the specific institutional context on offer?  All of the “elite” colleges with which I am familiar are wealth-redistributing charities.  As one small contribution to this mission they have for many years run summer academies and the like, backed by energy and resources, in an effort to give some number of promising high school students from “underrepresented” groups the opportunity and the invitation to glimpse and participate in something like actual college life.  The motive is the sincere desire to inspire and encourage.  These are good faith institutional efforts, and one step ahead of mere symbolism.  But highly selective research institutions do not make the best use of their extraordinary resources by mounting remedial courses in basic literacy and numeracy, fundamental skills that since time immemorial have been regarded as the remit of elementary schools.  It is their elementary nature that makes secondary education secondary and higher education higher.  Though a topic for another essay, my opinion is that serious progress could be made in facing some of our problems of social inequality by yet further focusing national resources on the early years of public education.  But we need to do it with our eyes open.


            The schools and their teachers,--or, later,  the colleges and their professors-- should not be expected to do all the work, though they too often are.  “No Child Left Behind” is a great slogan for the right idea.  The limitations in its visible “outcomes” have not been the results of bad faith or the unwillingness to spend public money.  But at least half of our early education, surely, comes from the domestic setting, and from habits, practices, and expectations projected in a child’s home.  The triumph of the republican principle , which allows the individual citizen to express and act upon individual preference in search of  democratic decisions, has rightly been regarded as one of the lasting achievements of Enlightenment.  Yet true elitism, the maximization of  opportunity for wholesome independent choice, cannot thrive in a context of serious social pathology.