Saturday, June 13, 2009

Of Columns, Communists, and Camões

Professor Fleming’s Last Column…

For the last decade or so of my active service on the Princeton faculty, I wrote an opinion column—at first biweekly, then weekly-- for the Daily Princetonian. Its title, “Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche” was probably “overdetermined”, as the literary critics say. It is of course a phrase from the concluding couplet of Chaucer’s description of the Clerk of Oxenford in the Canterbury Tales.
Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wold he lerne and gladly teche.

Many years ago I was at a reading at which Stephen Spender read one of his most famous poems (“I think continually of those who are were truly great”). The poem, written in his youth, seemed now to embarrass his middle age. Of its well-known initial line he said this: “It’s one of those awful boring things poets say, like ‘I pray all the time,’ or maybe ‘I gladly learn and gladly teach’.” It was with a similar awareness of pious cliché that I succumbed to the inevitability of the title for my column. After all, I was probably best known on campus for my Chaucer course, English 307; and Chaucer’s Clerk is the closest thing in Chaucer to a college professor. On May 15, 2006, I published the following valetudinarian column. It is, perhaps, a little solemn. I had the poignant sense, of course, of bidding farewell to the active phase of a teaching career from which I had derived endless satisfaction. I had yet to learn just how many and how rich would be the opportunities offered by retirement. As my title made clear, I certainly thought I was saying goodbye forever to "Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche."

Eschatology, the theological science of the Last Things so important for the understanding of much medieval literature, turns out to have a modest branch relevant to the Academy. I am practically awash in last things. I've given my last lecture and conducted my last preceptorial. I've directed my last senior thesis and written my last thesis comment. A few lasts still remain: last Honors meeting, last farewell party, last Commencement. Today, it's my last column.
It must be toward number 300, but my spotty records go back only to 1995, so I cannot say for sure. People have been generous with suggestions of ways I might spend my time in retirement, including that I might try to recuperate a full bibliography of my fugitive pieces. I have higher things in mind, like Court TV. But I do remember when in the early '90s the new chairman of the 'Prince' first approached me. Like so many before and since, he brought a reformer's zeal to his high office. He wanted to make the paper broader in appeal, more catholic in tone, more adventurous of initiative. Bill Clinton in recently naming his first cabinet had said that he wanted it "to look like America." This editor wanted his masthead "to look like Princeton." Its writers would include undergraduates, graduate students, administrative staff, even a faculty member. "After all, if you look at it from a certain point of view," he told me, "the faculty are an important part of the University too." Flattery will get you anywhere. The rest is history.
My learned books and essays mined with strenuous labor over months and years from the hidden chambers of the world's great libraries got me tenure and respectful footnotes in other learned books and essays. Only my 'Prince' columns, often written in an hour on trains or airplanes, have involved me in a large weekly international correspondence. They have been anthologized, blogged, plagiarized, refuted, excoriated, stretched upon the cruel rack of the Internet and even fatwaed. Through them I have made life-changing connections. This is not a bad showing for a professor of medieval literature, but it is one enabled only by the special genius of this place.

So the theme of this last column must be my sincerest gratitude for the inestimable privilege of living and working for four decades in this community of scholars, Princeton University, which when it is true to its best aspirations still brings together the young and old, students and faculty, to join in fruitful and often joyous collaborations of the mind and heart. I speak of its "best aspirations" for there are others less good but of siren voice and dangerous attractive powers.

During the last few weeks, I have basked in a bright sunshine of affection and undeserved adulation. I have received messages of retirement congratulations, probably in the hundreds, from former students. There was an international scholarly conference in my honor at which a number of the world's greatest scholars of medieval Franciscan culture joined in conversation so nearly angelic as to echo the table-talk of Thomas and Bonaventure in the ancient refectories of Paris. I was the subject of an approbatory unsigned editorial on this very page. Having to share its accolades with my friend John Gager was a small price to pay for the association with a literary genre previously unknown to the annals of campus journalism. After the midpoint intermission of one of the most exciting concerts ever heard in Richardson Auditorium, I was publicly proclaimed an honorary member of the Princeton University Orchestra. That must have been on the basis of my charm, because the actual audition left a little to be desired.
The more substantial honor, available to all Princetonians whether they spend 40 years here as I have done or four years as most of you who read this will do, is the privilege of being a part of one of the world's great universities. To live and work as glad learners or glad teachers among the freshness and talent of youth and in the reflected brilliance of noted scholars and scientists, eminent writers and artists, experts in many fields committed to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and the interested application of human thought to the daunting challenges of the human condition — that is our shared honor. And though there are few occasions when academic taste would allow so bald and unironic a statement of so obvious a piety, surely a last column is one of the few.

….and His First Blog…

But that was the last installment of Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche, the column; this is the first installment of Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche, the blog. (Stay tuned for Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche. the movie, the opera, and the theme-park.) I do not embrace this genre blithely. Indeed, could anyone gladly blog? Whoever invented the word “blogosphere” hadn’t really thought through the reality. The word “sphere” suggests a pleasing and spacious rotundity filled, perhaps, with an odorless crystalline aether too fine to delay even briefly the busy commerce of great thoughts that flash through it at the speed of light. But though there is indeed a great deal of gas bubbling up through the blogosphere, the medium itself is not gaseous. It is liquid, or at least semi-liquid, a murky pool so filled with tree snags and discarded truck tires as to be a kind of submerged junk-yard in colloid suspension. The better term might be blogomere—a mere being in the earlier forms of our language a kind of spooky, cold lagoon, the sinister watery haunt of uncouth monsters like Grendel and his Mom. Yet here I go, diving blindly into that Stygian pool without so much as a canister of Airwick for protection. There is one glimmer of comfort. After all, when one has become johnvflemingdotcom, there is no lower one can sink.

…in which he explains why he has sunk so low

I feel compelled to attempt an explanation of why, at my advanced age and state of mental infirmity, I should start a blog. As I teetered on the brink of folly, I naturally took the advice of several esteemed experts, gurus, techies, computer wonks, and Anglican clergymen. The advice I got was varied and largely contradictory, but there was one constant theme. I repeatedly heard, and usually in these very words: “Any fool can put together a blog.” That advice was actually superfluous, since I had by then already spent quite a lot of time looking at people’s blogs. The question needing resolution in my mind was slightly different. Do you have to be a fool to put together a blog? The answer, though never direct, seemed sufficiently clear. Being a plain country fool is not technically required of the blogger, but it is an enormous advantage. Nonetheless, here I go. I am doing it for two reasons, one good reason, and another one.
The good reason is that I am greatly inspired by the blog (“A Brooklynite on the Ice”) created by my number-one son, Richard Fleming. Yes, that is indeed Richard A. Fleming, the well-known travel writer, and most recently the author of Walking to Guantánamo, which has overnight become the gold standard of Cuba books. Rich’s blog is eclectic, but it has a number of detectable recurring themes.

The famed White Space Gallery, Atlanta: Richard A. Fleming being interviewed with intensity by the cultural press at the opening of his recent one-man show of photographs of Cuba

Primarily, I suppose, it is the diary of a world traveler. He seems to hang out in the world’s most interesting places. Under these circumstances the simplest account of where he is and what he’s up to is likely to strike us stay-at-home types as exotic high adventure. Special interests occupy a certain number of posts: bird-watching, for example, pursued as a surrogate religion, or Afro-Caribbean music, his actual religion. When he is at home, home is his very cool house, in a state of permanent reclamation and renovation, on Coffey Street in Red Hook. In the unlikely event that anyone outside my immediate family is reading this, I should perhaps say that Red Hook is a particularly happening neighborhood in waterfront Brooklyn, and that Brooklyn is one of the boroughs of New York City. The Red Hook scene provides material for a number of his posts. One of his best ideas, which I have already ripped off in my “Current Reading” section, is to offer occasional impromptu book reviews of whatever worthwhile comes his way. Here the sub-specialty, I suppose, is classic travel literature, but again he casts his net quite wide. This fellow has been a voracious reader since he was about five, and since he is also of a markedly independent cast of mind, some pretty out-of-the-way stuff shows up from time to time. And Rich is a fine writer, way better than I have come to expect of Princeton graduates. Of course I don’t want to bury the blog in praise, as it is not above criticism. For example one can point to its obscurantist title, which fossilizes the fallacy of the short-term thought. The title once made excellent sense. He undertook this project during a protracted stay in Antarctica, but that was quite a long time ago. In general the Brooklynite now seems to spend most of his time in torrid climes, equatorial Africa and tropical Latin America being his apparently favorite haunts. These places don’t have much to do with ice, beyond wishful thinking. Since I intend to keep on teaching gladly and, especially, learning gladly, I hope I am on firmer ground.

The other reason is the johnvflemingdotcom reason. The blog is supposed add a hint of redeeming social purpose to the website established in response to the emphatic recommendation of the marketing mavens at W.W. Norton & Co. as a device to advertise—and with luck even hawk a few copies of—my book in the process of publication at their distinguished publishing house. That would be The Anti-Communist Manifestos [ISBN 978-0393069259], scheduled for publication on August 17, 2009, but already selling well at its rank of 2,046,013. And of course it is pre-orderable by early-birds, or indeed anybody else with an appetite for worms, at

Uncle Joe reacted with suspicion to the very title of the book…and that was before reading a single word of text!

In case anyone is wondering how a nice medievalist like me ended up writing a book about four masterworks of anti-Communist literature of the mid-twentieth century, it just so happens that I was already intending to offer an explanation. The first reason is personal history. I was actually born in the twentieth century, and, as it happens, in 1936. That was in America the year of Roosevelt’s second election victory and in the USSR the year of the super-Purge and the much-vaunted “Stalin constitution”. I’ve always done a lot of recreational reading about the 1930s, with sub-specialties in American proletarian literature and the Spanish Civil War, both of which topics eventually turned out to be highly relevant to my theme. But the project had its beginnings not in a desire to write a book, but in an effort to bind one. I explain the strange genesis in my “Introduction”.

I am an amateur printer and book-binder. Topics relating to my large home pressroom-cum-library will doubtless provide materials for future postings. What are called “boards” in binder’s lingo are really slabs of very dense cardboard to be covered with leather or, much more frequently cloth. The language of the print shop is highly conservative, and a good deal of social and material history is preserved in its vocabulary. In the period of early printing the boards really were wooden, and you can still find oak-clad volumes in the great rare book collections. Large sheets of binder’s board having become expensive and not always easily available, I adopted an unconventional strategy. A second-hand book dealer of my acquaintance sells off in bulk and very cheaply books that he regards as otherwise unsellable. I buy, butcher, and recycle the covers of such books. In picking my materials my only concern is the size—the bigger the better-- and condition of the boards. I seldom even note the titles.

One day, for no good reason whatsoever, I picked up one such book in my workshop and instead of dismembering I started reading it. After two or three pages I couldn’t put it down. It was a thick stout octavo with fine boards covered with strong blue cloth. It was Out of the Night, by Jan Valtin. I had never heard of it, or of him. My ignorance rather embarrassed me later when I learned that it had been the best-selling American book of its year, 1941. Out of the Night purports to be the autobiography of a German sailor and Communist agent caught up in the political madness of the 1930s as the Reds and the Browns battled in the streets of German cities. The first serendipity of discovering the book was dwarfed by a second. When I went over to the Firestone Library to try to learn something more about “Jan Valtin” (the pseudonym of Richard Julius Hermann Krebs, of whom I had also never heard) I discovered that by remarkable chance the library had very recently come into possession of the author’s whole archive. In it I found a gripping story—several stories, rather—about the world-wide role of Comintern espionage and subversion, about the attractive powers of Communism for many American intellectuals in the 1930s, about the role of popular literature in the great conflict that would eventually be called the Cold War. As I was writing about “Jan Valtin” for the Princeton University Library Chronicle [“The ‘Truth” About Jan Valtin,” PULC, lxvii (2005/6): 68-80], I recalled a conversation I had had at a social occasion thirty years earlier. At an academic reception I found myself chatting with a colleague I had never before laid eyes on—Nina Berberova, of the Slavic Department. I would not for some years read her wonderful memoir, The Italics Are Mine (1969), which confirms the impression I picked up from that conversation—namely, that this fascinating woman had known personally just about every important Russian writer of the twentieth century. The one she talked about that day was a colorful character, a Russian political defector, who had written a very important book that caused a big stink in Paris. Thirty-five years later I could remember neither the defector nor his book, but it was the work of two minutes to recover them: Victor Kravchenko, author of I Chose Freedom (1946). Meanwhile, I had for several years been teaching Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940) in a course called “Masterworks of European Literature.” I realized that there was a body of very powerful anti-Communist literature that had little to do with the caricature visions of J. Edgar Hoover or Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was clear that this literature had played no small role in the broad anti-Communist consensus that emerged in American public opinion. Even further it seemed to me that certain of these books demarked a definite literary genre, though at first I couldn’t define it. But my brilliant number-two son Luke could. He was the one who came up with my title: The Anti-Communist Manifestos.

Only later did I add the fourth book to my study: Whittaker Chambers’s Witness (1952). I knew all along that I needed one with a specifically American focus, as the three others have European settings. Communism was never a serious political possibility in the United States, as it undoubtedly had been at different times in Germany, France, and Italy; but it played a far larger role in the imaginative universe of American intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s than is sometimes remembered today. Witness is a quite remarkable book from the artistic point of view. Like the three others it aroused ferocious controversy, although the history of its publication was, when compared with theirs, straight-forward. Chambers’s book was actually a part of my own lived experience. I read excerpts from it as they appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, to which my grandmother subscribed. When I got to college in 1954 one of my history professors said straight out, in the middle of a lecture, that the book was a pack of lies, that Alger Hiss was guilty of nothing but having progressive political ideas, that Whittaker Chambers was a despicable man and a pervert, a tool of the yet more despicable Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had by then become prominent in the news. That was long before I became a professor myself, and I then still tended to believe that what a professor said had to be true.
The details of the “Hiss-Chambers case” are a little complex, and I doubt that you have them in the forefront of your mind. If you are interested, you can find them in my book or a dozen others. I think the most elegant general treatment is still the first one, A Generation on Trial by Alistair Cooke (1950). Cooke, of course, was the memorably suave and vertical Britamerican who spent his golden years introducing the episodes of Masterpiece Theater on television. The most comprehensive is Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: the Hiss-Chambers Case. (1978). But just for the moment take my word for it that Hiss was convicted of perjury not merely on the basis of the oral testimony of Whittaker Chambers, but on the basis of actual documents. In order for Alger Hiss to have been innocent, it would have been necessary that these documents be forgeries. Though both possibilities are most unlikely, it is actually slightly more probable that apes with Apple computers wrote all the works of Shakespeare than that Chambers and/or his friends forged the “Pumpkin Papers”. Nonetheless it was for several decades a fundamental clause in the political creed of many American historians that Hiss was guiltless and that Chambers, probably with the aid of J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI and/or Richard Nixon of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, had indeed performed “forgery by typewriter,” in Hiss’s parting words to the court.

Whittaker Chambers apparently can’t bear to read about it …or has he been distracted by the sudden arrival of the historical Furies knocking at his front door? In America, a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. But his partisans’ presumption of Hiss’s innocence only got its full head of steam once he had been convicted by a jury of his peers. Had not Yeats written, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”?

The historiography of the Hiss-Chambers affair beautifully exemplifies in miniature the historiography of American Communism generally. About half of what is written is intended less to explore the political battles of the 1930s than to fight them over again in a contemporary idiom, and in the same bitter partisan spirit. George Orwell once said that there had been more lies published about the Spanish Civil War than any other topic in history. The claim is improbable from the statistical point of view, and so global as to be beyond verification. Having immersed myself for more than a year in the battle between Communists and anti-Communists around 1940, however, I conclude that Orwell may have at least identified the right general historical period. The apothegm that the first casualty of war is truth applies to cold wars as well as hot ones. I am not speaking here of error or licitly varying interpretations. There is a difference between being wrong in a particular historical judgment, which is the common fate of all historians, and embracing a prejudice that guarantees that you will never be right. The literal meaning of prejudice, of course, is pre-judgment, judgment prior to the investigation on which judgment should in theory be based. One of the country’s most venerable organs of liberal thought, the Nation magazine, embraced a prejudiced view of the Hiss-Chambers affair in 1948 and has been unable to wriggle free even yet. A more elaborate exemplification of the phenomenon, which in my book I call the misapplication of the Sherlock Holmes Principle, is provided by the website “The Alger Hiss Story” ( Sherlock Holmes several times enunciates the following principle: when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however unlikely, will be the truth. Begin with the premise that it was impossible for Hiss to have been a Soviet agent, and “forgery by typewriter,” though of infinitesimal likelihood, suddenly will become plausible to you. The Communists of the 1930s thought that the Soviet Union could never be wrong. If you didn’t think that, you couldn’t be a Communist. Some anti-Communists, on the other hand, thought that the Soviet Union could never be right. Those are not very promising a priori historical principles, and their efficacy is only slightly improved by transporting their lineal descendants to the history books of the 1980s and 1990s.


HAVING thus fulfilled my commercial duties of shameless self-promotion to a degree sufficient, I hope, to justify the com and maybe even the dot, I now propose to move on, with or without the org, to a topic of the kind I hope will be more worthy, in the long run, of the ambitions of “Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche”. To be specific, I want to teach you something I recently learned. At the beginning of June the University of Massachusetts [at Dartmouth] Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture announced the publication, through the Luso-American Foundation in Lisbon, of a new bilingual edition of Sonnets and Other Poems by Luís de Camões, the original texts together with contemporary English versions by Richard Zenith, whose reputation at a translator of Portuguese literary texts is already well established. Among the world’s truly great poets, and I am here talking about the top fifty at most, Luís de Camões is one of the least widely appreciated. The fact is lamentable, but not inexplicable. To begin with he wrote in Portuguese, a language which, though the tongue of one of the globe’s vast and populous countries, is insufficiently know both here and in Europe. Next, Luís de Camões is the author of a “classic,” the Lusiads, and as every reader of Mark Twain knows “a classic is a book everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read”. Next, his classic has recently been assigned to the PC Index librorum prohibitorum, as its subject is the Portuguese imperial expansion of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Next, Luís de Camões is a very smart poet, and he makes the risky assumption that his reader should be smart too. The truth is that you will hardly begin to appreciate the Lusiads unless you have a little experience in reading previous classical writers such as Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch, the same being true, of course, of Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch and indeed most other poets worth reading. But finally, when you get down to it, the real problem is that Luís de Camões looks slightly alarming

It is very hard for your average modern reader to relate to a one-eyed guy looking distinctly ruffled in his ferrous sweatshirt, sporting leaves in his hair, and propping up a volume apparently printed back to front. This sort of thing is perhaps appropriate for baroque title-pages, memorial bronze medals, and rare Angolan postage stamps; but it simply is not going to cut it on American Idol. He lost his eye nobly, incidentally. If you think the Somali pirates are a menace now, you should have seen them back in the day.
It is often said that the Lusiads has no hero, or at least no personal hero, its hero being the Portuguese nation. “With a fine audacity Camões begins his poem with the words As armas e os barões: arms and the men I sing, as compared with Virgil’s Armas virumque,” writes Aubrey Bell, one of the first great English-speaking critics of Iberian poetry, and himself a classic. “He takes for his subject a whole nation, and as a result his epic, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, is without a hero. On such lines it required true genius a spirited and living poem.” I believe that I have read all the major Renaissance epics, and at one time studied or taught most of them. Like Bell I find only one of them truly comparable with the Lusiads, and that is Milton’s. Fortunately there are many good translations available, though the best, both for its poetic sense and for the richness of its notes, is that by Leonard Bacon, sponsored by the Hispanic Society of America in 1950. But just as the reader aspiring to approach for the first time Virgil’s Æneid or Ovid’s Metamorphoses might well be counseled to make a preparatory excursion beginning with two or three of the Eclogues, or with something from the Amores of Ovid or his always delightful Art of Love, I would advise a beginner to approach Luís de Camões through some or his shorter lyrics on amatory or religious themes. A very good place to start would be this new bilingual edition of Sonnets and Other Poems. I myself hope one day to devote a substantial study to one of the extended redondilhas, the “Babylon and Zion,” the religious and philosophical poem that no less an expert than the great Lope de Vega called “the pearl of all poetry”.