Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

--G.K. Chesterton

Friday, December 23, 2016

Madame Bovary

I have recently completed Flaubert's Madame Bovary.  Some thirty years ago I read it in an English translation, and it honestly didn't make an enormous impression on me. But because of its formidable reputation as a high water mark of French literary prose, I thought I ought to try it in the original.

The novel's reputation has always been rather daunting.  Rather than try to summarize my own impression of the kind of praise the novel tends to receive, I did a quick search on the web and found the following, not untypical, from an interview of Julian Barnes in The Paris Review:

"Madame Bovary is the first truly modern novel, by which I mean the first through-composed novel. In the nineteenth century, many novels, especially in England, were published as they were written in serial parts in magazines; novelists wrote with the printer’s boy tugging their sleeve for copy. The equivalent English novel to Madame Bovary would be Middlemarch, which in terms of structure and composition is more primitive—partly, I believe, because of its serial composition. I’m sure that in terms of the description of society Balzac is Flaubert’s equal. But, in terms of artistic control—the control of narrative voice and the use of style indirecte libre—Flaubert shows a new line and says, Now we are starting again."

Flaubert's own conception of what he was doing was no less ambitious:

“J’en conçois un pourtant, moi, un style qui serait beau, que serait rythmé comme le vers, précis comme le langage des sciences, et avec des ondulations, des ronflements de violincelle, et des aigrettes de feu, un style qui vous entrerait dans l’idée comme un coup de stylet….”

So it's admittedly a little bit of a let-down to turn from the criticism and aspiration to the novel itself, which is a rather ordinary story of an unhappy wife and and her clueless husband.    I had actually thought of Barnes' comparison with Middlemarch on my own.  Country doctors in country towns with bored, impecunious wives.  But I didn't think the of differences in terms of "artistic control."  Eliot in Middlemarch seems as expert in interweaving far more narrative threads than are followed in Madame Bovary.  But Middlemarch is shot through with a sincere Victorian earnestness, its characters motivated by various  idealisms frustrated in the end by the most common vices and habits.  There are no such aspirations in Madame Bovary--no high ideals, no dreams of sacrifice, no chivalry (at least outside of Emma's succession of assumed and discarded romantic poses).

It's been said that Madame Bovary sometimes fails to impress because its then-novel approach to the novel has become commonplace.  The characters are ordinary people and the plotting straightforward, with just enough scandal to give it a melodramatic flavor.  (It's hard to believe that the novel was actually prosecuted as indecent).  The life of a small, mostly agricultural town is painted with considerable detail, always in the third person, but shot through with Emma's insatiable boredom and the author's pitiless naturalism. 
The attention to detail creates problems for those of us reading in a foreign language.  The contents of a kitchen, the wares of a peddler, the activities during a country fair, employ a vocabulary that, to a native, may invoke recognition or nostalgia, but to a foreigner has to be segued over to keep reasonably abreast of the movement of events.

And I found it difficult to really enjoy a novel where none of the characters have anything at all admirable or distinctive about them.  I suppose that that's Flaubert's naturalism, but it certainly makes for a different experience from following the career of a Jean Valjean, or Edmund Dantes, or even a villain like the Marquis de Valmont.

That's not to say that there aren't some memorable set-pieces, like the pathetic attempt to correct the tavern boy's club foot.  Even now I can't think of it without cringing.   But in the end Emma is undone, not by her adulteries, but by her attachment to expensive trifles.  The banality of her fall becomes, again, more cringe-worthy than tragic, and the behavior of the men around her--her husband, her lovers, her enemies--mainly invoke shame at male excuses and irresponsibility when their promises are actually believed.

In all this I realize I've said nothing about style, about the rhythm and precision of the prose.  Flaubert's aspiration to "science" does little (for me) to advance the notion that a scientific conception of life can be as rich and full of wonder as the older notion of a world full of gods.  In the end it's a sad book about a thwarted and unhappy life, whose miserable end ripples out in the brief and rapid conclusion to blight the lives of husband and daughter.  It is a realism that I have to believe is too bleak to be entirely representative of the real.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Hamilt 'n Jeff

Like many others I've been smitten with Lin Manuel-Miranda's Hamilton.  I haven't seen it, of course, but last spring we drove half-way across the country and, looking for new CD's for the trip, I happened on the original cast album and bought it on impulse.

Astute readers will have guessed that those of my age are not exactly the target demographic for hip-hop.  But I very much enjoyed the music and lyrics, whose word-play and unexpected rhyme-schemes reminded me of no one so much as Stephen Sondheim.  I should also emphasize that hip-hop is really only a part of the musical; there is a great deal of Broadway-style balladry and show-stoppers.  With Jefferson's return from France there is some toe-tapping boogie-woogie, and Burr's big number, "The Room where it Happens,"starts off somewhere between Stephen Foster and Kurt Weil.

(I began writing this post long before the dust-up with the Vice-President-Elect, and I am really rooting for that Hamilton boycott, because it's probably the only chance I'll have a shot at a ticket anytime before 2020.)

It's a Broadway musical, not a history text, but the outlines are quite accurate and the themes of the story are exactly what your teachers would have wanted you to pick up:  Hard work and perseverance pay off, virtue is its own reward, and your sins will surely find you out.

Most surprising is the production's respectful portrayal of Washington.  It's been a good forty years since I read Gore Vidal's Burr, an enjoyable but thoroughly cynical take-down of all the founders, starting with Washington.  Here Washington the slaveholder is largely ignored, eclipsed by the prudent general and the virtuous first magistrate, first to last a steadying figure among more ambitious and less scrupulous men, and a father figure to the orphaned and abandoned Hamilton.

In commending the play's accuracy I don't mean of course that the founders occasionally burst into song or worked topical twenty-first century observations into their banter.  But as it happens I received, last Father's Day, a copy of the book which led Miranda to write the musical, Ron Chernow's 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, and I only finished it last week.   It's a timely reminder that American politics in the late eighteenth century was not so genteel as we imagine.  After all, it rarely happens today that one leading politician kills another.

But though Burr fills a key dramatic role as a career-long competitor and opponent to Hamilton, the deeper and more significant conflict, both personally and philosophically, is that between Hamilton and Jefferson.   That conflict is of course present in the musical, but it's only in the biography that the depth of personal animosity is set out, as these two men spend year after year attacking each other, directly as members of the first cabinet, and indirectly, through anonymous broadsides and scurrilous journals and the leaking of scandalous rumors.

In that respect Jefferson is the founder whose reputation seems to have fallen the farthest in my lifetime.  In my college days he was invariably revered as the purest exemplar of the new American idea--author of the Declaration ("hold[ing] these truths..."), advocate of a constitutional Bill of Rights, opponent of corrupt capital, advocate of the independent farmer.  And though today he is more frequently lambasted as seriously compromised--a Southern slaveholder who took a mistress and left unacknowledged children in bondage--it's a little surprising that Hamilton, the spokesman for banks, the virtual founder of Wall Street, and the distruster of democracy, so easily takes the role of virtuous hero, in both the musical and the biography.

The two men are so diametrically opposed in every way that their juxtaposition seems almost too perfect for real life, a symbiosis I've tried to suggest in the Finniganian variation on Mutt and Jeff in this post's title.

One of the recurring motifs of Chernow's biography is the vulnerability of democracy in the face of unscrupulous campaigning; when truth takes a back seat to ambition the "mob" can be too easily manipulated.  Hamilton had the luxury of being able to treat democracy as only one form of consensual government, but in the end he was its victim, unable to refuse a challenge from Burr when such a refusal would brand him a coward in the eyes of the electorate.

The biography is full of similar "object lessons" fully applicable to our contemporary crisis.  I will end with one not untypical summarizing paragraph with obvious continuing validity, from  pp. 456-57:

"In its final report in late May, the Republican-dominated committee could not deliver the comeuppance it had craved.  Instead, it confessed that all the charges lodged against Hamilton were completely baseless, as the treasury secretary had insisted all along.  And what of the endless Jeffersonian insinuations that Hamilton had used public office to extract private credits?  The report concluded that it appears 'that the Secretary of the Treasury never has, either directly or indirectly, for himself or any other person, procured any discount or credit, from either of the said banks...upon the basis of any public monies which, at any time, have been deposited therein under his direction.'  The vindication was so resounding that Hamilton withdrew his long-standing resignation, and his cabinet position grew more impregnable then ever..  Nevertheless, it frustrated him that after this exhaustive investigation his opponents still rehashed the stale charges of misconduct.  He had learned a lesson about propaganda in politics and mused wearily that 'no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.'  If a charge was made often enough, people assumed in the end 'that a person so often accused cannot be entirely innocent.'"

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

For personal reasons I have lately been reading about Avignon, primarily in Joelle Rollo-Koster's Avignon and its Papacy, 1309-1417.

The city's chief claim to fame, of course, comes from its having hosted the papacy during most of the fourteenth century, and subsequently having had a hand in the Great Schism, when two, and then three men had colorable claims to the Petrine office.

I first came across the phrase, "Babylonian Captivity of the Church," in Luther's eponymous treatise.  He wasn't of course talking about the papacy's sojourn in Avignon, but the sacramental system that he felt shackled the Church and obliterated the gospel.  But the phrase had certainly been bandied about in the fourteenth century, most prominently by Petrarca, a bitter critic of this self-chosen exile.

Now Petrarca was himself an exile of sorts.  His father was a Florentine, expelled from Florence in the early fourteenth century in the same purge of White Guelfs that got Dante kicked out.  The elder Petrarco found employment at the papal court, and the family settled at nearby Carpentras.  It was from there that the "Father of Humanism" began his long journey to revive the literary treasures of classical antiquity, to reconcile his desire for fame with his Christian devotion, and to pay his most personal hommage to a secretly-admired lady in the Canzoniere.

The literature of the fourteenth century was undeniably brilliant; think of Meister Eckhart, Dante Alighieri, the afore-mentioned Francesco Petrarca, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer.  But life in the fourteenth century was marked with extraordinary crises, most disastrously the arrival of the Black Death in 1348, when perhaps a third of the population of Europe perished in a remarkably few years.  Well before that catastrophe the Church endured crisis after crisis:  the death of Boniface VIII after being roughed up by Philip the Fair's goons,  the destruction of the Knights Templar, the Franciscan schism between the Spirituals and the Conventuals, the almost continuous warfare between France and England in the inception of the Hundred Years War, and of course the almost unintended settling into and then settling down in the city of Avignon by pope after pope.

I have noted before the practical necessity of our thinking in categories, and how focusing on particular places and times can sometimes help us see how conceptually distinct worlds can intersect.  Avignon in the fourteenth century is no different.  Though crusades were actively promoted at least through the mid-fifteenth century (the last conventionally being the busted crusade called by the great humanist pope Pius II), the crusading spirit was probably broken most decisively when Philip the Fair determined to destroy the Templars, and the first of the real Avignonese popes, Clement V, acquiesced in their fall.

I have always considered John XXII representative of the papacy's dark side.  Rollo-Koster acknowledges his spiritual flatness, seeing his significance in the rationalization of the bureaucracy and finances, a lawyer, not a spiritual leader.  It was in 1327-28 that Meister Eckhart came to Avignon appealing the findings of heresy lodged against him by the Parisian Dominicans.  Eckhart died before the proceedings were completed, and John's In agro Dominico, condemning a limited number of discreet propositions as heretical after Eckhart's death, put him under a cloud for his immediate time and posterity.

(Recent calls for his formal rehabilitation have been met with denials that he needs any such rehabilitation.  Eckhart himself was never personally adjudged a heretic, and even such orthodox stalwarts as St. Thomas Aquinas have had particular propositions condemned, some very closely upon his death.)

As is often the case, though, even the limited condemnation tells more about the limitations of John than the orthodoxy of Eckhart.  Eckhart was a subtle and often paradoxical writer and preacher.  Many of his problems stemmed from having explored ideas, not only in Latin among clerics, but in vernacular sermons as well.

But it was also in 1327 that the young Petrarca first glimpsed his "Laura" in the church of Sainte-Claire in Avignon, composing thereafter, throughout his life, the 366 poems to her of the Canzoniere--poems to which presumably she lived and died entirely oblivious.  In this conjunction of the great light of late German mysticism and the harbinger of Italian humanism we find those two great movements of the human spirit surprisingly physically proximate.

John XXII has also been taken much to task for his ham-handed handling of the conflict between Conventual and Spiritual Franciscans.     Malcolm Lambert, in his Medieval Heresy, argues that John's typical overreaching and harshness created a heretical movement out of a disciplinary dispute.

Before becoming acquainted with the details of the conflict I had always assumed that the "Spirituals" followed to some degree the extreme mind/body dualism of the Albigensians.  In fact that perennial tendency did not enter into the Franciscan controversy, however much, in fact, areas of "Spiritual" resistance roughly coincided, in the fourteenth century, to centers of Albigensiansim in the thirteenth.

But to speak broadly, part of the great problem of the papacy in Avignon strikes me as analogous to the over-stressing of the spiritual to the prejudice of the material and the bodily.  There is really no reason that the successor of St. Peter cannot reside wherever it is convenient.  There was no great difficulty in moving the curia and the archives; in fact, the administrative side of the papacy was remarkably developed during the sojourn in Avignon.  Certainly the entire spirit of the institution could move as readily as any medieval monarch's court.

And yet, the successor of Peter remains the Bishop of Rome, and throughout this period, however convenient it was to be absent from Rome--Rome in ruins, malarial Rome, riot-torn Rome, indefensible Rome--that "body" of the papacy proved irresistible.  The permanent return to Rome in the early fifteenh century, and the papacy's continuous residence at all times since, confirms the century away to have been an "interlude," and Avignon to have briefly served, not as a "Second Rome," but as "Babylon."