Wednesday, October 18, 2017

In Memoriam M. J. C.

Michael Curschmann (1936-2017)

I am not big on trigger warnings, but since I am aware that what I have to say today is not particularly amusing or uplifting, I might as well tell you that in advance.  In general I do my best to fulfill the affirmative role of a “senior citizen” that is assigned to my particular sociological subdivision.   You see photographs of such people, gray to be sure but tanned and beaming, especially in advertisements for insurance policies and retirement communities.  That is, I am “active”.  I have “interests”.  I am “engaged with the community”.  The motion of the molecules is incessant.  I frolic with my grandchildren.  Yet my subject today is a disquieting aspect of the aging process—namely the proximity of old age to death.  I do not refer merely to a heightened personal apprehension of my own mortality, though I am not so foolish or mendacious as to deny its relevance.  Every person alive this morning will be one day closer to death tomorrow.  But as you get old, you find that death’s intrusions become more frequent, more disturbing, and more cruel.  Your childhood friends, your old classmates, colleagues and companions with whom you have spent decades of shared labor or shared aspiration—these people begin to disappear.  At first it seems random and aberrant, and then you look at some membership list of something from 1950, or 60, or even 70—and you realize that some or many or even most of the people on it are now gone.  You find yourself reading obituaries and—if you have even so little a public presence as I do—writing them.  You observe and in some measure enter the sorrow of friends who have lost husbands or wives.

We got back from a stimulating trip to Michigan, reported on a couple weeks ago.  That was late on a Wednesday.  We anticipated the happy prospect of a brief visit from our dear friend Jim Magnuson.  Jim arrived just before noon on Saturday at the train station, whence we collected him.  We were still in the first couple of hours of animated, jovial debriefings at our house when the phone rang.  On the other end of the line, calling from Delaware, was the daughter of another close friend, Michael Curschmann.  She was distraught.  She reported that her father had just died.

Michael lived in a house probably less than five hundred yards from my own, literally on the next street.  In recent years he was a widower, and he lived alone.  It was probably a sudden massive heart attack that killed him.  When exactly the blow struck I don’t know.  It may have been not very long after our plane was touching down at Newark Airport.  After a couple of days, suspicious inactivity at his residence alarmed neighbors and led to the discovery of his body.  You read about such things in newspapers.

Michael was a most distinguished scholar of medieval German literature.  The praise of his professional accomplishment will rightly occupy the necrologies of the learned academies of which he was an ornament.  I shall no doubt have some part in composing one or two of these, but his scholarly attainments have little to do with the sorrow we are now feeling.  I might go so far as to say they are irrelevant to it.  Michael and I were almost exactly of an age.  We joined the Princeton faculty at almost the same time.  We were friends for more than half a century and for at least the last three decades close friends.

Augustine, who is so expert in pointing out the obvious in its most unwelcome forms, somewhere says that all our obsequies and funerary rites, our tailored reminiscences and memorial meditations, while they may pretend to honor or to magnify the beloved dead, are in fact but palliatives, and often enough rather feeble ones at that, for the living.  Few things are more complete than death, but it is precisely from that point of view that Michael’s death seems to me particularly wrong and objectionable.   I went away for a few busy days and returned to something awful, sudden, immobile, and definitive.  You want to regard it in some way as tentative or provisional.  Absurdly you want to search about for something negotiable in it.

I may be among the last admirers of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” written in response to the sudden death of his intimate friend Hallam in 1833; but for all its Victorian embarrassments I do admire it.  It took Tennyson fifteen years to finish the poem, and even then one of his principal themes was the impossibility of finding the right words for the task at hand.  I sometimes hold it half a sin to put in words the grief I feel,” he writes.  “For words, like Nature, half reveal and half conceal the Soul within”.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Last Days of Columbus


             Monday last was Columbus Day.   For me the sole practical implication of that fact was that there was no mail delivery, but I was aware of a cloud of metaphysical implications forming on the horizon.  We had just enjoyed a rare visit from a dear friend from Austin TX, who reported that his city council had just voted to replace the holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  I have also been reading the papers.  I know that Mayor Di Blasio, whose father’s German name (Wilhelm) was of less political utility than his mother’s Italian one, had been musing aloud about the problem of Columbus Circle and its conspicuous statue of the Mediterranean mariner.  He wants to cleanse the City of its fascist heritage, but perhaps for the moment he will be satisfied with such low-hanging fruit as the sidewalk plaque commemorating the ticker-tape parade that honored Marshall Petain in 1931.  Then, more gradually perhaps, he could abolish Columbia University.  The disposition of the District of Columbia, Columbus, Ohio, the Columbia River, the Knights of Columbus, “Way Down in Columbus Georgia”, etc. might be posptponable to the next administration.

threatened in Manhattan

            I have been here once before, in 1992, when I was one of the curators of a major exhibition at the Library of Congress marking the Quincentenary of Columbus’s first voyage.  In 1892 the Columbian Exposition had celebrated a number of the unlikely virtues of a medieval Genoese mystic: his Yankee fortitude, his Protestant work ethic, his indomitable will to succeed in business.  Now we were supposed to find in him nought but blind luck, unquenchable greed, and an appetite for genocide.  The verb discover and its kinfolk were to be banished.  Columbus could not have “discovered” America, as America was never lost.  People already lived there.  Of course my whole life has been a series of great discoveries—such as girls, Shakespeare, and spaghetti alle vongole—that somebody else probably already knew about.

Neither the atrocities committed by some Europeans nor the valid indignation of some contemporary seekers after justice are to be dismissed or belittled, but historical truth is ill-served by ideological erasures and air-brushings.  Karl Marx famously said that changing the world should take priority over merely understanding it.  The first stanza of the “Internationale” contains the following aspiration: Du passé faisons table rase—“Let us make a blank slate of the past”—or more literally a tabula rasa, an erased wax tablet, the student’s notebook of ancient times.  In the last century, in Poland, in Russia, in China, in Cambodia, and elsewhere, political regimes ostensibly committed to making the world a better place through principled erasure amassed hecatombs reckoned at about a hundred million human lives.

At the end of the eighteenth century the Indians of the northeast were not without grievances, but neither were the European refugees.  Among the crimes imputed to King George in our Declaration of Independence is his attempt “to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”  The etymological meaning of the word “savage” in English was “forest-dweller”; the evolved meaning grew out of observed experience.  Even so, early (Anglo) American writers, following the lead of such French Romantics as Bernard de Saint-Pierre and Réné de Chateaubriand give us admiring and idealized pictures of Indians and Indian lore.  I think of the novels of Fenimore Cooper or Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” a masterpiece condemned by the political correctness of people who have never read it.

a happy islander, according to Pliny

            I do not know whether Bill Di Blasio has studied all of Columbus’s writings, but I have.  I am especially interested in his “Book of Prophecies”, which holds interest for me in its reflections of medieval Franciscan millenarianism. Columbus was a sailor of amazing skill and daring, and he grasped a navigational principle, in retrospect obvious but at the time audaciously innovative.  As an observer of phenomena unknown in Europe he is often disappointingly banal. Things are either “like we have in Castile” or “different from what we have in Castile”—the initial reaction of many tourists even in our jet age.  As to the human inhabitants of his “India”, he looked for what he had been taught to look for by ancient geographers like Pliny and Strabo and medieval Munchausens like John of Mandeville.  That is, he looked for giants, pygmies, monocular men, retrohumeral men, macropedes, and dog-headed men, also known as cannibals.  We usually find what we are looking for, if we look hard enough.

            We may fault Columbus for blinkered vision.  Although he was among the earlier world travelers, he lacked a cosmopolitan view.  In other words he is different from what we have in Castile, or perhaps Berkeley.  But if cultural solipsism is to be deplored in the fifteenth century, one might pause before indulging it in the twenty-first.  The past is very important, but it is actually hard--very hard--to grasp.  We are prone to treat its events and personages as inkblots in our self-designed Rorschach tests, and then to believe that our inkblot is essential truth.

 probably safe (for the moment) in Barcelona

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Soviet Communism Then and Now

Berlin 1945

We are very near the centenary of the Bolshevik coup d’état or “October Revolution” of 1917 that brought the Communists to power in Russia, and there are dozens of scholarly conferences and other conclaves marking the event.  This has meant that real experts on Soviet Communism, much bidden, have been in such short supply that program committees have been willing to turn to some fairly marginal “experts,” such as yours truly.  My modest claim to fame is my book The Anti-Communist Manifestos, which is mainly about European and American literary critiques of Communism.  I am a day later than usual in posting this essay because most of yesterday was taken up with travel home from a conference, at which I had given a lecture, at Hillsdale College in Michigan.  Both the conference and its host institution were full of revelation to me.

            I have a reasonable knowledge of the contours of American higher education, but I was unaware of Hillsdale, a pioneering liberal arts college, coeducational since its founding in 1844 and an early hotbed of abolitionism, that prides itself on staunchly conservative attitudes in political and educational theory.  Practice is not far removed from precept.  To avoid the annoyances of entangling federal regulations and mandates, Hillsdale accepts no federal funds.  Most institutions with which I am familiar have sizable bureaucracies tasked with securing as much federal funding as possible.  I suspect that few other campuses feature a statue of Margaret Thatcher, or are in the midst of building an imposing and expensive new house of worship.  I sensed that many of the attendees at the conference were not alumni but affluent elderly admirers and financial supporters of the institutional mission.  My guess would be that the percentage of Trump voters in the Hillsdale academic community is about that of the percentage of Clinton voters in the Princeton academic community.  In a country that is so dangerously polarized, it is very salutary to switch bubbles now and again.  Though the concept of  “diversity” approaches sacral status in current educational theory, what I found in my career was that it often meant “some more people who think the way I do.”

Hillsdale College Campus: Two Iron Ladies (one technically bronze)

            I have often commented on the happy coincidences of my life.  This one involves my experience with military history.  As you may know from last week’s post we are recently returned from a wonderful house party in the south of France.  Like most vacation homes, this one has over the years constructed an eclectic library reflecting the tastes of its owners and frequent visitors.  Two strong suits developed over the years are long biographies and military history, sometimes overlapping as in the nine hundred pages of Roger Knight, The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson.  Ordinarily, I don’t read much in this genre, but when in Rome, or rather Salernes….  One author copiously represented is the historian Antony Beevor.  In previous years I had read his books on Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin.  I was astonished by the skill deployed in the Stalingrad book to organize in clear and compelling narrative such an epic struggle of such complicated and protracted nature.  Just this past month I read two more Beevor volumes, both of them excellent: the book on D-Day, and that on Hitler’s “last stand” in the Ardennes (the “Battle of the Bulge”) in the final winter of the War.  The man has an unusual gift.

            To my delight and surprise—as I had not noted his name in early announcements of the conference—Beevor was a fellow speaker at the Hillsdale conference.  Sir Antony (he has recently been knighted) gave a terrific lecture on “The Soviet Role in World War II”.  We hit it off in a couple of memorable private conversations.  He told me that historians reckon that at Stalingrad alone the military commissars shot 13,500 of their own troops for cowardice, desertion, or insufficient enthusiasm.  The execution squads needed to be kept in a state of semi-permanent drunkenness to carry out their task.  By way of contrast there was one execution for dereliction of military duty (as opposed to murder or rape) in the American army—that of Eddie Slovik.

            The level of the formal academic lectures—leaving my own aside--was very high.  Two I would point out for special praise were the first and the last.  The first speaker, Professor Mark Steinberg of the University of Illinois, spoke with sparkle, verve, and lucidity on the complicated revolutionary scene in late Romanov Russia (1905-1917).  I left the lecture room thinking I understood some rather complicated matters—sort of.  Now, if I could only reach similar quasi-enlightenment concerning the Spanish Civil War….The last talk was by Daniel Mahoney, a professor of political science at Assumption College, a prolific author on themes and figures in modern political theory, and an expert on the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  I think I have read everything by Solzhenitsyn available in English translation, but I don’t think I would have the nerve to write about him.  For me he remains too strange, too prophetical, too Dostoyevskian, too alter—as he did to his shocked audience at the Harvard Commencement of 1978.  But Mahoney got to the very essence of the Gulag Archipelago in a fashion that elucidated its spiritual and even theological core in a way I had not previously seen.  An additional pleasure was learning for the first time that Solzhenitsyn refused to meet with Jean-Paul Sartre, a man my petty mindedness cannot forgive for temporarily corrupting my youthful intellect.  I believe that videotapes of all the conference talks will soon be available on the Hillsdale website.

Berlin 1989


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Back from the Old World

There were mobs of folks arriving at Heathrow in early September and mobs arriving at Newark yesterday—some of them, doubtless, like us, parts of both mobs.  I am led to conclude that whatever economic, spiritual, and political discontents the West faces just now are not showing up in the bottom lines of the international airlines companies.  New Jersey was hot and a little muggy, as though its calendar were running a month behind.  Even so, homecoming is almost always sweet, and the sweetness tends to increase as the years go by.  I could do without the faint but undeniable aroma of a defunct mouse as yet unlocated among the heavy printing machines that surround my study workspace; but that, too shall pass.  Odorless mummification cannot be too far distant.  And I confess to a slight disappointment that I found no visual evidence that there had been rioting in the streets on account of the temporary suspension of “Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche”.  In any event I am back, and it’s back, though with even less to say than usual.

Our journey, which had no motive beyond that the pleasure of the travelers, had four stages through two countries.  We began in England, dividing our time between Cambridge and the Kentish countryside near Canterbury.  Then we flew to Nice, where our dear friend and host Andrew Seth met us and drove us to his own personal parcel of paradisal Provence a hundred kilometers to the west in Salernes.  We were there for a week before boarding a Paris-bound TGV in Marseilles.   TGV, as you probably know, means train à grande vitesse, or “high speed train”; and they really mean it.  Just over three hours later we were in the capital for either a short week or a very long-weekend (Thursday to Tuesday).

Once we set aside the cattle car aspect of the air flights, every segment of the trip, which was devoted to visiting family and friends, was delightful.  That phrase (“family and friends”) may sound disjunctive and possibly even adversarial.  My dear old dad had a favorite joking line: “Of all my wife’s relations, I like myself the best.”  It is one of the many blessings of my own life that so many family members, and I might say especially my wife’s relations, are also friends, and very good ones at that.

            At Cambridge, the University being out of session, things were a little quieter than usual; but it’s still a bustling place, with the bustle butting up against absolutely extraordinary buildings.  We took in a Eucharist at the vibrant old University church, St. Mary the Great—my first time ever in the place.  A couple days later at Canterbury, where some official function had temporarily closed the cathedral to mere gawkers, the high point was the bookshops.

            On a couple of earlier occasions I have reported on the remarkable country house parties hosted by our friend Andrew.  This was perhaps the mellowest of them all.  Ancient friendship has a quality like no other.  It is almost always forged not merely by the laughter of heedless youth but by the more severe realities of life’s vicissitudes.  There is a patina to it that only time can provide and that only age can appreciate.

            The final few days in Paris turned into a social whirl.  We had hoped to do some memorable chowing down, to see some museums, and visit a couple of old friends.  The friends reacted with such enthusiasm and generosity that we ended up having only two restaurant meals.  I was in France long enough to do some serious newspaper-reading across the political spectrum, and this left me with the impression that the country is on the whole pretty happy with its new leadership.  One very knowledgeable French friend calls Macron not merely intelligent, but hyper-intelligent.  To be sure once you move past such accidental and peripheral matters as style, substance, and essence, one can easily appreciate the striking similarities between the situations of Messrs. Macron and Trump.  They were both put into office by voters sick to death of the same old Same Old offered up by the same old political parties.  Of course Emmanuel Macron actually created a new political party that pulled off the astonishing feat of providing him with a parliamentary majority.  Donald Trump’s feat was perhaps no less astonishing, though very different.  He simply squatted in the vacancy that was the Republican Party.  Mons. Macron has already has some stunning successes, especially with the reform of France’s sclerotic labor laws.  The naysayers’ prediction of paralyzing protests have so far proved inaccurate—suggesting to me that on the whole les français can be realists.  And now Macron seems poised to take on a major leadership role in the wider European context.  I am going to be watching with interest.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

O youth!

Our eldest child, Richard, is a man of parts, his best part being his spouse Katie Dixon.  My blog has on occasion featured the exploits of this dynamic duo, not omitting those of their young daughter Ruby, in relation to their gentrifying adventures as pioneers in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  The rigors of elevating a run-down workingman’s cottage from the era of President McKinley up to the requisite seven-figure baseline of New York residential realtors have apparently exhausted their challenge.  So Rich and Katie have now taken on, as a weekend getaway, a rather large old colonial house (ca. 1750) in the wilds of Hunterdon County, New Jersey.  This large house is beautifully placed on a very large parcel of field and forest just above the Delaware River, and is surrounded by a number of large outbuildings, of which I have so far catalogued four.

This is the real deal.  The property is the large remnant of one of the huge old pre-colonial farms established on West Jersey lands sold off from William Penn’s truly vast holdings in the early eighteenth century.  As to the main residence itself, one may be certain that George Washington slept there—the want of explicit written record being merely a testimony to the delicacy with which our early journalists spared the feelings of Mrs. Washington.  If you know anything at all about New Jersey real estate you will instantly perceive that the only thing that could render such a fixerupper even theoretically affordable is a need for up-fixing so daunting as to stun the imagination.  We look on in awed admiration.

I have now spent a couple of happy days at this rustic Paradise.  My token effort so far has been to clear a decade’s worth of jungle from a beautifully constructed old stone retaining terrace.  Though only a gorgeous thirty-mile drive from Princeton, this place might just as well be in some remote part of the rural South or West.  The property has various names in the old papers.  Its new owners seem to be calling it “Kingwood” after the township in which it is located and the eighteenth-century hamlet that was once its center.  But I think I will call it “Judea”—a name I think my son will recognize and possibly approve.

Two of our children are college professors of distinction.  But even an academic calendar, as flexible as it may be, is still full of constraints.  Rich doesn’t march to drummers at all, including his own.   Though I dare not label him, I have to recognize him as an intellectual.  He certainly is a voracious reader.  One enthusiasm we share—and for which I would hope to claim some responsibility—is the work of Joseph Conrad.  As you know, our digital younger generations are not supposed to be much into physical books, let alone bulky sets of the complete works; but he has turned over a yard of precious shelf space to Conrad.  The moment I first saw the Kingwood property, or rather the moment I first grasped the dimension of the task, I knew there was a Conrad story I had to reread.

Its title is “Youth”.  It is largely autobiographical, and it is largely about—well, youth.  It could as well be titled “The Impossible Journey”.  It is the first-person reminiscence of a seasoned English sailor who recounts his first experience as a second mate, at age twenty, aboard an antiquated sailing barque.  The old ship’s name is the Judea.  Its mission is to sail from London to Newcastle, pick up a heavy and dangerous cargo of coal, and transport it thence to exotic Bangkok.  What unfolds is the Mother of All Bad Trips.  If you have never read it, you will not find many better uses of a couple of hours of your time.  Not many tragicomedies get the right balance of tears and laughter, but Conrad here pulls it off perfectly.  A single theme controls the narrative: youth, its essence, its energy, its excitement, its optimism, its can-do spirit, its indefatigability.  This is the way Conrad’s famous narrator Marlowe puts it, recalling his feelings of twenty years earlier concerning the Judea: “O youth!  The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it!  To me she was not an old rattle-trap carting about the world a lot of coal for a freight—to me she was the endeavour, the test, the trial of life.”

Rich and Katie are actually nearer in age to the narrator Marlowe than to the fledgling second mate Marlowe, but they are still a lot closer to that young man than am I.  As I stood before a couple of yards of my long old stone wall, panting in the hot sun, trying to deracinate poison-ivy vines as thick as garden hoses, what I saw was something in the category of Mission Impossible.  What they see is adventure, worthy challenge, extraordinary possibility, and thrilling prospect.  Perhaps “the endeavour, the test, the trial of life” would be a little hyperbolic under the circumstances.  I don’t expect their new old house literally to fly apart in a violent explosion—merely one of the more dramatic experiences faced by the crew of the Judea.  But I stand in awe of a real-life demonstration of a power of youth I once may have possessed but now can savor only in books.



The blog proposes to follow its author into a state of temporary and recreational suspended animation as he bids adieu to the heats of summer and welcomes in the mellowness of autumn.  If all goes as planned, and if the creeks don't rise, it will resume in the last week of September.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Guy de Maupassant

The writer's tomb, Montparnasse cemetery

Though it provides plenty of fodder for legitimate satire, French intellectual life must remain admirable and even inspirational to an American observer.  To begin with it is deeper and certainly more socially approved than in our country.  You still meet a fair number of people who without self-consciousness actually refer to themselves and others as “intellectuals”.  The American “public intellectuals,” fairly recent cultural arrivals-- one might call them nouveaux intelligents—may change this.  But the French news kiosks and television programs are practically clogged with public pundits and rock-star professors.

The French truly do love, respect, and cherish their rich literary heritage.  One very often sees what look like ordinary people sitting in the Métro deeply absorbed in some classic work of philosophy or fiction.  Our publishing industry appears unduly to prize novelty---what’s new.  In France even the trendiest of publishers is likely to have an excellent sideline of “classics”.  Several years ago I discovered a series simply called “Bouquins” from the publisher Robert Laffont.  It includes two fat volumes of Guy de Maupassant.  This is not the “complete works,” of which several multi-volume editions have been published.  But it has about as much of a prolific author as one could conceivably schlepp onto an airplane.   I think it has most of the short stories (he wrote three hundred some), several of the well-known novellas, and a couple of full novels.  Furthermore there is a no-holds-barred scholarly apparatus of the kind one would find only in an academic book here.  This is dipable de Maupassant, but you can dip almost as deep as you want.

               Guy de Maupassant experienced a fair amount of history for a man who died at forty-two.   He was born in 1850 during the short-lived Second Republic, grew up during the Second Empire of Napoleon III, and lived out his nearly frantic literary career in the Third Republic, which had been born in the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War and continued for most of the writer’s life in a serious and prolonged economic depression.   He is usually and rightly regarded as one of the great realists, though the realism is more on the psychological and moral side than on that of the historical and material.  One concrete historical moment does seem to be of particular significance: the Franco-Prussian War.  It is the setting for the story called “Boule de Suif” (“Ball of Fat”), the hugely successful piece that put him on the literary map in 1880, and for several of his others.

Like all readers of short stories, I was already familiar with several of his better-known pieces.  Many people have enjoyed “The Diamond Necklace” (“La Parure” in French), which has one of the great trick or surprise endings in the genre.  It makes pretty clear where O. Henry was coming from.  In a general sense it typifies a couple of Maupassant’s recurrent characteristics, precision and economy of plot.  His frequent sexual themes, which once gave him a reputation for naughtiness and lubricity, now seem pretty tame if mildly obsessive.  What I was unprepared for was such a coherent and grand tragic vision of the human condition in short-story form.

Guy de Maupassant came by his neuroses honestly.  He was an upper middle class heir to a sharply contested revolutionary tradition; a syphilitic; a free-thinker tempted by the occult; and a workaholic.  Though bathed in professional success, he worried constantly about his health and essentially withdrew from society for the last decade of his short life.  Although he died relatively young, one of his most fully mastered themes is the inexorability of growing old.

It is a theme recurrent in the short stories and central to one of novels for which the editor of this anthology, large as it is, could find no room, though his commentary has sent me to it :  Fort comme la mort (Strong as Death).  I had never even heard of this book, though I recognized the biblical citation from the Song of Songs:  Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.”

Fort comme la mort was published in 1889.  That was the same year that Sigmund Freud gave his first son the French name Jean-Martin after his old professor Jean-Martin Charcot, the same Charcot whose lectures Guy de Maupassant had attended at the Salpêtrière.  I don’t usually go for instant intellectual history in microwavable plastic cups, but it really is all there in this novel: love, death, incest, Electra, the Pygmalion myth, the doomed search for immortality through art.  I have not read all that many works of fiction that brilliantly depict growing old.  The best one that comes to mind is Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale.  It is pretty clear that Strong as Death, which I have not yet finished, will give Bennett a run for his money.  I won’t pretend to tell you what it is “about” (senescence), but the three points of the tragic triangle are an aging painter, his aging married mistress, and her nubile daughter.  A contemporary Parisian critic called it “the chastest of Mons. de Maupassant’s works but also the most awful”.  That is the kind of review to die for.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Statuary Rape

During my working life, which included stints as a low-level academic administrator and therefore of self-pity, I used to keep a facetious list of jobs in comparison to which mine was a breeze.  Director of Admissions was high on the list, just below the Parking Czarina.  Right at the moment I am particularly glad not to be the president of, say, Washington and Lee University.  

My own alma mater, the University of the South (Sewanee), was founded in 1857.  Its cornerstone was laid in 1860, more or less in time for the Yankees to blow it up a few years later.  There’s location, location, location—which Sewanee certainly had.  But there is also timing, timing, timing—in which it was somewhat wanting.  In the context of the Civil War the demolition of the ceremonial cornerstone of an incipient educational and religious institution may be regarded as a deed of philistine vandalism or of potent political righteousness, depending upon point of view.  And one must acknowledge that there is a good deal of point of view on display in the current controversy concerning the decommissioning of Confederate war memorials.

In my undergraduate years the chapel at Sewanee was something of a museum of memorials, as many historic ecclesiastical buildings are.  There were lots of funerary and memorial plaques, many of them cryptic to us, such as “She hath done what she could”.  That turns out to be Mark 14:8, but the sacrilegious adolescent imagination could run wild.  One read “And they rise to their feet as He passes by, gentlemen unafraid.”  Forty years later I discovered it in Kipling, but I still have no idea what it means or what it was doing there.  High up on the wall along both sides of the nave were some clearer emblems: old state flags, all of them from Confederate states, and some of them actual antique battlefield flags in what appeared to be battle-distressed condition. 

All Saints' Chapel (flagless version)

What did these dusty, ragged flags mean?  Neither I nor anybody I ever knew considered for a moment that they “meant” white nationalism or indeed anything political.  Their symbolic purpose, as I understood it, was to identify individual dioceses among a multiplicity of church dioceses, a large number of which had persevered through the frantic distractions of national crisis, war, defeat, destruction, destitution, and military occupation to found a liberal arts college.  But I am a professional scholar of iconography.  I know how difficult it is to be sure that the interpreter of an artistic symbol is on the same page as its creator.  On this subject it is quite possible for even an eminent professor of literature to smear egg all over his face, especially when he smells a “political” possibility.

How about the statuary monuments to Confederate generals?  What do they mean?  Here the semiotics immediately become murky.  In the best-case scenario an equestrian Lee might conjure up the Romantic visions of honor, courage, devotion to duty, military genius, dignity in defeat, or steadfastness in a lost cause that the old aristocrats found in reading Walter Scott.  But that is assuming the statue is really about Lee.  In the last several days in the Times two knowledgeable historians (Eric Foner and Jon Meacham) have published essays that, despite differing aims and emphases, agree in the plausible claim that the erection of the Charlottesville statue was not an homage to the historical Robert E. Lee but a reactionary gesture meant to offer symbolic life support for the lost cause, just as the whole racial set-up in the South of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was designed through technically legal mechanisms to preserve as much as possible of the spirit and effect of the legally abolished institution of slavery.  One somehow doubts that torch-lit marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil!” were much into the biographical Lee.  

Since iconoclasm is making a bid to reclaim the status of virtue, might we try agreeing on some guidelines?    Could we make a preliminary distinction between public, civic sites and literally consecrated ground—meaning churches and cemeteries?  Whoever took a hammer to the bust of Lee in the Duke University chapel is in my opinion a small-time criminal zealot in a long, self-righteous, puritanical tradition that includes the fanatical image-smashers of the Scheldt churches in the sixteenth century and the Taliban bombers of the Bamiyan buddhas in our own.  But that is probably a minority opinion.  Shared public civic spaces, on the other hand—town squares, public parks, government buildings and grounds—are in a different category.  In a democracy such places should so far as is possible actually belong to the citizenry and, insofar as possible, be regulated by democratic procedures, always remembering, as the Founders did, that democracy should not be synonymous with the “tyranny of the majority”.

I am hardly one who is indifferent to the past.  I have spent my life trying to study aspects of the remote past in their autonomy, integrity, and irrecoverable subtlety.  Life, however, is for the living.  The American Civil War is, as they say, history.  But so is the history of the American Civil War.  That is why historical monuments removed from public places should be archived, not destroyed or  “disappeared”.  Surely our great nation ought long ago to have faced its spiritual Appomattox and endured its spiritual Reconstruction and emerged a few steps closer to that “more perfect union” of our original national intention.  Surely we can do so yet.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Cry, the Beloved Country

Millions of Americans must be deeply disturbed by recent events in Charlottesville, though we doubtless grieve in different ways.   I am discovering a kind of “elder grief”.  Among the more or less contemporary novels that made a big impression on me when I was young was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.  It was published in 1948, and I must have read it in the early Fifties, at a time of considerable civil rights “turmoil” in Arkansas.  The novel is about many things, but principally the situation of disintegrating black communities in South Africa on the eve of the imposition of the formal apartheid system.  There was a lot in it I didn’t get, starting with the (for me) exotic and unpronounceable African place and personal names.  But there was a lot I did get, beginning with an unvarnished but not unsympathetic depiction of the historical burden of racial fear.

What sticks with me still is the book’s title.  The aging process is complicated, and full of mellow surprises; but it makes vivid the apprehension of mortality that for most of one’s life is a mere abstract inevitability.  One hopes to cast off the mortal coil with one’s affairs in reasonable order.   And one’s affairs extend far beyond a few legal documents.  They begin with one’s beloved family, but extend certainly to one’s beloved country, and well beyond that.  How can one fail to see that our beloved country is in a bad way, is spiritually ill?  You might say I’m burdened with  gerontic fright.  In a plangent, lyrical passage from which he took his title Paton wrote: “Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear”.

There is a temptation to exaggerate, of course.  There is some comfort to be had, I suppose, in the realization that the country has at times been sicker, as for example in 1858, say, yet still pulled through.  John Brown, at the foot of the scaffold in 1859, spoke not of sickness but of guilt—that is, of moral rather than physical pathology.  “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.”  It does seem very sad that even a century and a half after a cataclysmic civil war remarkable for its human hecatombs and prodigious material destruction we are still mired in its detritus and haunted by its ghosts.  But a sticky, gooey adhesiveness is far too often a characteristic of history.  Our great imaginative writers have often understood this more clearly than our political leaders.  “The past is never dead” wrote Faulkner; “it’s not even past.”

One of the more famous remarks of Karl Marx is this: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”  The idea of  “changing the world” seems on the one hand grandiose and preposterous and on the other noble and necessary.  What I most admire in the several generations of students I have had the good fortune to encounter is the large incidence of a vivid, optimistic idealism that I believe must necessarily leave the world a better place than they found it.  On the other hand in surveying the huge social changes that have come across America in the comparatively brief span between the birth of my grandparents and the majority of my eldest grandchild I find that most of it is to be explained in terms of large and impersonal forces like “technology” and “demography” rather than in those of identifiable, benign human volition.

I want to resist the more reckless analogies, of which there are plenty going around, involving Nazi Germany; but it does seem possible that we shall see more unpleasant vignettes reminiscent of pre-Nazi Germany.  In Charlottesville a “disturbed youth”—of whom we seem to have a nearly endless supply in this country—murdered a woman he cannot have known and probably could not have seen even as he was murdering her with a speeding automobile.  Political fanaticism so pure as to justify murder is a frightening thing indeed.  And there is no great distance between justifying murder and demanding it.  Some years ago I wrote a book about four important anti-Communist writers of the Forties and Fifties.  The whole project was an accident.  It started with my stumbling upon a forgotten bestseller—Jan Valtin’s Out of the Night, 1940—a book that had a significant influence on popular American views of Soviet Communism.  It purports to be the autobiography of a German Communist agitator and secret agent active in the northern seaports from Danzig to Antwerp in the Twenties and Thirties.  The book is in fact an historical novel; but some of its most vivid parts are undoubtedly direct reflections of the author’s experience.  Prominent among these are the accounts of Hamburg street brawls between demonstrating and counter-demonstrating Communists and Nazis—two groups whose ostensibly bitter ideological opposition masked for too many their deadly affinities of political fanaticism.  These bloody battles took place in many German cities, often with appalling carnage.  Though as we know the Brown Shirts eventually emerged as the undisputed masters of barbarism, things were for a time touch-and-go, and the honors for the atrocities were pretty evenly divided.  Valtin reports that Heinz Neumann, a leading Communist propagandist, gave the following pep talk to his marchers: “I want to see bodies!”  That’s not a very appealing political vision.  Our situation in America is I hope and believe very different.  Political violence is still a shocking aberration condemned by all sensible people rather than an accepted cultural norm to be adjudicated according to some ideological balance sheet.  (“Trump Again Says Two Sides at Fault in Rally Violence” is this morning’s blaring headline.)  But I still fear we may not have not seen the last body in the streets.   Cry, the beloved country, indeed.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Legacy Admissions

The renewed discussion of “affirmative action” in college admissions policies offers me the opportunity to think out loud about a topic that has long troubled me: “legacy” admissions.  In Monday’s newspaper there was a particularly stimulating letter to the editor of the Times, given the heading “Legacy Admissions: Affirmative Action for Whites,” by T. H. Rawls, a one-time admissions officer at Princeton, and (if my memory serves) before that an undergraduate of whom I was aware in the late Sixties.  I could give no better summary of this thoughtful letter than is offered by its editorial heading; but I highly recommend you read it in full.

            I don’t know whether Rawls is related to the famous Princeton alumnus who wrote A Theory of Justice, but the letter raises, in the context of current racial issues, fundamental ethical questions.  Is it really fair in the college admissions process at old Bindwood U to give any weight to the fact that an applicant’s parent, grandparent, or other kinsman graduated from the place?

            Although the American family is in dangerous decline, it still counts for a lot.  Nobody thinks it odd that Hiram Highpockets, Jr., might succeed Hiram Highpockets, Sr., as CEO over at Highpockets Hosiery, Inc., even if everybody knows that a well-advertised national search would have produced hundreds of better businessmen.  In the political sphere of the upstart American democracy we got all the way to our second president (John Adams) before beginning a system of political legacy.  This gives me a rare opportunity to say something nice about Donald Trump. He is neither the brother and son of former presidents nor the spouse of one.  There are at least a hundred million potential presidential candidates in this country, but two “legacy” candidates were our effective options before he entered the race.

Questions of a meritocratic nature were not raised when Ted Kennedy breezed into a lifetime job in the Senate, even as no one did so when, like his father and brothers before him, he had earlier matriculated at Harvard.  Here the analogy becomes more interesting.  Harvard College, which has ethical standards higher than those of the Senate, did expel him when he revealed dishonorable character.  And it is the higher ethical standard most of us associate with the idea of higher education that makes the question of legacy admissions troubling.  Princeton, like most of the other most prestigious institutions in the country, is a private corporation—not a public facility.  It ought to be able to do pretty much what it pleases.  But my forty-year stretch on the faculty was one long, voluntary worry about admissions standards—first as regarded the admission of women, then as regarded the vigorous recruitment of certain racial minorities, especially black Americans.

There are clear ethical arguments to support affirmative action for blacks along the lines of historical and restorative justice.  Perhaps curiously, however, the institutional argument usually made is of a more selfish sort: “diversity” is good for the institution, and therefore by ethical trickle-down, for everybody at it.

I think it obvious that the thoughtful admission of qualified “legacies” is likewise good for the institution.  Though not a ticket of admission, it should not be a negative aspect of young Schnackenfuss’s application that her granddaddy was the quarterback of Bindwood’s undefeated team of 1967, or that his uncle’s princely gift founded the Schnackenfuss Center for Computational Analysis on the south edge of the Bindwood campus.  A very remarkable thing about American higher education, still the envy of the world, is that we have so many excellent private colleges and universities.  Something that has struck me forcefully about the current discussion of the student loan crisis is the apparent belief in some quarters that the costs of higher education are somehow factitious, like the drug prices set by Martin Shkreli at Turing Pharmaceuticals.  In fact those costs are all too real, and they rise inexorably.  That is why college presidents spend so much time fund-raising.          

Unexamined ethical questions may surround the gargantuan endowments, in the billions of dollars, of a Yale, Stanford, Notre Dame, or Duke.  But that money did not come from taxpayers in a congressional bail-out.  Its source is private philanthropy, great and small.  All these institutions are in fact giant charities whose long-term function has been to redistribute wealth in the form of professional training and social capital.  The highest quality American higher education is paid for, in large measure, by people who have experienced it themselves and want to ensure it for future generations—usually beginning with their own.  That is neither a surprising nor a wicked sociological fact.  At Princeton the percentage of alumni who make annual gifts for institutional operations and development is extraordinary, and the sum total of gifts staggering, at least to me.

Yale could, with no difficulty at all, limit its entering class to high school valedictorians.  They probably could fill half of it with left-handed valedictorians.  As long as there are private educational institutions with far more aspiring applicants than there are places, and as long as so many uncertain variables render the admissions process arcane if not occult, there is little danger that most people, let alone everyone, will declare it satisfactory or “fair”.   But there is a tremendous effort made by large numbers of smart and ethical people to square the circle.  Unfortunately, even college professors often talk about the issue of alumni financial support for educational institutions crudely (and ignorantly) in transactional terms.  They may be more reticent in noting the significant number of faculty children in each successive freshman class.  Many large institutions, industrial no less than educational, like to use the metaphor of the family: the “General Motors family,” the “Bindwood family”.  All metaphors reach their terminus, some quite quickly.  But in my view, and it is a view based on some experience, the more closely an educational institution can uphold the family model as opposed to the corporate model the better off it will be.  That does not mean keeping it within the family, but expanding the idea of what a family is.