Monday, December 26, 2016

Three Biographies

Over the last week or two, I’ve finished three biographies:  Steven Runciman, the historian; Edward Burne-Jones, the artist; and Francis Thompson, the poet.  There’s nothing particularly that unites these men together, though there is a slight overlap in the supporting cast of characters in the Burne-Jones narrative and Runciman’s story.  They were all English (despite Runciman’s Scottish affectations) and they were all middle-class in background.  The only real connectedness between the three, however, had to be their love of beauty.

The Runciman biography is Outlandish Knight:  The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman by Minoo Dinshaw.  The book weighs-in with 640 pages of text, plus copious notes.  Frankly, I would have been just as satisfied with 200 fewer pages.  But no matter, the book is detailed, and Runciman lived 97 years.  That takes a bit of telling.  I consider Runciman to be one of the greatest historians, of our age or any other.  Contemporary historians are prone to dismiss him because of the biases he supposedly harbored.  The fact that some historians think they write without bias is funny in and of itself.  Rather, Runciman’s biases were of a different sort than the ones popularly employed today.  He didn’t fret much over such criticism, just as he dismissed the thinly disguised jealousy of peers who questioned his methodology.  To one he replied, “but you must understand that I am writing literature.”  And by this he certainly did not mean fiction.  In the future, people will be reading Runciman for the same reason they still read Gibbon:  each was a masterful story-teller (and it is not without irony that much of what Runciman wrote was to correct Gibbon’s mis-tellings, in his eyes.)  Runciman recognized the role of chance and circumstance in the history of families and nations.  As a consequence, he remained skeptical of purely ideological interpretations or deterministic grand theories of history.  Once William Dalrymple (another much-admired writer) asked Runciman what he thought of the French Annalistes School, and more particularly their most famous adherent, Fernand Braudel, and his “The Mediterranean.”  Runciman said that he had tried to read it, but three pages in he realized that the author didn’t know what a dromedary was--this was the famous racing camel of the the southern Mediterranean world.  Not knowing this basic fact of life in the region, Runciman saw little need to proceed any further with the ponderous tome.  Broadly speaking, Runciman probably did more than anyone to shift the focus of European historiography south and east and away from the English Channel.

Of course, Runciman made a name for himself in his three volume treatment of the Crusades.  But his real love--and the focus of much of his scholarship--was the Balkans.  He developed a lifelong respect for the peoples and histories of Greece, Bulgaria and Romania.  He maintained warm relations there to the end of his long life.  In connection with this, he developed an abiding respect for the Orthodox Church.  He was raised in a teetotalling Calvinist environment, and Runciman reacted as one would hope and expect a young man of intellect to do.  He largely rejected it, but perhaps because of it, retained a lifelong skepticism of both Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism.  But he took to Orthodoxy like a duck to water--the friend and confidante of priests, monks and patriarchs.  He actually held the title of Grand Orator to the Patriarch of Constantinople.  Late in life he won the Onassis Award, which came with a $300,000 cash prize.  Runciman immediately turned over the proceeds to the monks of Mount Athos, but with a specific purpose in mind.  He funded the restoration of a tower at Vatopedi Monastery to house their priceless manuscripts and icons.  At age 97, the then wheelchair-bound Runciman was airlifted onto Mount Athos by helicopter for the ceremony--certainly something of a first.  And while Orthodoxy had no greater friend, he never converted, and was buried in the rites of the Church of Scotland.         

If one didn’t know better, one might dismiss Runciman as an effete aristocrat, a bored 20’s-era Bright Young Thing of the sort that one encounters in Evelyn Waugh novels.  He did move in those circles.  In fact, it sometimes seemed that most every name between the wars in England attended the same cocktail parties and could be found at the same country house weekends.  His parents were both prominent Liberal politicians, very much in the camp of Lord and Lady Asquith.  This association--and particularly with Margot Asquith and her Tennant and Wyndham connections and by extension even the Bibescu and Cantecuzene families of Romania--opened doors for the youthful Runciman which never seemed to close.  But for Runciman, these connections were never an end in themselves, but pathways to get to the people he needed to see, to ask the questions that needed asking.  

Since he was British, it goes without saying that he could be snobbish if the situation required it--to the unwanted visitor such as the gushing professor from Idaho, for example.  But this was the exception.  He had a very real sense of who he was--certainly not as “British,” or some faux Scottish affectation, but who he was as a Runciman, a family of Scots whom he described as coming south “to see what kind of money they could make off of the English.”  A family member thinks that his deep sense of family was a defense mechanism against the family’s creeping embourgeoisement.  Runciman’s grandfather had come up from a hardscrabble existence to forge a small shipping empire.  This funded his father’s career in Liberal politics and was, as Runciman always remembered, the source of all their good fortune.  But he was one of many grandchildren, and while Runciman was comfortable, he was never flush.  He lived frugally and without ostentation.  He took jobs for the same reason the rest of us do--because he needed the money.  During the 1920s and 30s, he was frankly disgusted by the aimlessness of many of the real upper classes.  Perhaps harkening back to his low-church Calvinism, Runciman set out to live a purposeful and useful life.  And he did just that.  In his late 50s, Runciman received a knighthood.  And while he didn’t reject it, he certainly took a jaundiced view of the matter.  When the Queen Mother asked him how he felt about it, he replied that for the first time in his life he knew what it meant to be both middle-aged and middle-class.  In his eyes, the honor could certainly be useful to him in his career, but as far as it being anything in and of itself, no.  For he was already a Runciman.

Runciman’s homosexuality was widely known in Great Britain.  There was no ambiguity about it at all, and he was certainly forthright among close friends in private settings.  But in an age when homosexual behavior was a crime, Runciman was fiercely protective of his privacy, which was never subject to publicity or scandal.  Runciman formed no lasting emotional attachments with his partners.  Again, this was done purposely on his part, and without regret, apparently.  From an early age, he accepted that his would be a solitary existence, though played out in the midst of a company of many.  That said, and without salaciousness, the author notes that Runciman lived a life of discreet but aggressive sexual adventurism, across many continents and throughout many decades.  Late in life he published “A Traveler’s Alphabet,” a book which takes each letter of the alphabet as the starting point for a short remembrance of a particular place.  Runciman confided to an associate that he could have done the same thing with his sexual partners, if only he hadn’t rebuffed the advances of Quentin C**** (and yes, there was an “X,” a young Greek named Xenophon.)

Runciman’s life crossed paths with another favored writer of mine--Patrick Leigh Fermor.  By the time he made it to Bulgaria, in 1933, in his now famous trek across Europe, Paddy looked more the part of a young, dashing desperado, rather than the teenaged English lad he was underneath.  And as the English do things, he had obtained a letter of introduction somewhere along the way--Hungary, I think--which would allow him entry into the front door of the British Embassy in Sofia.  A cocktail reception was underway, and the young vagabond was ushered into its midst.  Among the other guests was the young historian, Steven Runciman.  The two made a connection with they nurtured for the rest of their long lives (most notably in Greece during and after the war).  The book ends with a visit by Fermor and a female companion to the 97-year old Runciman’s home in Dumfriesshire.  After a night of reminiscences, Fermor and his guest start home.  This is how he remembers it:

“As we motored through the Cumbrian dusk, we imagined him helping to plot the circumference of the dome of St. Sophia, before a late supper with the Empress Theodora, or--he had a soft spot for crowned heads--or advising Princess Anna about the accuracy of the Alexiad.  In other scenes, he was shaking his head over the wilder tenets of the Bogomils and persuading a team of iconoclasts to drop their hammers, or calming rebellious prelates at the Council of Ephesus.  In yet other scenes, he was reasoning with Bohemond at Antioch or counseling Richard Coeur de Lion about his policy at Acre; or playing chess with Saladin, in his tent; then, a bit later, rallying Bessarion for accepting the filioque clause at the same time as a cardinal’s hat; consoling the eastern Comnenes for the loss of Trebizond; or, under Mount Taygetus, exchanging syllogisms with Gemistros Plethon as they strolled along the future Runciman Street.  Later on still, we imagined him hobnobbing with Phanariot hospodars in the snows beyond the Danube...It was hard to stop.”    

The next biography is The Last Pre-Raphaelite:  Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination by Fiona MacCarthy.  Like the Runciman book, this one is overly long, and I took to skimming passages--which I did not do with the former.  For some time now, I have been trying to become more knowledgeable and appreciative of art and art history, as long as that history stops before Modernism and/or Abstract Art.  I was vaguely family with Burne-Jones, having seen a couple of his paintings at the Met, but I was never particularly obsessed with the Pre-Raphaelites.  I’ve written about this before, but several years ago I stumbled across a Georgian Orthodox Church in a remote village in Samtskhe.  The Church of Alexander Nevsky is not at all ancient--funded in the 1890s by the Tsar’s brother, George, living in a nearby hunting lodge.  He commissioned Mikhail Nesterov for the iconography, and the finished product--I can only describe it as ethereal--is unlike anything I have ever seen, in any church, anywhere.  Art scholars might differ, but I connected it with what I imagined Pre-Raphaelite art to be.  And so, since that time, I have been more interested in these particular painters.  I will say this, however:  Pre-Raphaelite art is best appreciated in moderation.  

Burne-Jones came from the struggling middle class--not destitute, but not at all secure either.  His path was not easy, but in time he developed supporters and patrons who encouraged his efforts.  I don’t find myself drawn as much to Burne-Jones as I did Runciman.  The artist had a long-suffering wife at home, whom he frankly didn’t deserve.  He exhibited a predictable and bad habit of forming (or attempting) love affairs with all of his models.  And Burne-Jones has a pattern of running off on extended junkets to Italy for “inspiration.”   

As in the Runciman book, part of the charm of Burne-Jones’ story is the wide cast of supporting characters.  Seemingly every writer, poet or artist of note in mid to late Victorian England found their way to his studio.  One of his more interesting associates was Simeon Solomon--a wild and audacious young Jewish artist of the Pre-Raphaelite school.  And before there was Oscar Wilde, there was Simeon Solomon.  In the late 1870s, he was caught in the act, so to speak, with a stable hand in a public restroom.  In a mockery of equal justice, the other man received 18 months of hard labor while Solomon only paid a fine.  But the notoriety ruined his career, nonetheless.  Commissions were cancelled, patrons dropped him, and his peers abandoned him--that is, except for Burne-Jones.  He was the only one who stood with Solomon throughout this ordeal.  I find that to be his finest hour.  Solomon, however, was in a downward spiral, eking out an existence as an alcoholic street-artist in his remaining years.

The final biography is:  Strange Harp, Strange Symphony:  The Life of Francis Thompson, by John Walsh.  Unlike Runciman and Burne-Jones, I knew nothing of Thompson until a few months ago.  I stumbled across a short essay on Thompson by Joseph Pearce which whetted my appetite.  I then followed through and found a copy of his most famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”   I was hooked.  

Thompson’s life was a sad one, as he was an opium addict from a young age.  He was sensitive and well-liked, but it became increasing clear that he would never be able to conform to late Victorian norms.  And the more he struggled, the more dependent he became on opium.  Throughout it all, Thompson remained a devout Catholic.  Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of the book is its depiction of the close-knit, insular world of English Catholicism.  In fact, his story is also the story of one English Catholic family--his rescuers, the Meynells.  Before they came along, Thompson had been abandoned by his family (who thought him beyond hope) and was living on the streets, eking out enough money for his habit, occasionally being taken in by a kind prostitute.  The Meynells gave him the family support he needed, and encouraged his writing, and through their publishing connections, saw that it reached a wide audience.  Even during this time, his demons did not retreat, however, and he spent extended rehabilitations in Catholic monasteries in Surrey and Gwynd.  Thompson was able to stay more or less straight for a period of five to six years, and produced some of his most extraordinary work, including “The Hound of Heaven.”  But he was not to win his battles--at least not in this life--and he died too soon.  Put simply, the story of Francis Thompson and the Meynells has much to teach us about the nature of struggle and repentance and compassion.  I am memorizing “The Hound of Heaven.”  As it is a long one, I’ll be at it a while.  Knowing his story better makes the poem all the more meaningful.