Not Really About Sylvia Plath

What is the most interesting thing you have learned from a book recently?

This question is routinely asked — by a chatbot, I’m convinced — in the “By the Book” feature of the New York Times Book Review. Like the fatuous and idiotic final question about ideal literary dinner-party guests, it is designed to interest Review readers who delight in everything to do with books except the actual reading.

I thought of the little seminar on Sylvia Plath that I’ve been conducting in the past weeks. It was inspired by a series of essays, three and all, by Elisa Gabbert, in her new collection, Any Person Is the Only Self. These essays are (at least partially) about Sylvia Plath, a poet I never took seriously until now (aged 76). What struck me immediately was the freshness of Gabbert’s interest in the poet; Gabbert herself was born more than two decades after Plath’s suicide, and she writes it though there were nothing controversial about the poet’s claim to fame. Suicide may have made Plath famous, but her poetry has become famous for itself. She is also quite certain that “Daddy” is addressed to her faithless husband, Ted Hughes, and not to poor Otto, the German father who died when Plath was eight and who seems to have led a blameless life, notwithstanding possible Nazi sympathies.

The essays made me want to read Janet Malcolm‘s book, The Silent Woman, again. This book is about Plath and Hughes, both during and after Plath’s life. Hughes’s sister, Olwyn, Is such an oppressive presence that you wonder: was Hughes married to her or to Plath? Hughes’s letters, as quoted by Malcolm, show him to be so utterly overbearing in a passive-aggressive way that he becomes exactly the sort of crushing father-figure whom a girl might want to be rid of once he ceased to be magical. Malcolm takes it for granted that the power of Plath’s last poems speaks for itself. While conceding that Plath might never have become quite so well-known had she not taken her life, Malcolm never suggests that the poetry cheats, as it were, by borrowing some of the luster of Plath’s extinction. But when I reread Elizabeth Hardwick’s essay on Plath, in Seduction and Betrayal, I found that Hardwick isn’t quite so sure that the poems would strike us as powerfully as they do if it were not for proof of the full extent of Plath’s self-destructiveness.

That is the state of my reading so far, and what I have learned from it did not come from any one book. To continue, I shall have to read the poems far more carefully than I have ever done — and far more of them as well. As it happens, I have a copy of the “restored“ edition of Ariel, which necessarily excludes quite a few famous poems that Plath wrote after she stopped fiddling with the manuscript of the collection, most notoriously “Edge.” If I’m to be thorough. I shall have to buy a copy of The Collected Poems, and I’m not so sure that I want to do that. What I have learned from all of this, then, is certainly more than a “most interesting thing,“ and it obviously came from three books at a minimum, four including Ariel.

What we mean by the phrase “the most interesting thing“ when speaking of a book that we have just read is often a minor detail of which we were unaware or about which we were mistaken. There is nothing minor about what I have learned about Sylvia Plath and her poetry from Gabbert, Malcolm, and Hardwick.

I take my hat off to Elisa Gabbert, because I have never been inclined to read about Sylvia Plath as a poet. As a catastrophe, yes. (Hence: Malcolm.) But not as a poet. Gabbert changed my mind about that; no, wait, she opened up to me the possibility that I might want to change my mind. That must be what I have learned from my little seminar. The interesting that I learned was that there are undoubtedly interesting things to learn from further reading. But then I learned that quite a long time ago.

Cities on a Hill
by Frances Fitzgerald

Near the end of Cities on a Hill, her historically weighted report on four “visionary” communities in 1980s American (The Castro in San Francisco, Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Virginia, Sun City Center in Florida, and Rajneeshpuram, Oregon), Frances Fitzgerald writes,

Sydney Mead, the great authority on the American Protestant tradition, wrote in The Lively Experiment that evangelical protestant ism was characterized by an emphasis on direct experience rather than by knowledge of doctrine or ritual practice, and, as a consequence, by anti-intellectualism, ahistoricism, and a pragmatic experimentalism.… Membership in all four groups [the Castro et al] was at least theoretically membership in wholly egalitarian society – a brother- and sisterhood or a society of children who had no past, but only a present and a future. (398)
It is often observed that American’s have no use for history. That’s quite true, so long as it’s understood that “history” is not the same thing as “the past.” History is a method of accounting for the past, and, indeed, Americans have no use for it. The American, — and, I believe, the inevitably democratic — way of dealing with the past is to draw a veil over the general unpleasantnesses and to mythologize the heroes. Two crude and no longer respectable instances are the story that the young George Washington cut down a cherry tree and ‘fessed up to it and the idea that the North fought the Civil War in order to free the slaves. A current and more pernicious example is the proposition that America won the Cold War. From a genuinely historical perspective, these notions are unsustainable. But for most Americans they seem to be indispensable just-so stories.

Temperamentally devoted to the theory and practice of history, or at any rate to using history — historically sustainable ideas — to help me to make sense of the world around me, I have always found my countrymen’s distaste for it alienating. Clearly, I am the alien, the one who doesn’t belong here, the one who ought to remain in the great liminal antechamber called Manhattan. To me, the present and the future are mirages to the extent that they are not built of the touchable bricks of the past. I have, in short, no patience with visionaries. So persuasively engaging, however, is Fitzgerald’s writing, here as in her other books, that I have very much enjoyed re-reading her roundup of borderline crackpots.

What’s crackpot about visionaries of the sort studied by Fitzgerald is the fantasy that you can turn your back on social reality and by sheer force of will (greatly assisted by oblivion) set out to prioritize one ideal characteristic and pretend that contrary characteristics no longer exist, are no longer properly human. To fashion a pseudo-present in which the only experience to be had is the kind of experience that you want to have. The great size and baggy tolerance of America at large help, too, by nipping in the bud almost every idea of bringing the whole country into line — the nationwide prohibition of alcoholic beverages a century ago was a very regrettable exception.

I often wondered what, if anything, an update of Fitzgerald’s 1986 book would tell us. Rajneeshpuram, very simply, is extinct; its failure was clear before the book was printed. Otherwise, the visions have stabilized. Sun City Center, I see, has grown from 8500 inhabitants to 30,000; I expect that golf is still the big draw. From its Website, I gather that Thomas Road is still as much an American Church as a Christian one. The Castro seems to be an LGBTQ neighborhood rather than an exclusively male homosexual enclave. The visionary quality has given way to an elective ghettoism — something that marked the Castro and Sun City from the start. In short, Cities on a Hill is not significantly dated. Under the appearance of similarity, though, one wonders if Americans at large are still the same. I suspect that it would take a writer of Fitzgerald’s perspicacity to ferret out the answer.

The Editor
by Sara B Franklin

Is the subtitle of this new book, How Publishing Legend Judith Jones Shaped Culture in America really plausible? Even if it’s safe to assume — and I think that it is — that Jones was among the three or four most influential editors in the history of the Knopf imprint, there remains the question of just how far that influence reached. The “America” mentioned here seems to be the relatively small world of people who might read The Editor or who might at least be interested to hear about it (if only because of the Julia Child connection). It goes without saying that I’m one of those people, and happy to be one; but I’ve learned from Donald Trump’s followers that there is a larger America that takes no interest in the culture that Judith Jones did or did not shape. And this awareness lacquers the mentality of Franklin’s book with what feels like a dangerous unreality. It reminds me of the douce days when “France” meant la noblesse and the writers and artists in their employ.

I swallowed The Editor in two days. It really oughtn’t to have been such an easy read. It certainly wasn’t an entirely pleasant one. Where there ought to have been substance, there was copious wallpaper. One of Franklin’s favorite patterns is to begin a chapter section with a scene that opens in medias res, with little to indicate what the context of that res is.

The gifts poured into room 905. Dick brought Judith tulips. Alfred Knopf [the man, not the firm] sent a mixed spring bouquet. His second wife, Helen… (141)

Thus opens Chapter 13; right through Chapter 12, there has been scant mention of medical problems. The second paragraph of Chapter 13 backtracks to the day, “two weeks earlier,” when Jones made a bloody mess in an assistant’s office — endometriosis. The tulips and the bouquets were to grace Jones’s convalescence from a radical hysterectomy. Once again, the point is made that, had she been able to bear children, Jones’s life would have been very different. About ten years earlier, however, it had been different: she had become the acting mom for two teenaged children to whom she was related only tenuously. (Their father, Jack Vandercook,  a quickly decaying widower, had been married to Jones’s cousin Jane during the war, after which Jane left him to marry John Gunther. Vandercook also remarried, and had the two children of whom he could no longer take care, hence the appeal to the Joneses.) Franklin’s account of Jones’s foray into motherhood ends with pure boilerplate:

Motherhood wasn’t coming as easily to Judith as she’d hoped and imagined it would. …

Judith was spread thin. The children needed her attention. [Her husband] Dick wanted it, too. And then there was her Knopf work, unrelenting, where Judith was still trying to prove her worth. (93)

Franklin states in her introduction that The Editor

is not a definitive biography but an intimate portrait, one that aims to highlight Judith’s prescience and outsize influence on American culture and to humanize her — from girlhood to old age — as well. (xviii)

The problem with this approach is that, given the absence of a biography, and even a generally widespread sense of who Judith Jones was and what she did, Franklin finds it necessary to stuff her book with names and dates. These are strewn through the text — another wallpaper pattern — rather than set apart concisely in a section on “background.” We are also told “Judith’s story” as if through her own eyes, an impertinent impersonation that often grates.

One aspect of The Editor hit me a bit close to home. Like my late wife, Kathleen Moriarty, Judith Jones was a very successful graduate of the Brearley School here in New York who also acquiesced to professional to sexism throughout her career, often to her own disadvantage. Kathleen and I often argued about this, as did Judith and Dick Jones. Both women, I suspect, believed that the alternative to acquiescence was somehow worse, and so much worse that they preferred simply to dismiss the matter. Others might find them to have been “too ladylike.” Franklin does not even get that far; it seems to suffice to note the “anomaly” and to move on, as she does with Judith’s being “stretched thin.” Insofar as The Editor contributes to Women’s Studies, it falls woefully short of reflection on a serious problem.

I cannot end this sour-lemon appraisal without shamelessly displaying my own cleverness. As early as page 27, I knew that I was in for a careless drive when I read the following, a passage describing Judith Jones’s first taxi ride through Paris.

The two young women stared wide-eyed as they passed the manicured gardens and fountains of Jardin du Palais Royal…

I quickly translated this impossibility into New York terms.

Whizzing through Rockefeller Center’s Channel Gardens in their cab, the young ladies peeked in at the chic diners at the Rainbow Room.

As Jones herself actually did say of serving tripe to the Vandercook kids, “That was mean of me.”

When the definitive biography of Judith Jones does appear, I’ll be only too ready to weigh, consider, and enjoy it.

Filed under New

Long Island
by Colm Tóibín

Like everyone who has read Brooklyn, I was pleased to read more about the American adventures of Eilis Lacey in Colm Tóibín’s Long Island,. But when, at the end of the  first part of the new novel, Eilis left Long Island for Ireland — for the duration — and bumped into her oldest friend in Enniscorthy, I fancy I had a better sense than most what she would be up against.

For that reason, I am not going to bother with a coy “review” of Long Island, but proceed straight to an appreciation of the book, an appraisal that is littered with spoilers. I counsel those who plan to read Long Island but have not got round to doing so to continue no further than the following paragraph, and then immediately to read for themselves the story discussed therein.

In 2006, three years before Brooklyn, Tóibín published a collection of stories, Mothers and Sons. The third story in the book, “The Name of the Game,” is a favorite that I’ve read several times. It is a heroic epic set in a domestic frame, with predicament leading to ordeal leading to triumph. Nancy Sheridan, the widow of a grocer, inherits a mass of debts and no clear prospects for increasing the value of her only asset, the grocer’s shop. She is persuaded by one of her suppliers to branch out in a striking, controversial direction, and she makes a success of following his advice by persistently, energetically, even somewhat underhandedly devoting herself to the project. At the end, having made the dream of fiscal solvency come true, she is poised for a move that will surprise everybody.

In Brooklyn, we meet Nancy as Eilis Lacey’s best friend. She’s still Nancy Byrne, and her romance with George Sheridan is just beginning. Readers of Brooklyn will not have forgotten that, when Eilis makes her fateful return to Enniscorthy at the end of the novel, she dallies a bit with George Sheridan’s best friend, Jim Farrell, but of course this fantasy comes to nothing, and Eilis returns to her husband in Brooklyn.

The Jim Farrell of Long Island, Tóibín’s new book about Enniscorthy, is a bachelor; he has never married. But if I had forgotten that the Jim Farrell of “The Name of the Game” had a wife, Betty — a not incidental character — I reread the story because I did remember how it ended, and it’s immediately clear in Long Island that Nancy’s big move has not, evidently, taken place. But Jim Farrell’s never-married state is the big change. The big change in what, though? In the history of Enniscorthy? Or rather, given that Enniscorthy is a real Wexford town with a real history, a change in Tóibín’s Enniscorthy, which he began populating in 1992 with The Heather Blazing? There is a moment in Long Island that moved me to consider complaining to the author that he doesn’t know his own work very well. In the new book, Nora Webster, the heroine of her own Enniscorthy novel (2014), is said to have sold her beach house to Martin Lacey, one of Eilis’s brothers, when “in fact,” in Nora Webster, she sold it to another brother, Jim. This slip, if that’s what it is, is “saved” when Jim explains his affairs to Eilis. Overall, I was more intrigued than irritated by the alterations.

In 2017, Tóibín published The House of Names, a retelling of the Oresteia, Aeschylus’s trilogy about the House of Atreus, which is itself a retelling of very well-known myths. These retellings are not always consistent. Sophocles, for example, produced an Elektra that parallels The Libation Bearers. One version of the Iphigenia story resembles Genesis 22, the Abraham-and-Isaac story: Iphigenia is whisked off in a divine cloud to the island of Taurus before the sacrificial blow is struck. That is an admittedly extreme alteration of the tale, but there are alternate versions of most stories, and of course Tóibín had already, in The Testament of Mary (2012), published a pungently alternative story of Jesus’s mother’s life after his crucifixion.

Long Island reflects Tóibín’s assimilation of this somewhat archaic element of storytelling, which has also inspired a narrative approach new to his fiction. Hitherto, Tóibín’s stories, long or short, have been portraits, each one focused on a single character, even when that  character is recalling the story of another characters, as Lisa remembers her sister Julie in “Famous Blue Raincoat”: although Julie dominates the telling, we never see things from her point of view. In the three novels that I regard as Tóibín’s best — The Heather BlazingBrooklyn, and Nora Webster (I have read each of them at least four times) — the point of view is gripped by the character of whom the story is being told. We are told nothing that is not firmly attached to the perception of Eamon Redmond, Eilis Lacey, and Nora Webster, respectively. The rigor of this attachment, rather than the drama inherent in the characters’ experience, is what makes the books so strong. I find this to be particularly true of Nora Webster, which I wrote about recently. In Long Island, Tóibín firmly sets this rigor aside. There are three points of view, each one belonging to a corner of the story’s love triangle. And although Eilis Lacey’s is one of them, it is, relatively, the faintest. That is probably what led A O Scott to complain, in his Times reviewthat

Long Island is a busier book than its predecessors, more exciting in some ways but in others less satisfying. There is more plot — more incidents and coincidences, more twists and revelations — and less Eilis.

In his conversation with Sarah Lyall, also in the Times, Colm Tóibín declares that Long Island is “not a sequel” to Brooklyn. At first hearing, this sounds utterly perverse, because almost every major character in the new novel also makes an appearance in the earlier one. But I think that the author’s claim can be taken seriously. If Tóibín has revisited Enniscorthy and its people, that is because Enniscorthy is his Troy or his Thebes, a place that contains many stories, and perhaps many kinds of stories, about the same figures. (Think of Faulker’s Yoknapatawpha County.) Brooklyn is about a local girl’s experience of emigration to America. During her brief homecoming at the end of that book, Eilis slips back into the ways of her youth; only her clothes and an ineffable air of confidence betray her years abroad. But in her very first Enniscorthy scene in Long Island, a long catch-up with her childhood best friend and soon-to-be unknown rival, Nancy Byrne Sheridan, now the impresario of the chip shop in the Market Square, Eilis betrays the extent to which her persona has been altered by decades in Lindenhurst, the town on Long Island in which she and her husband and her husband’s family settled in the late Fifties. The moment passes very quickly, but Tóibín captures Nancy’s surprise.

“How is your mother?” Nancy asked.

“She speaks her mind much more than before. It takes getting used to. Maybe it’s a good sign. I don’t know.”

In asking after Mrs Lacey, Nancy had thought Eilis would say that her mother was as well as could be expected for a woman of eighty, or some sort of customary answer. She was surprised by the tone of exasperation in her reply.

It is impossible to imagine Nora Webster, or the young Eilis for that matter, replying to Nancy’s polite question with such candor. It is difficult to imagine them even thinking such a thing through to the point of clear articulation. Nora and the younger Eilis take getting used to and putting up with other people for granted. Having lived so long among Americans, however — for most of whom it is very important not to be difficult to get along with — Eilis is conscious of, and irritated by, the effort that her mother’s stubborn contrariness requires.

The new novel consists of seven parts, and only the first, as I have mentioned, takes place on Long Island. The remaining six parts, set in Enniscorthy, are each divided into three chapters, and each of these chapters looks out from the point of view of Nancy Sheridan, Eilis Lacey, or Jim Farrell, invariably in that order. By beginning each part with Nancy and ending it with Jim, Tóibín diminishes the dramatic punch that the Eilis chapters might have. Another factor in the relative effacement of Brooklyn‘s heroine is the intrusion of Mrs Lacey and of Eilis’s two children, Rosella and Larry, who come to join her a few weeks after her own arrival. It became clear to me on the second reading that Mrs Lacey’s delphic mulishness is intended as punishment for the dreadful humiliation to which Eilis subjected her mother decades earlier; May Lacey (we learn her Christian name in Nora Webster) was second to none in confidently expecting that, back then, Eilis’s marriage to Jim would be the next big event in Enniscorthy. The mother is inexorable, and even her impishness does not prevent the reader from coming near to hating her. The children, for the usual reasons, are distractions from Eilis’s growing preoccupation with her old beau, particularly the younger child, high-school aged Larry, openly inquisitive about everything as only an American can be.

We learn early that Nancy and Jim have been conducting something between an affair and a secret marriage for some time, and that they plan to announce their plans to wed (in Rome) soon after the impending nuptials of Nancy’s daughter, Miriam. That is the state of play before Eilis’s arrival. There is a strong sense of affectionate faute de mieux about this relationship, and it is doubtless her awareness of the lack of passion that prompts Nancy to decide not to mention Jim in her first meeting with Eilis. It must be local discretion that prevents anyone from telling Jim that Eilis is in town; her rented car, an unimaginable extravagance in local terms, seems to be the talk of the town. Inevitably, though, Eilis and Jim come together, and Jim’s complacence with Nancy suffers a shock of which Nancy herself remains unaware, despite creeping suspicions, right up to the end of the penultimate part. It is only at the finale that Eilis learns that, if he follows his heart (and hers), he will be dumping her old friend, someone to whom he has made serious, if informal, commitments.

The suspense of waiting to see which woman will be the first to discover that she is involved in a love triangle drives the novel, and Tóibín infuses this suspense with a strange dread. As I have suggested, Nancy and Jim are instrumental lovers: their fondness floats in a medium of expected benefits. Jim finds that, despite years of bachelorhood, he can’t wait to relish the uxorious comfort of waking up every morning next to a warm wife, while, for her part, Nancy foresees that Jim will be a great help with managing her big problem, which is not the chip shop but her son Gerard, an idler who wants to enjoy the profits of the business without putting in his share of hours. Gerard will listen to Jim, Nancy believes, because Jim is not only a respected business owner but a man. Gerard fancies himself as a man of business, too, and he craves the good opinion of his presumed peers. In short, Jim and Nancy intend to make full use of one another.

Eilis Lacey, ordinarily a very practical woman, is not at present driven by utilitarian concerns. Indeed, her very presence in Enniscorthy constitutes a flight from them. She has run away from a situation at home in Lindenhurst that she finds intolerable. Her husband, Tony, has, as if living out the cliché about repairmen who deal with housewives while their husbands are at work, has impregnated a client’s wife, and the customer, quite sure that the child is not his, intends to dump the baby at the Fiorellos’ doorstep. The Fiorello family is prepared to deal with this development by adopting the baby. By “Fiorello family,” however, I mean Tony’s parents and brothers, who live in the enclave that three of the four Fiorello sons built for themselves and their parents, true to the plans sketched out in Brooklyn. Eilis, as the only non-Italian in the enclave, has come to feel alienated from this invasive clan, and the threatened arrival of Tony’s love child pushes her to extremes: she will not countenance its coming to live anywhere in the enclave under any circumstances. In order to avoid the child’s birth, she makes an escape to Enniscorthy, nominally to participate in the celebration of her mother’s eightieth birthday.

This solves nothing, of course. The child is duly born and, as planned by everyone but Eilis, taken in by Tony’s mother, Francesca — also Eilis’s next-door neighbor. But the old hometown flame has been rekindled: Eilis imagines a new future. She will return to Long Island — she is not going to abandon her children, who are in their late teeens. But she will live with Jim, who, besotted, tells her that he will give up everything to be with her. Eilis’ is clear-headed enough to see that this dream of love presents some very practical problems that ought to be worked out before Jim shows up in New York. They are not insurmountable problems by any means, especially after Jack, Eilis’s older brother and a wealthy businessman who lives in Birmingham, promises to underwrite his sister’s freedom. Nevertheless, some arrangements must be made, She pleads for time.

By this point, the initial suspense has subsided and flowed into a new one: what will Nancy do when she finds out about Jim and Eilis? Jim has not been nearly as discreet as he ought to have been, certainly if he planned to mislead the eagle-eyed Nancy. But then Jim is no longer capable of serious discretion. Even as he is assuring Eilis that he cannot live without her, he is offering Gerard very practical advice on the understanding that he will soon be Gerard’s stepfather; he is also appraising the site where Nancy wants to build a cottage, some distance out of the town.

It would be easy to dismiss Jim as a two-timer, but in fact he is simply in over his head. Readers of Brooklyn will recall that he would not give Eilis the time of day before she left Enniscorthy the first time; it is her American glamour, frequently remarked on, that has bedazzled him, not once but twice. Nancy has not been without suspicions that this might happen; again and again, she declines to mention the presence of either old friend to the other. At her daughter’s wedding — which marks the turning point in Eilis’s perception of Jim — Nancy watches them both as much as the festivities allow, but it takes a couple of Jim’s unexplained absences from town to alert her to real danger. And she, alone of the three, is adept at making plans on the spot. That is how she salvaged her husband’s business, and that is how she claims Jim Farrell.

I never doubted that she would. My only worry was whether she would claim Jim dead or alive. Honor is a major factor in Long Island. There is the Italian sense of honor that obliges the Fiorellos to take in Tony’s stray. It is an honor of the family. Eilis is governed by a different sense of honor, and the nature of that honor is a concern of Tóibín’s new book. We might call it the honor of the provincial Irish town.  If the key to Mediterranean honor is the strength required to uphold the family name by avenging any and all wrongs, the honor of Irish towns — towns, everywhere, I suppose, but more pointedly Irish ones because of the very rapid transformation of the land from predominantly peasant to predominantly bourgeois — depends on the determination of each inhabitant to prevent the town (which I see as an active sort of Greek chorus) from being obliged, by its own sense of honor, to drive the apparently wicked from its precincts (something that towns today seem no longer inclined or free to do). Like all honor, it is entirely a matter of appearances, but, again like all honor, it is impressed on everyone from earliest childhood, and is somehow closer than second nature. This automatic quality is what explains Eilis’s almost completely unconsidered rejection of Tony’s baby. Just as it is normal for the Fiorellos to adopt the child if its mother won’t have it, it is normal for Eilis, a daughter of Enniscorthy, to insist on a life in which she can plausibly deny its existence.

The winner of the love triangle that begins to develop the moment Jim Farrell realizes that Eilis Lacey is really back in town, then, will be the one with the best plan for making something happen while also keeping the fuss to a minimum. As I have suggested, though, the best plan will be conceived “instinctively.” Once she begins to suspect Eilis and Jim of acting somewhat unaccountably, Nancy proceeds blindly but delicately, and with immense determination. Unlike Jim, she is not intoxicated by the unconscious élan of the visitor from America. Unlike that visitor, Nancy knows that whatever happens must pass muster with the town.

It is for this reason that I would appoint Nancy Sheridan the heroine of Long Island, especially for any reader already familiar with “The Name of the Game.” In a way, Eilis is not actually in the running for the leading role; she is, rather, the goddess. She descends on Enniscorthy, wreaks havoc in the heart of an old beau, and returns to the heavens at the end in more or less the condition of her arrival. A catalyst, in short. We know that Eilis is not bound for any heaven; back in Lindenhurst, she will be all too mortal, and perhaps even a lesser sort of mortal. I think it’s clear that her happiness will depend on her ability to forget Enniscorthy and its honor once and for all.


Filed under New

Forbidden Notebook
by Alba de Céspedes
translated by Ann Goldstein

When I was a small boy, and television sets were small, too, there was a Saturday-morning kids’ show that featured an animated creature called Winkie or Twinkie. The only thing that I remember about this show is that, at each episode’s end, a clue to the next one was cryptically delivered in a series of images (we’d call them screens now) showing pieces of letters. The only way to decipher the fragments was to buy a plastic sheet from the producers of the show, and perhaps a special marker, and then trace the fractured bits of alphabet as they appeared; with each successive screen, the magic words would become clearer. This gimmick probably doomed the show, because I can’t have been the only mite who, when the domestic exchequer declined to fork over the necessary funds for the con, resorted to self-help, in my case with a tube of lipstick, applied directly to the tube of television. I can’t remember the punishment for my vandalism, but my solution never fails to make me laugh.

Oddly, this unforgotten experience came to mind in a connection almost wholly  devoid of laughter, the reading of Alba de Céspedes’ Forbidden Notebook.

Valeria Cossati, a Roman housewife, buys, in late 1950, a notebook on an impulse that is never fully explained in any of the diary entries with which she subsequently fills it. The diary is “forbidden” because her husband, Michele, and her university-aged children, Riccardo and Mirella, regard her as incapable of having a life in which anything is worth writing down. Whatever pleasure she hoped to get out of keeping a diary, she soon realizes that pain is more likely. Aside from the fretful agony (mentioned, and sometimes discussed, in almost every entry) of finding new hiding places for the notebook in her small apartment, and of determining  when it is safe to write in it, she is wounded by the realizations that her record forces upon her.

I was wrong to write about the conversation that I had with Mirella when she came home late and, after talking for a long time, we separated not as mother and daughter but as two hostile women. If I hadn’t written it, I would have forgotten about it. We’re always inclined to forget what we’ve said or done in the past, partly in order not to have the tremendous obligation to remain faithful to it. Otherwise, we would all discover that we’re full of mistakes and above all contradictions between what we intended to do and what we have done, between what we would desire to be and what we are content to be. (46-7)

Entry by entry, Valeria is forced to conclude that her life is unsatisfactory and, worse, that she is unable to change it. She is unable to change it because she does not want to live without a husband, without a respectable home. Romance beckons, but, however badly she longs for it, however beautiful the pictures of happiness that it blandishes, Valeria cannot take its hand.

I would have in common with him only sin and money. (256)

The notebook will have to be abandoned, too, — for Valeria faces an indefinite future of sharing her roof with a daughter-in-law, Marina, impregnated by Riccardo in anticipation of marriage, whom she neither likes not trusts.

She’s certain to find it somehow and find in it a motive to dominate me as I dominate her for what she did with Riccardo. (258)

Although I have revealed the ending, I have not spoiled it, because there is nothing new about Forbidden Notebook except the extraordinarily vivid life to which de Céspedes brings it. For that, I urge you to read it.

Two Widows
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve re-read two novels about widows — and, for the first time, as a widower myself. One of them is probably more familiar as a film, starring Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend. The other happens to be the novel that ties for My Most Favorite with Jane Austen’s Emma. Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont will never be really a favorite novel of mine, but it is a jolly if often bittersweet read, and, unmistakably, an entertainment. I would not be without it. In contrast, there is nothing entertaining about Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín’s fourth Enniscorthy novel by my count. It is one of those fascinating books — fascinating to some, but certainly more fascinating with each re-reading — in which nothing much seems to happen

The heroines’ widowhoods are quite different, as were the marriages that preceded them.  Laura Palfrey, of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, enjoyed a long, companionable, and sensible marriage, in which it would appear that both spouses knew exactly where they stood and where they were going. They were in accord about their respective roles, and managed without much if any fuss. For Laura, the corset of duty has long since become as indispensable as makeup used to be for many women; she would not care to be released from it. She might be happier if the people around her could manage to be more correct, better-mannered, less vulnerable to weaknesses of temper. Taylor introduces her as someone who “would have made a distinguished-looking man”; she might remind older readers of Queen Mary or Margaret Thatcher, but she has a kinder heart. Possibly something of a dragon in person, she is, on the page, an appealing woman, someone to root for. Taylor plays her as the straight man in a funny farm: the other inmates of the Claremont Hotel (located in London’s Cromwell Road; the novel is set in 1968 or so) are all “characters.” Mrs Burton drinks a great deal, but not too much, as if the world still accommodated the Bright Young Things of 1930. Mrs Post is a mousy woman who “wouldn’t dare” — whatever it is — and who pines for love or friendship. Wretched Mrs Arbuthnot, crippled by arthritis, puts off nighttime trips to the loo one too many times, and is asked to leave, but not before establishing a reputation for poisonous remarks. (Taylor doesn’t quite make you feel Mrs Arbuthnot’s pain, but the portrait is sympathetic enough so that if you’ve been there yourself, you won’t need her help.) Odd Mr Osmond will strike some readers as closeted, but to me he is just housebroken and exigent, the author of endless letters to the editor about such things as the impropriety of hiring Australian newscasters. A ghastly creature, Mrs de Salis, comes and, mercifully, goes. soon entertaining her new recent friends at the flat in Bayswater to which she moves, at a drinks party that seals the tomb of their acquaintance. It is all good comedy-of-manners stuff, to which Mrs Palfrey is an agreeable witness.

Dan Ireland’s film quite understandably sets all of this somewhat in the background and makes a good deal more of Mrs Palfrey’s accidental friendship with a young man, Ludo Myer, than is to be found in the book. Ludo is a starving artist (writer, actually) who picks her up after a fall on the pavement in front of his basement flat. In the novel, Mrs Palfrey has perhaps four meetings with Ludo while she’s in residence at the Claremont; he comes to take the place of the grandson who never visits (until he does). This is more a social than an emotional position, as the other inmates of the hotel are keen to meet any young man. (We’re made to suspect that the dreadful old vampires would be happier to discover that poor Mrs Palfrey made him up.) To Ludo, Mrs Palfrey is little more than a nice old lady — but an old lady — who might lend him some money for his improvident mother. And to Mrs Palfrey, Ludo is a more agreeable version of that grandson, someone she can fuss over a bit, but mostly just someone to salve the ache of loneliness. As Ludo’s concern for his indifferent mother suggests, however, Ludo proves to be a man of duty. This makes for a smiling finale. In the film, things are more “emotional.”

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont presents an elderly woman at the end of her days. Nora Webster is not elderly. She is in her mid-forties, and while her girls are grown (or nearly), her boys, Donal and Conor, ferment in adolescence and need her attention as much as ever. Nora’s decision to spend her late husband’s last weeks (months?) away at his bedside in a Dublin hospital has upset Donal enough to beset him with a stammer. The town is watching.

I can only begin to do justice to this novel in this post. The great pleasure of it, for me, is watching Nora navigate the rules or expectations of the townsfolk among whom she has lived all her life. For a widow in Catholic Ireland at the end of the Sixties, these rules are as manifold and tricky as white water. Nora knows them well enough, and is smart enough herself, to understand how far they can be bent without breaking. It is not that she intends to strike out in some exotic direction. If she takes a job, it is only because she is asked to do so; she also needs the money, but that is secondary. The problem with the job in the eyes of the town is that it requires her to leaves her sons alone and unattended at home in the afternoons; eventually, Nora arranges to work mornings only. What Nora wants is not a new life but autonomy; she wants never to be told, however well-meaningfully, what she ought to do. It slowly emerges that the lack of autonomy is the one thing about her marriage that she does not miss. She and Maurice were a very happy couple, but with him has died her willingness to submit. Her independence takes the form, utterly undramatic from our point of view, of refreshing the paint and upholstery in her home and exploring her budding love of serious music. She has always had a beautiful voice; at the end of the novel, she has been accepted by a choir for a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem. I believe that Nora Webster is unequivocally that rare thing, the serious novel with a happy ending.

It is also a novel that puts a very serious question to any bereaved reader. Habit, loyalty, or purpose? The question often pushes its way into consciousness, but not always. Am I doing this because I want to do it (or because it’s useful to do), because it’s an old habit developed during years of companionship, or out of loyalty to my late spouse, as a way of honoring our commitment? To do something for the last reason is not always wrong, but it usually is. There is an awful difference between honoring a memory and attempting to recapitulate happier days; the latter is patently ghoulish as well as futile, and, to be honest, needy. Companionate habits can be deadening, too; left unexamined, a habit may take a long time to reveal itself as no longer meaningful. For Nora Webster, the matter is equally one of thinking. Her late husband did the thinking  not so much for Nora as for their household, as the husbands of Enniscorthy and elsewhere generally do. Now Nora must distinguish between continuing with Maurice’s program, as it were, and developing one of her own. Undertaking to make her own decision is precisely the project that obliges her to consider the town’s expectations. It would be much easier just to carry  on with what Maurice did with regard to spending priorities and so on. Nora’s arduously-acquired skill in acting on her own, in contrast, enables her to act swiftly and effectively when someone rather powerful surprises her by trying to take advantage of  Maurice’s absence from the scene. One can easily imagine what Maurice himself would have had to say if some other woman in the town threatened a “widow’s curse” upon her opponents. And one can overlook (with a wink) what stock Nora herself places in such curses.

These novels are old friends, although I wouldn’t ask them to tea at the same time. Actually, I wouldn’t invite either of them to tea. Mrs Palfrey is always up for a brisk walk,  and with Nora it would be lovely to sit quietly and listen to records, as we used to say. If only I could sit quietly…



by Thomas Mann

This is a difficult entry to begin, because I feel obliged to explain why I haven’t read Thomas Mann’s the first of Thomas Mann’s three classic novels before the tender age of seventy-six. If it had simply been a case of not getting around to something, that would be one thing, But as a rule I manage to get around to everything that I want to read, and I didn’t want to read Buddenbrooks, although I read the other two classics — The Magic Mountain twice — and a good deal else besides. I didn’t want to spend time in a provincial North German city with a pinched bourgeoisie that has no time for unprofitable activity.

What changed my mind was the recent novel about Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter, by Jo Salas, Mrs Lowe-PorterBuddenbrooks was the first of many Mann titles that Lowe-Porter translated into English for Alfred Knopf, and I fancied that reading it would allow me to stay closer to a very intriguing woman after I finished the novel. Getting hold of her translation wasn’t a matter of ordering it from Amazon. She has been displaced, in print, by John E Woods, who has retranslated everything for Knopf. I had to settle for a 1938 edition, which actually turned out to be more agreeable to hold in the hands. Because I haven’t posted an entry about Salas’s novel, I want to be sure to mention two interesting facts about Mrs. Lowe-Porter: first, most readers did not know that “HT Lowe-Porter” was a woman until the Times published an obituary in 1963; and Boris Johnson is one of her great-grandchildren.

The earlier translation omits Mann’s subtitle, The Decline of a Family. I can understand why, although the Buddenbrooks do much worse than merely decline — they disappear. The main line of the family simply dies out or leaves Lübeck — that north German city — and in such a way that business failure is not the culprit. The subtitle is misleading, to the extent that the “decline” of a mercantile family is almost always, well, mercantile, but even though the House of Buddenbrooks suffers some losses in the later parts (the novel is divided into eleven), the actual decline is the result of something else. That something else is what must have fascinated Thomas Mann; he would probably not have bothered with the usual wheel-of-fortune story.

Mann presents four generations of Buddenbrooks. (The first Lübeck Buddenbrook founded the firm in 1768 and does not appear.) The span of the story is 1835-1877. The curtain goes up on a housewarming in Meng Street: the family has just moved into the mansion formerly belonging to a faded family, a fact that sounds the unmistakable note of memento mori, which Mann’s irony intensifies by amplifying the extended family’s consciousness of its prominent status. The three children in the house are the novel’s central characters, and they grow into their roles as children do, gradually. In 1835, the family’s second patriarch, old Johann, has retired, but he has not lost the zest of living through exciting (Napoleonic) times. His son, another Johann but within the family called Jean, runs the family affairs now. He is a very pious man, but also an anxious one, always mindful of the risks to which the firm is vulnerable at any given moment. He is not given to laughter and his public character is nothing if not sober.

For the first half of the novel, there would not be much of a story if it were not for Jean’s daughter, Antonie, known as Tony. She seems to be very capricious, right from the start; I found myself whistling “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria.” But Tony’s caprice is confined altogether to her speech. She is not a rebel; she does not get into trouble. Although she has no head for business, her sense of the family “name” and position is really unsurpassed. She marries a man to whom she is not at all attracted because her parents want her to. When he turns out to be a fraud — Jean has been fooled by cooked books — Tony is rescued by her father, but at the expense of becoming a divorcée. In a somewhat rash attempt to bury this scandal, Tony decides that she’s in love with a Bavarian whom she meets on a visit to Munich. This man, Permaneder, is a good, sound fellow, but the match is obviously a very poor one, and soon enough Tony is back in Lübeck with two divorces under her belt — only to endure a third fiasco when her son-in-law is disgraced and imprisoned.

Very gradually, Mann’s attention shifts to Tony’s two brothers, Thomas and Christian. Christian, the younger, is a wastrel. It might be incorrect to dismiss him as utterly irresponsible, but it is painfully clear that hasn’t got a follow-through bone in his body. Christian would be a disgrace to the family were it not that he is such a charming storyteller than the men of “the club” depend upon him for entertainment.

Tom is the good son; of the three, he is the only one whom I should have expected to meet in Buddenbrooks. He is  energetic, ambitious, and disciplined. He seems to have a good grasp of business — the family trades primarily in grain — but it emerges that he has another quality, and the tragedy of Thomas Buddenbrook is that this quality, which he never fully grasps, drives him into the ground. It is, very simply, imagination; his fellow businessmen dismiss it as “vanity.” Tom is aware, to a very unhealthy degree, of his appearance in the world. He dresses impeccably, and he always says the right thing. It is easy for him to know how to conduct himself as a burgher and businessman, but it is also very taxing, because, unlike his forebears, he is not a trader by nature. He is a gentleman. But he goes too far, breaking with tradition by leaving Meng Street for his own establishments, the second one is simply grandiose. The expense fills him with a secret panic, and his family is reduced to plain meals served in an ostentatious dining room.

This is not to say that Tom affects the airs and tastes of an urbane sophisticate. That might have been better for him. Much worse, Tom aspires to be a model bourgeois. And in tracing the path of exhaustion and ennui to which Tom condemns himself, Mann suggests, without ever spelling it out, why this aspiration is deadly. Human beings can aspire to be all sorts of things, from heroes to saints to Don Juans. But, oddly like a sex symbol, a “model bourgeois” is something that, as a result of God-given gifts, either you are or you aren’t; and it might appear to the discerning eye that a reliable degree of unself-consciousness is essential, If you have to try, you’ll probably get it wrong. And Tom unquestionably tries too hard.

A merchant may hope for and try to achieve an unblemished record of business successes, but “who he is,” while it may help or hinder him, is not, and cannot be, an object of his attention. If successful bourgeois nurture hopes of being something else, they are of rising above the bourgeoisie altogether. As Tom discovers, there is no actual goal in bourgeois life. To borrow the Hollywood overstatement, you are only as good as your last deal. (His father understood this.) Having paused to note Tom’s failure to see that a routine of business deals, none of them interesting to anyone but the immediate parties, will not engross the imaginative mind, we can regret his collapsing in the snow after a tooth extraction as a furious waste.  In this regard, Buddenbrooks is a template for the plethora of novels about unsatisfactory if “successful” careers that poxed the Twentieth Century. There is nothing wrong with being a grain merchant. But there is plenty wrong with devoting your life to a pursuit that doesn’t engage you.

In Colm Tóibín’s fictional re-imagining of Thomas Mann’s life, The Magician, the writer tells a friend that he has “just” killed himself off in Buddenbrooks. Why? Because the family had to come to an end. Point taken. My question is whether it wouldn’t have been better if the family had died out with Thomas Buddenbrook. I don’t think that Hanno, as Johann Buddenbrook, Thomas’s son, was called, belongs in the story. Insofar as Buddenbrooks is a tale informed by autobiography, Hanno as an only child makes no sense. Thomas Mann was one of five siblings, and his older brother. Hermann, was the first to establish himself in print. The final part of Buddenbrooks is dominated by an excruciating account of a wretched school day “in the life” of the boy, who seems likely not to amount to anything. This may have been Mann’s way of burying a heap of old fears, and it could have been made into an effective short story. But the impression that Hanno has little in common with his forebears, compounded by his death at sixteen, make it difficult to conceive that he has a meaningful place in the family history.

A question that I am not going to explore is whether Thomas Buddenbrook was a misfit, or whether expectations had been so transformed by the Great Upheaval that the old way of life was no longer possible. While it is true that in the course of the 1800s trading families like the Buddenbrooks were replaced and outclassed by industrialists, I’m inclined to settle for my first impression, which is that the French and Romantic revolutions were very dangerous for non-poets with imagination.


Freedom’s Messiah by Ian Buruma

Spinoza Who? That’s what I used to be reduced to asking myself, until a few years ago. Who was Spinoza? What did he think and write? Why is he so famous? Why don’t I know anything about him except4 a small pile of facts that don’t add up to anything?

Here my answer to the last question, which I arrived at with the help of Ian Buruma’s fine new entry in Yale’s Jewish Lives series. Spinoza’s position in the firmament of Western thought is obscured by three clouds: Incomprehensibility, Opprobrium, and Rumor. If you pick up one of the few books that Spinoza published, or that were published posthumously, you will have a very hard time reading it. Spinoza seems to have written his two principal books, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Ethics, as if he were thinking on out loud. The effect is that of walking into a classroom and confronting a blackboard covered with equations. Spinoza’s best students might know what they mean, but you won’t, not without a lot of work. Spinoza seems too busy getting things right to have time to explain what he’s doing to you.

Spinoza was born in the Sephardic quarter of Amsterdam in 1632; Portuguese was his first language. He was fluent in Dutch, but he learned early that it would be dangerous to publish his thinking in the vernacular; the authorities were somewhat more lenient when censoring books that ordinary people couldn’t read. So Spinoza wrote in Latin, and had to beg his admirers not to translate his work in to Dutch. Latin, already a dead language for two hundred years, was still written in and read by learned men. They did not have the difficulty grasping Spinoza’s arguments that you will. Spinoza’s through flew through the letters of the advanced thinkers of the time, most of whom were anywhere between intrigued and fascinated by the proposals of René Descartes. Unlike Voltaire and the other Lumières of the following century, Spinoza sand his fellow thinkers were not publicists. They wrote for one another. A rigorous rationalist, Spinoza deduced everything from one axiom, an idea that his contemporaries found both hypnotizing and offensive. It was so notorious that clergymen all over Europe denounced Spinoza on the basis of hearsay. And yet it is very hard for us to understand why they found his idea so upsetting. He appears to have influenced everybody, but no one would admit to agreeing with him. For two centuries, therefore, Spinoza’s difficult writings (incomprehensibility) were execrated everywhere (opprobrium), and yet everyone appears to have been influenced by him (rumor).

Spinoza’s basic idea was this: God and Nature are one and the same. We read this now and nod. Yes, we say, and? Looking back from the vantage of three centuries, it is hard for us to see through, and, so to speak, to un-write the work of Rousseau and the Romantic poets, who domesticated variations on Spinoza’s idea for popular consumption. Rousseau and the Romantics were not philosophers, they did not argue points of discussion. They simply made statements, and the force of their statements transformed their verses and their principles into  universal truths. Of course, few of them ever read Spinoza. They were inclined to suggest that God is Love and that is not what Spinoza was saying. But the possibility that God is very great but also very simple had an immense appeal in the Nineteenth Century. Not in the Seventeenth, though. God in the Seventeenth Century, to Jews and to Christians of every sect, was very complicated, bristling with attributes and bursting with demands. To his contemporaries, Spinoza insisted that he was not an atheist, that he believed in God completely. But to those contemporaries, he might as well have professed to worship a totem pole; a totem pole might have been better. To believe in God-as-Nature was to believe in no God at all. Instead of working out the attributes and demands of God, Spinoza worked out the implications of Divine Nature for Man. With Spinoza, the spirit of modernity, which had lighted the European sky for some time, actually broke over the horizon.

To stretch this metaphor (modernity as the sun), most people did not wake up and get out of bed until the new light was fairly high in the sky, by which time two responses, complementary and contradictory, had been worked out. You could see God as the embodiment of Newton’s Laws. Or you could see — feel, rather — God as a transcendent emotion. Either way, materialism or spirituality vaporized the need for theology. Churches have been emptying out ever since. If you think that that’s a bad thing, then you will have some idea of the outrage with which Spinoza’s thoughts were met, during his lifetime and for long afterward.

Of the facts of Spinoza’s life, I have mentioned only the circumstances of his birth. I hope that you will give Ian Buruma the chance to fill you in on the rest. I can assure you that he will do so with wit and concision. He will also introduce you to, or refresh your recollection of, the Zeitgeist of the Dutch Golden Age — the one fifty-year period in European history that we must all get to know if we are serious about knowing ourselves. Spinoza earns its place in the Jewish Lives series by illustrating the intellectual course of a Jew who, despite his rigorous training in the Law, could not live without thinking for himself, and so suffering the anathema of his native community, from which he was forever expelled. A recent attempt to rescind Spinoza’s banishment met with adamant refusal. Spinoza’s writings are simply too emphatically heretical, and the philosopher never repented.

Buruma quite rightly refers to Jonathan Israel’s massive and monumental history, The Radical Enlightenment. Working my way through this tome, which points on every page toward a Spinoza who never fully appears (Israel had already written a biography of the thinker), that Spinoza did not efface the God of this fathers, but rather that he personally assumed God’s blazing and paradoxical identity. If you have been puzzled by Spinoza, never quite clear about why anyone even remembers him, there are good reasons for your confusion.


Filed under New

On Westernization

In the March 18, 2024 issue of The New Yorker,  Emma Green writes about  so-called “classical schools,” a swelling trend in Anglophone education (“Old School“). These schools appear to be the latest exponents of the the long, somewhat rearguard campaign to unseat the “progressive” thinking of John Dewey, which can be caricatured as putting a child’s experience of learning ahead of the importance of learning anything in particular, and which has prevailed in American schools, more or less since the beginning of the Twentieth Century — to the dismay of conservatives, who claim to miss the good old days of obligatory Latin and rote memorization. (The motto of this movement is a remark attributed to Samuel Johnson, that nobody ever learned Latin without having it flogged into him.) Classical schools appeal, roughly, to two groups of parents: those who seek to infuse their children’s schooling with some variety of traditionalist ideology, and those who have concluded that American public schools simply aren’t very good. Both groups share the conviction that, to be worthwhile, education ought to be demanding, and the hope that, for good students, at least, it can be engrossing.

Green discusses various manifestations of the classics-school movement, such as the  lively growth of such schools in Kenya. In the United States, classical schools have long been a feature of Christian conservatism, but they also flourish in the Bronx, where white students and Republican-voting parents are very much in the minority. Green packs her piece with a good deal of interesting information. But the heart of the essay is as provocative as it is now familiar: what to do about the fact that the books on the classical-school curriculum were written, almost all of them, by white men who shared, whether they knew it or not, a Eurocentric viewpoint? And the even less pleasant fact that those books that were written in English reflect the outlook of the biggest player in the nasty game of exploitative Empire?

Having had what amounted to a classical education myself, albeit not a particularly doctrinaire one (I taught myself Latin, not very rigorously), I have ruminated on this problem for decades, just about since the unfurling of the banners of “diversity” and “inclusion.” (In my undergraduate days, the hot word was “relevance.”) The sad fact is not so much that all the writers of the foundational texts of the classical tradition were white males as that, with the marked exception of China and Japan, no other group anywhere on earth produced comparable secular (philosophical, not theological or legendary) texts. The comparable texts from China and Japan, moreover, are expressions of radically different cultures, founded on very different ideas, so that they are not nearly so accessible to Anglophone children, who grow up in a world still very much shaped by “classical” thought. If you are going to teach the Analects of Confucius or The Tale of Genji — works that were simply unknown in Europe until the last two centuries — you are going to have to lay a lot of cultural groundwork just to make comprehension possible — and it is not likely that you will do this as well as might be desired, because so much tricky translation (of values, not just words) is involved. The attempt to fashion a classical curriculum that is also inclusive, in a truly global way, seems hopeless.

As usual, however, I believe that a dose of historical perspective will dispel that hopelessness. First, we must look at the term “classical,” and discover that it entered the English language toward the end of the Sixteenth Century. The Greeks and Romans did not use the term to describe their philosophy or architecture; they did not use it at all. They were aware of participating in a tradition, but it was a Mediterranean tradition that regarded all those who did not speak Greek as barbarians. All the Roman writers knew Greek, and Greek works were not so much translated into Latin as completely rewritten by Romans, most conspicuously Cicero. Just as Greeks learned that their intellectual culture was taken up by Romans, so the Romans learned that the extended tradition was being taken up by Christians and Jews in the East and by barbarians to the North, in what would become Europe nearly a thousand years after Augustus. But the Greeks did not, it seems, take to reading Latin, nor did the Romans think much of barbarian gropings toward civilization. Unlike today’s forward-looking people, however, the Frankish leaders and thinkers who formed the nuclei of European cultures were far from disturbed by their exclusion from the curriculum. They insisted on it; they wanted only the best. And for centuries, imitation of the antique masters was their highest pursuit. Then, in the Fourteenth Century, there was a change that really does deserve the term, “seismic shift.”

This is not the place to inquire into the causes of that shift, but there is a strong hint to be gleaned from the very term by which it came to be known, a few centuries afterward: the Renaissance. “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” which would seem to be the ultimate form of imitation. In fact, the earliest figures of this cultural overhaul, such as Petrarch and Poggio Bracciolini, were not imitators so much as examiners: they discarded the accretions of centuries of adaptations and corruptions and held up the originals, as best they could be known from surviving manuscripts, for study. In the process, they changed the language of culture. Insisting upon learning the “classical” Latin of Cicero (a tongue, it has been argued, mastered only by Cicero in Roman times), they also took up their own vernaculars. Petrarch wrote in Italian, as indeed Dante had already done so brilliantly. (And so powerfully that his poetry does not have to be translated into modern Italian.) Overnight, Latin, the lingua franca of Europe since Gregory of Tours and earlier but now deemed to be too precious to for roughing-up by everyday speech, became a dead language: the Renaissance killed it.  It is in this moment, not during the decline of the Roman Empire, that the idea of the “classical” was born.

Which is to say that the idea of a corpus of “classical” Greek and Latin texts was born (not reborn) in a civilization ruled, ultimately, by the God of Abraham and by his Only Begotten Son, personages of whom the writers of those “classical” texts took no notice whatever. If “diversity” and “inclusion” had been leading ideas during the fall of Rome, it is likely that Cicero and Vergil would have been “cancelled,” as indeed the Greek writers were. Plato and Aristotle were introduced into the “classical” corpus in stages, via their Islamic admirers in Spain and the flight of Christians from Constantinople in 1453. It was only in the Fifteenth Century that the works of Homer were known, not just known-of, in the West. So much for their venerable place in the “Western tradition.”

If you think that I am trying to make the point that there is something bogus about the “Western tradition,” you’re wrong. What I’m arguing is that this tradition, since the Renaissance, has been nothing if not inclusive, ever more expansively so. The proof is in the curricula. If you follow the changes in what university students have been expected to learn since universities were invented in the Eleventh Century, you will quickly learn that European culture is not just “inclusive,” but coercively so. Europeans may kill some of the peoples they conquer, but they do not destroy their civilizations; to a mad extent, they preserve and adapt them, with the result that we have today vibrant local cultures in French, German, and English — languages regarded by the initiators of the Renaissance as completely barbaric. To be truly versed in Western culture, it is essential to be fluent in all these modern languages, plus Italian, Latin, Greek, and even Hebrew. Without these languages, one is condemned to a Disneyland sham of the “classic tradition.”

One of the people with whom Green talked in her research, Angel Adams Parham, is a professor at the University of Virginia and the board chair of the Classic Learning Test, an alternative to the SAT (which is deemed elsewhere in the piece, quite rightly, as cynical and career-oriented). Parham decided to homeschool her daughter using the Classical Conversations program. This led to her opening Plato’s Republic for the first time in her forties. Why, she wondered why she had never “been exposed” (required to read, as I was) to the book in the course of earning her undergraduate degree at Yale and completing a Wisconsin/Madison doctoral program? Parham is deeply interested, one might say invested, in the “classical canon.” I put that phrase in quotes because Parham and Green both appear to believe that the list of foundational texts is fixed. It is not fixed. It is, rather, stable, settled enough to look fixed throughout the course of a lifetime. If the Westernizing process that I have looked into here is allowed to continue, I have no doubt that the list of essential books, which has already made room for Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, will include writers with the distinction of not being white. With Dr Parham’s help, perhaps, the list might include James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, men of penetration and courage who also wrote very well. All the smart phones in the world aren’t going to alter the fact that minds take time.


Revolutionary Spring
Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, 1848-1849
by Christopher Clark

1848 was, if not the year of failed revolutions throughout Europe, the year of revolutions doomed to fail by the end of 1849. The events of that time usually make for frustrating reading — all that trouble, not to mention bloodshed, for nothing. We shake our heads in condescending pity, and, if we’re so inclined, we raise a fist in anger against the reactionary blocs that prevailed.

Christopher Clark not only asks us to think again; he makes it impossible to see “pointlessness” as the principal feature of all those uprisings, which  raged from Palermo to Berlin, from Paris to Bucharest. He also asks us to consider this question: What would a successful revolution look like? For in fact we have never seen a successful one in the West (as distinct from a technical one, in the form of a palace coup); it’s possible that real revolutions are never successful anywhere. An old régime may be overthrown, but the hopes of the overthrowers are always crushed by a powerful dictator who imposes peace and stability, no matter what the political cost. We are reminded that peace and stability are the good things that make most people put up with despotism. Nobody wants to live amidst revolutionary chaos — not for long. Excitement is ground into misery by confusion and disappointment.

(American note: there has never been an actual revolution in the United States, just has there has never been an actual civil war — yet. If you disagree, drop me a line, and we’ll chat about wars of secession.)

As everybody ought to know, the French Revolution came to an end with the takeover of French government by Napoleon Bonaparte. Experiments in replacing the authority of the Bourbons came to an pause (if not an end) with Napoleon’s successful assertion of his own power. Napoleon himself was in time defeated by reactionaries who wished to recreate the ancien régime. If it was too late for their wish to be granted, they could at least put a stop to the experiments, largely by making empty promises involving constitutions and parliaments. Thirty years after Napoleon’s fall, however, a tide of local uprisings prompted by destitution and squalor made it clear that the reactionaries did not know how to ward off the turbulence generated by the Industrial Revolution. Poor peasants scattered  throughout the countryside had given way to even poorer proletarians concentrated in sprawling cities. Rich bourgeois demanded more practical government and the genuine rule of law. Temporarily united by frustration, the radicals who represented the poor and the moderates or liberals who represented property rights managed to assert themselves against the claims of kings. For a few months, their success seemed inevitable.

Unfortunately, however, nobody really understood political life. The crisis of the French Revolution notwithstanding, one form of despotism after another had precluded the need for compromise that is not only the foundation of political life but the fertilizer required for political identity. Without political identity, you don’t know which side you’re on until you’ve committed yourself, forcing you to choose between deep dissatisfaction and treason. The complex of insurrections that we call “1848” began in January at Palermo and spread quickly to Paris and Vienna. By May, it was clearly “too late” for many of the leading actors. Too late, radicals and liberals discovered that their only shared inclination was the desire to run things according to their respective interests, each at odds with the other’s. This stalled political action and gave the reactionaries time to regroup. Nevertheless, as Clark shows, there emerged from “1848” a genuine political class with at least the beginnings of an education in political options, political aptitude, and the mechanics of enlisting popular support. It would appear from a survey of current events, however, that we are nowhere near completing the course.

If Christopher Clark were not so gifted a writer of history, blessed with an unfailing knack for making minor details not just interesting but surprising and illuminating, Revolutionary Spring might well be too monumental for anyone to read for pleasure. Clark has presents his thoughts in phases, and subordinates chronology to that, so that we can see more clearly the commonalities between all the manifestation of each phase in a given place before discussing the next. This makes for demanding but not arduous reading, and it undoubtedly affords the most articulate way of considering “1848” as a whole. (Louis Namier wrote a short book “about 1848” that confines its attentions pretty much to the Confederation parliament at Frankfurt.)

The Acknowledgments make plain what a thoughtful reader might well have suspected all along: Clark has made adroit use of graduate student research. I don’t suggest for a moment that he has stolen anyone else’s work; on the contrary, he has directed gifted fledgling historians to investigate overlooked corners of the European tapestry. Their research is fresh and surprising, even if each episode ends in the more or less the same sad way. The configuration of players in such outlying places as Croatia and Romania (which was not yet “Romania”) is rather different from the much more familiar outlines of movements in Paris. The early pages of Revolutionary Spring explore some events that foreshadowed “1848,” such as the unrest among the silk weavers of Lyon, a religiously-motivated civil war in Switzerland that I had never heard of, and the horrible consequences of miscalculations made by aristocratic Polish émigrés from Galicia.

The worst outcome of “1848” was virulent nationalism. It was not, properly speaking, a result of the revolutions. Almost all the uprisings, to be sure, were at least partially powered by a desire to achieve governmental recognition of local peculiarities, most especially linguistic ones. But what might have been interesting talking points during the Enlightenment assumed lethal potential in an age of unprecedented growth in communications, transportation, and heavy industry. As was discovered “too late,” it is one thing to support the causes of oppressed people who live far away and quite another to cope with them as next-door neighbors. As Clark writes,

Nationalism was the most dispersed, emotionally intense and contagious experience of all the revolutions. It flared up with extraordinary speed. It abolished or reversed the hierarchy between centre and periphery. Liminal locations like Schleswig-Holstein, the Vojvodina, Dalmatia and the province of Posen suddenly moved to the centre of attention. News from distant epicentres of conflict reverberated in great national assemblies. Nationalism stimulated new solidarities that allowed Bavarians and Neapolitans to emote on behalf of Holsteiners and Lombards. And almost everywhere, this kindling of solidarity within nations went hand in hand with an embitterment of the relations between them. (540)

If Revolutionary Spring has a fault, it is Clark’s decision not to discuss Great Britain at any length. He might have undertaken to explain why Britain was untouched by political disturbances in 1848 — even though authorities were hardly unmindful of the possibility — and in the process examined  the exceptionality of Britain’s vibrant political life, which was admired but not understood on the Continent. Brilliant men and women adopted what they took to be a “liberal” outlook without fully grasping (until it was “too late”) that English life, even at its most high-minded, is not conducted according to principles. Long before 1848, the British had come to terms with the moral risks of political compromise by developing rules that seemed to work for them. Statesmen on the Continent did not share the British sense of fair play, and preferred to turn their backs on unseemly bargaining. That’s my take on “liberalism” in 1848, anyway; I should have liked to have Clark’s.

And if the book weren’t already so exhaustive, I’d want more about the economic transformation of Europe between 1789 or 1815 and 1848. The French Revolution, it is not clearly enough understood, was won not by the shambolic governments that followed Bourbon rule, nor by Napoleon, but by the Congress of Vienna. As a cleanup operation, organizing the shards into which Europe, cracked along fault lines old and new, had been fractured, the Congress did a first-rate job. From a political standpoint, however, it was utterly unsatisfactory. It’s arguable that the Congress still prevailed in the upheavals of 1848-9 — and indeed, that has been the common history-textbook interpretation. Clark shows how wrong this argument is, but he does not explain how the pressure on  the settlement of 1814 ballooned as the achievements of the Industrial Revolution worked their way through Europe, and finally made the ancien régime unbearable. The more I think about it, however, the more I think that this prequel, this history of the Silly Quarter, as I call it (after the often comic blend of Romantic and nouveau riche excesses) deserves a book of its own, one that is framed very much in terms of the revolutions at either end. It is too much to hope that Clark will undertake such a project, but perhaps one of those graduate students of his…

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