Wednesday, December 30, 2015


 King Croesus of Lydia, faulty interpreter

               I had a vivid and disturbing dream last night.  It was of the kind I call “episodic”, as it was punctuated by a brief period of urological wakefulness, put on pause, so to speak, until I should fall back asleep. This is a not uncommon experience for me, and the pattern is invariable.  During the wakeful “intermission” the dream’s details seem to me so vivid, so important, so clearly delineated in all their minute variety that I shall surely remember them clearly in the morning.  Then morning comes and—nothing, or so close to nothing as to make little difference.  Of this particular dream I retain only one feature beyond a general feeling of its menace: it had within it some important element of the tripartite.  I have a vague sense of three “bullet points”, three neutral graphic marks out of a typecase, but without the explication of intelligible language.

          Great poets have often compared the insubstantiality, no less than the brevity, of dreams with human mortality itself.   We are such stuff as dreams are made on” says Prospero in a speech justly famous; “and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”  This same thought finds a more explicitly Christian expression in a well-known hymn of Isaac Watts:
                         Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
                             Bears all its sons away;
                         They fly forgotten, as a dream
                             Dies at the opening day.

                   The subject of my doctoral dissertation was the huge thirteenth-century French poem called the Romance of the Rose, a poem that has a claim to be called the most popular work of secular poetry to be produced in the European Middle Ages.  It is a “dream vision”, that is a fiction pretending to be the account of the poet’s dream.  It was neither the first nor the last of its genre, but it was undoubtedly one of the most influential, and the circumstances of its composition made it also a literary critic’s dream.  It has two authors.  The first of them, Guillaume de Lorris, was probably working in the 1230s or 1240s—if he ever existed, that is.  For absolutely everything we “know” about him comes from a man named Jean de Meun, who continued and vastly enlarged Guillaume’s work “forty years” after he died, leaving his fragmentary vision unfinished.  Concerning Jean de Meun, a solidly historical figure who was in effect the writer in residence at the court of Phillip the Fair, we know a good deal.  He was for his day a major humanist scholar, the translator of several important Latin works.

                Guillaume himself was no slouch when it came to dream-lore, the problematical nature of which is summarized in the opening lines of his poem, beginning thus: “Some people say that in dreams there is nothing but fables and lies…”  The suspicion is underscored in the French by the power of rhyme.  The word for dreams is songes, that for lies, mensonges: two concepts similar to eye and ear and, by implication, in their essence.   This negative view of dreams, however, is not uncontested, and in the following lines Guillaume cites a learned Latin authority, Macrobius, the author of a book called a Commentary on [Cicero’s] “Dream of Scipio”, who maintains that dreams can be reliable conveyors of truth.  In fact the most important part of his widely read Commentary is a system of classification distinguishing between significant and insignificant dreams.

            Modern dream-lore—such as that in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and to a large extent also in Jung—is based in a modernist concept of the individual personality unknown in classical and medieval times.  That is, the old dream theory held that dreams communicated through a socially shared and objective vocabulary of images rather than by the operations of a unique personal psychology.  There is a pretty large “dream literature” in ancient Greek and Latin, typified by the popular Onirocriticon or Dream Interpretation of Artemidorus in the second century.  This is mainly a catalogue or dictionary of the meaning of various dream images—an eagle, an arrow, a snowfall, and so forth.

            Macrobius inherited and refined a substantial “scientific” tradition.  He admitted that many dreams were philosophically meaningless manifestations of gross passion, bad digestion, or other moral or physical disturbances.  But other dreams were literally or allegorically significant.  When the god Mercury appears in a dream of the hero Aeneas, instructing him that he must sail from Carthage forthwith, the command is to be taken as a literal oracle.  Far more interesting and difficult are symbolic or allegorical dreams, since the correct understanding of allegory requires not merely interpretation but morally sound interpretation.

            There is a famous literary dream in the Romance of the Rose that exemplifies the difficulty.  Jean de Meun—and following Jean, Geoffrey Chaucer—used it as an admonition to their readers.  The dream was one experienced by Croesus, King of Lydia.  He was a man of enormous wealth—hence the phrase “rich as Croesus”—but crucially lacking in hermeneutical self-knowledge.  He dreamed that the god Jupiter Pluvius bathed him and the god Phoebus Apollo dried him.  To be waited upon so intimately by such Olympians seemed to the king a positive portent of the most unequivocal sort.  But the explication of his daughter Phania, a more profound if unwelcome interpreter of the school of Cassandra, rather rained on his parade.   The meaning of the dream was as follows.  Croesus would be hanged upon a gibbet.  The rain would pelt down upon his dangling corpse.  Then the blazing sun would desiccate it.  Unfortunately it was Phania’s interpretation that proved true.  Perhaps I am fortunate that the only dreams I can remember are those I read about in old books.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Merry Christmas, 2015

            I want to wish a Merry Christmas to my entire readership and indeed to the conceivably even larger whole of humanity of which I sometimes sense my readers may be but a portion.  If you absolutely insist, feel free to emend that greeting to one of “Happy Holidays”.  Among the several reasons I find “Happy Holidays” such a feeble bromide is that the generic seldom has the interest or conviction of the specific.  If I walk into a good restaurant, consult the extensive menu, and ask the waiter for a couple of recommendations, I do not want to hear “Well, I’d go with the Food.”  You don’t have to be Jewish to bask in the good will of someone’s “Shabbat shalom”, nor do you actually have to file for French citizenship to enjoy dancing in the streets of Paris on Quatorze Juillet.

            I am also partial to old words that survive only in certain immemorial and ossified constructions: the quick and the dead, by hook or by crook, and so forth.  The adjective merry is among such words.  It’s an Old English word without many cognates in the other Germanic languages.  Merry meant something between joyous and hilarious, with a definite possibility of the excessive or the transgressive.  The phrase “merry England” meant something on the spectrum between “A nice place to be” and “Let the good times roll”.  A “merry Andrew” was a clown or court jester or a dark prankster in the Owlglass tradition.  I recommend the page on “merry” in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.  The nominal form mirth, which after a fashion survives in modern English, has lost the darker overtones it has in the biblical “house of mirth” taken as the title for Edith Wharton’s brilliant novel.

            So it is with a slightly edgy sensation that we shall set out a little later today on a merry holiday adventure of nearly a week’s duration.  The old dogma that old dogs cannot learn new tricks is a piece of proverbial misinformation that must find its origins in some particularly unfriendly quarter of the feline world.  Should you actually happen to be an old dog you will know precisely how absurd the slur is.  We are learning new tricks all the time, often as a matter of survival.  In fact most of the Old Trick programs have been so savaged by budget cuts and would-be reformers that we don’t have a whole lot of choice.  What is true, perhaps, is that old dogs learn more slowly than they once did, and they must bow to a humiliating reversal of the natural order of things by being instructed by their own pups.    The specific New Trick we are about to perform under these conditions is that of the New York City Christmas.

            For the first time in many years all three of our adult children will be merry-making in distant parts.  Under these circumstances we briefly considered various possibilities of which we had read in books.  These in effect boiled down to two.  One was to get on an airplane and fly to somewhere sunny and warm.  The other was to get into a car and drive somewhere north or west into a snow-covered forest.  Then two other ideas came into our minds.  The first was that it is the heart’s desire of upwards of a million of our fellows world-wide to spend the holiday amid the bright lights of New York City.  The second was that a generous but galavanting daughter was temporarily abandoning a handsome apartment on Washington Square, thus maximally facilitating a most appealing parental New Trick.  So armed with pre-arranged theater tickets, a restaurant guide, a dozen “Friends of X Museum” cards, and some good walking shoes, we are about to be whisked to the Big City in time for a celebrative dinner with the family of our Brooklyn son before they all fly off to Tennessee.  This will be followed by several days of mainly pagan indulgence—though partially redeemed, we hope, by Christmas Eve Mass at Saint Luke’s in the Fields.  I am sure you can understand the feelings of exhilaration the Old Dogs are enjoying  under the circumstances.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Wilson Legacy

Two of my recent essays (one on the title “Master,” the other concerning Woodrow Wilson) attracted many more readers than usual.  I often get a few emails in response to essays, but this time I had many, several suggesting that I pursue further some matters I had raised.  I read on the Princeton University web site that “The Board of Trustees has appointed a special committee to consider Woodrow Wilson's legacy at Princeton, and, more specifically, whether or not changes should be made in how the University recognizes Wilson's legacy.”  The committee seeks opinions.  Here is one.

In a literal sense a legacy is that real property transferred by legal instrument from the dead to the living, most commonly from parents to their children.  The more usual word these days is probably inheritance.  I actually found Woodrow Wilson’s will on-line.  He left everything to his wife, so that we don’t have to worry about a literal legacy even if that were what the Trustees meant, though of course it was not.   We very frequently speak, as they do here, of legacy in a metaphoric sense.  Then it means the spiritual, intellectual, or cultural influence metaphorically bequeathed from past to present by an historical figure, an intellectual movement, a social institution, and so on.  Thus we speak of the “legacy” of Aristotle, or of Cartesianism, or of chattel slavery, etc.  Such is the sense of “Woodrow Wilson’s legacy at Princeton”.

An interesting legal fact concerning legacies is that they can be refused by the proposed heir.  The rejection of material legacies is rare but not unknown.  If your uncle leaves you a legacy of a million dollars, you might want to reject it because (a) accepting it would complicate your taxes, or (b) you were constrained by a vow of religious poverty, or (c) you considered it wrong to benefit from money gained by selling heroin.  By filing a timely disclaimer, you legally insulate yourself from any complication or contagion the money might bring. 

How about metaphorical legacies?  Here it really is entirely up to us, as the current controversy suggests.  We apply not merely the voluntary principle but a principle of selectivity.  This is particularly true of personal legacies, as people in history, no less than today, tend to be complicated and contradictory.  Few people who embrace “the legacy of Aristotle” maintain his errant scientific ideas or hold to his view of slavery as natural and beneficent.  When scholars praise the “legacy of Newton,” they do not have in mind his crackpot ideas about the Book of Daniel.  It is true that there has to be some kind of consensus that so-and-so’s legacy was mainly or importantly positive.  The Germans do not have an Adolph Hitler Autobahn despite his effective leadership in highway construction.  But there has been precisely such a consensus with regard to Wilson.  The New York Times, which with specific reference to the current Princeton scene a couple of weeks ago ran a blistering editorial about his racist iniquities, in 2008 rated him our tenth best president ever—one rank higher than that assigned him by the Wall Street Journal.

Princeton does not memorialize Wilson for his racial views.  In forty years of active service on the faculty I never met a single person—student, alumnus, faculty, administrator, or staff--who espoused them, or even covertly tolerated them, let alone who claimed them as a “legacy”.   Indeed the two Princeton institutions bearing his name—the academic School and the residential College—have countered them in concrete ways far more impressive than verbal disclaimer or erasure.  That many people never heard of his racial views and therefore never devoted a thought to them is an historical failing rightly castigated.  For some it is a cause for grievance and for others an opportunity for fruitful meditation.   Presumably it was a stimulus for the historian Eric Yellin (who has two Princeton degrees) to write his recent Racism in the Nation’s Service.  What I do not think it should be a stimulus for is an extreme, reckless, impractical, and divisive act of ideological cleansing.

If in 1930 you were founding a School of Public and International Affairs and if you thought it proper that it should bear the name of a famous Princetonian, the name of Woodrow Wilson was close to inevitable.  At that time he must have seemed to many the most impressive statesman of the twentieth century.   One can think of a few possible candidates later on, I suppose:  Norman Thomas, ’05, John Foster Dulles, ’08, and Adlai Stevenson, ’22, all of whom have (or have had) their names attached to greater or lesser campus sites.    But they are all of far lesser rank.  Actually, it’s not too hard to get your name on something around here.  I myself used to have a park bench outside of Wilcox Hall before I was purged for reasons unknown by hands unknown.  The Woodrow Wilson School has now been in existence longer than Woodrow Wilson himself was.  When we talk about a metaphoric “Wilson legacy” we necessarily mean three quarters of a century of the prestigious entity that most clearly keeps Princeton “in the nation’s service”.

We should bank that legacy, as well as several of Wilson’s educational ideas that proved prophetic and visionary.  His fight over the location of the Graduate School—which at the time he lost, as he would later lose with regard to the country’s participation in the League of Nations—was really a fight about the intellectual integrity of a university in which the most advanced original research in many fields is harmonized with a fundamental commitment to the highest quality undergraduate education.  Not too many places have pulled that one off.  It is impossible to imagine a Princeton education—today or in the memory of any living alumnus—without the distinctive feature introduced by Wilson’s “preceptor guys”.  As for Wilson College, Princeton’s first and pioneer residential college, it consciously implemented Wilson’s view that on a residential campus the physical spaces in which students lived might have an educational role beyond that of mere hotel rooms.  That might seem a no-brainer today, but it was more than the trustees could swallow hardly a century past.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Murder and the Media

I suppose that if journalism is an art, and if art imitates life, art is perforce a pretty grim business these days.  My last two posts were decidedly grumpy.  As a fairly cheerful and generally good-humored person, I’d hoped to be able to take up a lighter strain this week, but, honestly, how could I?  A week ago today a couple of murderers—as in married couple—massacred a large number of my fellow citizens at an office party in California, the specific site being the husband’s workplace.  These two, still enjoying the more moderate nomenclature of “suspects,” very soon themselves died in the traditional “hail of bullets” in the obligatory “black SUV”.

            The brief and bloody tragedy concluded, the more leisurely week-long journalistic farce could then proceed.  The first puzzler was the question of motive.  The male murderer was named Syed Rizwan Farook; his wife was Tashfeen Malik, late of Pakistan via Saudi Arabia.  Both were clad as warriors, and they bore warriors’ weapons.  But why should these two go postal?  After all, it wasn’t even a post office.  The journalistic search for motive lasted about two days.  Its tone was very much that of adults playing a game of hide-and-seek at a birthday party for three-year-olds.   The little girl hiding behind the curtain cannot stop giggling, and her distinctively pink shoe is sticking out about eight inches, but the dutiful parents must not notice such things.  No, their job is stomp noisily about the room expressing utter befuddlement as to where in the world she might be.  “Look under the couch,” shouts Mom to Dad.  “Maybe she’s under the couch.”

            Just as a diagnosis of “workplace violence” was trending, somebody found a really big clue.  Very shortly after dropping off her baby at grandma’s but before perpetrating mass murder, Tashfeen Malik had gone on line to pledge allegiance to the caliph of the Islamic State, who has called upon all true Muslims to murder as many American infidels as possible in any way possible.  And, oh, yeah, there was a stockpile of pipe bombs at her house.  This offered the Orange County Register a new opportunity for nuance:  “Authorities have suggested the possibilities of both a workplace dispute and international terrorism, or a combination of the two”.

            Political correctness has this in common with fine poetry: it demands of us a willing suspension of disbelief.  One must accommodate one’s mind to the simultaneous assent to contradictory propositions.  Now I was trying to follow the story of the San Bernardino massacre while writing deathless prose concerning a Latin work of Petrarch.  I was depending for the “news” upon brief, intermittent plunges into the Internet.  The circumstances were maximally conducive to “cognitive dissonance”—a phenomenon frequently encountered in my life, but rarely in so pure a form.

            The moment the previously invisible Muslims took belated form in the journalistic mind, the media wanted more than anything else to see them and display them to the American public.  As they were unfortunately in the morgue, the next best thing was to display their now vacant apartment.  I don’t know if the rentier class is truly the most despicable on earth, but the defuncts’ landlord did nothing to disprove the suggestion.  He allowed free access to the place to interested people bearing notebooks, microphones, and video cameras.  Such people were very many, and lo, they were very obnoxious.

            So the first thing I found on the Internet was a video archive of a segment, done live on MSNBC, of reporter Perry Sanders (on the scene) and his remote handler Andrea Mitchell (back at studio home base) ransacking the Farook-Malik domicile.  The general vibe was that of a rugby scrum, or the very last day of the Cézanne exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.   Look!  Muslims lived here, real Muslims, sat at that very table!  Look!  Muslim furniture, Muslim light fixtures, my God, actual Muslim wallboard!  An early high point is the discovery of an Arabic primer.  Arabic, Sanders tells us sagely, is “very important.”

Thus the ace reporter moves from room to room making inane remarks about the quotidian material possessions of the dead murderers, leading us nowhere nearer to the mystery of iniquity in their fanaticism, but exposing the vapidity of cable television and the vast Hick Nation that laps it up.  It would take an H. L. Mencken to describe the activities of his fellow journalists.  Seldom has prurience had to sate itself on such meager scraps.  Andrea Mitchell, who must eventually be a decent person, sent Perry in search of family photographs, but when he found them, some vestigial sense of decorum kicked in.   She didn’t want him to show the pictures of the unknown and unnamed children; and pretty soon she pulled the plug on the whole Muslim Apartment Tour, but not before he bags “two books that appear to be the Koran….They’re in Arabic”.

The week was not yet over.  The President’s speech was still ahead, as was the conversation now underway concerning a strange meaning of the words radical and radicalization.  “Radicalization,” I take it, is something akin to a dread virus, or the result of a zombie bite on The Living Dead, except that you can apparently bite yourself, leading to the curious phenomenon of self-radicalization.  But fortunately my time is up.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Wilson: the Nomen and the Omen

When in 1969 Robert Goheen sent me down to Wilcox Hall to as Master of Wilson College he offered a few sage precepts of a general nature useful to an educational administrator of however lowly rank.  The first was: Don’t ever think you’re more than about eighty percent right.  In last week’s post, bemoaning Princeton’s hasty, ill-considered change of college “Master” to college “Head,” I actually felt that I was at about ninety-seven.  I feel a few points less certain in opposing the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from two Princeton institutions, the Woodrow Wilson School and Wilson College.  That’s because while there is no racism in the phrase college master—none—there was a good deal of it in Wilson.  Unfortunately, furthermore, I’ll need a word-length extension to talk about it.

Woodrow Wilson was a highly consequential President of the United States at a crucial historical moment.  His internationalism challenged traditional American insularity.  In broadly based polls of “best and worst” presidents, professional historians have over decades consistently rated him as high as number four and rarely lower than number ten.  He was a Princeton alumnus, a Princeton professor, the President of Princeton, then continued, as Governor of New Jersey, as ex officio Trustee of Princeton.  He articulated the ideal of “Princeton in the nation’s service.”  That’s a lot of “Princeton,” enough to explain the attachment of his name to Princeton’s school of public and international affairs.  However, spearheaded by a black pressure group, many sincere students are now demanding that other background be discussed.  The man was a racist whose actual implemented policies inflicted palpable harm on black Americans, re-enforced racial segregation, and stunted the hopeful rise of a black middle class.

For purposes of economy I leave further discussion of the Wilson School to its faculty, students, and alumni.  My concern here is with Wilson College, and therefore with Wilson as a thinker about undergraduate education.   Wilson wanted to implement two revolutionary educational plans at Princeton.  The first was the “preceptorial system”, in which undergraduates worked in a quasi-tutorial relationship with their teachers.  The second was the “Quad Plan,” which proposed to exploit the educational potential of the residence halls by reorganizing them into a modified version of Oxbridgian colleges.  (Both of these revolutionary ideas were about six hundred years old at the time.)  The first caught fire.  The second, after sparking much initial enthusiasm, succumbed to the powerful opposition associated with the Prospect Street dining clubs, which still held campus social life within the iron jaws of their vise of malign monopoly.  When in the early years of the Goheen presidency student activists successfully agitated for a viable alternative to the clubs, the Woodrow Wilson Society, later Wilson College, was born as a conscious rebuke to social exclusivity and a concrete monument to inclusivity.  Wilson College was the pioneer of the model that now defines underclass life at Princeton.  Five of Princeton’s residential colleges were named for generous alumni donors, but its first college was named for the man whose educational ideas inspired the others. 

I never heard the term “safe space” in those years, but the nascent Wilson College’s historical role was incontrovertibly that of a magnet (and for some perhaps a haven) for students who considered themselves uncomfortable with, disrespected by, superior to, or simply different from the once large majority of their classmates who “bickered” for admission to selective clubs.  This group included, but was not limited to, intellectuals, political radicals, poets and painters, unjocks, blacks, and feminists.

If you think, as I do, that the college system has played a beneficent and transformational role in our institutional history, you may feel less inclined toward hasty historical vandalism.  What do I mean by historical vandalism?  Perhaps the most famous photograph of Lenin is one that captures him on a wooden platform in impassioned oratory.  What makes it so famous, however, is what is not there in its second edition: Leon Trotsky, standing at the foot of the podium.  Soviet photographic technicians became expert at erasing history that displeased their boss.  Zealots in all periods, and always well-intentioned in their own eyes, have been good at this sort of thing: smashing church windows, blowing up Buddhas, removing books from libraries, or simply burning them.

before and after consciousness-raising

During the past week, in which the Wilson fracas has been much discussed, I have learned a lot I did not previously know about the extent of Woodrow Wilson’s racism, but of course the story’s gist has been long known.  That a successful leader of the Democratic Party in the first decades of the twentieth century would be a racist is not exactly what you could call a news flash.  In this regard I remember a conversation with my immediate successor as Master of Wilson—the historian Henry Drewry.  “Well, Master Drewry,” I said with a facetious formality, “What do you think President Wilson would have to say?”  “Well,” Henry replied in his soft southern voice, “I would hope that even a president is not immune to the beneficial changes wrought by education.  But it doesn’t much matter.  It’s our college now, not his.”


Master Henry Drewry (1924-2014)

At a time when our national politics seem spent and petty and the national mood sour and fearful, I look with hope to our young citizens.  The undergraduate population of our colleges, like the general population, may seem a bewildering mixture; but you will find there large reservoirs of fierce intelligence, competence, physical and moral energy, and patriotic idealism.  What one cannot expect to find is much matured historical perspective.

            Does any alumnus of the place, hearing the words “Wilson College”, think first of a long defunct politician named Woodrow?  No.  Like me, they think of a community, a local habitation with a name, which they loved or hated or simply experienced, in which they lived and strove during formative years of their youth.  We did learn a few years ago, when Master Cadava invited the student founders back to a moving event marking the place’s fiftieth birthday, how many hold the place in affection, and how lively still is the memory of the idealistic aspirations that then animated them.  I do agree there is rather a lot of Woodrow at Princeton.  We have thousands of consequential alumni, yet any tour of our buildings reveals a necessary emphasis on the political/commercial over the artistic/spiritual.  College presidents, like bank robbers, have to go where the money is.  The new Lewis Center for the Arts bears the name of a brilliant visionary and awesomely generous man, who was, however, not an artist but an insurance magnate.   But the student consciousness of the Woodrow part of Wilson College in my time was sufficiently hazy that Sean Wilentz and I once had a semi-serious plan to render the place Edmund Wilson (Class of 1916) College by silent onomastic putsch.

            Wilson College, like other living institutions, negotiates spiritual continuity and physical change.  The large offending photographic mural of President Wilson throwing out the first baseball of the season was not there in my years, and I know not whence it came.  I do like it, because the President is smiling.  Most photographs of the man suggest that he had just then emerged from root canal work or is even now experiencing a sigmoidoscopy.  But so far as I am concerned, the decoration of a dining room is an indifferent matter that ought to be left (within fiscal constraints) to those who dine there.

            But, please, think this “name thing” through.  One of the two most prestigious alumni awards we have is the Woodrow Wilson Award.  Its bestowal honors not its name but the stunning achievements of extraordinary alumni in the spirit of "the nation's service."   Among the greatest historical enterprises ever undertaken on this campus was the publication, in more than sixty volumes, of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson.  The small fortune those books have made for the Princeton University Press allowed the luxury of publishing some obscure worst-sellers of my own.  The principal editor, our late colleague Arthur Link, was twice awarded the Bancroft Prize for his work on Wilson.  The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is wholly independent of the University, but it is a neighbor.  A whole generation of famous professors of the Golden Age of American Humanities went through graduate school on its largesse.  It has since then worked effectively to advance the minority presence in higher education.

The most prestigious prep school in France (as in Liberté-Égalité-Fraternité) is the Lycée Louis le Grand (as in L’État-c’est-moi).   A once eminent Princeton historian, R. R. Palmer, documented its history during the Revolution, when it underwent name changes on a regular basis only to return, when the fever quelled, to Louis-le-Grand, where such politically sensitive young republicans as Hugo, Péguy, and Sartre weathered the daily micro-aggressions of its portals unscathed.

            While indignant students were sitting in at Nassau Hall, Ruth Simmons was delivering one of the “Signature Series” lectures for which Wilson College under Eduardo Cadava has become prominent.  Dr. Simmons, a Princeton trustee, a former Princeton administrator, and a former President of Smith College and Brown University, is among the very most distinguished leaders of American higher education today.  You can experience the lecture, as I did, on-line.  Part of the talk was about the issues she faced as Brown’s President when attention was drawn to the fact that among her institution’s founding family of Browns was a prominent slave trader.  She led her campus through a fascinating and sometimes wrenching process of self-discovery that—as its aims were substantive, not cosmetic—did not involve changing the name of the university.  I had many reactions to her talk, one of which was huge relief, as we enter an age of high-minded Inquisition, that Princeton has the good luck to bear the name of a town, rather than that of a person.  “Use every man after his desert,” says Hamlet, “and who should 'scape whipping?”  John Harvard?  Elihu Yale?  James (cough) Duke?  I even fear for my Oxford alma mater: Jesus College.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Master of None

Jack of All Trades, but...

From 1969 until 1972, then again for an eight-year period after the universal college system was instituted at Princeton, I served as the Master of Wilson College.  I poured my heart into a job to which I devoted a full quarter of my teaching career.   I therefore take it a little personally that virtually overnight, in response to complaints and a sit-in by undergraduates of the “Black Justice League,” the title of college “Master” was jettisoned in favor of college “Head”.  Furthermore, according to the local and national press, the Princeton administration will now seriously consider removing Wilson’s name from the College of which I was master as well as from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.  These actions are of course undertaken on the grounds of sensitivity, openness, “diversity,” and other comforting linguistic abstractions.  I propose to devote my next two essays to the two parts of the issue: the bowdlerization of academic titles today, Woodrow Wilson next week.

One of the ex-Masters, Michael Hecht of Forbes College, is quoted as saying the following: “Master is a very loaded word.  The word has this baggage associated with it, so let’s get rid of that baggage.”  I’m hoping that Head Hecht has been misquoted, but I more than half fear that he actually believes this codswallop.

ca. 1300

What is the “baggage” that makes master “a very loaded word”?  It is that in one of its tertiary meanings, long since obsolete, and as part of a compound phrase (slave master), it could denote the owner or supervisor of slaves.  It has no such connotation in current English.  Nouns become obsolete when the things they denote cease to exist.  It is possible you have seen a master sergeant or a quartermaster or a postmaster.  You may have sat across a board from a chess master, even a grand master.  You have perhaps sat at the feet of a Zen master.  But no living person has ever seen a slave master.  Slave masters have gone the way of the Master of the Temple and the Master of Ballantrae Hall.  You can conjure one up only by taxing your imagination.   If you live on a horse farm and you hear outside your window the sound of clip-clop, clip-clop, you do not think “Zebra!”—not if you’re sensible.

We do not live on a horse farm but on the campus of one of the world’s great universities.  Here, surely, if words matter, they matter enough to study and to use them with reasonable precision. What is the real load borne by the common English word master?  It came to our language by way of the French (maistre, maître) from the Latin (magister).  The idea behind the family of words is that of expert knowledge, training, or skill.  That is why in the lexical record the primary arena of the word family—master, masterpiece, mastery, magisterial, and a dozen more—has in all periods of English linguistic history been pedagogy and learning.  A master is a teacher.  In traditional industrial and artisanal structures an apprentice (meaning “learner”) learned from a master (meaning “teacher”).  What the apprentice learned was a mister (trade, skill, profession), a word now obsolete, though remembered in the medieval “mystery” plays once sponsored by professional trade guilds.  But of course our current word Mister (polite form of address, male) is actually the word master reflecting the reduced stress of its proclitic use.

 ca. 1870

Since the new Dean of the College is a Professor of English, she must know all this.  I presume she still chairs the Council of Heads, olim the Council of Masters.  At Commencement one of the tasks of her colleague the Dean of the Graduate School, the former Master of Butler College, will be to present to President Eisgruber a sizable cohort of candidates for the conferral of what heretofore has been known as the master’s degree.  Are they now to be heads’ degrees?  Heads or tails?  The one is no more, and no less preposterous than the other.  Shall we never again hear a visiting maestro conduct in Richardson Auditorium?  Will no visiting instrumental virtuoso ever again offer a master class?  Will we cease to boast of the Old Masters in the Princeton Art Museum?  Only a most determined (or predetermined) search for offense will find it in the words college master.  Must our beloved English language always be the first victim of political confusion?
ca. 1920

College professors are quite capable of finding complexities undetected by ordinary mortals, and of searching out previously unsuspected thought crimes.  I know, because I am one.  My first introduction to British academic life came from a fine novel about precisely that: C. P. Snow’s The Masters.  Of course there is also political mastery and artistic mastery.  The third and central volume of Robert Caro’s still unfinished biography of Lyndon Johnson is entitled Master of the Senate.  One of its subjects is Johnson’s role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  The Irish novelist Colm Toibin, a recent sojourner in Princeton, published a beautiful novel “about” Henry James entitled The Master.  James was in fact and most appropriately called “the Master” by his literary admirers and disciples.  Among James’s most remarkable stories—one I would recommend to any seeker after truth in art and life—is that entitled “The Lesson of the Master.”  The lesson of the master, one most ironically delivered in this story, is that in the pursuit of a theoretical perfection you may lose it all.
ca. 2010

There was exactly as much racism in the “masters” of my last paragraphs as there was in the title “Master of Wilson College”: that is, precisely none.  So on factitious grounds Princeton University has now jettisoned a venerable title wholly appropriate to its mission of teaching and learning in favor of one appropriate to the organizational chart of a corporation.  Head!?  Talk about a word laden with baggage!  Some years ago some disgruntled ex-professors from the University of California, Santa Barbara, went into the bar business in Goleta. They called their establishment “The English Department”.  The doors on its toilets read “Departmental Heads”.

We do our students no service by turning the lexicon of the English language into a political Rorschach Test.  Nor should we be surprised when many intelligent people in what we call the Real World, reading about what goes on on our campuses, confuse the Academy with Alice’s Wonderland.

"’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’  ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that's all.’”

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


             I want to write about Paris because I must, but in order to keep things real and to avoid some of the sentimental excesses I am finding in the press, I begin with an anecdote.  In 1962, newly married, Joan and I set out from Paris into the provinces of France in search of certain medieval manuscripts in local municipal libraries. We had purchased an old Citroën Deux-Chevaux.  Its license plate, beginning with 75, identified it as Parisian.  Somewhere far from the city we stopped to buy something at the edge of the road.  Joan’s French is excellent, and it is Parisian French.  A local woman rudely cut in front of her at the stall where she had begun to shop, saying to the stall-keeper, “She can wait—they’re Parisians!”  When Joan told her she was in fact an Englishwoman and I an American with a second-hand car, both of them apologized profusely.  Obnoxious, pushy, selfish—such were the characteristics they were eager to attribute to Parisians en masse, and to counter with an uncharacteristic rudeness of their own.

A Deux-Chevaux of the belle epoque 

            I have lived and worked in Paris long enough to understand that woman’s point of view which, while not the truth, was not without some truth.  Paris can be pretty cold as well as pretty cool, and it is nothing like the little towns of my youth where strangers on the street smiled and said “Hi,” as others in passing pickups half raised a laconic hand in friendly greeting.  Still I struggle in vain to imagine a level of anomie or alienation or ghettoization or cultural indignation or in fact anything else that might be assuaged by spraying a sidewalk café with Kalashnikov fire or blowing oneself up at the gates of a football stadium.  I think attempted explanations, in fact, defy the powers of human imagination, despite the best efforts of the Op-Ed pages of the Times.

            In those pages this morning I find a letter from some woman berating me for lavishing upon the Paris slaughter an outpouring of concern not previously expressed over similar terrorist atrocities in Nigeria, Lebanon, and Yemen.  The truth is that there is such a thing as shock fatigue.  God’s heart is infinite.  He knows of every sparrow that falls.  My own experience is constrained by a demeaning but inescapable finitude.  I know some things, a paltry few.  Paris I do know, at least as a man with a pail full of sea-water knows the ocean, and that is enough to know the horror of this moment.  Every American, indeed every Westerner of however modest cultural attainment, knows Paris well enough to know the horror.

            It’s the place young Americans fought and died to protect in one war, then fought and died to liberate in a second war.  Long before that it was the place that sent us, in the eighteenth century, military aid without which there well might never have been a United States of America.  Above all it’s the place that approximately from the twelfth century has been sending to the whole world, at least to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, great books, great art, great ideas.  Oh--and great wine.  That one requires palates to taste.  So there is something peculiarly atrocious about the Paris slaughter, as the Allahuakbarists surely perceived.  Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo.  Je ne suis pas parisien.  Je suis américain, moi.  Nonetheless I am a brother in pain, and I do express my outrage and my condolences with the rest of the sentient world.

            I learned of the slaughter while I was in Philadelphia at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 “for the promotion of useful knowledge.” In fact I was being formally inducted into that august society.  They obviously made either an exception or a typographic error in my case.  Not too many life experiences can accurately be described as “awesome”, but writing my signature in a book containing the earlier autographs of Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson has to be for me one of the few. The obvious models for the APS were the royal societies of the great European powers.  Franklin and Jefferson in particular had close life-long ties to French intellectual life.

 The American Cathedral in Paris in the good old days

            From our Paris apartment at the very edge of the Fifteenth Arrondissement on the Avenue Suffren we used of a Sunday morning to walk to church at the American Cathedral.  As we would cross the Champ de Mars near the Eiffel Tower, the gypsy con-artists would already be trying their tiresome “lost ring” ploy on a few early birds among the Chinese tourist.  We walked down the little Rue du Général Camou past the American Library until the street ends in the Avenue Rapp.  Then we would turn left, walk along Rapp and cross the river by the Pont d’Alma.  Just on the right bank at the Place d’Alma is the striking monument, with an eternal flame, marking the place where Princess Diana died.  We then continued up the de luxe Avenue Georges V past the vast Chinese embassy to our church.

            That’s quite a lot of international complication in one short Paris walk, but for me the quirky highpoint was something uniquely, inescapably, and perhaps insanely French.  It is the art nouveau decorative portal of an apartment house at 29, Avenue Rapp.  We passed it going and coming, and I hope to once again, despite all the powers of darkness.

29, Avenue Rapp