Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Political Dialects



 Keir Starmer


winner and loser

Rishi Sunak


            I know little about the Labour Party leader and new Prime Minister, Keir Starmer, which is to say that I know little more than what has been in the American press, supplemented by occasional deeper dives into a few extensive opinion pieces in reasonably trustworthy British commentators.  (The British press can be quite as propagandistic and partisan as the American, but I find there are more honest brokers among English commentators than among American ones.)  But there seems to be a fair consensus concerning him: a highly competent lawyer, undramatic to the very border of putting you to sleep, yet said to be a man of strong opinions, strongly held perhaps but most cautiously advanced.  But the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  He just spearheaded a huge revolution in British electoral politics.  Though he was aided in his task by the natural desire of an exhausted electorate for change and by the fecklessness of a Conservative Party no longer clear on what it thinks it is conserving, it was still a remarkable feat.  It was also something of a resurrection act, given the doldrums in which the Labour Party languished under Jeremy Corbyn.  The reshaping of his party—the necessary prelude to its success—can have been no easy task.  On the other hand, in winning its record majority the Labour Party only got about a third of the total vote, which was more clearly a boisterous rejection of Tories than a heartfelt endorsement of their conquerors.  The victory was huge, perhaps even staggering in breadth, but not necessarily very deep.  The Liberal Democrats, who had seemed dead in the water, also made a significant comeback.  A very important development: Nigel Farage’s new UK Reform is now very much on the map.  Farage himself, though roundly denounced by the American commentariat, is, if I sense things aright, about to become a serious force in British politics.  He now has his own seat in Parliament.  Farage will probably continue to be treated as a nut job by the bien pensant Anglo-American press, but in my view he is the only major political figure in the British landscape of whom the adjective “charismatic” might be used.  At the very least he is remarkably articulate and skillful.  The fragmentation of the vote, which also suggested a serious eclipse of the Scottish National Party, looks much more like that in several other European countries than it has in the past.  Britain is not alone in refuting the idea of an uncomplicated rightward lurch throughout Europe.  The second round of French elections has also seriously questioned the trend, though only at the cost of creating a parliament almost tailor-made for inaction.


            Rishi Sunak, the Tory leader whom Starmer trounced, can be accurately described, I suppose, as the most sensational loser in British politics.  Commentators have had to go back more than a century in political history to find even an approximate parallel.  But I italicize the word loser for a particular reason.  What it means in this context is that the Tories were defeated by the Labour Party in a political election.  But in the American English used by Donald Trump the word is an all-purpose insult denoting personal inadequacy of all sorts.  A rough analogy to its semiotic degradation is evidenced in the adjective “pathetic”.  Both words are among Trump’s staples in his lexicon of invective.  According to Trump’s one-time chief of staff and Secretary of Homeland Security, John F. Kelly, President Trump used the term “suckers and losers” of some American service men killed or wounded in military action.  Trump has vehemently denied having made any such remark, as he also denied having had sexual relations “with a porn star.” These are disputed matters.   Just as in Clintonian times it all depended upon what the meaning of is is, who can know precisely at what moment an ordinary actor achieves stardom?  All this became relevant in the disastrous debate when President Biden invoked the memory of his late son, Joseph, generally known as Beau, who had served in the Army in Iraq in 2008-9, and who died of cancer in 2015.  Beau Biden, widely admired, was a decorated veteran who was already advancing in his own promising political career at the time of his death.  President Biden, indignantly defending the memory of his dead son, attacked Trump for his reported remarks about “suckers and losers,” denying that his son fit in either category.  On the contrary, his Irish up and coherent for a brief moment, Biden said “You’re the sucker, you’re the loser.”  Better late than never, perhaps, and certainly more defensible than the debaters’ childish finale about golf handicaps.  But hardly Douglas versus Lincoln.


Among Shakespeare scholars there is a kind of literary urban legend concerning Gladstone (or alternatively “a Victorian British matron”) who having viewed a performance of Hamlet (or perhaps Anthony and Cleopatra ) is supposed to have thus summed up the evening: “How very unlike the domestic life of our own dear queen!” Comparisons inevitably invade my mind at this time of political drama both for Britain and for America.   At the center of Sunak’s brief and dignified concession speech was his unequivocal and unqualified statement that “…I take responsibility for the loss.”  Loss is what is suffered by a loser.  This was not said in a perfunctory or incidental way.  It certainly was not said with even a hint of extenuation, let alone rationalization.  He did not suggest that the election had been rigged or insinuate that he had lost because of a head cold, or that the press had been against him, or that the moon had been in the eighth house.  He accepted responsibility because he had been the leader of the Conservative Party in an election that was for him and his colleagues a catastrophic defeat.  But though the concession speech was quite brief, it was memorable not only for the economy of what it went on to say but what it refrained from saying.  In the latter category conspicuously was any hint of personal animus or of grievance based in a suspicion of unfairness or shadiness and any badmouthing of the victorious party.  This brings me to what he did say.  He made clear that there would be an orderly, efficient, and civil transfer of power, and that that was a fact that should be reassuring to all Britons.  Few people can have a more accurate view of the difficulties his successor faces than does Sunak; but Sunak expressed only encouraging hopes for the country’s success. He made no attempt to evade his own responsibility, even while stressing that his lack of success came not from want of trying.  He reported that he had already conveyed his congratulations and best wishes to Keir Starmer, who received them with the same courteous professionalism with which they were offered.  Nothing about suckers and losers.  And the only thing about “I’m the guy…” was in essence “I’m the guy who lost the election.”  Honesty, modesty, civility, courtesy.  These qualities appear to be too delicate to endure the Atlantic crossing.  What losers!




Wednesday, July 3, 2024

A Hopeful Palimpsest

Archimedes palimpsest

       It is probably not a good sign when a funeral service is more encouraging than a political debate between the only two plausible candidates for the next four-year term of the presidency of the United States, but such was my experience toward the end of last week.  The debate came first, but I shall deal with it only briefly, as, Number One (as one of the debaters said repeatedly) it has already been the subject of a vast amount of commentary from professionals at all levels of the commentariat, and Number Two, it was such an actual disaster for President Biden and the Democratic Party and so unspinnable that it would be shameful even for a party hack to try.  Mr. Trump lied incessantly during the debate, but he did so with a comparative coherence, and he even had several sentences in which could be detected a complete thought laid out in proper form with a subject and predicate in the right order.  As I write this the Democratic panic of the first post-traumatic period has perhaps somewhat abated.  I now doubt that Biden will voluntarily withdraw or be forced out of the contest, as seemed at least possible in the frenzy of Friday morning.


Elective politics is always a choice among imperfect alternatives.  It often enough demands invocation of the adjective “realistic” and the phrase “the lesser evil.”  But how can a dynamic nation of three hundred and fifty million be presented with the choice that now presents itself?  I have several lovely grandchildren.  Am I supposed to claim that I am untroubled by the reality that Joe Biden, for all his undoubted good intentions and bumbling avuncularity, should be the guardian of the atomic codes? That Trump lies habitually does not exonerate the pious fraud of prominent Democrats who have for so long assured us that, behind the scenes, Biden is a sort of combination of Metternich and John Chrysostom.


            So much for Thursday night.  I now turn to the paradoxically happier subject of the memorial service.  A few years ago a dynamic and charismatic Englishman, Will(iam) Noel, took up a leadership position in our University library system.  He was a Cambridge-trained historian, a medievalist, and a cutting-edge innovator in library science.  He had spent some years at the Walters Gallery in Baltimore before moving to the University of Pennsylvania libraries.  The Penn library—including its rare book and manuscripts division—was superb in my own fields of special study even before the founding of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies about fifteen years ago.  At the center of this enterprise was the huge gift of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts—valued at the time at about twenty millions, though in fact priceless--made by Mr. Lawrence Schoenberg.  Will Noel was the director of this enterprise, and how Princeton lured him away from it I cannot know and would never be allowed to say even if I could.  I was already well retired by the time he got here.  I was alerted to his moving to Princeton by close friends who had known him in Baltimore.   As a long-time booster of Princeton’s Firestone Library, and as an active member of the Friends of the Princeton University Library I came to know him only slightly, but well enough to be mightily impressed.


            Two or three months ago Will Noel was in Edinburgh with some professional colleagues on some library-related business.  As he was walking on a sidewalk, an out-of-control vehicle flew off the roadway onto the pedestrian sidewalk and struck him.  Of the group with whom he was walking he alone was seriously injured, but very seriously indeed.  He survived for a while hospitalized in a coma, but not for long.  He died on April 29th.  The accident was of the malign, senseless, and indeed incomprehensible sort that challenges my increasingly desperate attempts to continue to believe in Providential Order.  It snuffed out the life of a brilliant and innovative scholar at the height of his powers.  But before that, the scholar was a husband, a father, a brother, a friend to many, a colleague to many.



            This breadth of the loss was not the primary focus of the beautiful memorial service that took place last Friday, however.  The tragic sense was not suppressed but overwhelmed in the best sequence of brief but powerful personal reminiscences I have ever heard at such an event.  I was able to attend with my Baltimore friends, one of whom, Charles Duff, was among the eloquent speakers.  The Princeton University Chapel is a mini-Amiens Cathedral and one of Ralph Adam Cram’s greatest masterpieces.  I don’t know the precise seating capacity of the building, but it must approach 2,000.  It was probably three quarters full.  As you grow older, you find yourself attending more and more obsequies.  And If you write a regular blog, you find yourself writing more and more obituaries.  In recent years I have had to memorialize four of my own dearest friends: Michael Curschmann, Robert Hollander, Joseph Trahern, and most recently Andrew Seth.  Will Noel was not a close friend, rather a much-admired acquaintance and professional colleague, but his comparative youth and unfulfilled projects add a particular sorrow to the brutal caprice of his death.


            Anyone inclined to think that library science or codicology (the study of codices, or manuscripts) are dull, arcane, or dry-as dust pastimes would, I believe, soon be disabused of such notions if they could meet a fine teacher who was also a fine codicologist.  You can put my premise to the test with little expenditure of time--though with a substantial risk of intellectual excitement--by viewing a Ted Talk Will Noel gave more than a decade ago, about the Archimedes palimpsest then on display at the Walters Art Gallery. * Archimedes, perhaps the most famous ancient scientist known to us by name and a body of written work, flourished in the third century of the pre-Christian era.  In the earliest periods of book making, the materials needed for their manufacture were costly and sometimes difficult of access.  Under these circumstances obsolete books with vellum (animal skin) pages were often scraped down and reused, usually leaving a faint, sometimes shadow-like impression of the original writing.  Such a book is called a palimpsest from a Greek term meaning “rubbed smooth again.” The Archimedes palimpsest is part of a hand-made thirteenth-century prayer book.  Scrupulous, patient scholars have deployed their skill, erudition, and some cutting-edge scientific instruments to decipher the erased text lurking within its recycled pages.  Lo and behold, they found passages of previously unknown works of the celebrated philosopher.  Forget the baloney in the Da Vinci Code.  This is the real thing—original writings of the most famous ancient Greco-Roman scientist known to us. His most celebrated saying, or at least his most popular one, concerns the Law of Levers: Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.  It is by no means grandiose to suggest that something spiritually analogous can be said of those scholars like the late and very much-lamented Will Noel.


            Thursday night was sad, somber, and depressing.  Friday morning was by contrast inspirational and encouraging.  There are few enough institutions in our society that seem to me both essential and unequivocally good.  Some of those dealing earnestly with cultural preservation and education are among the best.  The outpouring of love, appreciation, and admiration evident in that memorial service were first of all emblems of the esteem in which a particular man was held by so many.  But in a larger social sense they were likewise gestures of support for what is the larger cultural mission to which thousands of scholars and teachers are eager to devote the work of a lifetime, and indeed to the enterprises of the spirit and the intellect generally.  So the end of the week turned out to be for me a kind of temporal palimpsest on which distress had been overwritten in uplift and hope.

William Noel (1965-2024)
















Wednesday, June 26, 2024

The Owl of Minerva


One more word about teaching what the world ought to be: Philosophy always arrives too late to do any such teaching. As the thought of the world, philosophy appears only in the period after actuality has been achieved and has completed its formative process. The lesson of the concept, which necessarily is also taught by history, is that only in the ripeness of actuality does the ideal appear over against the real, and that only then does this ideal comprehend this same real world in its substance and build it up for itself into the configuration of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then a configuration of life has grown old, and cannot be rejuvenated by this gray in gray, but only understood; the Owl of Minerva takes flight only as the dusk begins to fall. [Die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug.]   

G.W.F. Hegel, Preface to the Philosophie des Rechts


In the course of this essay I shall attempt to comment on the meaning in this famous passage, at least to the uncertain extent that I understand it myself.  I hope that its main point—a personal application of a frequently quoted epigram made by a philosopher of history--will be reasonably clear.  The subject might be defined as the sadness of the search for wisdom.  But it requires the somewhat breathless introduction of three important thinkers.  They are (in an order both chronological and alphabetical) Augustine of Hippo, Georg Wilhelm Hegel, and Clive James.  The three men were very different one from another; yet they shared the crucial commonality of intellectual brilliance deployed upon challenging and consequential subject matter, and extraordinary powers of verbal expression in deploying their ideas.  Augustine (354-430) was a North African Roman who became the most influential theologian in Western Catholicism.  Hegel (1770-1831) was a German philosopher of huge intellectual ambition and influence; and Clive James (1939-2019) was an Australian born journalist and cultural critic who spent most of his life in the intellectual and professional milieux of London.


G. W. F. Hegel

            Hegel and Clive James are linked for me because of James’s brief but brilliant biography and assessment of him in one of his wonderful essays in Cultural Amnesia.*  If you don’t know this book, I strongly recommend it to any reader with an interest in our cultural history and an appreciation of fine English prose.  It is a collection of a hundred or so brief biographical essays.  Speaking of the famous remark about the Owl of Minerva, James says: “Hegel’s prose could be very beautiful like this.”  Yes, but he immediately adds: “After his death his prose became famous for being unyieldingly opaque, and indeed much of his later prose was.”  I am no expert on Hegel and have found trying to understand him too hard a slog to claim confident success.  Clive James’s six-page essay devoted to him in Cultural Amnesia is one of the clearest, most succinct treatments of a truly towering philosopher I could imagine.


Clive James

A second famous passage comes from Augustine’s autobiography, the Confessions, and provides a kind of parallel.  It is an address directly from the author to God: “Late [or, probably better, too late] have I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so modern”.  (Sero te amavi pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova.)  Hegel and Augustine share the idea of “too lateness,” but in rather different senses.  Augustine berates himself for time wasted in futile or errant philosophical searches.  Hegel seems to be announcing a morose law of intellectual history.

It will probably be apparent why the themes raised here might impose themselves upon the reflections of a scholar in his old age.  I have devoted a great deal of my life to studying and writing about “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.”  I am not sure that the owl has ever appeared in my barn loft, but the raven is sure to before very long.  It’s only a question of time.

In the ancient moral vocabulary, writers make a distinction between two Latin words, scientia and sapientia. The former, scientia, is usually translated as “knowledge”, sapientia as “wisdom.”  The two obviously related concepts are not identical.  Wisdom is the moral fruit of the proper use of knowledge.  We all, or at least most of us, believe in some form of this idea.  Another famous formulation we owe to Pascal in the seventeenth century: “The heart has its reason which reason knows nothing of…We know the truth not only by reason, but by the heart.”

It is at least a curiosity that the symbolic association of the owl (bubo) with wisdom has continued in popular iconography until our own day.  Minerva is the goddess of wisdom.  Her Greek equivalent is Athena.  Her avian emblem, the owl, which once brought the dignity to Athenian coinage that the eagle now sheds upon the American, has largely been co-opted by Walt Disney and seems to represent a kind of endearing avuncular amiability.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but Athena’s bird was more venerable, solemn, indeed magisterial.  Wisdom--a thing different from intelligence or even intellectual brilliance, and certainly different from amassing a boxcar load of quaint and curious facts—seems to be a reward for an attitude rather than the achievable goal of a program of long and scrupulous search.

            It is only natural that a scholar, given the opportunity to look back in review, might want to reflect on the distinction between knowledge and wisdom.  Learning offers its great contributions to one’s life, but it is not a substitute for living. The great French historian Jules Michelet—and I do mean great—is reported to have made the following sad remark late in his life: “I have passed along the side of things, for I mistook history for life.”  Among the four or five most fecund legends in our literary culture is that of Dr. Faustus, usually called the “Faust Legend”.  Remotely based in the memory of an actual Renaissance savant, it records the fictional history of a scholar of great learning who makes a pact with the Devil.  In exchange for a period in which he will enjoy great wealth, prestige, and sexual pleasure, the scholar will give up his immortal soul.  Selling one’s soul has become proverbial. The legend appears in practically all forms of early popular literature—folklore, ballads, broadsheets.  In English literature it is enshrined in Christopher Marlowe’s powerful drama; but its most famous appearance in the literature of “high culture” is in Goethe’s lengthy poetic drama, Faust, which appeared in two parts in the early nineteenth century.  This work is often regarded as the greatest achievement in German, and indeed one of the greatest in world literature. In Goethe’s treatment of the Faust legend, the appetite for universal erudition is paralleled by gross carnal cupidity and criminal indulgence. 


Dr. Faustus with mentor

Everyone must have some definite concept of the “mad scientist,” a man whose scientific investigations have driven him to the brink, and sometimes over the brink, of lunacy.  Who is likely ever to forget Dr. Strangelove as presented by Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers?  But there are mad humanists galore as well. I speak as one who spent half a century teaching in liberal arts departments of a major institution, and as I scan our contemporary cultural landscape, I find some of our madder humanists only slightly less alarming than Dr. Strangelove, our updated Dr. Frankenstein.  It is the link between erudition and madness that makes what I shall call the “real world” so chary of it.  The “Acts of the Apostles” (cap. 26) gives an account of Paul’s verbal self-defense before Festus, the Procurator of Judaea.  “And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad’.” Has the scientific quest that led to a hydrogen bomb or the technological deployment that led to the overheating of the earth’s entire atmosphere exceeded the bounds of moral capacity?  And the questions that seem so tremendous on the cosmic scale do have their echoes in the twilight lives of aging scholars. The concerns that crowd the mind are hardly of a Faustian grandeur.  They are small, personal, quaint, perhaps even droll, but no less disquieting as we strain our failing ears listening in doubtful hope for the sound of the whoosh of a huge owl’s flapping wings.  Too late?


*Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (W. W. Norton: New York and London, 2007), pp. 876.



Wednesday, June 19, 2024



Now that the ex-President and apparently certain Republican candidate for the presidency in the upcoming general election has been adjudged guilty of felonious crimes, and now that the bad-boy son of the sitting President and all but certain Democrat candidate in that election is likewise a convicted felon, where precisely do we find ourselves as Americans?  Besides in an orgy of illogical equivalation, that is?  I would like to think that profound embarrassment might be the opening bid on this one, but don’t count on it.  What would embarrass your average Washington politician would shame a hog to death.  We are not quite a banana republic, as the doom-peddlers in the press suggest, but more like the intermediary stage of an “Only Fans” republic.


I am among the statistical majority of Americans who seem to be in a state beginning with disquiet and then rapidly revving up from there as we think about the impending election.  Leaving aside all strictly political questions, the age and affect of the presidential candidates is a matter of concern, an entirely legitimate one.  Take it from one who knows: eighty is not the new anything; it is old age.  This perception immediately leads to a focus on the major candidates for the vice-presidency, only one of whom is presently known.


There is a good deal of long-accepted hypocrisy concerning the choice of vice-presidential candidates by the political parties.  The standard rhetorical position is that the person chosen, who is at the remove of “one heartbeat” from the highest office, is always someone fully and manifestly qualified to be president.  Does anyone actually believe this pious malarkey?  Certainly not the national press, whose reporters and commentators stress such matters as the desirability of regional, factional, racial, or gender diversity.  Another implicit desideratum—loyalty to the boss—seems to be the primary if not sole requirement of the most recent and currently presumptive Republican candidates.  Mr. Biden offered early and unequivocal assurance that his vice-presidential pick would be a woman.  This prerequisite reduced the candidate pool by less than a half in absolute terms, but considerably more than half in the terms of tested, experienced politicians on the national scene.  Still, my own subjective and personal observation is that on the whole our prominent female politicians are proportionally more capable and promising than the male colleagues who so considerably outnumber them.  That is of course a personal judgment without objective verifiability.  Whether that judgment be just or not, the pool was soon to be drastically reduced when a racial codicil was added to the presidential candidate’s stated will.  Very shortly thereafter the following appeared in the national press.  “More than 100 prominent Black men released a strongly worded open letter Monday, warning Biden that not picking a Black woman would cost him the election. The signatories of the letter included rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs, radio show host Lenard McKelvey (a.k.a. Charlamagne tha God), actor Cedric Kyles (a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer), commentator Van Jones, Bishop William J. Barber and civil rights attorney Ben Crump, among others.”


The main point of this essay is not a selective criticism of personalities, but I see little evidence that Kamala Harris has been a successful vice president or would be a good president.  Since she so far has no Republican counterpart, comparisons are impossible.  One cannot be even handed while being empty handed.  That Mr. Trump’s eventual choice will strike me immediately as “presidential” seems unlikely, but we must wait to find out.  Getting back to the current known quantity, Vice President Harris, she is less well regarded in the polls than either of the prospective presidential candidates, both of whom are “under water” as the lingo goes.  So I am in the national majority.   Part of what I sense as the near despair of the electorate as it contemplates November is a group of “under water” candidates whose primary attractive quality is in the “lesser evil” category.  My own misgivings are less directed to policies I fear than to failures in that essential part of national leadership that is clarity, power, and conviction in the articulation of those policies.  This is not an English professor’s snobbery.  The ideas by which politicians live are seldom more coherent than the language in which they express them.  Nor do I set the bar unreasonably high.  I shall presume on faith that Ms. Harris commands the orthography of the word potato, which proved to be a shoal upon which Vice President Dan Quayle’s political boat foundered; but I have to say that in terms of public oratory Quayle was a virtual Demosthenes or a Danton when compared with her.  Even in the festival of inarticulateness that is the United States Senate (a.k.a., “the greatest deliberative body on earth”) the word salads she dishes up are particularly lacking in nourishment.  "The governor and I, we were all doing a tour of the library here and talking about the significance of the passage of time, right, the significance of the passage of time. So, when you think about it, there is great significance to the passage of time in terms of what we need to do to lay these wires. What we need to do to create these jobs. And there is such great significance to the passage of time when we think about a day in the life of our children.”


Well, like most elderly people I in fact do quite a bit of thinking about the passage of time and the significance thereof.  Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away; They fly forgotten, as a dream  Dies at the opening day.”  Also daughters, of course, though Watts was a stickler for meter.  I try to be optimistic, but it’s often an uphill struggle.  Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1614) began with a fanciful pessimistic etymology of the word world itself: it is supposed to mean “ware old, i.e., that thing that groweth worse as it groweth older.”  That is the opposite of progressivism—regressivism.  There is a lot of that around in the air today, but I do not share it.  America has been in a few tight corners in its time.  Those so confidently predicting the death of American democracy should one or the other of the two candidates win in November might remember this.  Are we really facing greater danger than in 1777, or 1858, or 1932?


The office of the Vice Presidency is peculiar in various aspects, one of them being that in choosing a candidate one person, (the presidential candidate) is the sole elector.  This means that one man elects our vice president.  According to a famous indelicacy of John Nance Garner, who in 1933 accepted the job from Franklin Roosevelt in exchange for a few convention votes, the job is “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”  One doubts that we actually have a reliable economic history of this particular commodity; so I won’t go there.  But I record my suspicion of rank exaggeration.   Whether this was a more pessimistic evaluation than that of Theodore Roosevelt is debatable.  Teddy said, "I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than vice president."  In fact fifteen vice presidents have moved on to the presidency, eight of them on account of the death of a president, and four of these were later elected to terms of their own.  I’d say that’s a pretty consequential launching pad.  The vice-presidency is certainly a job that would seem to deserve a “free and fair” election of its own as opposed to the opportunity for the popular ratification of the pick of a single man.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The Ballad Hunters

                                                      Francis James Child


            The expression “fabled in song and story” nicely combines the twin impulses out of which our earliest literature grew, the union of music and crafted verbal narrative.  Since ancient times Homer, the great source of our epic tradition, was called the “blind singer.”  The manifestly musical aspect of lyric poetry is in the term itself, the lyre being the ancient stringed instrument to the strumming of which verse was recited.  I have been thinking about the union of music and verse in some of our older and too often neglected poetry in relation to two men—one a traditional literary scholar and the other a musicologist—who did so much to preserve it for us.


Harvard, the world’s greatest university, has been subjected to some hard knocks of late, and though some are unfortunately well merited they are, viewed in historical perspective, mere blemishes on the noble academic scutcheon.  Today I want briefly to remember Harvard’s very first English professor—both the man and his work.  I refer to Francis James Child (1825-1896).  He was named Professor of English only in 1876.  The president of Harvard offered him the title as a bribe, to keep him from being captured by head-hunters from Johns Hopkins, which was in the process of becoming the first German-style graduate school in our land.  That date may seem rather late.  It is not that nobody wrote, read, and even studied literature in the first century of our Republic.  But belletristic cultivation was taken for granted as a feature of general education.  You might study Latin, Greek, French, or German, but you simply read your own language.  As someone who devoted his working life to teaching literature, I came to believe that literary study—usually beginning with that in your native tongue--is the natural gateway to humanistic study writ large. 


Child was a Bostonian, but by no means a Brahmin.  He was a genuine democrat in the best American spirit.  His father was a skilled craftsman, a sailmaker, whose handiwork allowed such mighty Yankee whalers as the “Pequod” of Moby Dick to sail the seven seas and back.  The history of scholarship is punctuated by the appearance of great savants of modest social background, but nineteenth-century America was pre-eminent in that regard.  It was also a philological age.  The study of “English” at that time included a good deal of attention to excellence in speaking as well as in writing, and Child’s professional brief included rhetoric, logic, and oratory.  And Child developed a special interest in the language of English-speakers, in the dialects of the Old Country but also the emerging distinctiveness of the American language.  He studied, taught, and wrote about all the giants of English literature—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and others; but his democratic instincts led him to give significant scholarly attention to the popular literature of the ordinary stock of the early English immigrants to America: their folk music.  Only a few specialists are likely to have consulted his ideas on the great writers of the English tradition.  What he is famous for is his industry, skill, and erudition in seeking out and recording traditional “folk songs”.  His work has appeared in many editions, including his own five-volume collection (1882-1898); but it has been most widely read in the single (very fat) volume in the “Cambridge Edition of the Poets” series edition directed by Bliss Perry:  English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Cambridge: the Riverside Press, 1904) as edited by his daughter, Helen Child Sargent,  and an eminent Harvard colleague, G. L. Kittredge).  This edition includes, often with several variant texts, about two thirds of the three hundred plus ballads Child had collected.  This fascinating body of song is often referred to as the "Border Ballads,” as they flourished particularly in the eastern counties along the border between England and Scotland.


Many of the ballads are ancient, and many have been written down only in uncertain or clearly garbled form.  But they have exerted their power over writers of the highest genius, including Sir Philip Sidney who said in his Art of Poesy (1579) that he always thrilled upon hearing sung the old song of “Chevy Chase.”  The subject of this song is aristocratic deer poaching—a hunt (chase) in the Cheviot hills.  The ballads do show ancient folk culture warts and all.  It’s not all church bells and May poles.  Child himself expressed his disgust at the anti-Semitic blood libel in the confused and confusing ballad about Hugh of Lincoln—the same subject as that in Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale.”


Child was a literary scholar with no particular musical expertise; but the old folk songs are in fact music, and they fortunately have attracted the attention of musicologists as well as literary historians.  The second hero of this essay, accordingly, is Cecil Sharp (1859-1924).  He was born into a modest English family in which both parents were amateur musicians.  As a young man Sharp spent a crucial decade in Australia, where he established a reputation as a musician both in ecclesiastical and secular circles.  He then returned to England, and it was from England that he made his musical pilgrimages to the backwaters of the southern Appalachians in search of the old folk songs so rapidly disappearing in industrialized Britain.  Recently Sharp has been semi-cancelled in some advanced circles for his “ethnocentrism,” apparently a particularly rubricated sin for an ethnologist.  This was perhaps just payback for the attempted cancellation of Pete Seeger and some other left-wing folk singers for “Communism” by some American superpatriots of the 1950s.  But the aesthetic world that could pardon Leni Riefenstahl for the brilliance of her “Triumph of the Will,” a rank Nazi propaganda movie of 1934, is unlikely to cancel the transcriptions of the words of ancient ballads that Sharp wrote down in log cabins in Madison County, N.C. during the First World War.

                                       Cecil Sharp with his lead singer


  Many English writers have been keenly aware of the marriage of words and music that is a song.  Sharp’s parents were both musical amateurs, and they seem to have regarded it as highly propitious that their child was born on St. Cecelia’s day—that is, the day ecclesiastically dedicated to the patron saint of music.  So at the baptismal font they imposed upon him the masculine form of the name of that saint.  They may well have had in mind, as well, a passage in one of our language’s greatest verbal paeans to music—Dryden’s “Alexander’s Feast, or, the Power of Music--A song in honour of St. Cecilia’s day, 1697”.   In popular Christian mythology Cecelia was supposed to have invented the pipe organ (the “vocal frame”) of the following lines.


     At last, divine Cecilia came,

      Inventress of the vocal frame;

The sweet enthusiast, from her sacred store,

      Enlarg'd the former narrow bounds,

      And added length to solemn sounds,

With nature's mother wit, and arts unknown before.

    Let old Timotheus yield the prize,

      Or both divide the crown:

    He rais'd a mortal to the skies;

      She drew an angel down.



Celebrating what can rightfully be called his epic victory over Xerxes and the once mighty Persian Empire in the fourth century BCE, or, alternatively, one of the most wanton acts of cultural vandalism known to history, the sack of Persepolis, Alexander the Great sits with Thais, his favored courtesan—so much nobler a term than today’s lackluster and all-purpose girlfriend—"Their brows with roses and with myrtles bound:/ (So should desert [prowess] in arms be crown'd.)”  Timotheus is Alexander’s court musician.  Ostensibly the feast is celebrating Alexander’s stupendous military victory.  But the real display of power is the display of music’s power, a power that overwhelms the conqueror of the world himself. What might be called the super-power of music is made perhaps even more evident in G. F. Handel’s musical orchestration of Dryden’s poem in his “Alexander’s Feast,” a concerto grosso (1736) that has been described as “neither opera nor oratorio, yet both.”  Yet the marriage of song and story is never more thrilling than in some of the old ballads studied by Child and Sharp, two deeply learned men from the highbrow world without whom we would have been unlikely to have had Country and Western or Bob Dylan.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

École des Chartes

In this slow news week—yes, I am being ironic--and with the Princeton Commencement now behind us, I find myself reflecting a bit on the state of American higher education.  I did find myself rather dispirited by some of the Gaza sit-ins for the ease with which they reduced agonizing complexity to a spurious moral clarity of virtue signaling.  Education can and perhaps must lead to passionately held opinions; but without reflection, discrimination, and the nuanced differentiation of alternatives, those opinions seldom lead to enlightenment.  There is a reason that famous quotations become famous, as is that of John Stuart Mill: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”  I have been thinking about the nature of higher education from a rather old-fashioned perspective—considering its potential for social utility as perhaps opposed to social advancement.  And I have been pondering with increasing admiration the Grandes Écoles of France, often regarded as insufferable bastions of elitism.  These “Great Schools” of advanced study have essentially created the bureaucratic and intellectual elite of a major nation.  I’ll get back to them, or at least one of them, in a moment.

It is a little more than a year ago that I was so immersed in studying the works of the late medieval French poet François Villon (1431-1463?) that I wrote a blog essay about him.  There are many things to be said about him.  He is a unique figure in the history of European poetry, and as a documented “bad boy”—indeed a capital criminal!—he has seemed especially attractive to those who enjoy a streak of the transgressive in their favorite artists.  What is perhaps most remarkable about him is that—given his social obscurity—we know so much about him.

It is not surprising that the documentation of a figure like Chaucer is voluminous enough to require a heavy book (Chaucer Life Records.)  That is mainly to be explained by the fact that he was a prominent man in what we call the real world; only some of his fame and reputation derived from his poetry.  Chaucer even had a legal document attesting that he had not raped Cecily Chaumpaigne, as confirmed by Cecily herself.   (Naturally such a curious document has encouraged scholars of a certain bent to conclude that Chaucer was a rapist—or at least a kidnapper, as the Latin raptus might mean either.)  On the other hand, William Langland, Chaucer’s great contemporary, the author of Piers Plowman, is obscure almost to the vanishing point.  We are not even entirely sure that the name is right.

     But how is it that we know so much about Villon, a citizen much less prominent than Chaucer?  And why does so much of that knowledge date precisely from the decade of the 1870s—just in time to make Villon a kind of “culture hero” for a number of the more edgy writers of the French Third Republic and in the high Victorian era in Britain?  Part of the answer is that nasty always seems more interesting than nice.  Villon was not exactly nasty, but he was certainly wicked.  He was a violent felon (homicide) and habitual criminal (thief).  And among the most thorough bureaucrats in late medieval France, and probably in most other places and periods, were the police authorities.  They kept voluminous records.  But it is one thing for the police to write things down.  It is quite another for scholars to be able to find them four hundred years later.  This where Napoleon and the Grandes Écoles enter the picture.

            For such a bad man, Napoleon had a remarkable number of good ideas.  He was in his own peculiar way an heir of the Enlightenment.  Perhaps because he was so convinced of his own historical importance, he saw the desirability of carefully conserving all the national records of France.  He was very keen on the preservation of archives, beginning with his own.  He was also aware of the tremendous damage inflicted on the “national patrimony” by the Revolution, the destruction or dispersal of so many monastic libraries and royal offices, and the looting and vandalism of the seats of aristocrats.  He thought that there ought to be a special branch of study that would train scholars in the discovery, decipherment, exploitation, and preservation of old documents.  This aspiration was achieved by Louis XVIII—quite without reference to Napoleon of course, a couple of months before Napoleon’s death in 1821—with the establishment of the École Nationale des Chartes (The National School of Charters).  The French word charte, deriving from Latin carta as in Magna Carta, came to be applied to all manner of old legal documents.  So the province of the chartist institution was, and is, the study, decipherment, and publication of historical records of all sorts, not just charters.  Naturally a school of documentary studies  required of its small and highly select group of students and professors serious linguistic skills (especially in Latin), wide historical knowledge, and paleographic expertise.  It makes these same demands  today.  The description of a “chartiste” may sound like Professor Dry-as-Dust on steroids, or at the very best Melville’s “sub-sub librarian,” and I have heard some hip contemporary scholars speak of it in those scornful tones, but its achievements have to dazzle any medievalist.


Auguste Longnon

            In any event, in the 1870s a chartist named Auguste Longnon published two breakthrough books about Villon.  One was mainly about the historical figures who feature in Villon’s most famous poem, his semi-mock, but only semi, last will and testament.  Here was a window on a seldom viewed life of the medieval Parisian demi-monde.  The other book was entitled “A Biographical Study of F. Villon Based on Unedited Documents in the National Archives.”  These were preparatory studies for a major edition of Villon’s poems that Longnon published in 1892.  Of course scholarship is mostly tentative and dated.  Only a few scholarly books have an indefinite shelf life.   Such books (Darwin’s Origin of Species, say) then often are culturally upgraded and  move on to become the objects of intense scholarship themselves.  Longnon’s biographical studies have long since been left behind.  I had to appeal to one of my own indispensable sub-sub librarians—a priceless if too often unsung asset category in any serious university--to search it out in a rarely visited depository annex.  But not one of the many biographies that have superseded Longnon’s could have been written without his work and that of others like him, scholars trained at the École des Chartes or in institutions molded by its spirit.  For me as a scholar it is rather exhilarating to know that, for some moments, even I myself have briefly carried the baton in some worthy effort or other, to attempt some small increment, the grand totality of which is what Francis Bacon called “the advancement of learning.”  It is only since our own daughter became the chief executive of one of one of America’s major institutions of cultural curation that I have begun to appreciate some of the wider implications, challenges, and ambiguities of our difficult but essential accommodations of the past to the present.  Institutions dedicated to this subtle but crucial task deserve the admiration and support of all thoughtful people.


The distinguished scholarly journal of the ÉC