When Eliot Became an Establishment, the People Who Went Midwest, and Mesmerism in America

Via Wikimedia Commons

Clare Coffey reviews a new book on mesmerism in America and discusses what it tells us about rationalism in a secular world: “Mesmerism is the brainchild of Franz Mesmer, a German doctor born in 1734 who practiced medicine in Vienna and Paris, and who believed in the influence of magnetic fluids and astronomical movements on human physiology. (If that sounds particularly quaint, consider that today Dave Asprey has built an empire offering advice such as that walking barefoot is a necessary and healing method of getting in touch with the earth’s electrical energy.) The doctor regularly treated his patients with magnets, and one day, while employing his technique on a female patient, he discerned a fluid in her body that responded to his manipulations. Mesmer called the fluid ‘animal magnetism,’ a term that in general use now means raw charisma. As he used it, ‘animal’ just meant ‘vital’; it was the force that sustains and animates us. When it became blocked or flowed in the wrong direction, physical and mental ailments resulted. In this, mesmerism resembled Reiki, developed in Japan by Mikao Usui about a hundred years later. But unlike Usui, who claimed to regulate intangible, spiritual energies, Mesmer claimed to have made a bona fide breakthrough in physiology. He presented himself as a scientist, not a healer.”

A view of ancient Taiwanese culture: “A newly available Library of Congress collection shows the lives of an oft-overlooked minority.”

When T. S. Eliot became an institution: “The letters that close the volume towards the end of 1938 reveal the decision to discontinue the Criterion after the next number, a decision which at this stage is confidential to Eliot, Geoffrey Faber and the firm’s other directors. (One of Eliot’s letters suggests that the need for Faber and Faber to ‘retrench’ financially was a more significant consideration than biographers have usually allowed.) Not for the first time, correspondence with Faber prompts Eliot to be frank about his own feelings – ‘I have run [the journal] without conviction for several years’ – and revealing about his conception of his role: ‘When one is young, one can say things in one’s own periodical which one would not be at liberty to say elsewhere; but at my age, it tends to the reverse: one has to be much more cautious, as editor, than one would need to be as a contributor elsewhere’. So much about Eliot had become more cautious by this point. Ezra Pound directed a good deal of intemperate exasperation towards him on this account, but he was not the only person to regret that the young hero of Modernism had become a ‘man in a four-piece suit’, and it is hard to feel that the Criterion closed too soon.”

The people who went Midwest: “David McCullough is best known to most readers for his popular biographies of some of the most prominent names in American history — Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John Adams and the Wright Brothers have all been subjects of his meticulously researched volumes. Occasionally, though, he delves into the lives of historically significant people whose names likely aren’t familiar to most Americans. That’s the case with his latest book, The Pioneers, which tells the story of the 17th- and 18th-century settlers who set out to start lives in the Northwest Territory, the region of the country that is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and much of the Upper Midwest. It’s a fascinating look at a chapter in American history that’s been somewhat neglected in the country’s popular imagination.”

Leah Libresco Sargeant reviews a new Tony-nominated play that retells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: “This version of the story, ably directed by Rachel Chavkin and now the frontrunner of this year’s Tony Awards, is acutely aware it is a retelling—and not just of the original myth. Songwriter Anaïs Mitchell developed Hadestown first as a song cycle, then as an off-Broadway staging, and finally as a full Broadway production. The set (by Rachel Hauck) echoes the theme of cycles, placing the actors on a small stage, but one fitted with three concentric turntables. A story of gods and men requires magic, and the show achieves its moments of transcendence by hanging onto a scrappy, small-budget sensibility, with an admirable restraint that is sometimes lacking in Broadway transfers.”

The Jewish Museum’s revamp of its permanent collection is a disaster: “From its priceless collection of artworks, a foremost cultural institution has harvested mainly inferior examples for display, while submerging Jewish identity in a sea of ‘universal values.’”

Essay of the Day:

In The New York Times, James Gorman tells the story of two amateur archaeologists who discovered ancient rock art south of Mumbai:

“In the evening breeze on a stony hilltop a day’s drive south of Mumbai, Sudhir Risbud tramped from one rock carving to another, pointing out the hull of a boat, birds, a shark, human figures and two life-size tigers.

“‘They’re male,’ he said with a smile, noting that the carver had taken pains to make the genitalia too obvious to ignore. He was doing a brief tour of about two dozen figures, a sampling of 100 or so all etched into a hard, pitted rock called laterite that is common on the coastal plain that borders the Arabian Sea.

“The carvings are only a sample of 1,200 figures that Mr. Risbud and Dhananjay Marathe, engineers and dedicated naturalists, have uncovered since they set out on a quest in 2012. The two men are part of a long tradition of amateur archaeologists, according to Tejas Garge, the head of the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums for the state of Maharashtra, and the petroglyphs they have uncovered amount to a trove of international significance.

“They are the most recent collection of rock art to join other images left by Stone Age peoples around the globe. Like paintings and carvings in Australia, the American Southwest, Africa and elsewhere, the carvings are cryptic messages left by people whose lives are lost in the mists of deep time.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Sevnica Castle

Poem: Jason Guriel, “From Forgotten Work

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The Limits of Theory, Hollywood and China, and the Man Who Became Dr. Seuss

Thomas Nast, “Peace in Union” (1865), via Wikimedia Commons

John Poch gives literary theory a tad too much credit in this essay at America, but his overall argument that the primary value of literature is found in its beauty, which is the product of the expertise of the artist, is spot on: “At its worst, theory exposes dirty secrets, aiming to show the failings of the author, the text or the world around us. It tattles on bad behavior according to the current worldview. Theory can lead to a kind of false superiority (look how racist those other people were) or even schadenfreude, the morose delight in seeing others suffer. Sometimes, the critic or scholar may end up merely subverting the text for the sake of subverting the social order. This technique is valuable to some, a kind of religion made of tearing down institutions and canons. In some perverse way, the reader/critic becomes intellectually superior to the writer (which is hardly ever true of any young student of literature, that he or she is more astute than the authors they study.) . . . In the 21st century, human rights are more codified and recognized than ever. With these human rights come power to the individual and limits on authority. Civil disobedience is permitted, even championed. Ultimate authorities are checked and balanced, hopefully, to allow individuals freedom and mobility. Yet mere anarchy is a threat to the individual as well. Everyone needs protection. We must negotiate how authorities both defend and exploit us.”

The Simpsons is approaching the end of its 30th season. It should have ended twenty years ago.

Amazon wants to pay big American publishers who use “affiliate links” to expand overseas, Peter Kafka reports: “Amazon already pays internet publishers that refer shoppers to the company via ‘affiliate links’ embedded on their site, but it thinks that business could grow significantly if US publishers had more readers outside of America.” Over at National Review, Michael Auslin writes about Chinese pressure on America media companies to censor critical or unfavorable representations of China. Amazon hasn’t bowed to China yet, but if its Chinese market share increases, will it?

The man who became Dr. Seuss: “While it is a standard biography in general terms, Jones goes above and beyond to contextualize Geisel in the larger picture at every moment of his life. This makes Becoming Dr. Seuss a fascinating read that discusses the origin of the humorous, simple rhymes, bizarre creatures, and magic that characterized Geisel’s books while also showing the author’s more radical side as an unemployed wanderer who abandoned his doctoral studies, a successful advertising man, and a political cartoonist.”

A hidden Cupid in Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window was discovered during restoration work on the painting. The “figure—which dominates the upper right section of the picture—was overpainted long after the artist’s death.”

The Bard and Bollywood: “Hindi cinema has a deep and abiding love affair with Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-crossed lovers has been adapted in at least six Bollywood films in the last seven years, from 2012’s Love Rebels (Ishaqzaade) to 2018’s Heartbeat (Dhadak).  And audiences like them: A Play of Bullets: Ram-Leela (Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela) was India’s fifth highest-grossing film of 2013, and Wild in Love (Sairat) is still the highest-grossing film ever produced in the Marathi language. What has the Bard to do with Bollywood? And why the much ado about Romeo and Juliet?”

A Reader Recommends: Stephen Blair recommends Harriet Beecher Stowe’s lesser-known novel Oldtown Folks, “a coming of age tale about how religion in New England shortly after the Revolution created a society with little vice or crime.”

Essay of the Day:

Did Robert E. Lee commit treason? Allen C. Guelzo revisits Lee’s surrender and the events afterward in Athenaeum Review:

“Given Ulysses Grant’s reputation for demanding surrender without the offer of any mitigating conditions, Lee had every reason to worry that a surrender demand from Grant would be the prelude to a bloody purge which would make the Jacobins look spineless. Lee had plainly dreaded the possibility that Grant ‘would demand unconditional surrender; and sooner than that,’ he warned, ‘I am resolved to die. Indeed we must all determine to die at our posts.’ Great was the relief on all Confederate hands when Grant’s terms turned out to be surprisingly mild: ‘the officers and men surrendered to be paroled and disqualified from taking up arms again until properly exchanged, and all arms, ammunition and supplies to be delivered up as captured property.’ This was not because Grant was suffering from a burst of irrational generosity. Although Lee could not have known this, Grant’s headlong pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia from Petersburg had run out to the end of its supply tether, and if Grant could not convince Lee to surrender then, Lee might have easily taken the advice of his nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, and resumed the Confederate flight to Lynchburg and thus forced Grant to break off pursuit. ‘I was in a position of extreme difficulty,’ Grant admitted, ‘I was marching away from my supplies, while Lee was falling back on his supplies. If Lee had continued his flight another day I should have had to abandon the pursuit, fall back to Danville, build the railroad, and feed my army. So far as supplies were concerned, I was almost at my last gasp when the surrender took place.’

“Grant also had to bear in mind Lincoln’s anxiety about the political impact of a prolonged war. Although Lincoln had once referred in passing to Lee (along with John C. Breckenridge, Joseph E. Johnston, and Simon B. Buckner) as ‘well known to be traitors then as now,’ he was, in 1865, more interested in seeing traitors flee into exile than end up in courts where they could, like John Brown, make martyrs of themselves. Besides, ‘if Lee had escaped and joined Johnston in North Carolina, or reached the mountains,’ Grant admitted, ‘it would have imposed upon us continued armament and expense’ and Lincoln had specifically warned him that ‘the country would break down financially under the terrible strain on its resources.’ They might not have been the ideal terms, but they were, in Grant’s estimate, ‘the best and only terms.’ There would be no death-march to prisoner-of-war camps, no Roman triumphs, and above all, no treason trials – at least for Lee’s men.

“Or that, at least, was how it seemed until the night of April 14th, when Lincoln was assassinated in his box at Ford’s Theatre. Denunciations of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee as traitors, and fit subjects for treason proceedings, then ascended like shell-bursts. ‘What has General Robert Lee done to deserve mercy or forbearance from the people and the authorities of the North?’ the Boston Daily Advertiser shrilly demanded. ‘If any man in the United States—that is, any rebel or traitor—should suffer the severest punishment, Robert E. Lee Should be the man.’ Chief among those baying for blood was John Curtiss Underwood, who had been appointed a federal district judge for the Eastern District of Virginia in March, 1863, and who would become Robert E. Lee’s particular bête noire.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Farmhouse on the slopes Grmada Hill

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A Modern Chekhov, in Memory of John Lukacs, and Morning Edition’s New Theme Song

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Born in Prague in 1896, Józef Czapski was “a scion of an old and distinguished family, he graduated in St Petersburg before moving to newly emancipated Poland to take up his studies in art. He spent eight years in cosmopolitan prewar Paris, exchanging ideas with French and Russian artists and writers, forming passionate attachments with both women and men (including one with Vladimir Nabokov’s younger brother Sergey, who would perish in a Nazi camp where gay men were subjected to hideous medical experiments) and devoting himself to realising a vision of painting he found pursued in the work of Cézanne.” When he was imprisoned by the Soviets, he gave a series of lectures to his fellow prisoners on Proust . . . and Pascal: “Whereas Pascal turns from the world with disgust, Proust seeks salvation in its fugitive sensations. Born and buried a Catholic, carrying a small oilcloth Bible with him when he travelled in Russia in search of the truth about his fellow prisoners, Czapski was a religious man. A Tolstoyan pacifist in his youth, who resigned from the Polish cavalry because he did not want to kill other human beings, he was attracted to the mysticism of Simone Weil (1909-43) and became a close friend of the God-seeking Russian philosopher Dmitry Merezhkovsky (1865-1941). Czapski was not mistaken in finding in Proust’s work a kind of religion: not a story of redemption, but a struggle to defy time and disillusion, and eternalise the passing moment in memories of meaning and beauty.”

 Amos Reichman writes in praise of France’s beautiful Pléiade editions. We have a couple of these, and they are wonderful: “When he founded the Pléiade, Schiffrin’s idea was to make the greatest literary works in the world available to as many people as possible in an accessible format. Schiffrin wished to make quality more generally available by targeting the Pléiade collection at a broad readership rather than producing books only for the elite. As André Schiffrin noted, ‘the Pléiade Proust would be less expensive to buy than all the volumes in the regular editions, for example.’ In addition to making works of great literary quality widely accessible, Jacques Schiffrin also wished to make his Pléiade editions physically beautiful. The books were and continue to be printed on paper used for bibles and are wonderfully illustrated, in particular by Russian painters living in Paris in exile.”

It is time to break up tech monopolies: “In his recent book Can American Capitalism Survive?, Steven Pearlstein highlights the difference between voluntary exchange and economic coercion: ‘The moral case for market capitalism rests on two principles that strike us as fair and just. The first is that markets are rooted in voluntary exchange….The second principle is that people are entitled to own and keep what they produce.’ Pearlstein goes on to note that an entrepreneur’s ‘just deserts’ should include compensation for ‘talent, ingenuity, and risk-taking that we bring to that effort,’ in addition for one’s time and effort to bring a product to market. And yet the exchange between online merchants and content creators—‘edge providers’—on the one hand, and tech platforms such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google, on the other, is not strictly voluntary.”

The historian John Lukacs has died. He was 95.

NPR’s Morning Edition gets a new theme song: “For the first time since it began broadcasting in 1979, the program replaced its signature song with a propulsive and layered new theme that features real and electronic instruments while still paying homage to the buoyant melody its nearly 14 million weekly listeners had come to know and love.” Listen to it here.

Paul Seaton reviews Peter Lawler and Richard Reinsch’s A Constitution in Full: Recovering the Unwritten Foundation of American Liberty: “The subtitle of this book signals its countercultural thrust, as well as indicates its inspiration in the thought of the nineteenth century American Catholic social and political thinker, Orestes Brownson (1803-1876). He wrote about, and put into currency, the notion of ‘the unwritten Constitution.’ Brownson ‘thought a humane political order must be reflective of a people’s history, as well as their deeper cultural, philosophical, and theological assumptions about humans, society, and God. This unwritten constitution of a people must anchor their extant constitutional settlement.’ Therefore, to understand America, and American constitutionalism more broadly, one needs to consider the necessary, the chosen, and even the providential, connections between the written Constitution and the complex social order it presupposed.”

Essay of the Day:

In The New Yorker, Joshua Yaffa writes about the life and work of Maxim Osipov a cardiologist and writer who left Moscow for a quiet life in a small village where finds a “comic despair”:

“For many years, Maxim Osipov lived with a gnawing sense of frustration. He had always thought of himself as a writer, but, as a student in the waning days of the Soviet Union, he trained as a cardiologist and worked for three years in a busy Moscow clinic. In the early nineties, when Russia was in the throes of economic transition, he started a publishing house, which specialized in translating medical textbooks, and, in 1994, he left his hospital job to run it full time. The company proved successful, yet life was somehow less than complete. Osipov, a humorous and energetic man with a baritone voice like thick honey, was in his early forties when he realized that he was a doctor who didn’t practice medicine, and a writer who had never published a line.

“As a child, Osipov spent most of his summers in Tarusa, a town on the bank of the Oka River, where his great-grandfather had a house. As an adult, he lived in Moscow with his wife, Evgenia, a pianist, and their two children. Around the time he launched the publishing house, he acquired some land of his own in Tarusa, which is a two-hour drive from Moscow, and built a dacha, a place to spend weekends and summer holidays with his family. The house is set on a hill above the center of town. From the upstairs windows, you can see a sloping tableau of red, brown, and green roofs, the onion domes and rising bell tower of the central cathedral, and a bend in the river. In the mid-two-thousands, when Osipov’s urge to return to clinical work intensified, it seemed logical that he should take a post at the local hospital, which lacked a cardiologist.

“In April, 2005, when Osipov saw his first patient in Tarusa, Moscow was booming, with high oil prices fuelling a culture of consumption and reinvention. But none of that was evident in Tarusa. The hospital was a dispiriting place. Wires hung from the ceiling, the wards smelled of urine, and rats darted across the corridors. Osipov, who saw patients there two days a week, brought his own echocardiogram machine with him. He sometimes joked that the best medical service that the hospital offered could be found in the cafeteria, where at least patients were served a filling meal. The disposition of the people he treated reminded him of the way Anton Chekhov, who had worked as a village doctor, described the human condition, as ‘a dislike of life strangely combined with a fear of death.’

“In 2007, Osipov gathered his thoughts on his life and his medical practice in an essay, In My Native Land, which was published in the literary journal Znamya. It is a perceptive and exacting piece of writing. Recalling Chekhov’s observation, Osipov writes of how his patients appear to lack the motivation to recover: ‘They don’t want to die, but nor do they want to go to a provincial capital, to figure out a solution, to make a fuss.’ Osipov’s tone is one of comic despair. He notes, for instance, how often he has the same conversation with his patients, in which they tell him that they cannot read the prescription that he has written for them because they didn’t bring their reading glasses. ‘Well, then, if you’re without your glasses, I guess you didn’t plan to read anything today—this is illiteracy,’ he writes.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Mount Yoshino

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The Freelance Life, the Socialist Fantasy, and in Praise of German Humor

“Collective Farm Holiday” (1937), via Wikimedia Commons

This piece in The New Republic is a bit of a mess. Jacob Silverman writes about how impossible it is to make a living doing freelance journalism, the “indignities that no worker should have to go through” (what those are other than not being paid very much are unclear), and how angry he is that editors are not showing enough interest in advancing his career: “In terms of SEO, I am by far the most successful Jacob Silverman. But I would like to make a living. I am tired of making $20,000 a year. I am sick of editors telling me, ‘You should pitch me sometime,’ without offering anything more.” Complaints against the “gig economy” aside (a bogeyman word in my view), writing has always been difficult work. It has almost always been part-time work, and holding up the golden years of the twentieth century when it wasn’t for many writers, as if those years weren’t an anomaly, is a mistake that ends in bitterness, as this piece shows.

The real story behind Harper Lee’s lost true crime book: “Nearly 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee was living out of the public eye, drinking and suffering from writer’s block. Then she came across the sensational case of a murderous preacher.”

Brian T. Allen praises a “dazzling” show of European fine art at the Park Avenue Armory.

William Voegli reviews Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto, in which Sunkara argues that socialism is inherently democratic and our only hope for a flourishing society: “He calls socialism in the past century a ‘false start,’ which hardly suffices to establish that it now deserves a fresh start. Socialists, beginning with Karl Marx, have always told uplifting stories about ordinary people shaping the systems that shape their lives. Sunkara’s new promise of socialist life is indistinguishable from the old promise of socialist life. For example, only ‘proletarian democracy,’ and only ‘methods of persuasion,’ as opposed to coercion, ‘can make it possible to unite the working class, to stimulate its independent activity.’ These were the words of Joseph Stalin in 1921, quoted in another new book, Socialism: The Failed Idea that Never Dies, by Kristian Niemietz of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a libertarian British think tank. ‘A “soviet,” Niemietz points out, ‘was originally simply a democratically elected workers’ council based at a factory, and a Soviet Republic was originally meant to be a semi-direct grassroots democracy, in which these workers’ councils would form the main building blocks.’ A shortage of inspiring visions of the future cannot, then, qualify as socialism’s most serious need. There are more urgent and fundamental difficulties.”

Wilfred M. McClay’s Land of Hope is “no mere textbook” of American history, Bruce P. Frohnen writes. It’s a great story of “powerful characters” and “life-changing events.”

Essay of the Day:

In Standpoint, Giles Macdonogh extols German humor:

“The standard representation of a German joke is an Englishman watching a group of earnest Teutons being told a funny story and asking why they are not laughing. He is informed, ‘They’re waiting for the verb.’ Then there’s the jape performed on an English audience in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. The pranksters tell them the mournful dirge they are hearing is the funniest song in the German language and that the Kaiser had had to be carried off to bed he found it so droll. The audience laughs itself silly and wonders why it was so often said Germans had no sense of humour. It turns out to be the saddest song in the German language, which had reduced the Kaiser to tears. The audience departs in embarrassed silence.

“No matter what the language, a lot of humour is lost in translation. German humour tends to be long-winded, like the language; yet another reason why it is hard to translate. I tried out a few simple Count Bobby, Baron Mucki jokes on my son. This one worked: Count Bobby tells an artist: ‘Paint me a picture of Mary Magdalene!’ ‘Before or after the sin?’ ‘During! During!’

“Connoisseurs will appreciate this is a Catholic joke, therefore restricted to Austria and south Germany. The Catholic Rhineland would probably consider itself too sophisticated for this sort of ribaldry. Berliners are famous for their wit, which often has a dryness to match our own.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Young monks on a roller coaster

Poem: Floyd Skloot, “Freestone Peaches”               

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The Problem with Happiness, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Imposters, and in Praise of Elderly Characters

Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust, “Oedipus at Colonus” (1788), via Wikimedia Commons

The Markup, a new publication that plans to cover how technology affects society and that raised $23 million at the beginning of the year, is imploding. What’s going on? “Craig Newmark, the Craig in Craigslist, has been criticized for helping to bring about an extinction event for vast swaths of the journalism world, by creating a platform that sucked up the classified advertising on which it depended. More recently, he’s been a journalism savior, distributing his riches to nonprofit newsrooms and learning institutions alike. And now, thanks to a blowup at one of them, he’s discovering darker truths about journalism—ones he may have never expected, accused newspaper villain though he was. ‘Craig is a good guy and a self-identified nerd who hates conflict, and he has walked into this irrational, conflict-prone world,’ a journalist in Newmark’s orbit told me. ‘He has this very earnest view about journalism, but then what he finds is that it’s a Bonfire of the Vanities, and we’re all insane egomaniacs.’”

Hugh Trevor-Roper was fascinated by imposters. Until he was fooled himself. William Whyte reviews The Professor & the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit & Defrocking: “Peters was unashamed and evidently unshamable, an impostor who wholly inhabited his fabrications and who indignantly repudiated anyone who doubted him. But he was sustained in his career by other people who seemed to believe in him, at least for a time. This group included some, though not all, of his wives and a surprisingly large cast of established scholars. Perhaps constitutionally attracted to someone so unlike themselves in self-confidence, perhaps genuinely keen to give an apparently able man a second chance, a certain sort of academic was all too easily taken in by Peters. For Trevor-Roper, who took a dim view of his own profession, this was all hilarious stuff. It became rather less funny when he himself was fooled by a set of forged documents that had been passed off as Hitler’s diaries. Significantly, he appears to have stopped collecting material on Peters at about the same time. The Professor & the Parson is a fantastic read and fully deserves to be among everyone’s books of the year. It is full of wonderful stories and splendidly comic moments. It is also beautifully written.”

Where are all the elderly characters in literature? “In the last several years, two writer friends of mine have told me the same story: Their (very savvy) editors advised them to change the age of the protagonists in their novels-in-progress, making them considerably younger; otherwise, their books wouldn’t be publishable. Of course, these editors would concede, there are outliers. Another friend of ours—she’s a book scout—gave my wife, Wendy, a copy of Swedish writer Fredrik Backman’s novel A Man Called Ove, an international bestseller with a grumpy yet endearing old man at its heart. Wendy loved it. But such exceptions merely prove the rule. This seems very strange to me. The world of old age today has a good deal in common with old age as it has been for thousands of years while at the same time being quite different. People are living longer: a banality, yes, but one that overlays a vast range of experience, mundane and extraordinary, joyful and sad, irreducibly individual yet also subject to generalizations, above all inexhaustibly interesting and wildly messy. No wonder that some writers, at least—they’re living longer, too, along with the rest of us—are exploring this world.”

A. M. Juster reviews Rafael Campo’s Comfort Measures Only: New and Selected Poems 1994-2016: “As a practicing physician at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital who has worked for many years with AIDS patients and low-income patients with other poor prognoses, he is all too familiar with ‘comfort measures’—palliative treatment for patients who decide against interventional therapies that are likely futile and probably painful or limiting. These patients are the main focus of this collection. The term ‘measures’ is also a musty term for poetry, particularly the formal poetry Campo often writes. When modified by the word ‘comfort,’ the phrase aptly characterizes Campo’s efforts to console readers confronting their own mortality or the mortality of loved ones. I think of ‘comfort’ in this sense as almost synonymous with ‘consolation,’ in the sense that Boethius used the term in The Consolation of Philosophy.”

Matthew Continetti reviews Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism: “In 1957, four years after his Conservative Mind had been published to great acclaim, Russell Kirk wrote a letter to former president Herbert Hoover. Kirk mentioned that he had a new book coming out in the spring. It would be, he said, ‘a species of retort against Bernard Shaw,’ the author of The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism some decades before. Kirk’s title: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism. That slim book has now been republished as Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, with a new introduction by historian Wilfred M. McClay. It comes at an opportune moment. As McClay observes, ‘no one seems able to say with confidence just what “conservatism” means today,’ or what an American conservative ought to stand for. Perhaps Kirk can help.”

Have wages been stagnant for over 50 years? Ramesh Ponnuru takes a closer look: “The Pew Research Center notes that the average wage, adjusted for inflation, fell between 1973 and 2018. It had risen steeply from 1964 (when the data series began) through 1973. Then it dropped for roughly two decades, and over the next two recovered but did not get back to its peak. If real wages have truly been stagnant for longer than most Americans have been alive, then the economy has not worked in anything resembling the fashion we expect. Economic growth has been mostly an illusion: We have more stuff only because more of us work, large numbers of women having joined the paid labor force. If this picture is accurate, we need to make radical changes either to the economy or to our expectations of ever-rising prosperity. There are, however, two big reasons to doubt the stagnation thesis.”

Essay of the Day:

In Athenaeum Review, Gary Saul Morson writes about the problem with happiness:

“Is it really true that everybody’s goal in life is to be as happy as possible? To many that seems obvious: what else could we want? If we desire something, it must be because we think it will make us happier. To this assumption, Nietzsche replied, ‘Man does not strive for happiness. Only the Englishman does.’ Darwinian theory suggests that human beings must have evolved so that their strongest pull is not to happiness, but to passing on their genes, even if that makes them miserable. Perhaps liberal Western theorists have mistaken their own values for the only possible ones? Can one not imagine a devout Jew, Christian, or Muslim reacting with disgust to the notion that life is about happiness, rather than, let us say, piety? A commonplace of European intellectual history holds that during the Enlightenment many Europeans started asking not ‘how can I be good?’ or ‘how can I be saved?’ but ‘how can I be happy?’ If so, then happiness as the goal of life is a fact of Western modernity, not of human nature.

“Even many modern Europeans have placed the highest value not on happiness but on science and art. In her classic memoir Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam recalled that when she complained about the Soviet regime’s horrible persecutions, her husband Osip—one of Russia’s greatest poets—replied: what made you think life is about being happy? Much more valuable than happiness, in his view, is poetry. What sort of people, Russian thinkers often ask, believe that all that matters is individual contentment? They wonder: Isn’t it clear that only shallow people can profess such values? And what happens to a society that believes the only goal of life is individual satisfaction?

“As the philosopher John Rawls pointed out, a society of happiness-seekers would have no reason not to borrow heavily and leave the debt to future generations. If there is nothing larger than us now, why not? Après nous, la faillite (After us, bankruptcy.) What’s more: if the only reason to have children is to make oneself happier, rather than to fulfill a social or moral duty, a lot fewer people will have children. Mounting national debt and a birthrate well below replacement level: that describes Western Europe today rather well.

“Even if one’s goal is the best life for the individual, the search for happiness may be a false path. In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, the hero has lived his life entirely for his own satisfaction. Like everyone around him, he can imagine no other way to live. Then he falls ill, begins to waste away, and discovers that everything that gave him pleasure and contentment has become distasteful.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Karsts and sunset

Poem: John Wall Barger, “A Briefe & Marveyllous Hystory of Franklin”             

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Samuel Johnson and the Art of Living, New Scrabble Words, and Learning a Foreign Language in Middle Age

Via Wikimedia Commons

The decline of Western culture continues apace: Scrabble has expanded its list of allowable words, and it includes “OK.” “Four-time national Scrabble champion Philip Nelkon welcomed the addition of new two-letter words, calling them the ‘lifeblood of high-score Scrabble, enabling us to make those high-scoring parallel plays involving many words’. However, he said that OK was a controversial choice among players, as according to the official rules, it should not be allowed due to being both capitalised and an abbreviation.”

Remember Amélie Wen Zhao’s book Blood Heir? A few months ago, she cancelled the novel’s publication because readers said her depiction of slavery was insensitive. It will now be published after all: “Afterward, Zhao, who is 26, agonized over her decision. She kept herself occupied at her day job as a portfolio manager at an international bank. Then she collected herself and reread her book several times, examining the plot and characters to see if the critics were right. She decided they weren’t. In March, Zhao called her editor at Delacorte Press and told her that she wanted to move forward with the novel after all. She made some revisions, and Blood Heir is now scheduled to be released in November.”

Why is it so hard to learn a foreign language in middle age? “When I moved to Paris in my early 30s and started learning French practically from scratch, I knew I’d never sound like a native. But I envisioned a hero’s journey in which I struggled for a few years, then emerged fluent, or at least pretty good. Fifteen years later, I’ve made strides, but they’re not heroic. I’ve merely gone from bad to not bad.”

The Guardian records its first profit in over 20 years.

Indigo—Canada’s largest bookstore chain—is increasing the number of stores it has in the United States. According to The New York Times, here’s how it is supposedly competing with Amazon: “It may seem strange for a bookstore chain to be developing and selling artisanal soup bowls and organic cotton baby onesies. But Indigo’s approach seems not only novel but crucial to its success and longevity. The superstore concept, with hulking retail spaces stocking 100,000 titles, has become increasingly hard to sustain in the era of online retail, when it’s impossible to match Amazon’s vast selection. Indigo is experimenting with a new model, positioning itself as a ‘cultural department store’ where customers who wander in to browse through books often end up lingering as they impulsively shop for cashmere slippers and crystal facial rollers, or a knife set to go with a new Paleo cookbook.” Isn’t this exactly what Barnes and Noble tried to do, though to a lesser degree?

The example of Rotterdam: “Forget economic anxiety. Rotterdam is a warning that the emerging political fight across Europe really is about cultural assimilation after all.”

Essay of the Day:

In The London Review of Books, Freya Johnston discusses Samuel Johnson’s marital and other advice:

“Johnson’s writings seemed to his contemporaries to offer personal guidance for all stages of life. Chance acquaintances, regular correspondents and acolytes came to rely on his advice and knowledge about everything from reading lists to the digestive faculties of dogs. Such reliance was not always welcome. When one young man called out, ‘Mr Johnson, would you advise me to marry?’ he was brusquely told: ‘I would advise no man to marry, Sir, who is not likely to propagate understanding.’ Characteristically, Johnson shortly after repented of his impatience, providing his interrogator with a lengthy ‘dissertation’ on the pros and cons of matrimony which was ‘so useful, so elegant, so founded on the true knowledge of human life, and so adorned with beauty of sentiment, that no one ever recollected the offence, except to rejoice in its consequences’. The anecdote typifies the man: Johnson was able to explain moral questions so admirably that people forgot all about his initial roughness. In fact, his tendency to explain such questions in the fullest and most down-to-earth terms was often a way of atoning for the harsh first impression he had made.

“We cannot know what Johnson told the young man, but we can hazard a guess. In Rasselas (1759) Princess Nekayah gives a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of single and of matrimonial life: ‘Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.’ Her sentiments chime with Johnson’s own; one friend remembered his comment that ‘even ill-assorted marriages were preferable to cheerless celibacy.’ This careful adjustment of preferences – acknowledging the inevitable discrepancy between human hopes and human reality, yet opting for one kind of disappointment as preferable to another – is one of the most valuable aspects of Johnson’s thinking. It is a kind of mournful pragmatism.

“‘What should books teach,’ he asked, ‘but the art of living?’ Writing to and about the ‘bulk of mankind’ was the literary equivalent of his own escape from loneliness to the comforts of social life, the only cure, he said, for his ‘vile melancholy’. Solitude and idleness were, in his view, the two roads to madness; his criticism of one friend as ‘a very unclubable man’ was a serious objection. Johnson always sought to bring one person’s experience into contact with another’s – this was, in his view, the chief aim of biography, his favourite kind of writing – and hence to palliate his own and his readers’ isolation. So his Lives of the Poets presents Milton not only as the contriver of Paradise Lost, but as a hopelessly unsuccessful schoolmaster and a strangely cruel father. The connection between writing and living, the application of one to the other, were subjects to which he returned throughout his long career. Unlike many authors, he did not shirk the potentially embarrassing question, ‘What is the point of books?’ And in view of the scale of many of his literary enterprises, it is heartening to find him complain: ‘Alas, Madam! How few books are there of which one can ever possibly arrive at the last page?’ and ‘a book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?’ He recommended pocket-sized volumes, readily available at moments of boredom or crisis, as the best kind of literary resource, making the obvious but frequently overlooked point that ‘that book is good in vain which the reader throws away.’”

Read the rest.

Photo: Rio

Poem: Devin Johnston, “Cold Trail”           

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When Jazz Moved to Chicago, the Story of Faber and Faber, and Opting Out of the Internet

Via Wikimedia Commons

If there’s one thing I dislike, it’s people doing things half-heartedly. I remember Jan Ullrich arriving nearly every year at the start of the Tour de France a few pounds overweight after a winter of one too many lagers. He’d manage OK in the plains and struggle in the mountains, but he’d sometimes show you the rider he could be (or could have been) in the time trials. It was a disappointment, especially when you were hoping all year for a great battle with Lance Armstrong. At least Ullrich cared enough about winning to dope.

All this to say, if there’s one thing I appreciate about young social justice warriors (how’s that for a pivot), it is their unwavering commitment to groupthink. The latest example: Students at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia are trying to get the feminist lesbian Camille Paglia (who now identifies as transgender) fired because she says things they don’t like. They want the university to hire “a queer person of color” instead.

In other news: Amazon is looking to hire a managing editor to work at their security doorbell company Ring. Why? “The job requires at least five years’ experience ‘in breaking news, crime reporting, and/or editorial operations’ and three years in management. Preferred traits include ‘deep and nuanced knowledge of American crime trends,’ ‘strong news judgment that allows for quick decisions in a breaking news environment,’ and experience using ‘social media channels to gather breaking news.’ That’s right: A doorbell company wants to report crime news. They already are, actually. Several people on LinkedIn describe their jobs as ‘news editors’ at Ring.”

Opting out of the Internet: “Though trained as an artist, Odell has gradually become known for her writing. Her consistent theme is the invasion of the wider world by internet grotesqueries grown in the toxic slime of Amazon, Instagram and other social media platforms. She has a knack for evoking the malaise that comes from feeling surrounded by online things. Like many of us, she would like to get away from that feeling.” Well, Amazon isn’t a “social media platform,” but read the rest—though the book sounds a tad self-righteous for my tastes. Spending too much time on the Internet makes us unhappy, but if it weren’t around, we’d find other ways to ruin our lives.

Ian McEwan should have read more science fiction, Laura Miller writes, before he attempted to “correct” its faults in his latest book.

David Mason remembers Les Murray: “Les Murray, who died at age 80 on April 29, has been called Australia’s greatest poet, but such an encomium meant little to him.”

Richard Starr reviews Daniel Okrent’s “engrossing new history of the Immigration Act of 1924,” The Guarded Gate: “The Immigration Act of 1924 was hugely popular. The vote in the House was 308–62; in the Senate, 69–9. Good old-fashioned prejudice and xenophobia no doubt played a part, along with fears of Bolshevists and anarchist bombers. What really ran up the score, however, was the prestige and authority of pseudoscience. A few Boston Brahmins had, since the 1890s, been pushing for literacy tests and other stratagems to slow the rate of immigration, but success kept eluding them. Then, starting in the years before World War I, America went crazy for the new branch of applied biology known as eugenics.”

Would Faber and Faber still be around if it weren’t for Cats?

We still have a few tickets available for TAC’s annual gala on May 9th. J. D. Vance is the keynote speaker, and we’ll be honoring Ross Douthat with the “Conservative Mind Award.” I would love to meet any Prufrock subscribers who are able to attend. Sign up here.

Essay of the Day:

In Humanities, Peter Gerler writes about when jazz moved to Chicago:

“A little over a century ago, Joseph ‘King’ Oliver, mentor to a wide-eyed teenager named Louis ‘Dipper’ Armstrong, stood peering up the main track of New Orleans’ Union Station on South Rampart Street. The Chicago-bound Illinois Central trains hissed, waiting to move. Oliver, a big, well-fed man, couldn’t wait to move either, so tired was he of having to apologize. He led one of New Orleans’ hottest bands, and he had been busted, again.

“The arrest happened on June 19, 1918, when Oliver was gigging with his trombonist friend Kid Ory at the Winter Garden, a newish venue at South Rampart and Gravier streets. South Rampart, the bustling main stem of black New Orleans, had been bustling more than usual in the last year, ever since the U.S. Navy shut down the Storyville District, that notorious den of prostitution, drugs, and hot music. This left more than a few District musicians on the street—with one more reason to abandon the South.

“Since World War I, a great stream of black Americans had already begun leaving beaten-down lives in ‘this cursed south land [where] a negro man is not good as a white man’s dog,’ as a black man from Mississippi put it. By 1930, in what became known as the Great Black Migration, hundreds of thousands of African Americans had moved north and begun enjoying a new sense of freedom.

“‘At one point,’ notes the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson, ‘ten thousand were arriving every month in Chicago alone.’ Chicago’s South Side, with its increasingly self-reliant African-American culture, became a shining port of call. New Orleans musicians, Joe Oliver included, were taking note.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Tulips

Poem: Melissa Balmain, “Treasure Map”         

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Shakespeare and the Classics, Donald Hall’s Effects, and the Dangers of Selective Breeding

Claude Monet, “Poppy Field near Argenteuil” (1873), via Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare was certainly more familiar with the classics than most writers today, but Jonathan Bate’s claim that the classics “made” the Bard misses the mark by a fair distance: “Like many critics with an argument to make, Bate’s preferred mode of engagement with the text is assertion rather than exegesis. Nothing wrong with this: literary criticism is a house with many mansions, and there are innumerable ways of writing well about any work or author or moment. All that is required for Bate’s approach to succeed is that his assertions be accurate enough and that the argument they serve be in some sense illuminating.” They often aren’t.

Many of Donald Hall’s effects will be auctioned off to the highest bidder on May 8th. Here’s a list.

In 50 years, the dead may outnumber the living on Facebook—if the platform is still around, that is.

Will Selinger reviews a new book on Montesquieu’s liberalism: “One imagines that Montesquieu’s Liberalism and the Problem of Universal Politics was conceived in the era when liberalism seemed invincible, for its purpose is to chasten and moderate triumphalist liberals. The timing doesn’t seem great, but it would be a shame if this work were overlooked. Callanan’s is one of the most interesting accounts of Montesquieu’s thought to appear in recent years.”

We are getting closer to “manufacturing” babies in a lab, so why is no one talking about the ethics of “selective breeding” on a mass scale.

All the Impressionists loved Argenteuil: “At the time, Argenteuil was a popular suburb of Paris. It was a place of pleasure and relaxation. Parisians could leave the chaos of the city and enjoy the sense of the countryside Argenteuil had to offer. It was only a 15-minute train ride from Paris, so it was a regularly visited town. Argenteuil attracted sailors and rowers from Paris because it sits on the banks of the Seine (La Société des Régates Parisiennes, the most prestigious boating club in Paris, had its headquarters in Argenteuil.) It was a place of fireworks, carnivals, and asparagus. It offered the perfect conditions and scenes for painting outside and it served as the backdrop to what we now view as the most quintessentially ‘impressionist’ paintings.”

Essay of the Day:

In The New Yorker, Adam Kirsch revisits the provocative and influential ideas of Martin Buber:

“I and Thou, a short treatise by the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, was published in German in 1923; by the time it appeared in English, fourteen years later, the translator could already call it ‘one of the epoch-making books of our generation.’ When Buber died, in 1965, his Times obituary focussed mainly on this one book, crediting it with making Buber ‘a pioneer bridge builder between Judaism and Christianity.’ Buber’s philosophy of dialogue had been enthusiastically embraced by such Protestant thinkers as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. Even today, I and Thou remains a staple of religion courses and bookstore spirituality sections, and inspirational quotes from it—‘An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language’—circulate endlessly on social media.

“Yet I and Thou, which uses a generalized, ecumenical vocabulary, has never enjoyed the same stature among Jewish readers as it has with the world at large. After Buber’s death, the novelist Chaim Potok observed, ‘It was a source of considerable anguish and frustration to Martin Buber that he was more appreciated by Christians than by Jews.’ This was a painful irony, since few people in the twentieth century had thought more passionately about Judaism and Jewishness. Buber had written dozens of books about Jewish history, theology, mysticism, and scripture. He was an early adherent of Zionism, worked on translating the Hebrew Bible into German, and popularized Hasidic folklore; during the Nazi period, he ran a Jewish adult-education program in Germany, to sustain the morale of his persecuted people. To Jewish historians, this is the Buber who matters: the writer and teacher whose career spanned the most important events of Jewish modernity, including the end of German-Jewish civilization and the creation of the State of Israel, where he spent the final decades of his life.

“‘Buber was a contested figure,’ Paul Mendes-Flohr writes in his new biography, Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent (Yale). ‘He evoked passionate, often conflicting opinions about his person and thought.’ There were always readers who distrusted Buber’s thinking about Judaism, which was defiantly innovative and anti-traditional. Some people questioned whether he really was a major thinker or just a charismatic impresario of ideas. In the nineteen-twenties, when Judah Magnes, the chancellor of the newly founded Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, tried to hire Buber as a professor, the faculty repeatedly refused to accept him, considering him not quite a true scholar. Only in 1938, as Buber tried to leave Nazi Germany, was a chair found for him—not in religion or philosophy but in the sociology department. The snub was hard for him to bear, and he accepted the appointment only after much internal struggle.

“Reading Buber, it’s not hard to understand why he might inspire suspicion. His prose, shaped by the literary tastes of the early twentieth century, tends to be high flown rather than precise. His book Daniel (1913) is written in a rhapsodic style that owes something to Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and something to Symbolist poetry: ‘Because we cannot circle above all existence—sleepless, unbroken, boundless, glowing—we content ourselves with being submerged and awakening.’ Even some of his admirers admitted that they couldn’t always be sure of what he was trying to say. (‘I have read it to the end and—understood nothing,’ Magnes wrote after reading Daniel.) The American translator of I and Thou, Walter Kaufmann, acknowledged that Buber ‘tends to blur all contours in the twilight of suggestive but extremely unclear language. Most of Buber’s German readers would be quite incapable of saying what any number of passages probably mean.’

“Such haziness was inevitable, because the questions Buber was trying to answer were the most ineffable ones of human life: What is the meaning of our existence? How can we achieve the feeling of wholeness that we so painfully lack? Above all, Buber asked, how do we find our way to God, now that religious belief has become so challenging for modern, educated people? Anyone who believed it was possible to give crystal-clear answers to such questions would have to be a messiah or a charlatan, and Buber was neither.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Walking to Lögberg

Poem: Wendy Videlock, “Whatever It Is”       

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Medieval Ingenuity, a Gentleman Officer, and a Roman Mess

Roman trash, via Wikimedia Commons

The sad but not unexpected news this morning is that the poet Les Murray has died. He was 80 years old. The Sydney Morning Herald re-ups their 2002 profile of the poet. Here is a selection of his work at Poetry Foundation. May he rest in peace.

Simon Heffer on the gentleman officer John Verney: “One of the characteristics for which the English gentleman is famed is his self-deprecation. He is trained in understatement in all things; he has litotes coursing through his veins. The height of vulgarity is to draw attention to oneself, and the more remarkable any of his achievements, the less attention he should draw to them. The cult of the amateur first of all built Britain’s empire, and then managed, by its casualness and determination to avoid confrontation and unpleasantness, to lose it. Perhaps the most famous example of this studied insouciance came at the Battle of Waterloo, when the Earl of Uxbridge had his leg blown off by a cannonball. ‘By God, Sir, I’ve lost my leg!,’ Uxbridge allegedly cried out to the Duke of Wellington, who happened to be near him. ‘By God, Sir, so you have!,’ the Iron Duke is said to have replied. The exchange is almost certainly apocryphal, but the fact that it is so credible to so many people underlines the strength of the cultural idea of the English officer. One who was entirely consistent with the stereotype was John Verney, an Oxford-educated Old Etonian who inherited a baronetcy.”

The New York Times reports that one of “the most widely used screenplay programs in Hollywood,” called Final Draft, has added a tool to evaluate scripts for inclusivity.

A 1615 Geneva Bible that was stolen from a Pittsburgh library has been recovered in the Netherlands.

Joseph Bottum would love to defend Bret Easton Ellis’s provocative collection of essays, but he can’t: “Alas, even perversity won’t carry a reader this far. Try as you can, Ellis’s new book remains just plain bad. In the face of the denunciations, you might find yourself wanting to approve the idea of the book, but you won’t get much help from the book itself.”

Rome is a mess: “Rubbish, potholes and metro closures contribute to anger among visitors and citizens alike.”

Timothy Sandefur recommends Elmer Kelton’s pure Westerns: Good Old Boys, for example, tells the story of Hewey Calloway, an aging (38) cowboy whose brother Walter has given up the saddle for the dreary labor of farming. Dirt-poor, Walter and his wife remind Hewey that at least they own their land, and can leave a legacy to their sons, unlike the unmarried and propertyless Hewey. Hewey rebuffs them, too enamored of his free, itinerant life to settle down. But when Walter is injured, Hewey must substitute for him, and toil behind the plow to save the farm from foreclosure. This premise enables Kelton to tell a universal story about the tension every young bachelor feels between his sweet independence and the knowledge that the longer he avoids stable family life, the more he risks loneliness and oblivion. It’s a simple device, but that simplicity and Kelton’s smooth, laconic prose, play well in the spare Texas setting. Kelton weaves his characters’ conflicting desires and the weightiness of his themes with a sense of humor that makes the novel at once elegiac and comic.”

Essay of the Day:

In Lapham’s Quarterly, Simon Winder praises medieval ingenuity:

“In the High Middle Ages, an era that devotes itself to conjuring up vast churches and palaces and excels at great intellectual and religious movements, it is good to focus first on a couple of small objects. The first is really tiny—a spherical lattice about the size of a Christmas-tree ornament, made in one of the Meuse towns, perhaps Dinant. Made from chiseled brass, it was designed to burn incense. The orb is made up of stylized creatures and foliage, but the note of genius is that there are three tiny people on top, showing eloquent surprise at their situation. These are (in a tumble of charismatic names) Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the Jewish men whose faith was tested in the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. It seems sad that these tiny characters should be trapped in a museum case in Lille and unable to continue to carry out their witty, nine-century-old role of having perfumed smoke pour upward and round them. Perhaps somewhere in Lille there is a secret underground movement to liberate them and return them to their true function.

“The other, only slightly larger object, that I have also kept coming back to just because it is so mysterious, lurks high on a pillar in Freiburg Minster. This must have once been part of a much larger decorative scheme, long since erased but with these figures kept as a reminder, or—more likely—just because they are so wonderful. The carving shows three human figures engaged with three massive, terrible-jawed animals, two of these wearing human clothing. An enormous ram’s head hovers in space, unrelated to the already confused action, and presumably part of a now missing piece of the frieze. Round the corner is a sadly worn—but fabulous—little fragment of Alexander the Great in a griffin-powered flying machine. I have returned to these monsters over the years, not least because of the strange way they echo the animal masks of the Kwakwaka’wakw of the American northwest. I don’t say this as some borderline insane piece of ethnographic showing-off, but because my wife’s family live on the edge of the Salish Sea and most summers I rush off at the first chance to admire examples of this great artistic tradition. The Freiburg monsters also appear strangely Disney—the humans unperturbed by them, despite the way the sculptor has given them a terrible sense of muscular power. I had assumed they were just mysterious grotesques, but this turned out merely to be my own ignorance. When last in Freiburg somewhat to my dismay I was cheerfully informed by an official that the figure on the right, seemingly a woman on a monster, was in fact Samson (the long hair for strength) subduing a lion, while the two cowled men with the two clothed monsters were telling two different ‘frames’ from the story of Wolf Inngrim, in which a monk dresses a wolf up in human clothes and tries to educate him (there is a little book and pen) but he keeps being distracted by a nearby sheep. Unable to deny his wolfish nature, he turns from the monk and leaps on the sheep. A bit upset at this overturning of what I had lazily assumed was an ancient mystery, I quickly realized that it made no difference—these were creatures that conveyed brilliantly a universal human dismay and fascination.

“The wolves were carved around 1200 in the opening phase of the building of Freiburg Minster. It was sponsored by Duke Berthold V, the last of the Zähringer dynasty, fresh from what would prove the equally lasting triumph of founding the city of Bern. These sorts of initiatives are characteristic of what was in many ways one of the most exciting, cheerful, and entertaining periods in all European history. As usual we could tut-tut about life expectancy, poor hygiene, and the relentless grind of agricultural labor, but this is just to buy into the patronizing and intellectually null idea that, in effect, the entire prior sum of human activity across the planet should be pitied and disregarded for not having had access to broadband.

“The founding of Bern is a fine example of medieval mobility and ambition that, so close to old Roman cities such as Basel or Constance, could both build on earlier traditions and also start afresh.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Trinità dei Monti

Poems: Catharine Savage Brosman, “Landscapes”     

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The Letters of Larkin and Eliot, the End of Comedy, and Churchill’s Debt to Burke

Charlie Chaplin in “His New Job” (1915), via Wikimedia Commons

Another volume of Philip Larkin’s letters has been published. It adds little to our understanding of the man or his work, Robert Messenger argues in The New Criterion: “The issue of whether Larkin was naughty or nice has occupied critics and scholars on both sides of the Atlantic since the publication of the Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite, in 1992, and the official life, written by Andrew Motion, the following year. The violence of the viewpoints is extreme. And there is plenty of evidence for Larkin as misogynist or racist. There is also good evidence for him as kind colleague and doting lover. It is all utterly irrelevant. I almost typed depressing. The latter is the better word. Poetry is older than civilization, yet in the last fifty years, it has all but died out. Only a tiny number of poets have added anything to the public conversation during this period. Among them Larkin is pre-eminent . . . If I am glad in any way to have read Letters Home, it is because it has supplied a footnote for the ages, ‘A significant proportion of the socks recovered from 105 Newland Park [the poet’s house in Hull] by the Philip Larkin Society in 2004 following the death of Monica Jones have been carefully darned, some with non-matching wool or in two colours. See Plate 5A.’ Yes, there is a color photograph of Larkin’s socks in the book. The mills of academe grind on. Almost simultaneously with Letters Home came a second heavily annotated volume of Sylvia Plath’s correspondence. These two poets have a torrid academic existence. It makes some sense in the American’s case: not only was her life tragically short and her work incomplete by any measure, but she is also one of feminism’s great martyrs. Larkin’s work is complete. His poetic gift died out almost a decade before his death—a reason he turned down the offer of the poet laureateship in 1984. His poetic notebooks make this clear. We see him whole in his published volumes and even in the round by reading the sixty-one extra poems Thwaite included in the two versions of the Collected Poems.”

Speaking of letters, another volume of T. S. Eliot’s letters has also been published. This brings us to seven thousand pages in eight volumes, and we’re only at 1938. Eliot died in 1965. Does the project transform Eliot into an institution, Robert Crawford asks (as if he weren’t already)? Perhaps. The latest volume does highlight one less discussed aspect of his work, however, and his life: Eliot’s names. “The way Eliot names himself is much more complicated than the way he names Emily. He signs himself variously in these letters: ‘Mr Possum’, ‘T.S.E.’, ‘T.S. Eliot’, ‘Tom’, ‘Herlock Sholmes’, ‘Uncle Tom’, ‘TP’ (short for ‘Tom Possum’ or ‘The Possum’), ‘T’, leaves a deliberate blank, ‘Possum’, ‘POSSUM’, ‘Tp’, ‘Secretary’, ‘Tom Eliot’, ‘T.S.’, ‘Th. Eliot/of Somerset’, ‘TP’, ‘THE MAN IN WHITE SPATS’, ‘Tom S.’, ‘UNCLE TOM’, ‘ANNOYED’, ‘O. Possum’, ‘T. Possum’, and ‘O Possum’ and, while masquerading as other Faber colleagues in spoof reports on his own book, ‘R. de la M.’, ‘A.P.’ and ‘H.R.’ – hardly a shocking number of self-presentations over 1100 pages, but suggestive of a certain fluidity . . . Taking ‘The Naming of Cats’ as a template, most of these names can also be grouped in ‘three different’ categories. There is the ‘everyday’ name: Thomas, T.S. Eliot and variants thereof. Then there is the ‘peculiar’ name of the creature – ‘Possum’ and its many variants. Lastly, there is the mysterious ‘ineffable’ blank – the deliberately empty space to which, nonetheless, names can be linked.”

Paul Waterman’s obscure lightness: “A lot of Boy for a Blonde is like this. Likewise, Love to the Town. Philosophical, perverse, oddly obscure, sometimes naughty, metrically clean and lucid everywhere . . . but mainly oddly obscure. Then come those strange three years of limericks, miraculous limericks that manage a feat not accomplished since Christmas 1872. Namely, they stand up to a hundred readings.”

I’ve read James Matthew Wilson’s latest collection of poetry, The Hanging God. It’s a lovely work of contemporary religious poetry. Read Emina Melonic’s review of it over at Law and Liberty: “In his new collection of poetry, The Hanging God, Wilson explores the good, the beautiful, and the true but also the odd. In the midst of this ordered universe, Wilson’s elaborate, complex, and graceful imagination offers us glimpses of human ugliness and peculiarities.”

Paul Hollander reviews a flawed book on the nostalgia for communism: “The long-term effects of the collapse of communism on the political attitudes of the people who lived under it deserve serious attention, especially in light of the initial hopes these historical events stimulated. Of late these favorable expectations have been replaced by mounting concern over the shift toward authoritarianism, most notably in Russia under Putin, followed by similar trends in Hungary and Poland. The most obvious, if partial, explanation has been the absence of democratic historical-cultural traditions in these countries, as well as the unmet expectations the fall of the communist systems generated among their populations. Another explanation of these trends, suggested by Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny, is that human beings used to living under repressive governments over long periods find it difficult to adapt to their new freedoms, like the dancing bears liberated from their harsh routines.”

James Holzhauer has won $1.2 million in 16 Jeopardy! victories. Here’s his strategy.

We are living in very unfunny times, Andrew Ferguson writes: “Any bit of news can be made to be about Trump. The Times points me to Seth Meyers, who notes that a Dominican singer recently tried to break a world record by performing for 100 hours straight. Seth’s hot take: ‘“Big deal, try performing for 14 years,” said Melania.” (The Times, as America’s newspaper of record, adds helpfully: ‘referring to first lady Melania Trump.’) Again, a simple statement of fact is enough to substitute for a real joke. On TheLate Show With Stephen Colbert, Stephen Colbert (who else?) bravely ‘takes on’ congressional Republicans and their never-ending quest to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. ‘Remember “repeal and replace?”’ Colbert joshed. His audience showed premonitory signs of volcanic laughter. ‘“We’re going to repeal and replace”? Well, after nine years, they still haven’t gotten around to the “replace” part. [Lava gurgling from the audience.] They have no plan. [Burbling …] In fact, there is no plan to make a plan.’ Krakatoa! Too true! But … true is all it is. The two-step formula of a stand-up joke, setup followed by punch line, has been edited down to the first step and left at that.”

Essay of the Day:

In The New Criterion, Andrew Roberts discusses Churchill’s debt to Burke:

“In the third volume of his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Churchill wrote that Burke was ‘a great political thinker. . . . [He] was able to diagnose the situation with an imaginative insight beyond the range of those immersed in the business of the day and bound by traditional habits of mind.’ There were criticisms of Burke in that book, too, of course, but ones that Churchill knew had also been directed against himself. Churchill said that Burke was a man of principle, but that he lacked a strong and well-organized party to support him, which of course was true of Churchill for much of his life, but especially during the 1930s. (As Churchill said of his decision to cross the floor of the House of Commons not once but twice in his career, ‘Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.’)

“Just in case anyone had failed to spot the connections between Burke and Churchill, Churchill made them clear. ‘For years Burke was a voice crying in the wilderness,’ he wrote. ‘An orator to be named with the ancients, an incomparable political reasoner, he lacked both judgment and self-control. He was perhaps the greatest man that Ireland has produced. The same gifts, with a dash of indolence and irony . . . might have made him Britain’s greatest statesman.’ In the event it was Churchill himself—who was totally lacking in indolence but who relied heavily on English High Irony—who must be awarded that accolade.

“Churchill reached for Burke at many of the great debates and moments of his career, happy to acknowledge his debt to him. He quoted him in the free trade versus protection debate of July 1903; in his offer to Germany of a ‘naval holiday’ from fleet building ten months before the outbreak of World War I; and in his famous attack on Stanley Baldwin of December 1923. In Churchill’s Fourth of July speech in the last year of World War I, he stated that ‘The Declaration of Independence is not only an American document. It follows on the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights as the third great title-deed on which the liberties of the English-speaking people are founded. . . . The political conceptions embodied in the Declaration of Independence are the same as those expressed at that time by Lord Chatham and Mr. Burke and handed down to them by John Hampden and Algernon Sidney.’

“It might shock but will not surprise you to learn that not one of those gentlemen just named is to be found on the history curriculum of British schools today, a syllabus that leaps so directly from the Tudors to the Second World War that teachers refer to the phenomenon as ‘Henry to Hitler.’”

Read the rest.

Photo: Spring in Hallstatt

Poem: Rachel Hadas, “Fire Pit”   

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