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.