Thursday, December 17, 2015

Travelogue: Apologies

I have obviously not been able to post something every ten days or so as I said I'd try to do last year.  It's been a busy holiday season.

So, just to throw in a little filler, above is one of my photos of Mont-Saint-Victoire that I said, somewhere upthread, that I wouldn't be posting.

Have a happy Christmas and wonderful new year.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Literary Critic and Anthropologist as Theologian

I think it appropriate, especially in light of what has happened in the last twenty-four hours, to note the death earlier this month of René Girard.

A little over two years ago I purchased a copy of his Je vois Satan tomber comme l'éclairMuch as I would have liked to take this occasion to review it, I have to admit that I haven't yet started it.  The volume, largely untouched since March, 2013,  reproaches me from the bookshelf, along with a considerable distinguished company.

I can only note the facts I knew before I purchased it, that Girard, a member of the French Academy and a long-time faculty member at Stanford, began, through the study of literature, to formulate a theory of human desire, that it is mimetic; that is, that human beings learn to desire what other human beings desire, and the result is conflict, violence and then a method of dealing with conflict which we call scapegoating.  Following out those observations, Girard moved from literary criticism to anthropology, and then to a conception of Christian atonement as the "way out" from the cycle of violence.  That Girard is himself a Catholic, and finds the gospels vindicated through this train of thought, naturally makes him suspect to a skeptical world.  But his proposals to have given rise to a wide-ranging re-thinking of the meaning and function of atonement and sacrifice, arguably the most original since St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo.

These kinds of things, of course, always sound better in French.  The following is from his obituary in Le Monde:

C’est ici qu’intervient une distinction fondamentale aux yeux de Girard : « La divergence insurmontable entre les religions archaïques et le judéo-chrétien. » Pour bien saisir ce qui les différencie, il faut commencer par repérer leur élément commun : à première vue, dans un cas comme dans l’autre, on a affaire au récit d’une crise qui se résout par un lynchage transfiguré en épiphanie. Mais là où les religions archaïques, tout comme les modernes chasses aux sorcières, accablent le bouc émissaire dont le sacrifice permet à la foule de se réconcilier, le christianisme, lui, proclame haut et fort l’innocence de la victime. Contre ceux qui réduisent la Passion du Christ à un mythe parmi d’autres, Girard affirme la singularité irréductible et la vérité scandaleuse de la révélation chrétienne. Non seulement celle-ci rompt la logique infernale de la violence mimétique, mais elle dévoile le sanglant substrat de toute culture humaine : le lynchage qui apaise la foule et ressoude la communauté.

Girard, longtemps sceptique, a donc peu à peu endossé les habits du prédicateur chrétien, avec l’enthousiasme et la pugnacité d’un exégète converti par les textes. De livre en livre, et de La Violence et le sacré (1972) jusqu’à Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair (1999), il exalte la force subversive des Evangiles.

Attribution Update:  I should acknowledge that the image above is from a painting done by my wife, Jeanine Allen.  It was sold through a gallery in Santa Fe, and so, thanks to the peculiar customs that prevail in the retail art business, we have no idea who now owns it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Devil came down to Moscow

I think there's a scene in Bergman's Seventh Seal where the knight asks the witch if she can tell him how to summon the devil, and to her question about why he would want to meet the devil, he says it's because he wants to ask him about God.

There has always been a sense in which we're more comfortable with the devil.  In Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus there's an observation that common people, at least, have a comfort level with Old Scratch that they may lack with higher powers:  "[Dem Volk] stand sogar immer die drastische, obszön humoristische Figur des Teufels näher als die obere Majestät...."

Be that as it may, I'm not here today to talk about The Seventh Seal or Doktor Faustus, but Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which I just finished this last weekend.  It's a novel about a visit by Satan to Moscow sometime in the thirties.  That's also when it was written, but, not too surprisingly, the manuscript wasn't pulled out of hiding and published until the 1960's, in the somewhat-thawed Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev. 

[A Certain Young Person of my Acquaintance, of good Judgment and liberal Education, has complained of my occasional posting of untranslated non-English text, finding this somewhat rude and borderline arrogant.  And I suppose it is, even if I usually try to give the sense of such passages.  I mention this because, perhaps thankfully, I don't know a word of Russian, so there's no danger here of Cyrillic characters making an unwelcome appearance.] 

But, getting back to Bulgakov, when I finished the book it occurred to me that he had indeed taken advantage of that familiarity we feel with a devilish character, even in a subordinate role.  Satan appears in the very first scene as a mysterious foreigner who calls himself "Woland."  He brings with him to Moscow a small but fantastic entourage, most strikingly his black cat Behemoth, who smokes cigars, plays chess and packs a pistol.  Only considerably later do we meet our protagonists, the unhappy writer, called only the "master," and Margarita, who is entirely devoted to him.

Now Woland is very much like Mephistopheles, and one might expect then in the master a Faust-figure.  But that's not so.  Rather, in Margarita, we have a character who enters with relish the revelries of a Walpugisnacht (actually, a Satanic ball for the damned), but only so that she can save her beloved master from the despair into which he has fallen.

That's one main thread of the story, and it is embellished with any number of side stories, with Woland playing tricks on the greedy, small-minded inhabitants of Moscow.  There are satirical jabs at the bureaucrats who control access to the status of "writer" in a totalitarian government and at the self-satisfied atheism of officialdom.  But this is not Solzhenitsyn.  The narrative is concerned, not with great crimes, but with petty humiliations.

But that's only one thread.  Interwoven throughout is a second tale, whose protagonist is "the cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the equestrian Pontius Pilate."  The second story is familiar, the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.  It veers rather significantly from the canonical account, but that shouldn't be surprising, since the first "installment" is told by Woland himself as something he witnessed (and surely we are justified in thinking Satan an "unreliable narrator" of these events).  Later, however, it happens that the master has written a novel--a novel whose manuscript he has burnt--about Pontius Pilate.  And without, I hope, giving too much away, by the end of the novel the two strands start to merge.

It's a curious book.  Woland is an orthodox-enough Satan, not an evil counterpart to God, but the negating spirit who despite his mischief brings about reconciliation and peace.   There is witchcraft and devilry, but no Christian religion, no Church.  One would be tempted to say as well, no God, except there is some small part played by Jesus, who is, after all, for Christians (obviously) God. So it's all an odd, satirical, but also touching and strangely reverent book that is rooted in, but also transcends the absurdities and cruelties of Stalin's Soviet Union.  

The illustration above is by Peter Suart, from the Folio Society edition that came out in 2010. The translators are Richard  Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky--I have their translations of Doctor Zhivago and Gogol's tales, and they seem to be running through the canon.  Their style is straightforward, almost journalistic, even when the narrative shifts into fantasy, the breaking of the extraordinary into the humdrum.  I understand that the novel remains wildly popular in Russia, and I'm embarrassed to say that I had never heard of it until Folio offered it.  Though the novel never saw the light of day during the author's lifetime, he apparently wrote a few plays that were not only performed, but which Stalin seems to have approved.  That approval was short-lived, however, and Bulgakov was at some point forbidden to write further.  He actually wrote a letter to Stalin asking if he could leave the Soviet Union, because he was broke and on the verge of starvation; he never got an answer.  We might think him lucky not to have been shot, in the circumstances, and perhaps Stalin, if he took notice of the request, thought the appropriate response to a banned and starving artist simply self-executing.        

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Journalist as Theologian

Just recently there was a bruhaha over a New York Times columnist commenting about the recent Synod on the Family.  A Catholic layman, he had expressed some rather overwrought fears about a plot to change doctrine, and the next thing you know there was one of those rebuttal letters, in this case signed by a few score academics at various Catholic universities and seminaries, expressing outrage.  The letter most notably contained a swipe that the columnist had no "theological credentials."

This then generated a webstorm for a few days--but I really don't want to get much into the merits of the thing.  I think the columnist, like a lot of right-leaning Catholic bloggers, need not have had such a set of the vapours over the synod.  By the same token, the suggestion that a Catholic needs some sort of academic degree to discuss the Faith is a little heavy-handed (I'm sure my papers are hardly in order on that score).

But, what interested me as I thought about it was whether I could in fact think of any journalist who could justifiably be called a genuine theologian.  And then I remembered Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

One might assume that Chesterton was subject to comparable academic criticism from Hilaire Belloc's "Lines to a Don":

     Remote and ineffectual Don
     That dared attack my Chesterton,   
     With that poor weapon, half-impelled,   
     Unlearnt, unsteady, hardly held,   
     Unworthy for a tilt with men—
     Your quavering and corroded pen;   
     Don poor at Bed and worse at Table,
     Don pinched, Don starved, Don miserable;   
     Don stuttering, Don with roving eyes,   
     Don nervous, Don of crudities;   
     Don clerical, Don ordinary,
     Don self-absorbed and solitary;   
     Don here-and-there, Don epileptic;   
     Don puffed and empty, Don dyspeptic;   
     Don middle-class, Don sycophantic,   
     Don dull, Don brutish, Don pedantic;
     Don hypocritical, Don bad,
     Don furtive, Don three-quarters mad;   
     Don (since a man must make an end),   
     Don that shall never be my friend.

(Now in fact Belloc doesn't yet make an end; he takes his imprecations on through the canonical fifty lines.  But I digress.)

I discovered Chesterton in my late twenties and was much taken with him.  He was a journalist who wrote novels still read and poetry still today enjoyed.  His rather eccentric economic theories, which repudiated capitalism, socialism and fascism in equal measure, anticipated the approach of "Small is Beautiful" economist (and fellow Catholic convert) E.F. Schumacher.  The Father Brown detective stories still puzzle,surprise and amuse us.  But Chesterton is best known as a religious writer.

He was baptized as an infant in the Church of England, but only in his late twenties, after some drifting and wandering, did he find in the Christian faith an adequate approach to the moral, social and political ills of his day.  Though Chesterton is often characterized as a Catholic writer, he didn't enter the Catholic Church until his forty sixth year, only fourteen years before his death in 1936.

In a previous post on Gustavo Gutiérrez's Teología de la Liberación I noted his discussion of different types of theology--mystical, philosophical, and the more topical theology addressed to the "signs of the times."  Gutiérrez put his own work in the latter category (along with de civitate Dei), and there also in all likelihood belongs Mr. Chesterton.

No less an academic than Étienne Gilson highly praised St. Thomas Aquinas, and that was in fact my first exposure to Chesterton.  But most still find in Orthodoxy his most original contribution, the work in which his love of paradox most humorously and surprisingly casts a cold eye on the various fads and movements that would make of orthodox Christianity a worn-out historical relic.  At the risk of going on too long I think it worthwhile to quote from some of his thunder:

'Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church. This is no exaggeration; I could fill a book with the instances of it. Mr. Blatchford set out, as an ordinary Bible-smasher, to prove that Adam was guiltless of sin against God; in manoeuvring so as to maintain this he admitted, as a mere side issue, that all the tyrants, from Nero to King Leopold, were guiltless of any sin against humanity. I know a man who has such a passion for proving that he will have no personal existence after death that he falls back on the position that he has no personal existence now. He invokes Buddhism and says that all souls fade into each other; in order to prove that he cannot go to heaven he proves that he cannot go to Hartlepool. I have known people who protested against religious education with arguments against any education, saying that the child's mind must grow freely or that the old must not teach the young. I have known people who showed that there could be no divine judgment by showing that there can be no human judgment, even for practical purposes. They burned their own corn to set fire to the church; they smashed their own tools to smash it; any stick was good enough to beat it with, though it were the last stick of their own dismembered furniture. We do not admire, we hardly excuse, the fanatic who wrecks this world for love of the other. But what are we to say of the fanatic who wrecks this world out of hatred of the other? He sacrifices the very existence of humanity to the non-existence of God. He offers his victims not to the altar, but merely to assert the idleness of the altar and the emptiness of the throne. He is ready to ruin even that primary ethic by which all things live, for his strange and eternal vengeance upon some one who never lived at all.

"And yet the thing hangs in the heavens unhurt. Its opponents only succeed in destroying all that they themselves justly hold dear. They do not destroy orthodoxy; they only destroy political courage and common sense. They do not prove that Adam was not responsible to God; how could they prove it? They only prove (from their premises) that the Czar is not responsible to Russia. They do not prove that Adam should not have been punished by God; they only prove that the nearest sweater should not be punished by men. With their oriental doubts about personality they do not make certain that we shall have no personal life hereafter; they only make certain that we shall not have a very jolly or complete one here. With their paralysing hints of all conclusions coming out wrong they do not tear the book of the Recording Angel; they only make it a little harder to keep the books of Marshall & Snelgrove. Not only is the faith the mother of all worldly energies, but its foes are the fathers of all worldly confusion. The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world."

This, to me, is a prime example of journalism in the theological mode.  It isn't common, but I would say from this that it is obviously possible.

Even, let us say, for cartoonists:      

Monday, October 26, 2015

Travelogue: Le bon Roi René

Travel is famously a way to make new acquaintances.  I'm reluctant in a public place like this to speak specifically about  identifiable individuals because of concerns about privacy. But a journey through new and distant locales also serves to introduce historic figures hitherto unknown, and that brings me to good King René. Count of Provence, Duke of Bar, Anjou, and Lorraine, and King of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem.  That's a photo I snapped of him above, an 1823 figure by David d'Angers now a fixture in the Cours Mirabeau of  Aix-en Provence. 

He plainly bore a wealth of titles.  But his exercising them was another matter.  As Shakespeare's Richard taunts his daughter Margaret in 3 Henry VI, 

Thy father bears the type of King of Naples,
Of both the Sicils and Jerusalem,
Yet not so wealthy as an English yeoman....

And indeed René was for most of his life unfortunate,  failing here to regain a kingdom, taken captive there in another fruitless attempt to win back a dukedom.  I've read no proper biography, but scraps here and there, a stray reference in a biography of Joan of Arc, a legend or anecdote from a travel book, thumbnails from internet searches, often contradictory.  At the end of his life, for reasons I'm none too clear about, René bequeathed Provence to King Louis XI--the king who makes a brief appearance toward the end of Notre-Dame de Paris--and the county passed irretrievably from nominal allegiance to the Empire into the possession of the Kingdom of France.

And René passed into legend, as the last independent ruler, whose consolation for lost realms across Europe was a contented old age under the Provencial sun.  He composed a poetic, allegorical romance, Le Livre du Cuer d'amours espris.  He held fetes and planted gardens.  Though he didn't paint, his reputation for supporting the arts led to the (mistaken) attribution of certain alter pieces in la cathédral Saint-Sauveur to him.  It is the legend that undergirds the inscription that graces the monument in the Cours Mirabeau:


My best rendition of the above is as follows:

In perpetual memory, to René, king of Sicily and Jerusalem
Whose acts, notable in peace and war, would leave him unhappy.
He considered himself happy only among the Provencials,
Who, expelled from his realms
deprived of his children
stripped of his wealth,
would find consolation in all things Provencial.

The sculpted figure, by the way, holds his scepter of office in one hand, muscat grapes in the other.  All kings had scepters.  But le bon Roi René was also reputed to have introduced the muscat grape to Provence. 

Waitin' on the Robert E. Lee

I mentioned a few posts back my beginning Douglas Southall Freeman's R.E. Lee.  In some ways I find it hard to justify reading a four volume biography.  In my own library Boswell's Johnson only takes up three volumes, and Gibbon was able to cover fourteen centuries of decline and fall in seven.

But at the same time I'm the first to admit that there are advantages to what might be called The Long Biography.  Any contemporary interest in Lee comes from his having been a Confederate general.  But he wasn't tapped by the Confederacy until his fifties, when he was feeling himself something as a failure.  So a lengthy biography of someone who made his mark only late in life leaves us with a detailed account of an earlier life that, but for the happenstance of later events, might never have been noted.

Lee was from a prominent Virginia family (more on that in a moment), but he was never a wealthy man, and he went into the army because he needed to earn a living.  He chose to enter the corps of engineers, and one of the chapters in this book, which I would guess would be curtailed, if not cut, in any abridgment, concerns his work on trying to build a pier in the Mississippi to direct the rivers current so as to prevent the formation of a bar opposite St. Louis.

I won't go into this in any detail, other than noting, as generally as possible, that I have recently had occasion to look into the history of nineteenth century river projects and the federal government's role in them.  That made these chapters particularly interesting to me, though not, I imagine, to you.  So I'll note it, drop it.'s the gist of the problem:

But moving on to a topic of more general interest, and one considerably more important....

In law school, in my third year, when most of us were admittedly getting a little tired of being in law school, I took a course, to vary the routine a little, in Roman law.  And one of the distinctive aspects of Roman law, an aspect not entirely absent from American law, but one not directly relevant to the business of a lawyer since the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, was the law of slavery.  It was in that class alone that I learned in rather precise and heartless detail the legal status of the Roman slave, his uses, his limited right to use his master's authority (the arguable root of our law of agency), and the usual practical distinction between the lives of domestic slaves and the considerably more brutal life of those assigned to the fields and the quarries.

I mention that by way of introduction to a minor but rather intriguing aspect of this biography of Lee.  As a young man  Lee came to own an elderly slave identified by Freeman only as "Nat." Nat had been his mother's coachman, and the children had grown up with him.  On her death Ann Lee bequeathed Nat to her daughter Mildred, but the old gentleman was too sick to work, so Lee took charge of him, taking him with him to one of his first assignments after graduation at West Point, rehabilitation of fortifications at Cockspur Island, in the Savannah River in Georgia.

That's the last time Freeman mentions him, and other sources hastily googled suggest that Nat lived with Lee a few more years until his respiratory condition worsened and killed him.  The simple fact raises all sorts of questions about what was legally or socially expected, whether there was something particularly kind in Lee supporting his mother's old slave, or whether that was an understood duty.  There a whole apologetic history in the South claiming that the master/slave relationship was often more paternal that exploitive, and my understanding is that that narrative, on the whole, has not withstood historic scrutiny.  Still, it's surprising, to me, that in such an extensive biography, this particular relationship, which I would certainly want to know more about, is largely glossed over.

The American success of Downton Abbey, along with its predecessor, Upstairs/Downstairs, suggests a certain local fascination with the master/servant relationship overseas.  We accept that the Duke is kindly, and cares about his servants.  They are, of course, not slaves, but I suspect that their real freedom of action would have been more seriously limited than the television program suggests.  In any event I can't help but wonder how an antebellum version of those dramas would be received, especially if the master were presented as being as caring as the British "upstairs" protagonists.  

There is one other aspect to Southall's original narrative that I imagine would be excised in a contemporary abridgment, his references to eugenics.  Any example:

No misalliance marred the strain of Robert E. Lee's blood or lowered his inherited station as a gentleman.  Eugenically, his career is perhaps, above all, a lesson in the cumulative effect of wise marriages.

It would be convenient to blame this sort of thing on malignant traces of Southern racism, except, of course, that these sorts of reflections were considered, in the early twentieth century, as strictly scientific judgments.  The embrace of eugentics by the Third Reich, and its enthusiastic application to its logical end, not only brought that awful "science" to an end, but also gave rise to a perhaps understandable effort to scrub its ugly effects from our historical memory.  It's therefore instructive, I think, to occasionally look at unvarnished writing, like this, from the early twentieth century, to be reminded how these attitudes were once fairly ubiquitous.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Pericles' Funeral Oration: Paragraph 5

'Διαφέρομεν δὲ καὶ ταῖς τῶν πολεμικῶν μελέταις τῶν ἐναντίων τοῖσδε. τήν τε γὰρ πόλιν κοινὴν παρέχομεν, καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ὅτε ξενηλασίαις ἀπείργομέν τινα ἢ μαθήματος ἢ θεάματος, ὃ μὴ κρυφθὲν ἄν τις τῶν πολεμίων ἰδὼν ὠφεληθείη, πιστεύοντες οὐ ταῖς παρασκευαῖς τὸ πλέον καὶ ἀπάταις ἢ τῷ ἀφ' ἡμῶν αὐτῶν ἐς τὰ ἔργα εὐψύχῳ· καὶ ἐν ταῖς παιδείαις οἱ μὲν ἐπιπόνῳ ἀσκήσει εὐθὺς νέοι ὄντες τὸ ἀνδρεῖον μετέρχονται, ἡμεῖς δὲ ἀνειμένως διαιτώμενοι οὐδὲν ἧσσον ἐπὶ τοὺς ἰσοπαλεῖς κινδύνους χωροῦμεν. τεκμήριον δέ· οὔτε γὰρ Λακεδαιμόνιοι καθ' ἑαυτούς, μεθ' ἁπάντων δὲ ἐς τὴν γῆν ἡμῶν στρατεύουσι, τήν τε τῶν πέλας αὐτοὶ ἐπελθόντες οὐ χαλεπῶς ἐν τῇ ἀλλοτρίᾳ τοὺς περὶ τῶν οἰκείων ἀμυνομένους μαχόμενοι τὰ πλείω κρατοῦμεν. ἁθρόᾳ τε τῇ δυνάμει ἡμῶν οὐδείς πω πολέμιος ἐνέτυχε διὰ τὴν τοῦ ναυτικοῦ τε ἅμα ἐπιμέλειαν καὶ τὴν ἐν τῇ γῇ ἐπὶ πολλὰ ἡμῶν αὐτῶν ἐπίπεμψιν· ἢν δέ που μορίῳ τινὶ προσμείξωσι, κρατήσαντές τέ τινας ἡμῶν πάντας αὐχοῦσιν ἀπεῶσθαι καὶ νικηθέντες ὑφ' ἁπάντων ἡσσῆσθαι. καίτοι εἰ ῥᾳθυμίᾳ μᾶλλον ἢ πόνων μελέτῃ καὶ μὴ μετὰ νόμων τὸ πλέον ἢ τρόπων ἀνδρείας ἐθέλομεν κινδυνεύειν, περιγίγνεται ἡμῖν τοῖς τε μέλλουσιν ἀλγεινοῖς μὴ προκάμνειν, καὶ ἐς αὐτὰ ἐλθοῦσι μὴ ἀτολμοτέρους τῶν αἰεὶ μοχθούντων φαίνεσθαι, καὶ ἔν τε τούτοις τὴν πόλιν ἀξίαν εἶναι θαυμάζεσθαι καὶ ἔτι ἐν ἄλλοις.

"If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. In proof of this it may be noticed that the Lacedaemonians do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all their confederates; while we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbour, and fighting upon a foreign soil usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their homes. Our united force was never yet encountered by any enemy, because we have at once to attend to our marine and to dispatch our citizens by land upon a hundred different services; so that, wherever they engage with some such fraction of our strength, a success against a detachment is magnified into a victory over the nation, and a defeat into a reverse suffered at the hands of our entire people. And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them. Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration." 

This series of qualities can be understood literally, as an assertion that the Athenians were, in fact, different from other peoples, that even after taking their ease, and pursuing a free life of pleasure, and keeping their city open to one and all, they were still just as hardy and war-ready as their Spartan antagonists, whose whole existence was famously one of training and hardship. 

On the other hand--and we have to consider this in light of Thucydides' presumed knowledge of the outcome of the war--this might be a stinging example of Athenian hybris,  an asserted "exceptionalism" that didn't in fact live up to its promise in the end.  I am just old enough to remember stirring reminders that Americans don't lose wars, and there's some of that asserted superiority here, the pride the goeth before a fall.  There is especially that claim to "courage not of art but of nature," "μὴ μετὰ νόμων τὸ πλέον ἢ τρόπων ἀνδρείας ," that asserts what is normally a hard-won virture as a birthright:  "Land of the free and home of the brave."

It's painful to read a passage like this because, if anywhere,  there is real justification for talking about an Athenian "exceptionalism."  The explosion of art and reflection that burst onto the scene among these fifth century Greeks came to change all of humanity.  It was an extraordinarily creative period that arguably was without precedent.  And surely there must have been some awareness among them of that unprecedented expansion of human possibilities.

But they were not gods--not even gods as the Greeks conceived them--and the most self-aware historians and dramatists and philosophers were not slow to make that point as well.  Something made the Athenians exceptional.  But it was not "nature."  They were human, sharing the same nature with Spartans, the same nature even with "barbarians," with those who couldn't even speak Greek.

It is the custom of demagogues to praise the peoples' virtues.  Aristocrats--of power, of wealth, or of the mind--tend to think somewhat less of the "mob."  This is one of those examples where, if this is an accurate rendition of the speech, the import of Pericles' words might have had one meaning for himself, another for his listeners, and a third for Thucydides.   

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


One of the advantages of random or undisciplined reading is the occasional unexpected juxtaposition.

I had mentioned in a previous post my recently begun reading of Pico della Mirandola; the new volume is pictured above.  I had also, earlier in the year, ordered a version of Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris, admittedly because it appeared to be a rather interestingly designed and illustrated version.  I had read it in English back in the '80's, and thought it might not be too formidable to re-read in French.

I don't know how Notre Dame de Paris came to be translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Quasimodo is undeniably a major character, but Esmeralda is in some ways more central to the plot.  In any case, there's some critical consensus that the cathedral itself should be considered the real protagonist, the novel more a painting of Hugo's richly imagined sense of the Gothic than a conventional story.

What happened to catch my attention was the realization of the relatively late setting of Hugo's evocation of the medieval.  The novel, with its full complement of hungry poets, lustful clerical alchemists, wonder-working gypsies, riotous students, fraudulent beggars, popinjay soldiers and other picturesque grotesques,  begins on January 6, 1482. 

And this puts us in the full flower of the quattrocento.  In 1482 our friend Giovanni Pico is studying philosophy, Greek and rhetoric at Pavia and seeking a copy of Marsilio Ficino's  Theologia Platonica.  The next year he enters the circle around Lorenzo de' Medici in Florence, and in 1485 we find him in Paris, spending a season at the Sorbonne. 

Pico was of course an atypical Parisian student, a wealthy aristocrat.  His "type" is largely absent from Hugo's tragedy.  Nor do I want to concede to Hugo's late fifteenth century Paris greater historical accuracy than it merits.  Hugo was a pioneer in the nineteenth century's new interest in the medieval, and though his story and characteristic digressions were based on considerable research, I very much doubt that his picture of Pico's Paris would pass muster by contemporary historical standards.

Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the polymath humanist with the grotesque splendors of Hugo's Gothic vision remains a bit jarring.  By 1486 Pico is preparing for his great disputation in Rome to reconcile Christian and pagan, Plato and Aristotle, Chaldean, Moslem and cabalist.  But his sojourn in Paris--roughly contemporaneous with Hugo's final, melancholy scene from the Montfaucon--can help remind us of the fragility of the oft-exaggerated  distinction between the late medieval and the Renaissance.          

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Travelogue: de senectute

This is of course a shot of the Roman Forum.  It's old, a lot older than I am.  But I'm getting up there, and I offer this especially for those of you who are starting to get senior discounts, as well as those of you lucky enough to eventually qualify for them.

"De senectute," "On Old Age," is one of Cicero's better known dialogues.  As I may have previously mentioned, I majored in philosophy in college, but Cicero was never much on my map.  It's not so much that he was an "amateur" philosopher.  But he was Roman rather than Greek.  He was mainly a statesman, a politician, a lawyer, whose philosophy seemed, to me, a sort of ornament to the real business of governing this or that part of the Roman state.

And yet this essay seems to me in some sense an ideal exemplar of what philosophy should be, an elegant reflection of an issue that goes to the heart of our concerns (if, fo course, we live long enough to worry about old age).  One by one he addresses the common complaints about old age, the loss of physical vigor and the inevitable closeness of death.  In response he reviews the advantages of maturity, the courage born of experience, and the serenity that comes from wisdom.

Here, for example, is a favorite passage:

Fructus autem senectutis est, ut saepe dixi, ante partorum bonorum memoria et copia. Omnia autem quae secundum naturam fiunt sunt habenda in bonis. Quid est autem tam secundum naturam quam senibus emori? Quod idem contingit adulescentibus adversante et repugnante natura. Itaque adulescentes mihi mori sic videntur, ut cum aquae multitudine flammae vis opprimitur, senes autem sic, ut cum sua sponte nulla adhibita vi consumptus ignis exstinguitur; et quasi poma ex arboribus, cruda si sunt, vix evelluntur, si matura et cocta, decidunt, sic vitam adulescentibus vis aufert, senibus maturitas; quae quidem mihi tam iucunda est, ut, quo propius ad mortem accedam, quasi terram videre videar aliquandoque in portum ex longa navigatione esse venturus.

The fruit of old age is the memory of past goods, that ability to reflect, to have the time and matter to engage in philosophy itself.  It cannot be wrong for the old to die, since that is the way of nature.  Then, in a particularly affecting passage, Cicero compares death in youth to death in old age, contrasting first a vigorous flame extinguished by water to a slowly expiring ember, then the wrenching by hand of an unripe fruit to the release and fall of the mature and fully ripened fruit.  One death is by force, the other a natural release.  And he ends with the image of the traveler glimpsing a far country as a long journey comes to an end.

It's such a beautiful vision it makes us forget Cicero's actual end.  Learning that Octavian had assented to his being put on Mark Antony's prosciption list, Cicero fled for the coast.  He was intercepted, murdered with the sword, and his severed limbs nailed to the very rostrum in the Forum where he made his name for eloquence--reminding us, I suppose, that life too often conspires to confound our expectations.

But not to leave off on too somber note, the photograph below, also from my late travels, is far older than the Forum, and perhaps less tumultuous.  It is a small part of the stone circle at Avebury, dating from roughly 2500 BC.  It may, of course, have as violent a history as the Forum, but that history has long been lost, and we are left, happily, with a serene and pastoral image of human endeavor--the laying out of a great circle--across the gulf of time.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Travelogue: We'll always have Paris

There's something about Paris that makes me a little uneasy in trying to talk about it.  This was my third trip to Paris, and like the first two, it was very brief and focused on visiting the standard tourist venues.  I don't make any excuse for that, the standard tourist venues being quite magnificent.  But there is an overall grandeur to the place that makes it both daunting and irresistible, and also arouses a certain envy out of not having been born a Parisian.

It's that last impression that's hard to justify.  How can you know anything about a place from having seen only its most prominent monuments?  I can perhaps lay claim to a little something more through some superficial acquaintance with its literature--Stendahl, Balzac, Hugo, Proust.  Over the years I've been through histories and essays and studies (Anthony Beevor's Paris after the Liberation stands out as a recently-completed account of a particularly tumultuous time in recent history; John Russell's Paris is a well-written, well-illustrated large format book I'd also highly recomment).

That arguably promotes me to a bookish tourist, with a fair capacity to read French and rather laughable speaking skills.  Nevertheless, the place has an allure that's hard to describe.  When I first visited, as a college student, my first impression that that this was what I expected Rome to be like.  And when I got to Rome I immediately felt the difference.  Paris is an old city, but what one sees, at least in a quick trip, is the great nineteenth century capital, or at least the grand nineteenth century embellishments which overlay the older city.

We stayed in a hotel on the Rue de Tronchet, just north of the Eglise de la Madeleine, a kind of replica of the Parthenon.  It was originally to be dedicated by Napoleon to la gloire of the Grande Armee, but after the his fall it was returned to the Church (where an earlier church dedicated to Mary Magdalene had once stood).  Like many churches, pillars and monuments it occupies a place with long sight lines (like Saint-Augustin above), to display it to full advantage.

On my first two trips I spoke not a work of French, a distinct disadvantage.  Not that you can't get by in English; practically everyone who deals professionally with tourists will speak flawless English.  This third time my earnest, halting French was practically everywhere met with some level of English superior to my French, with no apparent Brownie points for my sincere efforts.  It's a big, busy city, so it's brusque and impatient, at least on the street.    

Which is not to say that I every really encountered the proverbial rudeness of the French.  Honestly, I've never been treated with any degree of bad manners anywhere in France, and I wonder if the common tales of Gallic affront may have their origin in a commonly-seen oversees American sense of entitlement that quite naturally evokes a less-than-friendly response.  I've always been treated well (In fact, on my first trip, I was taken for a beggar and given a franc in the Louvre, which says more for them than it does for me.  I gave it back, with what was then my only French word, merci.

The book review in this morning's New York Times notes an anthology of pieces by Joseph Roth, The Hotel Years.  I recently purchased what is probably Roth's best-known novel, Radetzkymarsch and hope to start it sometime this year.  Born in Slovenia, educated in Vienna, Roth first came to Paris in 1925.  A great lover of the ethnic, religious, and linguistic stew of the vanished Hapsburg empire, Roth ended up, after stints in Russian and Albania, back in Paris, a refugee from the coming Nazi horrors.  He described Paris as "free, intellectual in the best sense, and ironic in the most majestic pathos."  No paradise, of course.  Roth drank himself to death, probably intentionally, in 1939.  But his words describe the Paris that's not available to the casual tourist, and possibly not available to to the non-Parisian in any case--but which, nevertheless, adds to the city's beautiful and terrible allure.    

Monday, August 17, 2015

Travelogue: Other Pilgrimages

I can't prove it, of course, but I've always suspected that the modern notion of traveling comes, in part, from the pilgrimage, the journey of the devotee to a sacred place, where something extraordinary occurred, where some revelation came into being, where some relic of the divine encounter with the human remains.

At other times, of course, we just want a change of scenery, or want to see something extraordinary, like Niagara Falls or the Bay of Naples.

Places that are themselves significant need not be holy sites.  In Rome I made a point to visit what's left of the mausoleum of Augustus.  He does, of course, have a touch of the numinous--not only the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (which originally adorned the mausoleum), but also "Factum est autem in diebus illis, exiit edictum a Caesare Augusto ut describeretur universus orbis."  But Augustus is still, primarily, a historical figure, and historical sites also figure into the traveler's itinerary.  Here at Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War.  Here George Washington took command of the colonial army.  Here Lorenzo the Magnificent was attacked in the Pazzi conspiracy.

And then there is art.  We go to museums, often to see work we know very well.  We do learn from originals the sad limitations of reproductions.  But the original works also carry that sense of physical connection with the artist.  "Leonardo stood before this panel."  It's a point of contact.

The photograph above is from Paul Cézanne's studio in Aix-en-Provence.  It's not a photograph I took; photography is forbidden.  This is from a postcard I bought downstairs.  The studio is at the top of a long hill.  The mistral ("a mistral"?) had unexpectedly blown in the night before, and though it had been sweltering the previous day, we were now freezing in the gusting winds as we huffed and puffed toward our destination.  At the top we waited patiently in the garden after buying tickets.  Groups of five to ten were ushered up, allowed their ten minutes, and then politely asked to let the next group come up.

The photograph above gives a good sense of the studio.  No frills.  A room with a large window and painting paraphenalia.  But it's moving.  Cézanne has been, for me, an acquired taste.  He's often presented in a purely art-historical fashion: a bridge between the impressionists and the cubists.  He is that.  But that kind of description leaves out what he is in himself, a remarkably able painter of color and form, who ennobles his commonly-humble subject matter, whether people or landscapes or still life's.

One of the first things we wanted to do upon arriving at Le Tholonet was to catch a glimpse of Mont-Sainte-Victoire, which Cézanne repeatedly painted toward the end of his life.  As a college student I had had an art professor come back from a trip to Provence absolutely loaded with shots of the mountain, and, as he showed us dull slide after dull slide, he excitedly explained how, no, it doesn't at all look like the slide, but the mountain dominates the countryside, as in the paintings.

Which is why I haven't posted any of my photos of Mont-Sainte-Victoire.

But back to Cézanne.  He's undoubtedly a local hero, and his name is everywhere, on roads, repair shops, cafes.  Such was his original reputation that the oldest art  museum in Aix, housing Ingres' enormous canvass of Jupiter and Thetis (which Cézanne loathed), proudly refused to have anything to do with Cézanne for decades.  Because Cézanne had returned home to Provence, a prophet without honor.  He had gone from his native South to Paris, and found it wanting, and came back with enough of an inheritance not to have to live by selling paintings, and a vision uniquely suited to the harsh, as-yet-ungentrified Mediterranean sun.  

So, anyway, we made this particular pilgrimage, and were happier for it.  At the end of this paragraph I've imaged the cover of one of the few books I reviewed before leaving home.  It's not only a good review of  Cézanne's painting in Provence, but provides a context for a late nineteenth century movement away from Paris--that great centralizing vortex of French culture--a movement to assert the unique value of provincial creations far from the great imperial metropolis.      


Sunday, August 9, 2015

N.E.B.T., 1916-2015

ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν,  πιστεύων ἔχει ζωὴν αἰώνιον. 

ἐγώ εἰμι  ἄρτος τῆς ζωῆς. 
οἱ πατέρες ὑμῶν ἔφαγον ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τὸ μάννα καὶ ἀπέθανον: 
οὗτός ἐστιν  ἄρτος  ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβαίνων 
ἵνα τις ἐξ αὐτοῦ φάγῃ καὶ μὴ ἀποθάνῃ. 
ἐγώ εἰμι  ἄρτος  ζῶν  ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς: 
ἐάν τις φάγῃ ἐκ τούτου τοῦ ἄρτου ζήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα: 
καὶ  ἄρτος δὲ ὃν ἐγὼ δώσω  σάρξ μού ἐστιν ὑπὲρ τῆς τοῦ κόσμου ζωῆς.

Réquiem æternam dona ea,
Et lux perpétua lúceat ea.
Anima ejus, et ánimæ ómnium fidélium defunctórum, per misericórdiam Dei requiéscant in pace.