Saturday, June 18, 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011

Death of Patrick Leigh Fermor

[Update: Wonderful Fermor anecdotes in "Surprised by Time," here.]

Patrick Leigh Fermor has died at the age of 96. Since I first learned of him, Fermor has been something of a hero to me, and I have written of him, here and here, and tangentially, here and here. Christopher Hitchens summed-up his legacy thusly: "To his last breath, he remained curious and open-minded to an almost innocent degree and was a conveyor of optimism and humor to his younger admirers. For as long as he is read and remembered, the ideal of the hero will be a real one."

A selection of excellent tributies follow:

The Telegraph

The Guardian (by Jan Morris)

Slate (by Christopher Hitchens)

Paul A. Rahe

The New York Times (by Robert Kaplan)

Maggie Rainey-Smith

The Independent

And then there is the following trascript from a public radio broadcast in northern California (h/t to Dana):

by Tony Miksak for KZYX&Z-FM, 90.7 Philo CA
Airs Sunday, June 19, 2011 at 10:55 am & Wednesday, June 22 at 1 pm
Title: Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915 – 2011)

(MUSIC UP) This is Tony Miksak with a few Words on Books...

We lost an old man this month at age 96. They say whenever someone
dies an entire universe – thoughts, feelings, experience – also dies.
This could not be more true in the case of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

His books are inspiring, thrilling memoirs that inspire others to
similar feats of travel and insight.

When Patrick Leigh Fermor was 19 he decided, having nothing better to
do, to walk alone from London, along the Rhine, down the Danube, to
Constantinople, now Istanbul. This was in 1933, ten months after
Hitler's accession to power, through a Europe soon to disappear.

Years later Leigh Fermor pulled out his battered old notebooks and
wrote two books about the trip, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods
and the Water. The first was written in 1977, the sequel eleven years
after that. Both have become true classics.

A high-spirited 19 year-old sets out across Europe, but it’s his 63
year-old future self who tells the story. Youth transformed by
maturity, experience enlightened by scholarship, impulse tempered by
reflection. In these books there is more than one kind of time, more
than one state of mind. Fermor blends his selves with grace and

From A Time of Gifts "Often, half in a bay of the mountains and half
on a headland, a small and nearly amphibian Schloss mouldered in the
failing light among the geese and the elder-bushes and the apple
trees...Those buildings looked too forlorn for habitation... But, in
the tiny, creeper-smothered windows, a faint light would show at dusk.
Who lived in those stone-flagged rooms where the sun never came?"

Fermor on the Baroque: "Concave and convex uncoil and pursue each
other across the pilasters in ferny arabesques, liquid notions ripple,
waterfalls running silver and blue drop to lintels and hang frozen
there in curtains of artificial icicles. Ideas go feathering up in
mock fountains and float away through the colonnades in processions of
cumulus and cirrus..."

Walking lonely stretches in the dead of winter Fermor amused himself
by reciting aloud the Latin poets or Shakespeare. At one point a
peasant woman walked out of nearby woods with arm loads of kindling.
Hearing the strange words she dropped everything and flew back into
the forest.

Fermor concludes A Time of Gifts standing on a bridge between Slovakia
and Hungary: "Close behind me, girls in bright clothes were hastening
excitedly across the bridge, all of them carrying bunches of
water-lilies, narcissi, daffodils and violets... I found it impossible
to tear myself away from my station and plunge into Hungary. I feel
the same disability now; a momentary reluctance to lay hands on this
particular fragment of the future; not out of fear, but because,
within arm's reach and still intact, this future seemed, and still
seems, so full of promised marvels."

Fermor served as an irregular in the British Army in Greece during the
Second World War. Living as a shepherd in the mountains of
Nazi-occupied Crete, his small group captured the German general in
charge of the island and conveyed him to British forces in Egypt. For
this exploit and for his later writings Fermor was medaled and later

Over the years Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote a number of books, some set
in Greece, all in his uniquely elegant style. This month, obituaries
published all over the world praised both his courage and his

(MUSIC) You too, can receive WOB scripts in your email and review
episodes you may have missed. To be on the list, please send a note to I'm blogging at and I
enjoy reading your comments there.


Newly reprinted this year, the story of that Cretan adventure:

Ill Met by Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss, with an Afterword by Patrick
Leigh Fermor. Paul Dry Books paperback $14.95. ISBN 1589880668.
Stanley Moss was the other British officer on this raid.

A summary of the thrilling story of the General's kidnaping told in
the New Yorker in 2006: but to
read the entire article you will have to register with Highbeam

Fermor’s walk from London to Hungary:

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Introduction by Jan Morris.
New York Review Books paperback $16.95. ISBN 1590171659.

Hungary to Constantinople:

Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Introduction
by Jan Morris. New York Review Books paperback $15.95. ISBN

Words of Mercury is an out-of-print anthology of Leigh Fermor's
writings. Many copies are available, mostly in Canada and the UK. Try

You can read a review here:,6121,1105876,00.html

Fermor on the pleasures and rigors of monastic life: "In the seclusion
of a cell – an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent
meals, the solemnity of ritual, and long solitary walks in the woods –
the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is
hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be
skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is
unthought of in the ordinary world."

Quoted from:

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Introduction by Karen
Armstrong. New York Review of Books paperback $12.95. ISBN 1590172442

I had hoped that Fermor would be able to finish the long-awaited last volume of his trilogy before death. Perhaps it will be published posthumously, and the writer for The Independent (who had lunch with Fermor 10 days prior to his death) gives us all hope that this will indeed come to pass:

I can say that no other person I have encountered has shown such an embrace of laughter, learning, language and life as this towering genius of word and action. The great memorial will be his writing and a great excitement is that the third part of his trilogy about crossing Europe is due soon – I have seen it, and many have waited years for this crafted reminiscence so long in gestation, about which Paddy in self-mockery called himself "The Carpathian Snail".

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Latest from Syria Comment

This from Syria Comment:

There is little evidence of wide-scale mutiny of Syrian soldiers. No solid evidence that they shot at each other, and some evidence that the young men of Jisr set a trap for Syrian soldiers with simple weapons and dynamite. Individual soldiers do seem to have deserted. Some turned up in Turkey. They seem to have been instructed to exaggerate the defections and to follow a common narrative of soldiers shooting each other in a large conflagration at Jisr. This story is hard to verify, making it seem dubious.

Contrary to the claims of Syrian authorities, 120 Syria soldiers do not seem to have been killed. A single mass grave turned up 10 dead soldiers. Four had their heads cut off. This would seem to have been done by the militia of Jisr, which had some success in fighting the soldiers initially sent to pacify them.

On the question of a scorched earth policy, both sides are claiming that the other is burning crops and threatening innocent civilians with retribution and the destruction of their farms if they side with the enemy. The Syrian government issued these interviews with people from Jisr. My last few posts have linked to accounts from refugees in Turkey that insist that the Syrian authorities are burning crops to punish local inhabitants of Idlib province from giving assistance to the assistance.

The refugees in Turkey told stories of revolt, mutiny and mayhem. Government stories that 120 members of the police and military were killed were explained by the opposition as security forces shooting themselves. The Syrian government then published tapped phone calls of activists in Jisr that it collected on the eve of the initial combat. If they can be taken at face value, the activists establish a plan to send all the women and children of the city to Turkey. They were instructed to tell foreigners that Syrian military personnel shot each other. When enlisted men refused to shoot on unarmed demonstrators, their Alawi officers mowed them down – that was the story to be told to the Western press.

Meanwhile, the men of Jisr organized an ambush. One phone call between two activists goes over how to bury the dead; they discuss whether to bury them in a one grave or divide them up an bury them two by two, so as to better conceal the fact that the opposition had abandoned passive resistance in order to take up arms. They discuss how not to be photoed during prayers so as not to give the regime a pretext to claim that they were Salafists. They wonder how to combat tanks with dynamite. Above all they are anxious to get their story out to the West in the most favorable light so as not to reveal they they have established an armed insurgency and to blame any killings on the Syrian army.

The Syrian army has exaggerated the number of its dead in order to justify ever harsher repression of the inhabitants of Jisr and Idlib province. The governent is thrashing about in a failed effort to stop the demonstrations from spreading. Syrian authorities have utterly failed to get out their version of events and have lost the media contest to demonstrate that they stand for anything good. The West is entirely convinced that “the people” stand with the opposition and favor revolution. Government attempts to explain to Western authorities that they stand with the people and are serving anything other than bloody-mindedness with the repression of the revolt, have been such a failure that Rim Haddad, the head of the government’s media effort has been fired.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Eastern Schism: A Study of the Papacy and the Eastern Churches during the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries by Steven Runciman

I have just finished reading The Eastern Schism by Sir Steven Runciman (1955.) This is the eleventh of his works that I have read, so it is safe to say I am something of a fan. Unlike contemporary scholars who often seem to major in minutiae, Runciman was a historian of the old school, who knew that his craft was not, at heart, that of an analyst, but rather that of a story-teller. For anyone interested in Byzantine history (or the larger medieval world, for that matter,) my advice is to start with Runciman. He is that good.

This particular study examines the historical events which resulted in the Great Schism, an event we usually associate with the year 1054. This development is little known among most Protestants, for whom church history begins shortly after 1500. But for Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, the event is pivotal, and in different ways defines our respective world views. Nobody lays out the historical processes by which East and West took diverging paths more succinctly than Runciman. A few points from the book stood out in my mind.

1. The schism was not over the Filioque

2. The schism did not occur in 1054

3. Efforts to avoid schism and resolve differences were ongoing by cooler heads on both sides up to the very end of the 12th-century

4. The Fourth Crusade ruined everything

I know that in Orthodox sources, the controversy over the Filioque is usually listed as one of the underlying causes of the Great Schism. And of course, it was a serious issue (from Runciman's view, the azymite controversy--the use of leavened or unleavened bread--was quite nearly as important.) By the 11th and 12th-centuries, both positions had solidified and neither the East nor West showed any sign of budging. But as Runciman well demonstrates, communion was not broken over it. The Orthodox believed that the West was wrong in arbitrarily adding to the Creed, but because of the West's particular history, the limitations and inflexibility of Latin relative to Greek, the lack of educated lay population in the West and other factors, the East was prepared to allow the West to continue with the Filioque, as long as it was not imposed upon the East. In short, they had agreed to disagree in practice. The real problem, however, lay in the arbitrariness of the addition. The Creed came out of the Ecumenical Councils, and to the Eastern mind, that was the only place, and not the Papacy, that a subsequent addition could be enacted. And as time went on, it became obvious that the Pope was intent on imposing his understanding. So, the insurmountable hurdle then was, as it is today, the specific claims of the Papacy.

For high drama, nothing beats the scene of Cardinal Humbert, the Papal Secretary, striding into Haghia Sophia during a Divine Liturgy and laying a Bull of Excommunication on the altar in 1054. According to Runciman, it was a silly document, unworthy of someone of Humbert's education. And surprisingly, it received little notice in Constantinople. The Emperor ignored it, and the general populace was not enraged (for long) and still considered the West to be their Christian brothers in an undivided church. If one were looking for the first time a Pope of Rome was not listed on an Eastern diptych, then the date of the schism would be 1009, not 1054. And if one were looking for an hard and fast date that communion was broken, on the ground, then the date would be 1100, when a Latin Patriarch was chosen for Antioch, when a Greek, John the Oxite, already held the office.

The simple fact of the matter was that relations ebbed and flowed over these two centuries, and even during the lowest points, cordial correspondence passed back and forth between Pope and Patriarch and Emperor, and their representatives. Each side seem committed to continuing the dialogue and avoiding at all costs an outright schism (though often for reasons of pure political expediency rather than piety.)

Several months ago, I let myself be sucked into an argument on one of the sillier monarchist blogs (I am generally sympathetic to monarchy in principle, just not the British version.) The blogger posted a tribute to Constantine XII, the last Byzantine emperor, but in so doing, made some comment to the effect that if the East had just submitted to Rome, then the downfall of Constantinople could have been avoided. I responded and suggested that real history might be a bit more nuanced than this. All discussions of this nature seem to end up back at the Fourth Crusade, as did ours. He finally sputtered "Well, if the Crusades were so bad, then why did the Byzantines keep asking for their help?" By this time, I knew better than to continue the correspondence, as he clearly did not know what he did not know. As Runciman notes, the Byzantines never asked for the Crusades--not even the first one. In 1095, Alexios I was short on manpower and engaged in a bitter struggle on the eastern front with the Seljuk Turks. Two representatives of the emperor were in Italy recruiting soldiers to join the eastern Roman army in this fight. At the same time, a general church council was in session, and the two envoys requested permission to address the gathering and make their needs known. Something was lost in translation and Pope Urban took the plea and ran with it. By the time he had crossed the Alps and gave his famous speech at Clermont, a simple recruiting effort had morphed into a plea by the East to be rescued by the Christian Army of the West. This was not at all what Alexios had in mind. Likewise, the Second and Third Crusades were endured, but never requested. And the Fourth Crusade turned on Constantinople itself. The tragedy of 1204 was outside the Papacy's control, and they had no choice but to validate the results afterwards. But in so doing, the Schism was set. And each side, from the highest clerics down to the communicant in the lowliest village knew it. Neither now saw the other as brother, but as schismatic or heretic.

Some selections:

Throughout the history of the Eastern Empire there was a large lay population that was as well educated as the clergy. The professors, the government servants, and even the soldiers were usually as cultured as the priests. Many of them were highly trained in theology, and almost all of them felt themselves perfectly competent to take part in theological discussions. No one in Byzantium thought that theology was the exclusive concern of the clergy. (p. 7)

Right worship was really more important to the East Christians than right belief. They were devoted to their liturgy...[and] was probably the strongest single spiritual force in the make-up of the Byzantines. It inspired their best art and their best poetry and music; and the humbler members of the Empire felt an even stronger loyalty to it than the educated. (p. 8)

The whole attitude of the medieval West was different. Christianity spread more slowly in the West than in the East, and paganism lasted on much longer there, particularly in cultivated circles. The Church there was obliged, for its self-defence, to insist on the need for unity and uniformity of belief. At the same time there was less general interest in speculative philosophy and less desire, therefore, for theological debate. Language played its part in the difference. While Greek is a subtle and flexible tongue, admirably suited to express every shade of abstract thought, Latin is far more rigid and inelastic; it is clear, concrete, and uncompromising....Even in Roman times the level of culture had been generally lower in the Western provinces....The cultured lay circles of Italy were extinguished during the wars and troubles of the fifth and sixth centuries. The only education that survived was conducted by the Church for the Church. In the early Middle Ages there were few laymen int he West who could even read. This gave the Church in the West a position in society that the Eastern Churches never possessed....Unlike the Eastern Liturgy, the Western Mass was a mystery performed by the priesthood, and the lay congregation did not have the same intimate feeling of participation. Moreover, while the language of the Byzantine Liturgy was roughly intelligible to the average Byzantine, the Latin of the Mass was a foreign language to most of the faithful in the West. The Western laity was seldom permitted to interfere in any matter of religion. (p. 9)

The East enjoyed speculation and argument; but the official Church was ready to exercise charity towards unessential divergences, and avoided doctrinal pronouncements and condemnations except when political issues or the liturgy was involved. The West had a simpler, stricter, and more legalistic and logical conception of right and wrong belief. In the East there were large numbers of educated laymen and laywomen accustomed to play a part in religious affairs, and there was an articulate public opinion that did not hesitate to criticize both the Emperor and the hierarchy. Neither an educated laity nor a public opinion that was articulate on religious matters existed in the West before about the twelfth century... (p. 11.)

Thus to the Romans Church union meant the submission of the Eastern Churches to Rome, but to the Byzantines it meant that the Roman bishop should resume his place as the senior of the Patriarchs and be mentioned once more int he diptychs and be accorded all deference and honorific titles due to him. It would be difficult to reconcile these views (p. 58.)

Economy was still more necessary when it came to the controversy over the Filioque. Of course this was wrong; but, after all, he [Peter III, Patriarch of Antioch] wrote, the Latins are our brothers, and it is only ignorance that makes them deviate. We must not demand from them the same scrupulous exactitude that we demand from our own highly educated circles. it should be enough that they confess the Mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Perhaps, he suggested, they had lost the copies of the acts of the earlier councils (p. 65.)

The Latin argument on the Filioque seems at first sight to be clearer and more convincing than the Greek; but the Latin conception of the Trinity is less subtle and delicately balanced....The only solution would have been for each Church to show the Economy so often recommended by Orthodox theologians. But Rome was not in the mood to allow divergences, while the Greeks, though they might be willing to show tolerance over purely theological points and practices, could not bring themselves to forgive an addition to the Creed which they considered a direct challenge to the authority of the Oecumenical Councils. Nor were they prepared to admit that any of their old-established usages could be wrong. The essential issue was the question of papal authority. Could the Pope add to the Creed at his pleasure, and could he even insist on uniformity of usage? (p. 109.)

Sunday, June 05, 2011

How to Make Furniture

The W. K. Cowan Furniture Company of Chicago, Illinois was in business from the years 1894 to 1916. William Kennett Cowan (no relation, or at least none this side of the year 1660) was known for the quality of his product. In the 1898 catalog, he set forth his philosophy, to-wit:

To govern production by excellence rather than expense;

to prefer simplicity;

to make use serve beauty and beauty usefulness;

to believe in goodness, abhor sham, make surroundings contribute to Life;

in short to conserve, even in the midst of commercial stress and strife, those eternal verities which make for advanced living;

these things are a part of the Ideal and the Working Plan of this Company.

Here was a man who obviously saw his trade in life as a noble calling. The furniture he created was intended to "make surroundings contribute to Life." I found it a bit jarring to read this and realize how antiquated such sentiments would seem to many today. I suspect most businessmen would laugh at a business plan that set out to "conserve...eternal verities." And that is to our shame.