Monthly Archives: October 2017

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Struck While Jogging? No, But After

Sirens, police cars, stopped traffic—that’s what I saw and heard as I jogged along the Potomac for part of my run along the mall in Washington, D.C. For a moment or two I was struck by it all, and I thought that something of crisis-like proportions must have occurred; yet soon I reminded myself that in a big city, sirens are a pretty common occurrence and do not necessarily portend a major disaster.

Until my run that morning I had never seen the Lincoln Memorial, though like all Americans I know what it symbolizes. It was completed in the early 1920s and houses the famous statue of Lincoln, whose design by Daniel Chester French was executed by the Piccirilli brothers, American-born sons of the well-known Italian sculptor Giuseppe Piccirilli, who emigrated from his native land in the nineteenth-century. The building itself, which evokes the greatest of Greek temples, the Parthenon, is the work of the architect Henry Bacon. But these are all details gathered easily enough from the official website.[1]

As I jogged up that monument’s steps, I somehow had a feeling that I had been there before, though in fact I never had. Yet I could feel the pulse of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which I had not realized until I was writing this was actually delivered when I was but a small child. I have no personal memory of that speech, but the very sound of Reverend King’s words are nonetheless vivid in my mind and I savor his powerful, grand and inspiring tone, and relish the cultural memory.

The Jefferson Memorial was more beautiful, I thought, delicate and less imposing that the powerful and more substantial Lincoln Memorial. What these structures and the Washington Monument across the Potomac’s tidal basin from the Jefferson Memorial all mean, however, is much more important these days than perhaps ever before. They would seem to symbolize the best about our country, the potential for our country to be united, to set better goals and to seek to achieve better ends. The harsh words, the virulent and palpable hatred of our politicians these days, the political squabbling that has virtually immobilized our country, as well as our government’s out-of-control spending—all of that clashes badly with what these monuments mean, what they preserve.

That this is the case became clearer to me after my jog when I returned to my hotel. I was on my way to a conference on the challenges of secularism to religion.[2] Representatives of the three major monotheistic religions were sitting on a podium and discussing intelligently the issues that each of their faith traditions face in an increasingly secularized society. Now there were a lot of things that struck me that day, from early morning police sirens to the monuments that I saw on my six-mile jog, culminating with that interfaith dialogue, and I could wax poetic or at least prosaic on any number of them. But let me choose just one, the last of these.

Here sat three leaders from three different faiths—a rabbi, a sheikh, and a prominent Roman Catholic[3]—on a stage before an audience that I imagine was as amazed as I was to listen to these tremendously wise men, one of whom was in town also to receive the Irving Kristol Award.[4] There was no wrangling, no arguing, no vitriol, but rather profound respect for one another and each other’s religious traditions. And this was taking place in Washington D.C., the city of spleen. These men understood the significance of the monuments on the mall. The contrast between the bickering and back-biting of current leaders in of our country who, though they represent different parties, presumably hold a heart the commonweal and these men, whose religious differences are presumably greater than any political divide, could not have been sharper.

And that’s what struck me after I spent a day running around the monuments, struck me harder than anything I saw that day: respect, admiration and cooperation. Can you imagine? Now that would be striking.

 

[1] https://www.nps.gov/linc/learn/historyculture/memorial-features.htm.

[2] https://www.baylor.edu/washington/index.php?id=944857

s[3] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (President of Zaytuna College), and Professor Robert George (Princeton).

[4] The highest award given for by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

New Hope, Pennsylvania is known for, among other things, ghosts. There is the ghost that is said to haunt the Inn at Phillips Mill, a ghost that rocks in a rocking chair and, it is said, occasionally steals delicious treats from the pantry of the famous restaurant of the Phillips Mill Inn, which is among the very best restaurants in Bucks County.

Now there are undoubtedly some who do not know Bucks County, Pennsylvania. That county is one of the three famous original tracts of land that William Penn created in 1682. He named it after his native Buckinghamshire, and he himself dwelt in that county’s small hamlet known as Falls. A school district not far from Oxford Valley (known as Pennsbury) is named after William Penn’s own nearby villa of the same name. Some of the towns of the county bear names also drawn from the English countryside, prominent among them (and proximate to New Hope), Solebury.

But all that is off the topic, for we are concerned with ghosts. The ghost of the Inn at Phillips Mill is one thing—it is a sweet-eating ghost, and likes to rock in a rocker. So everyone’s assumption is that it (he? she?) is overweight and probably badly out of shape. No one has actually ever seen its silhouette, but the facts speak for themselves. The missing desserts, sometimes amply missing, are a clear sign, and the self-propelling rocker, too, seems to have more wear and tear beneath its rocker rails than should be caused by a lightweight ghost. Thus, that rocker’s ghost is most assuredly weight challenged. I say this not to “fat shame” him or her; I merely state the obvious.

The ghost of the Logan Inn, by contrast, I personally believe to be spurious. I say this with all due respect to the former owner, whose mother’s soul this ghost is said to embody (if embody is quite the right word, which I doubt). That ghost, whose name is said to be Emily, may or may not be a psychological projection of the former owner. What is the evidence? First, ghosts rarely have names unless they are quite famous ghosts. Second, there is no proof of this ghost’s existence, other than a few creepy apparitions in a mirror of room #6 at that famous inn. Those could have been reflections of light or mere figments of the viewer’s imagination. I have no idea, but I only know what I’ve heard on the street. The entire affair sounded to me too far-fetched to be true. Yet even as I write this, I fervently hope not to be offending that ghost, should it exist, as an offended ghost is an unsafe ghost. Indeed, now that I think about it, why am I calling Emily into question? Perhaps it is my own psychological issues that make me question a perfectly good ghost story. Yet, admittedly, in Emily’s case, the evidence is lacking.

But the story of Aaron Burr in his underwear is, I believe, better documented. First, no one denies that Aaron Burr, then vice president, was on the run after his duel with Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton, who had purposely missed Burr, died the day after the duel. Burr, for his part, did not, of course, miss Hamilton and was charged with the murder; nonetheless, he was eventually acquitted of the charge and was able to serve out his term. Afterwards Burr tried to make Louisiana into a separate country, but failed to do so and eventually fled to Europe before being acquitted again and returning to New York. So why his ghost would be in New Hope is unclear, and why it is consistently said “to be seen in its underwear” is, perhaps, at least on the surface also unclear.

Unclear to those who don’t know the full story, that is. That story runs as follows: When Burr was on the lam in New Hope en route south, he stayed in a small inn (now known as the Aaron Burr House).He had, perhaps out of fear during the duel or simply for other unknown reasons, soiled his pants. On the days that he stayed clandestinely in New Hope, just after the duel, which took place on 11 July 1804, he sent his pants and first pair of undergarments (for he had two) out to be cleaned. But then there came a loud knock on the door of his room in the tiny inn, which is located at 80 West Bridge Street in New Hope. And there he was, sitting in his armchair in the room, smoking his pipe, reflecting on the difficult events of the previous day. He was, naturally enough, forlorn, a broken man, for he had by then learned that Hamilton had purposely missed him. He fervently wished that he could go back in time, undo the stupid duel (for he was already thinking of the entire affair as stupid), and could just go back to Washington D.C. to serve out his term as vice president.

But time had marched on, and his valet had marched off with his pants. And now someone (he never found out who—a reporter perhaps?) was knocking at the door. And he was dying of shame and, of course, embarrassment for not having brought with him an extra pair of pants—so hasty had been his flight. And so, he climbed out the window and in so doing actually fell to the ground—an entire floor below! His heart actually stopped from the shock of the fall but, within a few seconds, started to beat on its own again. (That is the only cogent explanation as to why his ghost haunts New Hope and not New York, where he died years later a second time, for ghosts of people who die twice can choose whichever of the two locations they would prefer to haunt).

And, of course, because he died the first time in his underwear, that is all the ghost is allowed to (or, I am told wants to) wear. And many people have seen this ghost, not in the Aaron Burr House but only in the nearby street, West Bridge Street, late at night. I cannot verify beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is the case, in no small part because I now live in Texas, but that the last time I was there that was the scuttlebutt on the streets of New Hope, and I for one am inclined to believe it. Indeed, why shouldn’t I? I’ve walked by that house many time as a lad, and I always, every single time, got a chill down my spine, even in the hot summers that often occur in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. So, if you see a ghost in his underwear in New Hope, you’ll now know whose ghost it is—none other than that of Aaron Burr.

Happy Halloween! Beware of or, perhaps better,
be on the lookout for, ghosts!

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Is Shakespeare Dead?

So did Mark Twain entitle his famous essay that is a sharp, satirical look at Shakespearean authorship. In it he calls attention to the fact that most of the things we “know” about Shakespeare’s life are based on conjecture, the kind of conjecture that is itself, as so often happens with historical authors, back-formed from various details in his corpus. Hilariously, at the opening of the second chapter, Twain writes, “When I was a Sunday-school scholar something more than sixty years ago, I became interested in Satan, and wanted to find out all I could about him,” and he goes on to show how Satan’s reputation is built largely on conjecture, not clear facts. That, of course, is what he compares our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life to.

Twain’s satirical piece is meant to show us that the historical “Shakespeare,” himself largely a theory anyway, is not likely to be the true author of the Shakespearean corpus. He is, rather, likely to be a construct based on bits and pieces of that corpus. What we envision to be his physical body is reconstituted from the body of his work, causing his actual corpse to roll over in the grave. All amusing, all satiric, all well worth a few minutes of your time to read.[1]

I wish that the peevish students of the University of Pennsylvania, where I myself studied literature at one point, had read Twain before they demanded the removal of the picture of Shakespeare from the foyer of the building of the English Department. The painting was replaced with a picture of Audre Lorde, the well-known Lesbian feminist poet who passed away in 1992.

But returning to Shakespeare, I want to stress that while the physical human being, the man who was called Shakespeare is, like Audre Lorde, quite dead—whether he actually wrote any of the Shakespearean corpus or not—the one we call Shakespeare is in fact a tome, a ponderous tome, filled with marvelous plays that come alive for the reader and even more alive for the viewer and hearer of them, the person who goes to the theater to view the spectacle. I can remember my great professor, Philip Ambrose at the University of Vermont, stressing this very point with me in a Greek tragedy class. We were reading the Trojan Women, and he did not want us ever to lose sight of the fact that that play was a sight, a spectacle, visceral, real, meant to be performed, not just read. That is Euripides, and that is Shakespeare. Note the present tense. Euripides, like Shakespeare, is alive today. We can perform them both, we can pick them up. They have become their text and when we read them, when we perform them, we bring them back to life.

But we must, of course, read them, we must, of course, have access to them, and most importantly be encouraged to read them, perhaps in our teen years, especially at college or university. I don’t think most folks will just pick up a volume of Euripides in translation on their own and read him. I don’t think most folks would even think about learning ancient Greek to do so. Indeed, even the headiest college student is not inclined to take a language on his or her own, not inclined to study an ancient language without some reason to do so. Maybe the college will require at least some courses in literature. But the trend is going the other direction, of course, as colleges and universities are increasingly adopting a more practical approach, in some cases becoming more trade-schools.[2] I took a language in college because it was required. I took Latin because I had heard the professor was one of the best that Dickinson had. I only added Greek because that same professor, Philip Lockhart, encouraged me to do so. Years later, at Vermont, reading Greek with yet another Philip, this time with the saintly name of Ambrose, I was so glad I had added Greek those four years prior.

My point is this: if you send your child off to college, I hope you encourage her to go there to get an education, not a job. Of course, you want your child to be employed and to find a vocation that will make him happy, if indeed it is even possible “to find” a vocation. Rather, it is only possible to harken unto it, for the very word “vocation” implies that the job “calls” you, rather than you “find” it. Add to this that true happiness cannot be found in one’s job. It can only be found in one’s heart. You could have a rather unhappy job and still be happy. You could have the perfect job, and be quite unhappy. I know many college professors who fall into this latter category.

No, I’m not advocating that everyone study Greek. But I am suggesting that everyone who has the chance to read Shakespeare do so. He’s alive, even if he is no longer regularly required reading. The same goes for Homer, whether read more quickly in translation or more painstakingly in the original. And Euripides, yes, him too, and Virgil, and Dante, and Milton. Read them precisely because they are alive, and they will tell you something that will last you not one day but a lifetime. And if you’re listening carefully, they may, by the time you’re done reading, have whispered to you the very words that will provide you with happiness, the happiness that can’t come from “job satisfaction” or “finding the right vocation,” but can only come from within, from the heart.

Well, then, is Shakespeare dead? Only if we let him die.

[1][1] Easily found at pagebypagebooks.com.

[2] Alas, the university that I spoke about in last week’s blog did, in the end, decide to produce a rather slender core, cutting out, with a single vote, Shakespeare, Homer and Virgil.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: “The sword over my head”

I found myself confused by his reference to the “sword over his head.” There I was, at a gathering of some of the brightest stars of any university, enjoying a glass of red under the shade of a pavilion just a few miles from a major university’s campus, discussing, of all things, their core curriculum changes. I found it surprising that I, a mere novelist, should be invited. “Perhaps I have been summoned to this elegant wine-and-cheese gathering,” I ruminated, “because they know I care about liberal education. Or perhaps because I blog regularly?” I wasn’t sure.

It did not matter to me, as I knew that I should relish my conversations with them all—historians (for there was more than one there), a physicist, an art historian and, best of all, literature professors, for again there was more than one professor of literature. They were there to consider how the changes to their new core proposal would be implemented.

I was skeptical, of course, about trimming too much out of their core, and some of them at least seemed to value my opinion. I cautioned them about removing history courses—as our country’s recent leaders, for example, seem to have forgotten to heed the lessons of history—and non-English language study as we live in a world where understanding other cultures through the way they think (i.e. their languages) is becoming more and more important. (Perhaps you will recall from previous blogs that I have a close friend who is a philologist and I often accompany him to conferences on literature, art or even linguistics.) I suppose that association alone has biased me a bit, since many of those conferences are in Europe. Fortunately, as do I, my friend can speak Italian, French, and German, so he gets around there pretty well. But to return to the wine-and-cheese affair, one conversation jumped out at me, and one phrase in it alone, to my mind, made the case all by itself for a robust liberal education.

That conversation was with a particular professor, whose department I don’t recall, and the phrase, or rather its particularly strange, in this case, application was “the sword over my head.” He said, specifically, “Well, when it comes to education these days, I really have the sword over my head.” The context did not in and of itself clarify the reference. He was speaking about how difficult it is to deal with students, and how parents complain. And he seemed to mean he was getting sick of dealing with virtually every aspect of the non-research bits of his job, i.e. teaching and all that involves, from disgruntled students to parents whose angry telephone calls he regularly receives to the occasional late homework or make-up test. It would all be easier, he seemed to say, if there were just less onerous requirements, a trimmer core that would give students more choice about what they were taking. The sword, he said, was over his head. And he seemed to say this last bit rather fiercely.

You just can’t escape when you are joined at the hip with a Samarai warrior.

I wandered off to another part of the pavilion, sipping on my Merlot. “What did this man mean?” I thought to myself. He seemed a reasonable chap, friendly and smiling, but then he closed his soliloquy on how a trimmer core would benefit most professors and students with that strange turn of phrase. Did he mean he had the sword poised over his head aggressively, like a Samurai warrior or Luke Skywalker fighting with Darth Vader?Or perhaps he meant he was holding it high, like Vuchetich and Nikitin’s grand statue of the Russian motherland perched above Volgograd, the city formally known as Stalingrad.

Well, I thought, he couldn’t possibly mean he was like Luke Skywalker. That was simply too aggressive for dealing with a parent, however disgruntled he or she might be. No, that simply wouldn’t work. But the image of the Russian motherland, perhaps that’s all he meant. Perhaps he just meant that he held aloft, via his PhD or his publication record or his status within his department, a symbol of power, a symbol that he was in control and that the parent or student or even disgruntled colleague or telemarketer who happened to call his work extension (for that, too, had come up in another conversation) would have to recognize that he, like the Russian troops who had boldly fought for Stalingrad, would not give up. He held the sword above his head, he was indeed on par with the Родина-мать!

“The Motherland Calls,” (Родина-мать зовёт!) unveiled in 1967 by artist/engineer duo Yevgeny Vuchetich and Nikolai Nikitin.

 

But surely, I thought, as I helped myself to a second (plastic) glass of Merlot, this is not what he meant. And then it donned on me, perhaps because I was thinking of my philological friend and his conferences, that this professor of whatever it was, must have meant, for all his bravado, the sword of Damocles. Yet he had forgotten or perhaps had never known the name of Damocles. Had he read Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, I wondered, in whose fifth book the story is featured?[1] Surely that’s what he meant. He knew of the story, but he didn’t know the story. He knew there was some story about a sword being over somebody’s head, but he didn’t know whose, he didn’t know how it happened, or even from what culture this marvelous story comes. “Did he even know who Cicero was or when he lived?” I mused.

Or did I in fact muse? Rather, I think, I was brooding. And that’s when one more thing donned on me. He was living proof of why preserving a robust liberal education is paramount. Yes, he had a PhD; yes, he was a college professor; but had he been liberally educated? He was his own counter-example. No, of course, a liberal education won’t enable everyone to cite every story correctly or catch all and any reference to each and every allusion. But it enables us to ask questions, formulate them better and more pointedly. It won’t remove the sword of Damocles from above any of our heads, but it might just teach us how to speak better, write better and to comport ourselves better. It might just prepare us to converse better, whether over wine-and-cheese or in a courtroom or at business meeting in France. It might just prepare us for life, to handle its pressure, how to deal gently and deftly with our fellow human beings. It won’t solve any of life’s problems, but it equips us to deal with them better. How I hope those folks decide to keep the most vital of their core requirements in place, lest they unwittingly take a seat beneath Damocles’ sword.

The Sword of Damocles, Richard Westall (1812)

 

[1] Cicero, TD 5.61: Certainly this very tyrant [Dionysius of Syracuse] made clear his opinion about how fortunate he had been. When one of his sycophantic followers, a certain Damocles, in conversation touched upon Dionysius’ prosperity, the majesty of his rule, the plentitude of his possessions, and his palace’s splendor, suggesting that there never had had been anyone more fortunate, Dionysius replied, “Well, Damocles, inasmuch as this life titillates you, do you wish to taste and experience my life and fortune? After Damocles indicated that he so desired, Dionysius ordered that the man be placed on a golden couch bedecked with a very beautiful woven tapestry, embellished with impressive works. … Yet Dionysius also ordered that amidst such luxury a gleaming sword, fastened by a horse’s hair from the ceiling, be lowered so that it dangled over that “lucky” man’s neck… Ultimately Damocles begged that tyrant to be allowed to depart as he no longer wished to be so fortunate. (My translation.)