Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Miss Martineau and the Martyr Age




Anna Jameson (1794-1860)

Last week’s essay about an icon (a real, painted one) set me to thinking briefly about Anna Jameson, an early Victorian “independent scholar” (to use the current term) who introduced me to the fascinating topic of Christian iconography long before I had developed any serious leanings toward Medieval Studies.  Two of her books in particular—Sacred and Legendary Art and Legends of the Monastic Orders—opened up for me a world of early European painting years before I would ever lay eyes on an actual painting.

So persistent was the male domination of her cultural world that her title pages generally identified the author as “Mrs. Jameson”.   That put her in the same class with several other Victorian writers I stumbled upon in my early years, including the poet “Mrs. Hemans,” the novelist “Mrs. Humphry Ward,” and the novelist and popular historian “Mrs. Oliphant”.  Anna’s most famous work, a study of Shakespeare’s heroines, is enjoying a revival in the feminist turn taken by literary study.

One thing (Anna Jameson) leads to another (Harriet Martineau).  During the week I was surprised to come upon a review from the pen Henry James of a biography of Anna Jameson (1878).*  The biographer was Anna’s niece Geraldine Macpherson, one of whose principal motives, according to James, was to do “justice to a memory cruelly disparaged by that very heavy-handed genius, Miss Martineau…”  A “very heavy-handed genius” being even more intriguing than a “very stable genius”, this naturally sent me off to search for some cruel disparagement in the pages of Harriet Martineau’s memoirs.


      
         (Harriet Martineau, 1802-1876)

But I never got there, having been providentially sidetracked by an extraordinary essay by Martineau entitled “The Martyr Age of the United States”.  There are not too many obscure nineteenth-century journal articles that every thoughtful American ought to have read, but I dare suggest this is one of them.  Martineau published it in the December, 1838, number of the London and Westminster Review.  She had made a long visit to the United States in the 1830s, her fame preceding her.  Her fabulously successful Illustrations of Political Economy (1832) was a great international best-seller, which in its sales left the novels of Dickens in the dust.  

Ostensibly “The Martyr Age” is a review of three anonymous pamphlets she attributes to the Boston abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman, each entitled “Right and Wrong in Boston in ---,” the blank being filled by the dates 1835, 1836, and 1837.  It is actually a spirited account of the principal abolitionists in New England, their character, their modus operandi, and their tribulations.  Martineau hardly suppresses her own attitudes toward chattel slavery, but she writes as a sociologist, not as a polemicist.  “There is a remarkable set of people now living and vigorously acting in the world, with a consonance of will and understanding which has perhaps never been witnessed among so large a number of individuals of such diversified powers, habits, opinions, tastes and circumstances,” she writes.  “A well-grounded faith, directed towards a noble object, is the only principle which can account for such a spectacle as the world is now waking up to contemplate in the abolitionists of the United States.”

Maria Weston Chapman (1806-1885)

While is it historically inspiring that a woman of Martineau’s moral character could so praise a large group of our American forebears, there is a cascade of less welcome news around the edges.  Some of the sobering facts that a reader picks up incidentally in reading the essay include the following.  She entitles her piece “Martyr Age” because of the great physical danger that faced public opponents of slavery not in Charleston or New Orleans but in Boston and New York.  Abolitionist meetings in the North were frequently barracked and mobbed, sometimes with lethal violence.

The abolitionist movement, though broadly based, is extraordinary for its female leaders.  Such famous male abolitions as William Lloyd Garrison and the Unitarian clergyman William Ellery Channing were generally shunned by elected politicians (all of whom were of course male).  The abolitionist movement was overwhelmingly and explicitly Christian in its inspiration, but it was vehemently deplored by many church leaders.  As at so many other moments of social crisis, the conflict tended to be “generational”, and in a way that sheds little honor on the elders.  At a Presbyterian seminary in Cincinnati (Lane) virtually the entire student body was expelled by a scandalized faculty—the offense being the public endorsement of the words of Jesus and Paul.  Large swaths of the white population of the northern states opposed slavery but were more or less enthusiastic proponents of various “resettlement” schemes, often thinly disguised efforts to transport as much of the black population as possible to Africa!  Even among highly educated Americans belief in the social equality of black and white, even of its eventual possibility, was exceedingly rare.  That is another way of saying that white supremacy was the national default.

  Martineau reports that in 1834 a group of “Young Men” in New York City “pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, (in the language and spirit of the Declaration of Independence), to overthrow slavery by moral assault, or to die in the attempt.”  Whether Henry James would hold that Harriet Martineau is “heavy-handed” in her essay on “The Martyr Age of the United States” I cannot say for certain.  But given its power to startle and shame an American reader a hundred and eighty years later, and to remind us that the “words and spirit” of the Declaration still await plenary fulfillment, I’d say that heavy-handedness is perhaps a virtue.  I’ll have to wait for another day to find out what Miss Martineau said about Mrs. Jameson.

*Literary Criticism: Essays on Literature /American Writers/English Writers (Library of America, 22),  pp. 1067-68.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Iconization of Thomas Ken


 
    Saint Thomas Ken by Michel Lafleur (2017) 6" x 8", oils on toile

Thomas Ken (1637-1711), though a somewhat obscure English ecclesiastic, is nonetheless a household name in certain obscure American households, and one particularly well known to me: viz, my own.  A saintly character who became the Bishop of Bath and Wells, he was most notable for two public acts of conscience.  In the summer of 1683 he refused the request of King Charles II’s advance man to give temporary housing to the famous royal mistress, Eleanor (“Nell”) Gwyn, maintaining that “a woman of ill repute ought not to be endured in the house of a clergyman, and especially the king’s chaplain.”  More famously he was one of the non-jurors: a few bishops who at the time of the Glorious Revolution refused to take an oath of fealty to the new king, William of Orange, on the grounds that the old monarch, James II (abdicated or deposed, depending upon your ecclesiastical politics) was still alive.  When I was talking about the inconveniences of resolutions and vows last week, I should have included oaths.

Both of Ken’s actions, and especially the second, took cojones; but his fame in the Fleming household is based on mere calendrical accident.  Ken’s is remembered in the Anglican calendar on March 20.  That is the day Joan happened to be ordained to the priesthood, making him a kind of spiritual patron for her.

That is the first part of the “set up” for this essay.  The second introduces the “Haitian barbershop art” project of our formidable son Richard.  He spends a good deal of time in Haiti, and has taken a great interest in the Haitian art scene, being a regular at the Ghetto Biennale.  There is on the island an amazing flourishing of “tonsorial art”—that is, paintings (rather in the genre of British pub signs) identifying and adorning barbershops and beauty salons, very numerous in Haiti’s service economy.  Richard has been trying to connect some of the artists with potential American clients.

            None of this was at first in my mind as I slowly was developing an idea for the perfect Christmas gift, the idea of a commissioned icon of Thomas Ken.    I knew that, if nothing else, such an image would be unique.   Initial investigation revealed problems.  The first was the problem of a model or prototype.  Ken’s extant iconography is meager.  There is a portrait in New College, Oxford; but aside from that there is little more than the usual author’s portrait etchings in old books--a gloomy-faced senior citizen wearing what look like ecclesiastical pajamas.  The second is that there are not all that many Anglican icon-makers.  I did come upon a very promising one, a woman in New England who does exquisite golden pieces in neo-Byzantine style.  She was game to give it a go, but at a price I could not afford.  Then I thought of the Haitian portraitists with whom Richard is connected.  

            Richard has been helping some of the Barbershop Painters to supplement their income by doing commissioned portraits, based on photographs, in their distinctive vernacular styles.  You send an artist a photo of Uncle Fred with a few general suggestions about size and so forth; the artist does the rest. 

            The word “icon” perhaps requires a little demystification.  It is the Greek word for pictorial representation as image (imago) was the Latin word.  It has come to mean particularly a “religious picture”, though we also have “Civil Rights icons,” computer icons, and other secular icons galore.  In Christian history icons/images have been used both in the decoration of churches and for private devotion.   In popular thought they are particularly associated with the eastern Orthodox churches, though in fact the surviving iconography deriving from Latin (Roman Catholic) traditions is more extensive and more diverse.  Religious pictures have been controversial.  There were major movements of theological image-smashing (iconoclasm) in the East in the eighth and ninth centuries and in the West in the sixteenth.

            We do not know the names of most of the creators of medieval religious art, and the small works of Orthodox devotion we are most likely think of as “icons” may seem characteristically anonymous.  But the name of the fifteenth-century Russian painter Andrei Rublev became widely known through a famous Soviet film.  We think El Greco began as an “icon”-painter, and there are others.  The creator of the world’s first known commissioned icon of Saint Thomas Ken is named Michel Lafleur, and more of his work (both tonsorial and portraiture) can be seen here.  

            The process by which he created the icon was wonderfully medieval.  In writing a doctoral dissertation on the illustrated manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose I discovered the extraordinary degree to which medieval painters regarded themselves as technicians rather than expressive creators.   A scribe needing an image of Lady Fortune might write the simple instruction: “Draw a picture of a woman with a wheel here” and get what he wanted.  Above all, the painters were expert copyists of approved models.  Unfortunately, the only model I could provide for M. Lafleur was a grim neo-classical line-etching.  He did a wonderful job of “byzantinizing” with golden hues; but he couldn’t do much about the weird cameo thing at the bottom of the oval architectural frame.

           

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Best Intentions



Some of the new lockers in Dillon gymnasium
 

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions I am a bit of a trimmer.  While I recognize the logic and perhaps even the inevitability of making a mental connection between the desire for personal reformation and the rebooting of the calendar, I grow wary.  The problem is that I have an exalted understanding of a resolution.  In my mind a resolution is the secular analogue of a religious vow.   A good deal of my academic work has concerned medieval monks and nuns for whom vows were inflexible moral contracts imposing awesome responsibilities that ordinarily could not be abrogated without invoking a terrible social opprobrium in addition, of course, to the mortal sin.
  
   Linguistic manipulation frequently offers an excellent salve to the conscience.  You have undoubtedly run into the remark of the historian Tacitus concerning the Roman mode of military pacification.  “They create a desert and call it peace.”  So I do not speak of New Year’s resolutions.  My term of art is intentions.  We all have intentions.  Some we achieve, others we fail to achieve.  Such failure may be disappointing or discouraging, but it carries no necessary moral indictment.  I won’t list all my current intentions, but they include remembering that garbage pickup day is Friday, hanging no more than three garments from the back of any one chair, flossing under my dental bridges, and reading Don Quijote in Spanish.  My intention most like to succeed is to continue regular physical exercise at an early hour in the Dillon Gymnasium swimming pool.

  The gym is never open on New Year’s Day, but I have noticed over the years that on the second of January, the number of people who show up as the door opens is considerably larger than at any other time of the year.  This augmentation in pre-dawn athleticism generally lasts about ten days to two weeks: the average time a New Year’s resolution takes to fall by the wayside.  Well, yesterday morning I supercharged my intention by deciding that I would be the very first person to enter the men’s locker room in Athletic Year 2018.  So I set off especially early into the frigid blackness intending to be at the very front of the line.  There is a walk of two or three hundred yards from car to gym door.  The campus was very dark, very cold, and very empty.  I saw not a soul, and I was at first simple enough to believe that I had indeed achieved my intention. 

What had actually happened was that the guy who monitors the door had opened it some minutes early, doubtless as an act of charity, as the temperature was, I believe, seven degrees Fahrenheit.  As I entered the locker room I could hear door-clanks from several quarters, and my friend Gary, already in his workout gear, greeted me with a hearty “Happy New Year!”  I was big enough to admit to him that the irrefutable evidence that I was approximately the eighth person to enter the locker room in AY 2018—evidence of which his mere presence was a crushing part—had already made it less happy than it might have been.  This confession elicited friendly guffaws from other, unseen sooners behind various locker banks.  The locker room is fairly small, and has annoyingly good acoustics.

But there was further unintended mirth ahead.  I had not been swimming since before Christmas.  I was in Montreal for a week, and the gym was shut over the long New Year’s weekend.  I had taken the opportunity to put my favorite swimming trunks—actual a pair of green Champion athletic shorts inscribed with fading letters that read COLGATE ATHLETICS—through the washing machine.  I do this on general principles a couple of times a year whether they need it or not.  Naturally they went through the tumbler dryer as well—a material fact relevant to this narrative in a Chekovian sort of way.

For as I stood in the buff preparing to put them on, surrounded by the overachievers who had already and quite without malicious intent blasted my own New Year intention, a funny thing happened to me.  The swimming suit, which I had carried to the gym rolled up in a towel, seemed slightly heavy to me.  I was puzzled.  I shook it a little with both hands.  From one of its legs a kind of neutral colored satiny something slithered to the floor.  It was unmistakably a pair of women’s panties.

You have doubtless yourself experienced the odd effects of static electricity on the well-spun contents of a clothes dryer.  Ours is a somewhat unusual locker room.  Here “locker room talk” sometimes includes disquisitions on Kant or the Kuiper Belt.  One of the gawking sooners was actually an electrical engineer, and could have made of it a teachable moment; but no matter.  The whole room went momentarily silent.   For of course we are absolutely culturally au courant around here.  Among the improvements made to the Dillon Gymnasium during its long rehab was the installation of a “gender inclusive bathroom”.  I nonetheless gathered up the fallen garment as quickly as possible.  When later I related the anecdote to my wife, she was mildly amused.  “But what I am really missing,” she said, “is one of my black stretch socks.”  I intend to keep my eye peeled. 

           

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A White Christmas and its Deneigement

Though I have managed to post a few blog essays under unprepossessing circumstances, I must acknowledge defeat when it is staring me straight in the face.  I lack the leisure to explain, even in the most cursory terms, how I came to find myself celebrating the Feast of the Nativity in Montreal, where it is the bleak midwinter (despite the fact that the season has not yet completed its first week).   Nor can I give any account of my state of digital deprivation.   The circumstances allow me, at best, a meteorological anecdote.   A Bing Crosby song of my youth, still soupily revived on AM stations throughout the Season, seriously oversold the idea of the white Christmas to at least three generations of my compatriots.  I can remember a few other white Christmases, but none so ferocious as this.

Snow has indeed fallen, snow on snow.  There are mountains of it.  It is also colder than the proverbial well-digger in Montana.  But the Canadians take this stuff to an altogether new threat level.  Rather remarkably, the ordinary locals seem to pay the snow no mind, aside from devoting a couple of hours a day to digging out their buried vehicles.  But there is also a professional corps of de-snowers.  That's my rough-and-ready English translation of what they call the practitioners of deneigement around here.

Deneigement is a very serious business in these parts, and it has been going on, rather ferociously, since Christmas Eve.  It is mainly a nocturnal event, partly because vehicular traffic is marginally subdued after nightfall, but mainly because Canada in the wintertime seems to be a night sport.  The services de deneigement have at their disposal various mechanical aids--ranging in size from feather-light plastic shovels to major earth-moving equipment designed to aid in the construction of hydro-electric dams.  The preferred machine appears to be the largest size of road-grader manufactured by the Caterpillar Corporation, equipped with blinding flashing lights and, quite literally, bells and whistles, in addition to the more conventional horn.  If you are having to get somewhere in the deneigement zones of the darkened city--as we were having to do last night--it is really pretty scary: loud metallic scraping noises, blinding lights shining out of the freezing void, the blaring of mechanical blarers.  If they could only manage to work in a few snarling German shepherds, you would have nearly the full aesthetic of a transport arriving at Sobibor.

In any event, out of this cold Québecois night we send our friends and readers our very best wishes for the inception of the New Year, when I shall hope to be able to return to the blog entirely deneiged.


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

TR and the Tax Bill



 
I have more than once mentioned in these essays my extensive if unsystematic collection of our national literary patrimony in the Library of America.  Now and again I take one down from the shelf more or less at random.  This past week it was one of the two volumes of Teddy Roosevelt, the one containing The Rough Riders and his autobiography.  I found the latter, first published in 1913 not too long before his death, beautifully written, full of fascinating anecdote, and frequently rather profound in its political philosophy.  That this final quality should so surprise me is partly an indictment of my ignorance and partly an evidence of the degree to which I and many others have come to “define deviancy down”, in the memorable phrase of Patrick Moynihan.  The last place one seeks political profundity is in an American politician.

To the degree that I had already formed a conception of TR when I picked up the book, it was of a rugged individualist, outdoorsman, horseman, “environmentalist”, great white hunter, and ninety-seven-pound weakling transformed into a war hero in an embarrassing war.  There was nothing particularly mistaken about this conception, except for its utter inadequacy.  In his opening chapter, entitled “Boyhood and Youth”, he writes thus:  “As regards political economy, I was of course while in college taught the laissez-faire doctrines—one of them being free trade—then accepted as canonical.”  He is speaking about the intellectual atmosphere of his years at Harvard, from which he graduated in 1880.  “All this individual morality I was taught by the books I read at home and the books I studied at Harvard.  But there was almost no teaching of the need for collective action, and of the fact that in addition to, not as a substitute for, individual responsibility there is a collective responsibility.  Books such as Herbert Croly’s ‘Promise of American Life’ and Walter E. Weyl’s ‘New Democracy’ would generally at the time have been treated either as unintelligible or else as pure heresy.”

            I did not know who these guys were but soon found out.  They were progressive pundits and philosophers associated with the early years of The New Republic.  Weyl began his book (1912) thus: "America to-day is in a somber, soul-questioning mood. We are in a period of clamor, of bewilderment, of an almost tremulous unrest. We are hastily revising all our social conceptions.... We are profoundly disenchanted with the fruits of a century of independence.”  Well, it is now a century later.  During that century America fought two world wars, experienced the dislocations of profound and prolonged economic depression, confronted the twin political pathologies of modernity, experienced mind-boggling technological and sociological change, largely abandoned its spiritual heritage, and more than tripled its population.  That hardly describes a century of stasis.  Yet, plus ça change.  America today is in a somber, soul-questioning mood, with nearly bottomless wells of clamor, bewilderment, tremulous unrest, and profound disenchantment.

            In my opinion, a genuinely humble one, a large part of our dilemma is a failure to recognize a truth that Theodore Roosevelt stated as “the fact that in addition to, not as a substitute for, individual responsibility there is a collective responsibility.”  How can it be that the greatest democracy the world has yet known—a nursery and proving ground of seemingly infinite industrial, intellectual, and artistic invention and innovation--has a legislature that simply doesn’t work?  How can it be that for all our political passion, principles, polarities, and processes, not to mention the tweet storms, we seem incapable of addressing, or for that matter honestly identifying, the most acute actual problems our nation faces?  As I write this, our Congress is poised to enact “historic tax reform”.  Though they are readily available in our overheated press, I share no apocalyptic interpretation of the pending legislation.  That it will unleash a gusher of economic growth strikes me as most unlikely.  That it will make sharecroppers of the middle class is hardly less so.  Rearranged tax policies are not exactly irrelevant, but there are many more important things we should be talking about.  However, one thing about this legislation is indisputable.  The process by which it has been created is disgraceful.  You or I could make important decisions concerning our personal or professional life by analogous procedures only by abandoning all self-respect.

            “I grew into manhood thoroughly imbued with the feeling that a man must be respected for what he made of himself,” Roosevelt writes.  “But I had also, consciously or unconsciously, been taught that socially and industrially pretty much the whole duty of the man lay in thus making the best of himself; that he should be honesty in his dealings with others and charitable in the old-fashioned way to the unfortunate; but that it was no part of his business to join with others in trying to make things better for the many by curbing the abnormal and excessive development of individualism in a few.”

            The question of the relationship of the individual to society, the stuff of political philosophy and for that matter most great literature, likewise features prominently in the preamble to the Constitution.   Its authors there announce as their intention the formation of “a more perfect union”.  They were using the word perfect in its old Latin sense of “finished” or “complete,” and they could modify the adjective—more perfect--because they knew that the perfection could never be, well, perfect.  This left them, and us, to concentrate on the concept of union.

            Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Glory and the Freshness of a Dream





John Stuart Mill



Only rarely can I recall my dreams, but I have a vivid fragment of one from two nights ago.  It’s a hot, summer Ozark day, and I’m a small boy sitting on the slight slope of a stock pond.  My fishing equipment is primitive and makeshift, the pole a cut cane, the bobber an actual bottle cork.  Suddenly it bobs, at first faintly and hesitantly, then decisively, propelling little concentric rings spreading out about it on the surface of the muddy water.  Immediately there shoots through my infantile frame a current of nearly inexpressible joy and excitement.  I may have been remembering an actual event; I certainly was experiencing an actual but long dormant psychological state.  It was the wonderment of my young granddaughter Cora a year ago or so when she looked through the glass wall from dining room to atrium and beheld the miracle of a turtle which, she had no way of knowing, I had secretly introduced into that spot a few days earlier.


Jesus, who frequently said strange things, is reported as saying “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”  I don’t think this is a heavy moral admonition so much as an empirical observation.  Jesus had noted an unfortunate aspect of the “maturing process” or “child development,” concerning which Wordsworth has more to say than Freud or Spock.

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
    The earth, and every common sight,
            To me did seem
    Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
        Turn wheresoe'er I may,
            By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

If we are ever going to get back to the garden, as Joni Mitchell among other theologians tells us we must, we may need to read more poetry and think about the things poets write about.  “From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham…I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world.”  So wrote John Stuart Mill in his famous autobiography.  To be a “reformer of the world” is no small ambition, but by the autumn of 1826 all meaning and purpose had drained from Mill’s life.  Medicine had not yet defined clinical depression.  The common term was still melancholy, as in Burton’s famous Anatomy thereof.  Mill lacked even the words to describe his agony, though he would find them much later in Coleridge’s poem entitled Dejection: "A grief without a pang, void, dark and drear, a drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief, which finds no natural outlet or relief in word, or sigh, or tear  .” 

Mill had then still nearly half a century to live.  Had he been unable to overcome his depression the Victorian age would never have known one of its greatest intellects and philosophers.  But overcome it he did, and it was the nature of his self-medication that interests me here.  It involved no opiates or psychotropic drugs.  It consisted entirely in a self-directed course of readings in the English Romantic poets, especially the early Wordsworth.  Mill delineates his therapeutic experience in the fifth chapter of his autobiography.  He slowly worked through an early two-volume edition, at the end of which was the “Immortality Ode,” of which I have already cited the opening lines.


                                                                                   Wordsworth

Mill wrote thus: “At the conclusion of the Poems came the famous Ode, falsely called Platonic, ‘Intimations of Immortality’: in which, along with more than his usual sweetness of melody and rhythm, and along with the two passages of grand imagery but bad philosophy so often quoted, I found that he too had had similar experience to mine; that he also had felt that the first freshness of youthful enjoyment of life was not lasting; but that he had sought for compensation, and found it, in the way in which he was now teaching me to find it. The result was that I gradually, but completely, emerged from my habitual depression, and was never again subject to it.”  The rest is, as they say, history.

I presume that one of the beautiful but bad passages—bad because it clearly suggests that there are more things in heaven and earth, John Stuart, than are dreamt of in your philosophy--is the following.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
        Hath had elsewhere its setting,
          And cometh from afar:
        Not in entire forgetfulness,
        And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
        From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
        Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
        He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
    Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
      And by the vision splendid
      Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

I cannot say precisely when the shades of the prison-house closed upon this growing boy, but it has been a very long time since a piece of cork bobbing on the surface of a stock pond could nearly ravish me with joy and wonder.  I can but be grateful for dream fragments.








Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Printing with Joan Didion




The weather gods apparently subscribe to the Gregorian calendar.  Friday last was the first of December, and that night we got our first reasonably sharp chill of the year.  I had been raking leaves off and on in a desultory way for a better part of a month, but I would estimate that the trees had dropped only about half their load by Thursday, when the town’s huge leaf-vacuum trucks made what was threatened to be the last curbside collection of the year.  Since then there has been a continuous blizzard of light gold and pale red oak leaves carpeting the front lawn.  You would hardly know that I had already removed a small mountain of them.

But the turning of the calendar page and its concomitant change in the weather also inspired me to more satisfying exertions, ones that left me with something to show for my efforts.  For the first time in more years than I can remember I (1) constructed an Advent wreath before the arrival of the first —or for that matter second or third—Sunday of the season; and I (2) printed the Christmas cards.  This latter achievement I regard as particularly spectacular, although we still have the opportunity to face the full angst of crisis by procrastinating on their preparation for mailing.

Though my study is dominated by printing presses, type cabinets, a huge composing table, and a paper cutter, it is mainly an overstuffed library that looks like a set for “Hoarders”.  The initial and continuing problem was negotiating the clutter.  I hadn’t done much serious printing in a while, as perhaps the fact that I did regard this assignment as “serious printing” might suggest.  It involved quite a lot: the marital squabble about the right line etching and the search to locate it when decided upon, the composition of some ten point type despite octogenarian eyesight and fingers, the delicate alignment and make-ready for some eighty pound stock that had to go three times through the press, and the tedious imposition of an elegant return address on five hundred A-6 envelopes with tapered flaps.  But it is amazing how much one can achieve once one resigns oneself to abandoning all serious work, such as getting a book finished.

I love printing all alone in the early morning hours “while the city sleeps”—or at least that part of the city with whom I share my life.  The ample flourescent lighting of my library-pressroom is as bright as a noonday desert in the largely darkened house and in the greater darkness beyond the windows.  There is a gentle but business-like hum to the variable speed motor, and the well-oiled clickity-clack of the Chandler and Price, punctuated decisively by the dull percussion of platen and type form at the moment of impact.  It’s not exactly rocket science, but it still requires attention and dexterity, even a little skill, to achieve a good product.

In recent years I have liked to have a video playing on my computer while I’m printing.  I alternate ten or fifteen minute segments between the old technology and the new.  The episodes of viewing offer refreshment from the more demanding episodes of printing.  For the printing of this year’s card I had settled upon a Netflix documentary about the life of Joan Didion—“The Center Will Not Hold”.  This occurred by pure chance, but there is something appropriate about the linkage of printing and authorship.  I am hardly alone in admiring the quality of Didion’s prose or the remarkable sensibility that it expresses.  She is, after all, one of the most celebrated of living writers.  But content is also a draw.  We are roughly of an age—she’s a year and a bit older than I—and I myself was fascinated by many of the cultural events of the Sixties and Seventies about which she has famously written.  Yet what struck me most forcibly in this video was determined I suppose by the eccentric circumstances under which I was viewing it.  It’s quite recent, having come out only this year.  Many of its scenes show the author in the last year or two.  She has aged dramatically.  In fact I would describe her as a frail old lady.  Her speech is utterly lucid, crisp, nuanced—finely pointed like her prose.  But she has a disconcerting mannerism of moving both her arms—especially the right one--in front of her while she talks.  It is hard to tell whether this is a neurological tic or a lifetime habit grown pronounced in old age.  I could see no obvious correspondence between this brachial motion and the content of what she was saying.  But it was strikingly similar to another pattern with which I am quite familiar: the arm motion required when operating a clam-shell press.  One must concentrate intently on feeding the press with the right hand while constantly ready to disengage the clutch lever with the left.  Failure to do so by half a second can result in a real mess.  What is called for is less a cooperation between the upper limbs than a competition between them, or better yet a feigned indifference between them.  Jesus had something else in mind when he said “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”, but he might have been describing Didion talking or Fleming printing.