TAC Bookshelf for the Week of August 5
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor: Reading The Silent Duchess (1990) by Sicilian author Dacia Maraini, one is struck by what a difference 30 years, a continent away, and another language can make in absorbing feminist literature. Maraini’s novel is about a young deaf and mute daughter of a duke given away in marriage to her 30-something uncle in Palermo during the early 18th century. As the Sicilian nobility and their seemingly endless riches bob, weave, bow, scrape, and ultimately atrophy under their own corruption and ignorance, the young Marianna Ucrìa, called “dumb” and “strange,” grows into a middle-aged woman with five children.
Maraini is one of her country’s foremost feminist thinkers and writers, dating back to her work in the 1960s. Among her prodigious bibliography, she’s produced nine books in five different languages. Duchess is unveiled in a period of the author’s thinking about the barriers to women in writing, particularly the writing of history, over time. This book, to my mind, folds her arguments gently into a tale that, under a more strident pen here in the United States today, would have seemed ham-fisted and preachy. The Duchess is not.
Instead it is instructive of a thankfully lost latifundial landscape in which aristocrats cleaved to the church and heraldic tradition to hoard their estates—typically by putting their children in marriages and convents and priories before the age of 15. While the era produced beautiful art and music in other parts of the world, for our heroine, the long years of deadly illness (smallpox), infant mortality, premature aging, and general torpor of those around her are only disturbed by the pleasures she allows herself—an extensive library and one of the most architecturally pleasing villas in Bagheria. A bird in a gilded cage.
The overarching question is why she cannot talk. Her much-loved father brought the eight-year-old to a public hanging of a child convicted of murder (as a member of a noble family, he attends the inquisitors and executioner as a “White Brother”) in the hope of shocking her to speech. It doesn’t work, but she finds she can sense the thoughts of people, a device that gives the reader plenty of cultural context by way of her uncle-duke-husband, her daughter the prioress, her long-attending maid. With her somewhat cracked teeth, wrinkling hands, and a quiet independence others call “mad,” the middle-aged Marianna is learning, with growing amusement and shrewdness, that her handicap is nothing compared to the obstinance and utter lack of awareness around her—a country, an elite, and a church headed for tremendous transformation in the years to come. It’s much like the I Claudius series in which Caesar Augustus finally sees his stuttering, bookish nephew Claudius for the first time: “Everyone called you a fool. But you aren’t, are you?” Our duchess may not fully anticipate all of this—in her welcoming style, Maraini does not make Marianna a symbol or a vehicle for historical change—but we know.
Duchess is part mystery—what made her lose her voice and ears?—and part diary, one that is never self-conscious or cloyingly sentimental (babies and relatives die, years rush on). With Duchess Marianna, we can indulge in a slice of Sicilian history and feast on her small victories and path to personal consciousness.
On a personal note: I was invited by the heir to one of the restored 18th-century villas of Bagheriaafter starting this book. Maraini, by the way, is related to one of the families who settled their summer residence in Bagheria, and most possibly the same estate that I will be visiting later this month. The coincidences are too much to shake and I am embracing this as a opportunity to experience history—perhaps not in the moment like an H.G. Wells time machine, but something essentially very close!
Casey Chalk, contributor: Public interest in Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has always confused me. Thomas represents the exact kind of person one would think the media would be eager to report on. Born into a poor black family that had first-hand experience with Southern racism, he graduated from Yale and now holds a prestigious, powerful position of political authority. Yet Thomas, in contrast to just about every other member of the Court, seems to receive comparatively little attention from the media and African-American groups. And what interest he does draw is decidedly negative. Having read Myron Magnet’s Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution, I better understand why. It’s not just his politics. He doesn’t fit their narratives.
Thomas’s life begins like many other African Americans growing up in the Jim Crow South. His mother divorced his father when he was a little boy. She then gave him to grandparents in Savannah. From them he learned a strong work ethic and religious piety. He entered Catholic seminary, only to leave when a white seminarian, speaking of the assassination of MLK, declared, “I hope the son of a bitch dies.” While in college, Thomas embraced black radicalism. Yet a violent protest on Harvard Square unnerved him. He begged God to purge him of “rage and resentment,” eschewed victimhood, and determined to pursue personal excellence.
In his early law career, he adopted conservative beliefs and an originalist conception of the Constitution, while criticizing social engineering projects he believed damaged the black community. The institutions of the Left perceived in Thomas a grave threat, and sought to denigrate his character during his Supreme Court nomination hearings. Magnet notes that the lobbying group Alliance for Justice tried for two years prior to the hearings to dig up derogatory information on Thomas. To this day, despite no evidence beyond Anita Hill’s testimony, Thomas is regularly and unfairly tagged as a perpetrator of sexual harassment.
Magnet’s is far more than a sympathetic biography—it is a systematic study of Thomas’s jurisprudence. Thomas’s opinions indicate that he believes three historical developments represent a radical departure from the Framers’ intent. These are the subversion of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War (c.f. The Slaughter-House Cases, Plessy v. Ferguson), the rise of a vast administrative state under FDR that confused and undermined the separation of powers, and Woodrow Wilson’s doctrine of a “living Constitution” where the Court acts as a legislator, making and remaking law to adapt to changing societal conditions. Thomas’s rejection of these three themes has defined his contribution to U.S. legal theory, which, Magnet argues, has been far more influential than most theorists realize.
I admit I’m no absolute apologist for Thomas’ jurisprudence. His mechanically proceduralist defense of core legal principles sometimes seems overly suspicious of the government while overly sympathetic towards corporations. A cursory study of our nation’s labor history demonstrates the threat posed by monopolistic businesses focused solely on shareholder profits at the expense of American families. Indeed, woke capitalists now routinely bully local and state governments into submission. All the same, Thomas deserves far more respect and honor for his 30 years on the bench. That the Left vacillates between ignoring and trying to destroy him, a man who should be promoted as a remarkable example for young black men, is shameful.