Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Dear, dear



My last essay had to do with attempts to coerce language to conform to social and political ideas of our fancy.  This one begins with a meditation on language that has become so formulaic that we seldom think about it at all.  In the household doldrums of Covid-world we have tried, probably unconsciously,  to make something out of very little by anticipating the daily arrival of the mail.  Since the invention of email real letters are virtually unheard of,* but if you are desperate, you may actually cast an eye over the abundant junk mail, and if really desperate you may even be likely to open it.  For the past couple of years I have received, maybe once or twice a month, a letter from a land company offering to buy from me some acres I own in the Ozarks.  I deduce there are land agents all over the country sifting through tax records in county court houses.  But not a chance!  My grandchildren will decide how this little bit of gorgeous wilderness will be shared with the world in its natural state and quite without the help of a “developer” whose return address is a post office box in Sparks, Nevada.


I opened a letter that began…Dear John…I felt annoyed and aggrieved, irrationally, and for more than one reason.  The man signing the letter, Wilbur Somebody, didn’t know me from Aristotle, but presumes to address me by my first name in the hopes of bulldozing cedar trees and putting up a ticky-tacky split level.  Furthermore, that name itself, John, is regularly used to denote such things as a prostitute’s client or a toilet.  Furthermore yet, a “dear John” is a specialized form of an unwanted missive that revived unhappy adolescent memories.  These associations are not Wilbur’s fault, exactly, but Wilbur was what I had at hand to be annoyed by.  It was the word dear that I focused upon.  Everybody who writes to anybody calls that person dear.  But surely they don’t really mean it.  They cannot possibly even think about it.  Dear means esteemed, held in affection, beloved.  As an epistolary salutation, dear is a meaningless convention.  Yet I use it all the time and shall presumably continue to do so for the remainder of my days.  Why?  Will “Dear” just lie there in the linguistic pool, soggy and motionless forever?


Dear is another one of those good old Germanic words that were part of the vocabulary of early speakers of the English language.  It was destined to be the homonym—homonyms being words with the same pronunciation but differing meanings—of the generic quarry of game-seeking hunters, the deer.  I’ll come to that in a minute.  The other, related meaning of dear had to do with commerce.  Dear means costly, expensive.  Though now rarely used in that sense in American English, it is still alive and well in many other places in the English-speaking world.  Any port in a storm.  That little chain of associations was useful as it transported my mind from Wilbur’s insolence and his road-graders to something more interesting, namely the commercial binary of dear (expensive) and cheap.


Now, this is really interesting.  Upscale goods proved in time to be too good for a four-letter Anglo-Saxon adjective.  They deserved something Latinish, something Frenchy.  Expenditure invokes the heaviness of precious metal bearing down on a hanging (dependere) scale.  The focus of the word was originally on the purchasing power of the buyer rather than on the quality of the goods.  Expensive is, so to speak, an expensive word.  Dear was a cheap one.  But, we notice, there is no expensive word for cheap, just cheap cheap on its own.  The root meaning of cheap was “market”.  The social and economic importance of markets in earlier European societies could easily be supposed even without the abundant linguistic evidence of place names in many European languages.  English Cheap Sides, East Cheaps, Chipping Nortons and a hundred other ch-p variants are scattered across the Ordinance Survey maps of Great Britain to this very day.  Descendants of the Latin mercatus (market) became more common after the Norman Invasion, so that we still speak of “market towns” and find numerous place-names like Downham Market.


Le Bon Marché, Paris

I don’t know whether free-market economists like Milton Friedman have sufficiently exploited the etymological encouragement for their theories possible to be found in historical dictionaries.  But ceap, market, is a word consumers usually like.  In French the Latin-based marché shows the same tendencies. The French version of “cheap” is à bon marché—at a good market price, I suppose.  One of the classic large Parisian department stores was called Le Bon Marché.  No American retailer of class would put “Cheap” in the name of a store today.  But French bon marché has not yet been wholly degraded.  It’s more like “great bargain.”  But the distinction between “great bargain” and “cheap and nasty” is on a sliding scale.  The mountains of synthetic junk that now clutter flea-markets and yard sales in my part of the world are evidence enough of that.  It well may be that the excellent English adjective tawdry derives from the name of a Dollar Store medieval market called the Fair of St. Audrey (‘Taudrey”), Audrey being the popular name of a royal Anglo-Saxon saint, Etheldrida!  Classy name, but crumby stuff.


So were I to respond to the unsolicited letter from my Nevada land speculator, the proper salutation should probably be…Cheap Wilbur…cheap in the American sense, of course.


The homophonic pairing of dear/deer, though irrelevant to most of what I have said so far, does illustrate another interesting linguistic phenomenon, the oscillation between generic and specific.  The modern German adjective for what I shall call economic dear is teuer.  The modern German word for “animal” is Tier.  It is obvious that English deer came to refer to a specific group of large animals frequently hunted by our ancestors.  In English, but not in German, the two words came to have the same pronunciation.  Something rather similar manifests itself in what you eat after you have killed the deer, namely meat.  But in early English meat was the generic word for all sorts of food.  There are a few residual memories of this: sweetmeats, the meat of a walnut.  But your average hairy-chested Old English huntsman was no Vegan.  He wanted his meat to bleed.  Your hairy-chested Anglo-Norman huntsman, on the other hand, was likely to be an aristocrat as interested in the chase as in the game—both words that suggest that the business had as much to do with sport as with alimentation.  But he too ate what he killed—venison, from venatio (hunting.)





*No sooner had I written this than we got a real letter from our dear granddaughter Ruby at summer camp!

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Linguistic Change by Fiat





Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)


The dictionary is not the language.  It is a treatise upon the language.”


Noah Webster (1755-1843)




I saw in a newspaper article that in Argentina the legislature recently passed a law forbidding the use of contrived gender-inclusive language in the public schools.  By “contrived” I mean new words especially invented to avoid the explicit gender distinctions embedded in what I shall call traditional or normative language.  In English-speaking countries, we have seen a certain amount of discussion about the use of the personal pronouns in the third person singular, he and she.  Various artificial substitutes have been suggested, manufactured explicitly to avoid sexual differentiation--such as zhi.  There are undoubtedly similar concerns regarding numerous other world languages.  Discussions of such topics tend to the polemical, and to become skirmishes in what we have come to call the “culture wars”.  As a person interested in languages, and especially in the history of our own language, I am hoping in this essay to stick to philology and eschew culture war.


It is not polemical, however, to  acknowledge  that the motive underlying such linguistic innovation is clearly political, reflecting the desire of acknowledging the real or hoped-for transition of transgenderism from the realm of the exotic and the marginal to that of the socially commonplace.  Gender differentiation is under attack on various grounds.  The legislative backlash is manifestly political.  The personal pronouns are not the only words in the arena of debate.  English is no longer as highly gendered as it once was, but a few fossilized nominal forms have survived long enough to excite controversy.  The most prominent of these was the pairing m(a/i)ster/mistress.  Oddly enough, the controversy centered not on the sexual distinction embedded in the terms, but on two distinct meanings arising in the feminine form.  The term for a younger woman was Miss, that for an older Mistress.  As Mistress suggested real or potential executive power within the family, it came to mean a married woman.  The word was commonly pronounced Missus and abbreviated Mrs.  Under the influence of late twentieth-century feminism the distinction between married and unmarried, thought to imply unwelcome social implications,  the distinct forms Miss and Mrs were elided into the abbreviation Ms.   Mr was retained, so we still have forms of address marked by sexual distinction.  Of great interest to me, however, is what happens with the pronunciation.  The second letter in Ms is pronounced as a z (alveolar, lung sound) rather than an s (“hissing” sibilant)—fancy phonetical terms referring to their anatomical origins in the vocal system.  That had to be to create phonic as well as graphic distinction between them.  It has not been a clean sweep.  Mrs and even Miss continue to be used by many English speakers in various countries.  There seems little debate here; any woman is free to choose her form of address.  There have been earlier erasures of sexual distinction as well.  In earlier English many occupational names had both masculine and feminine forms.  A man who produced bread for your table was a baker.  A woman who did so was a baxter.  The latter survives now only as a surname.  A male thespian was an actor, a female thespian an actress.  For reasons unclear to me the latter is becoming seriously politically incorrect among the same people who are happy enough to use long-winded specifications such as “the first black woman on the Supreme Court", or “our first African-American and Asian-American Vice President.”  Do we really expect as lengthy a line of this subgroup as there were Kings named Louis in France?   Airline stewardesses got neutralized to flight attendants, though not by all passengers.  Queens, princesses, and duchesses are at least temporarily safe because of the strange American fascination with British royalty.  Sex continues to triumph over politics with heterosexual husbands and wives.  All married gay women are wives and all married gay men are husbands, curiously continuing at one remove the “binary” ostensibly overthrown.


The national language of Argentina is Spanish.  Unlike English nouns, all Spanish nouns have one of two grammatical genders, feminine or masculine.  Many masculine nouns end in -o.  And as in English most plural nouns end in -s.  Here is what the Times says about the Argentinian innovations: “Instead of ‘amigos,’ the Spanish word for ‘friends,’ some Spanish speakers use ‘amigues.’ In place of ‘todos,” or ‘all,’ some write ‘todxs.’ And some signs that would say ‘bienvenidos,’ or ‘welcome,’ now say ‘bienvenid@s’.”  Since nearly all human beings are either male or female,  subgroups of humans can be composed of one or the other or (quite likely) both.  Some of these Spanish innovations are plausible, but others not.  The ending -ues as an ambiguous, ungendered plural would work with most Spanish nouns.  On the other hand, written words that cannot be pronounced are absurd.  This is as true of our LatinX as of Argentinian todxs.  And how, exactly, does one pronounce bienvenid@s in a fashion to achieve its genderless, inclusive intentions?  How does one pronounce it at all?  In the Renaissance, learned scholars greatly increased the English vocabulary through the introduction of so-called “inkhorn terms,” words dragged half-digested from the lexicons of Greek and Latin.  Many of these seemed so exotic that they fell by the wayside; but inkhorn terms caught on in the learned professions of the law, medicine, and academic theology.  “LatinX” is a rather different phenomenon from “Ms.”  I think it is unlikely that it will gain traction except as a marker of a specialized political jargon.


In cases of mixed-sex groups all the Romance languages follow the ancient Latin convention of using the masculine plural.  The linguistic tradition probably does reflect an ancient “gender bias,” but the solution most frequently used to address it—“if a candidate secures sufficient votes, he or she….”—violates a very useful principle of linguistic economy.  In theory the perceived inequity could be remedied by switching to a feminine default, except that such a solution stymies the presumed goal of equality or “neutrality”.  What I now notice in some academic writing, and even some journalism, is a contrived alternation of pronouns.  “The reader who is willing to give his full attention to the text is likely to find herself surprised by….”


The early Germanic languages, of which Old English was one, had three genders in its nominal system: feminine, masculine, and neuter.  The pronouns of the third person singulars were he (masc.), heo (fem.) and hit (neut.).  The later feminine form poses a mystery worth puzzling over.  Where did she of modern he, she, and it come from?  The Old English feminine singular definite article seo appears a likely suspect, but how and especially why?  If you have nothing better to do—and how could anyone possibly?—take some time out and read the erudite essay (s.v. “she”) in the Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps some of our current cultural discontents might have been avoided if we still had a robust neuter.  It was this simplifying evolution that has left us with an apparently controversial “binary”.  But the correlations of biological sexuality and grammatical gender in our languages are less rigorous than one might at first suppose.  Common sense triumphs in most instances, but by no means all.  The German word for “maiden,” i.e., a virgin female, Mädchen, is neuter.  A German place setting is comprised of a neuter knife, a feminine fork, and a masculine spoon.  My search for a socio-politico-historical allegory in this triad has been fruitless.


            But one source of linguistic change is indeed political coercion.  I recently was reading Bulgakov’s wonderful novel The Master and Margarita, which has among its many strands some guarded satirical swipes at Soviet literary culture in Stalin’s Moscow of the 1930s.  One of the important characters is a kind of literary commissar in charge of the writers’ union—called MASSOLIT, that is, something like “Literature for the Masses”.  Such grotesque terms, usually formed from compound abbreviations, became very common in “political” Russian and a distinctive feature of the “new” language.  The linguistic gesture involved seems to be a natural reflex of bureaucratic groups, such as our military and various branches of our Federal Government.


Linguistic change is constant--quite slow on the phonetic side (alteration of sound), much faster on the semantic (meaning) side and in the borrowing of foreign words and the invention of many new ones.  The phonetic change in our own tongue since the first arrival of English speakers in America has been dramatic.  Contemporary native English as spoken in various parts of the world, despite powerful homogenizing cultural pressures, is of an astonishing variety in what we usually call “accent” and “vocabulary”.  To study Chaucer, a master of English who died in 1400, requires a little introductory preparation.  To read Beowulf, written by a master who may have died as late as about 1000, demands more work than a Duolingo course in contemporary Dutch or German.  The purpose of language is to allow human beings to live effectively in an accurately described and evolutionary world.   Whether language is the principal cause or merely the extraordinary characteristic feature of the human domination of the animal world is perhaps debatable, but the evolutionary impulse of our own English, still by far the most important channel of global verbal communication, is and must be aimed toward ever greater clarity, specificity, and precision.  Imposed changes designed to express particular social or political views of social or cultural reality, especially if they vehemently challenge and contest  a world-wide consensus of a few thousand years, are unlikely to get much traction except on university campuses or in the editorial rooms of journals and newspapers.



Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Fig Tree and Grapevine


We are coming down from a very self-indulgent weekend.  Our actual sixtieth wedding anniversary was in early June, but as it was only two days before the wedding of our granddaughter Sophia and her husband Raymond, it was decided in family conclave that the “official” anniversary celebration be postponed for about six weeks until a time was available when the whole family could once again reconvene.  Although the pandemic has somewhat slowed down the globetrotting of its younger members, it is still not easy to get all Flemings on the same continent at any particular moment.  This past weekend, however, found everybody here save for granddaughters Lulu, who is helping somebody mount an art show in Paris, and Ruby, who is at a non-negotiable summer camp.  These serious lacunae were in some ways compensated for by the happy fact that the whole family of Joan’s niece Elizabeth and Alan Dignam, normally resident in Cambridge but fortuitously in the States for a vacation, were able to be at the celebrative dinner.  Eighteen of us in all dined under awnings at Mediterra, an upscale eatery in the center of Princeton.  I felt like a patriarch of old with my own fig tree and shade-giving grapevine.  I think we both are feeling rather old, but in a pleasant way.  For just as children can be injured by being made to grow up too fast, the elderly can abuse themselves by failing to acknowledge their antiquity.


I cannot help but think about this in terms of our disturbing politics.  After two years of heroic silence on the subject, the New York Times has finally discovered and found worthy of mention that President Biden is an old guy in a very demanding job requiring physical energy, mental acuity, and elementary linguistic coherence that he does not now possess.   Whether the press is leading or following the likewise geriatric leadership of the Democrats in Congress in this realization, a general awareness seems to have emerged, with a panic brewing in certain quarters that he appears ready to run for a second term.  I have no personal animus against Joe Biden.  I voted for  him.  He was in my opinion elected for who he was not more than for who he is, and he has persevered in not being Donald Trump.  I believe that has been a useful achievement, but not one in itself sufficient to address our very difficult problems, some of them indeed insoluble, nor even mitigable, without a spirit of national self-effacing cooperation not to be found in our ailing politics today.  Why cannot Mr. Biden be allowed his own fig-tree and grapevine?  Why must he be forced to fly about the globe fist-bumping with autocrats or stare dully into a teleprompter, puzzling over the three-syllable words?  I feel sorry for him.  I know what it’s like to need a nap or forget a name or lose your place while reading a document.  He ought to be at the beach, or in a Florida condo, or at a black-tie dinner getting an award for the latest service of his post-political career as the honorary chairman of notable charitable enterprises.  In sensible societies seniors, the old guard, the elders, los viejos, are venerated for their achievements and sometimes sought out for their wisdom but relieved of the obligation of having to pretend they are still young by trying to rush up to the podium.


Being old is a sufficient occupation on its own.  Old age, life’s final stage, is unlike all the others in the degree of its necessary unpredictability and capriciousness.  In any event that has been my experience of it.  Not too many authors have taken it head-on.  Great stories of youth are a dime a dozen, one of the greatest, indeed, being Conrad’s Youth.  Old Age, on the other hand, is a subject to avoid.  Who can forget the chilling final lines of the “Seven Ages of Man Speech” in As You Like It, that thus rounds out life’s pattern: “Last scene of all, /That ends this strange eventful history, /Is second childishness and mere oblivion; /Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”   Mere oblivion.  Dr. Alois Alzheimer had not yet appeared on the scene.  And Arnold Bennett’s truly great novel The Old Wives’ Tale, which terrified me when I was twenty, I would not dare reread today.  But there is at least one great treatment of the subject: Cicero’s On Old Age (De senectute), an essay written in the voice of the sage Cato, imagined to be about my own current age.  That would make him a real Ancient of Days in his historical setting.  Cato does not pussyfoot around in identifying the downers: the first of all, the necessary retirement from public life with the likelihood of infirmity, always potential and frequently actual; then the disappearance of old pleasures, the growing awareness of the proximity of death, followed of course by the thing itself.  But he insists also on a philosophical maturation—I would call it spiritual growth—that can lead to a more mature wisdom and the more mature pleasures of the mind of which Cicero speaks.


The ancients saw their ideal world in terms of harmony and hierarchy, principles they thought they found everywhere in Nature.  A place for everything, and everything in its place.  All parts of the ideal world were linked, or as we say, connected.  Existence was according to one favorite image a Great Chain of Being.  I prefer Chaucer’s phraseology: the fair chain of love.  And though human beings exist in dazzling variety and have organized themselves in myriad ways, what is called the nuclear family with its biological basis in stable heterosexual mating, its economic basis in cooperation, and its spiritual basis in love, has a pretty impressive record of ubiquity and longevity.  Sixty years seems a long time until you compare it with sixty generations, and sixty behind that of productive familial transition.  But as Dr. Johnson remarked, precept is generally posterior to performance.  At our anniversary dinner we were having no such lofty philosophical musings, surrounded by the energy, ambition, promise and achievement of our wonderful children and grandchildren, happily conversing  and laughing as we downed a good meal in a happy setting.  We were not required to try to jog up any podium stairs, or to fist-bump even a tolerable tyrant.  Mostly we were exchanging a few highlights of happy memories too numerous to count.  It was all very age-appropriate.  I was not trying to run anything.  I had had to arrange nothing, or even pay for it.  All Joan and I had to do was show up.  Then we could just sit there and bask in  a seniority sentimental rather than executive in its nature.  Naturally, my favorite lines from Tennyson, ones from the “Morte d’Arthur” once again came to mind.  It is the response of the old king to Sir Bedivere as the latter laments the dissolution of the Round Table.  The ailing king says this: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”  We do hope, of course, that we really have been a good custom.  There’s less doubt surrounding the new order.


Shakespearean Old Age by Robert Smirke, R. A.






Wednesday, July 13, 2022

The Naked Truth


There was in last week’s paper an interesting piece about Henry Tudor and Catalina Aragona, alias Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, the sixteenth-century royals.  These two formed a typical New York Times power couple, except for the fact that they both have been dead for nearly five hundred years.  Catherine was Wife Number One, who got cancelled when Harry’s wandering eye landed on Anne Boleyn.  An enterprising Harvard graduate student, Vanessa Braganza, thinks she has found a previously unremarked message from Catherine concerning this matter hidden in clear sight in a cypher, or allegorical emblem, in some seldom consulted old archival papers.  According to the researcher’s interpretation, Catherine wanted to make a coded statement of her enduring claim to be Henry’s unique wife, or at least his unique queen.  This was not at all his plan.  And as Henry VIII did not like to be crossed, if you were going to cross him, it probably would be best to do so in a fashion he could not easily grasp.   So the cypher and its possible interpretation are themselves very interesting topics, but not the ones I shall pursue in this essay.


What claims my attention is the more general proclivity of the old artists—whether in visual media, literature, or even musical composition—to embed cryptic meaning in their artistic creations.  One of our great Renaissance poets, Edmund Spenser, wrote an epic allegorical poem for, and about, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth I.  It is called in its ye-olde printed form The Faerie Queene, and it is a very long narrative dealing with ethical, political, and theological issues beneath the veil of what Spenser calls a “dark conceit”—meaning a complex and obscure metaphorical covering that the reader must strive to  penetrate and illuminate.  We rightly worry about the bad effects that divorce might have on the children.  Is it a stretch to suppose that growing up knowing your daddy had your mommy’s head chopped off might cast some shadow across the emotional life of a daughter?  One does notice that Elizabeth I chose not to marry.  Might studying the Fairy Queen, which has proved to be a full life’s work for several prominent scholars and a life sentence for some of their students, have been suggested in part to occupy its dedicatee’s mind and perhaps help purge it of unpleasant family memories?


The allegorical dimensions of our earlier art present vast fields of interest and of study, to which I applied myself for many years.  The allegorical mentality long antedated the Christian era, but it was greatly enriched by the traditions of Jewish and Christian biblical exegesis in Late Antiquity and the earlier Middle Ages.  The justification for scriptural obscurity offered by Augustine and many others was a familiar one to all teachers.  You get out of a learning experience what you put into a learning experience.  Truths learned through assiduous application are more secure than those with which you are spoon fed. 


But what about the naked truth?  Common expressions like “the simple truth…”, “the truth is…” or “the fact of the matter…” seem to suggest that truth is eventually a rather simple business, and that we too often distort, dilute, or complicate it in our daily life.  In an earlier essay I mentioned my pleasure at discovering a novel called The Relic (1887) by the Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós.  Eça is rightly considered an important realist writer who was much influenced by earlier and contemporary French writers like Balzac, Flaubert, and even Zola.  In politics he was a liberal, indeed a socialist, and part of a group of writers who were trying to bring new social and political ideas into their native land.  Their revolution had a literary agenda as well.  They explicitly challenged the conventionality and sentimentality of decadent Romanticism for its lack of “truth” and “sincerity”.  But The Relic is a wild and nearly indescribable combination of social realism, extravagant satire, travelog, and what amounts to theological science fiction.  In an early edition of the book the author tried to alert his readers by adding the following epigraph: “Over the stark nakedness of truth, the diaphanous cloak of fantasy.”  Eça is claiming that beneath a plot that is at times fantastic the adept reader will find a good deal of social and political truth.


For a very particular reason, the nakedness of truth rang a bell in my mind.  Around 1970 we launched a private printing operation from our living room.  We did publish a few small books, but our main productions at that time were elegant posters advertising public lectures on campus.  Among our friends was the historian Carl Schorske, who for years was Joan’s fellow violinist in a string quartet.  During the decade of the ‘70s he was completing his celebrated book about the rich cultural life of Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.*  Carl, who died a centenarian in 2015, presented some of the chapters of his book as they were finished as public lectures and/or discreet journal essays.  He was prevailed upon to offer a public lecture on one dealing with the visual arts (“Gustav Klimt: Painting and the Crisis of the Liberal Ego”) on the Princeton campus.  We got the commission for a poster.  I hope a copy survives somewhere.  It was one of our better efforts.

The Kiss

Most people know the work of the Viennese painter Gustav Klimt (1864-1918), if only for his sensational painting “The Kiss,” a hot contender (along with Che Guevara in a beret) for the artwork most likely to be hanging on an undergraduate’s dormitory wall around 1975.  But we lacked the facilities for polychrome elaboration, and the image we chose, stunning in its black and white, was Klimt’s own poster-like version of “Nuda Veritas” (the Naked Truth) in line etching.  



 It featured a German motto to the effect that “Truth is fire and to speak the truth is both a shining and a burning”—the constructive and destructive aspects of artistic revolution, perhaps.  For artistic revolutionaries, “in with the new” definitely implied “out with the old.”  Klimt’s “Nuda Veritas” is an image that particularly engaged me because it is of an iconographic type—interesting females with mirrors in hand—with a very long tradition in medieval and Renaissance art.  These ladies include the cardinal virtue of Prudence and the vice of Lust.  In Dante, biblical Rachel, a type of the contemplative life, never ceases from staring into her mirror.  In the Romance of the Rose a dubious lady porter named Idleness greets the Lover at the gate, a mirror in her hand.


But back to Gustav Klimt.  He was a founding member of a revolutionary group of artists called the “Vienna Secession” or simply the “Secessionists,” who like most other groups of revolutionary artists claimed to discover or to reclaim the elemental truth of art.  What I am now trying to figure out is whether it is even conceivable that hyper-cosmopolitan Vienna could reflect the influence of the benighted and parochial Lisbon of 1871, when Eça and other young Portuguese intellectuals formed a group with similar artistic and political aims.  It did not name itself, but is now known as the “Generation of ‘70”.  As Schorske pointed out, the first thing one notices about Klimt’s “Nuda Veritas” is its vera nuditas.  On this occasion he omitted any diaphanous cloak (manto diáfono) in favor of the “stark nakedness” part.  But the good Lord knows that when it comes to diaphanous women’s cloaks nobody did them much better than Klimt.



And it is quite possible to be a little too diaphanous.  You may think that the Portuguese sculptor António Teixeira Lopes (d. 1942) succumbed to this temptation in his monument to Eça’s unflinching search for the naked truth.  The author is not flinching, but he may in the circumstances be somewhat overdressed.






*Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (NY: Knopf, 1980).


Wednesday, July 6, 2022

White Pebbles


             If you are in search of good news these you’d best grab what you can when you can.  That is what I did when I accidentally stumbled upon an online paper published by three scientists under the title “Human Mortality Improvement in Evolutionary Context.”  Here’s the take-away.  (Spoiler alert: it’s heavy going.)  We quantify the rate and amount of mortality reduction by comparing a variety of human populations to the evolved human mortality profile, here estimated as the average mortality pattern for ethnographically observed hunter-gatherers. We show that human mortality has decreased so substantially that the difference between hunter-gatherers and today’s lowest mortality populations is greater than the difference between hunter-gatherers and wild chimpanzees.


            Wow!  Wild chimpanzees.


I happen to be interested in hunter-gatherers because I am one--in both a metaphorical and a literal sense.  My metaphorical gatherings come mainly from eclectic not to say odd-ball reading (sample above), while my material gatherings are mainly the by-products of my therapeutic ambulation.  This week the two have merged in curious fashion.  My medical advisors are trying to keep my molecules moving by beginning with my legs.  So I am supposed to take what is for me a substantial and challenging walk every day, and I have frequently alluded to these walks, occasionally even described them in blog posts.  The possible satisfactory walking routes are of course limited, but also varied, and most of them avoid pavement in favor of sylvan paths.  On the whole the routes are very pleasant.  But I always enjoy walking more if I can hunt and gather as I go.  According to season I can sometimes gather fungi or nuts.  Within the next ten days the raspberry harvest, which promises to be huge, will be hanging over, or beside, many footpaths.  But my staple quarry are little white pebbles roughly between the size of peppercorns and ping pong balls.  As these little white pebbles are a geological feature of much of the local topsoil rather than seasonal vegetation, they are my gathering mainstays, so to speak; but they probably do require some explanation.


A nice feature of our house is a little atrium, or enclosed garden, open to the sky, probably fifteen feet square.  It has some floral plantings and shrubbery, a tiny pool with a spouting dolphin-mouth faucet electrically controlled by a switch in our kitchen, and a short gravel path along which our pet turtles, Chloë and Hector, sedately parade.  A heavily used bird feeder hovers above.  One day it occurred to me that this quirky little secret garden, which gets only a few daily hours of direct sunlight,  could use a little more light.  It might be further improved if the pathway gravel, instead of being a dull gray, were a light-attracting shiny white.  And since wherever I walked I was noticing a scattering of little while pebbles, often half-buried in hard earth, I thought I might start gathering a few on the daily round.  All I needed to carry was a small pointed metal tool to loosen some of the pebbles, and as a receptacle a quart-sized plastic milk container, the mouth of which was, I discovered by happy chance, a serviceable size-gauge. Early experience suggested that if I gather a hundred or so a day for, say, three years, one might begin to see results.  And it’s usually more fun than not to be “doing something”—even if what you are doing is pretty footling.



Of course, I encounter many other walkers, runners, and bicyclists along the route—either coming toward me or overtaking my leisurely pace from behind.  These people are likely to see me scour the ground, lean over, poke at things with a strange weapon, and put something into a milk bottle.  About a third pretend they don’t see me. Another third are curious as hell but too polite to say anything but “Nice day for it,” or some such, let alone ask what “it” is.  But some small number do ask.  I always tell them: “I am gathering white pebbles.”  Maybe half of this group persists: “What for?” Again, I always answer truthfully: “To brighten up my atrium path.”  We are now talking about small numbers.  I can tell that the fraction of the fraction believing me is maybe fifty percent.  It is not easy to mask incredulity and dark suspicion.  What the skeptical think I was doing is unclear to me, but it obviously isn’t anything good, and I shall not be surprised if I find a detective at my door one day.


In my secondary hunter-gatherer role, also known as library mode, or the bibliographical, I was this week reading a few short stories.  I picked up my de Maupaussant, and almost immediately stumbled upon the classic “La Ficelle” (“The Piece of String”).  How could I have failed to think of it in this connection before?!  You may well know the plot, but here it is in brief.  In some benighted corner of nineteenth-century rural Normandy, two prosperous peasants, Maitre Hauchecorne and Maitre Malandain, are, for reasons unstated, ancestral enemies.  Hauchecorne is a compulsive hunter-gatherer skinflint who picks up anything he finds along the way that might conceivably prove useful in some conceivable circumstance.  Walking into the village of Goderville on a market day, he spots a small piece of discarded string on the path before him, leans over, and picks it up.  One never can tell when a piece of string might come in handy!  Only then does he realize that his nemesis, Malandain, is watching him from a distance.  Embarrassed to be so discovered, Hauchecorne then makes a show of looking around a wider area as though for something valuable he has dropped.  This is a technique well known to anyone who has ever been threatened with discovery while intending to take a pee behind a tree, should such people exist.  The market activities continue into a kind of communal lunch, which is interrupted by the announcement of a horn-blowing town crier.  I love this detail, because as recently as the early 1960s Joan and I lived in a delightful Provençal village where there still was such an official!  The town-crier’s electrifying announcement is this.  A certain local citizen has lost a wallet containing 500 francs and business papers, having apparently dropped it on the road to Goderville.  Has anyone any relevant knowledge?  Handsome reward offered, etc.  “Aha,” thinks Malandain, “So that was what Hauchecorne was up to!”  He informs the police of what he thinks he saw, and soon the whole village buzzes with gossip.  To no effect does Hauchecorne keep repeating “It was only a bit of string!”  Nobody believes him.  I mean—who would pick up a dirty piece of string?  Eventually the lost wallet is found intact and restored to its owner, but by then, it’s way too late.  Hauchecorne’s reputation as thief, liar, or fool—take your pick--has set in the concrete of village malevolence.  Poor Hauchecorne spends the last of his few tormented days telling and retelling his story to unbelieving neighbors.  “It was only a piece of string!”


There seem to be at least two things worth pondering in all this.  One of the sadder maxims of La Rochefoucauld is that even “in the adversity of our best friends we often find something that is not exactly displeasing.” The alacrity with which so many of us are quick to think the worst of strangers is perhaps even more frightening.  


old sidewalk slab and pebble scattering

        The geology of the pebbles is also worth a thought.  To my untrained eye they are a mixture of rock types, some ignious quartz, but more metamorphic limestone.  Where do these light-colored stones come from?  Not far from my house are some old, crude poured concrete sidewalks, much decayed by invasive vegetation.  The normal size of the sidewalk section is a four-by-four foot square.  The concrete was but roughly finished by trowel, and I note that in general there are on the average surface visible between ten and twenty white pebbles of the sort that, if they were poking through the bare earth of a field, I might go after.  I presume that roughly reflects the “white pebble” component, maybe five percent, of the commercial gravel piles used by the masons.  Many of the light-colored stones seem to have spent half an eon or so engaging with the abrasive sand of a sea bottom.  That puzzles me because in my very limited personal experience  white pebbles are actually quite rare among the shingle of the swimming beaches of the Jersey Shore.