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.     

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Portuguese Parrot

My Aunt Sis died yesterday, November 9th, at age 93.  She was the last of her generation, having outlived all her siblings and cousins.  With her passing, I lost my last living link with a world that now exists only in my mind.

Stuck away in the mountains of northern Arkansas, for many years it has been my habit to make an annual trek to visit Aunt Sis.  Kind, gracious, and hospitable to a fault, we would sit around the kitchen table, drinking coffee and sharing the old stories.  She kept her mind until the end.  She became forgetful, and prone to repeat herself, to be sure.  But this was the little stuff.  On the big items, her mind remained clear.  She always knew exactly who she was, who you were, and where she was.  On my last visit, she recognized me immediately, and we became teary-eyed before any words were spoken.  Towards the end, her mind become more focused on the times of her youth, with events 80 years past more real to her than the events of the day.  I believe that to be a great blessing.

On this last visit, she shared a new story, and I think I heard it a half dozen times before I left.  For some reason, her memory had focused in on an incident from over 75 years ago, involving her uncle and a parrot that “spoke” Portuguese.  A little background is necessary.

My grandfather and his two sisters--all born within 4 years of one another--were always close.  The sisters called him Brother.   Due to advantageous family connections, all three were able to attend Wedemeyer’s Academy in Bell County, Texas.  The girls went on to graduate from Mary Hardin Baylor College.  The sisters were true Edwardian ladies--prim, proper, and polite.  They were easily scandalized, and my good-natured granddad took especial pleasure in shocking them, to which they would gasp, “Oh, Brother!”

The sisters lived their entire lives in tandem.  They went to college together, became teachers and taught together, and eventually married brothers.  The older aunt married last, and even after marriage maintained much of the air of an old maid about her.  The two couples lived just outside of Fort Worth.

After the great tragedy that befell my grandparent’s family, the aunts stepped in to help as they could.  The older aunt offered to adopt my youngest uncle, then an infant.  My grandfather, a proud man, refused.  (I wonder how my uncle’s life would have been different, had he grown up in this aunt’s stable environment.  But while his path might have been easier in life, he might not have become the quirky, funny, happy-go-lucky man we loved so much).   Aunt Sis and her baby brother, nevertheless, did spend extended periods of time living with their aunts.

When they moved out to Lake Worth, the youngest aunt and her husband purchased their place from an elderly Portuguese immigrant.  They bought the place, lock, stock, and parrot.  The old man’s bird “spoke” in Portuguese.  Up until the last two years, my Aunt Sis could, remarkably, remember and repeat what the parrot would say, though she had no idea of what it meant.  The large parrot and its cage was her responsibility.  

Her aunt’s husband would sometime tease the parrot.  Once he even gave Polly a cigarette.  The bird bided its time.  Finally one day, as my uncle was walking through the house, the parrot flew onto his back and clawed little vees into the back of his shirt.  He hollered for Aunt Sis to get that bird off his back.  She found a handy broomstick and lifted the parrot off of him.

What happened next is the thing that stuck in her mind.  The parrot got down on the floor and on its side, squawking and twisting in circles.  In Aunt Sis’s eyes, the bird exacted its revenge and was now laughing at our flustered uncle.  My aunt described in great detail how the parrot’s eyes looked, and how they pivoted around.

Our memories are funny things.  At the end of a long and well-lived life, it fills me with wonder that it was this little thing that filled her consciousness, the eyes of a happy parrot from almost 80 years ago.       

Monday, November 07, 2016

A Melancholy Tuesday

A Melancholy Tuesday

As things stand now, Tuesdays are my “day off.”  I plan to make good use of it.  If the weather permits, I will cut some wood.  If not, I can immerse myself in genealogy, or some other form of escapism, such as re-reading something from Trollope.  This may keep my mind off the events of the day.  For at the end of it, the American people will have elected either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as President.  That does not say anything particularly uplifting about our nation.

I have always taken a keep interest in current events, and I do not expect that to change.  Normally, election days are characterized by high-flown and self-congratulatory rhetoric about freedom, democracy, the American Way, etc., and it is easy to get swept up in all that.  This year, however, I’m just not feeling it.  Frankly, I am exhausted from the eternal campaigning, but more so by the hyper partisanship and the general craziness, of the bat-sh*t variety.  I would be better served to step away from Facebook, but I’m not going to do that any more than you are.

For example, I recently suggested to someone on Facebook that their projection of Trump carrying all the swing states plus PA, MI, NH and ME might display a bit of hopeful thinking on his part.  He told me I was rude, to “scram,” and then blocked me.  And I thought I was thin-skinned.  But this is typical of what passes for political discourse these days.

My own particular political beliefs do not fit into the boxes we’ve been assigned.  The terms liberal and conservative, as currently understood in the American context, have little real meaning anymore, and I would resist being labeled as either one.  I am most comfortable with the designation of “traditionalist.”  I value order, stability, peace through humility, continuity, conservation, and preservation.  I have no faith in, or love for, unfettered free market capitalism.  In recent years the real evolution of my thinking has been the growing awareness of just how destructive this has been to the human condition.  At the same time, doctrinaire socialism leaves me cold, as well.  I am mostly attracted to Distributism, to the extent that I understand it.  It will never have a chance here, however, unless of course, after we start over.  

I have conservative friends who still believe, I suppose, in Movement Conservatism, who believe that there are political solutions to our problems, and that only one political option exists for right-thinking Christians to support.  For these people, my ideas are so around-the-bend that they characterize me as a wild-eyed Leftist.   I get a chuckle out of this, for I have friends who are truly Leftists and they know me well enough to know that, while sympathetic, I am not totally in their camp.  I have no stomach for storming the barricades and burning everything down.  Revolutions always destroy much more than they intend to do, and the ends never justify the means.  

I have tried to be even-handed in my criticisms this election cycle.  Not being a supporter of either major party candidate, my interest has largely been analytical--charting the polls and their accuracy.  Also, whenever I have dumped on Trump, I feel compelled to post an article criticizing Clinton.  I have learned that you get no credit for this, however.  In our hyper-partisan age, any criticism of Trump is seen as an endorsement of Clinton, and visa-versa.  Apparently the only thing that matters is your partisan slant.

So here, the day before the election, I want to come clean about the major candidates.  First, Trump.  The man is a colossal fraud, on nearly every level.  He lies--not stealthily like Clinton, but compulsively and pathologically.  He is a narcissist, seeing every issue and every subject as being ultimately about himself.  He is petty, refusing to let anything go.  He is bombastic, speaking almost totally in exaggeration and hyperbole.  He is uninformed, and the worst of it is that he is proudly so.  And finally, he is a dangerous demagogue, one like we’ve not seen since Huey Long.  I can’t say that I oppose him on policies, because he has none.  All is going to be Great, just trust him.   We have elected little, petty men to the Oval Office before.  But in every case, I believe they recognized that they had ascended to something greater than themselves, and set about to make themselves worthy of the honor.  With Trump, I don’t believe he understands that there is anything greater than himself.

I tend to agree with a recent article by Damon Linker, who suggested a small part of him would take a perverse satisfaction if Trump were elected.  He lists 4 reasons:
  1. To destroy the knowingness of the poll-watchers (not unlike myself)
  2. To teach Progressives that “history is not on their side” (yes,yes, yes!)
  3. To humble the smugness of the Establishment Republicans
  4. To humiliate hubristic Democratic elites
I have to admit that while this would be deeply satisfying, is that enough reason to vote for Trump?  No, no, a thousand times no!

Clearly Trump has tapped-into the legitimate concerns, fears and anger (if unfocused) of a significant segment of Americans.  But again, his skillful exploitation of these issues does not warrant a vote for him.  In fact, the only reason I can see that anyone would want to do so would be if they believe Hillary Rodham Clinton is far worse.  I lived through the 90s and voted both for and against them along the way.  I have never really understood the visceral hatred they engender among the GOP.  It has been my observation that the Republicans lose every time they go up against her.  I believe that it is because they always run against the Witch Woman of Chappaqua, rather than against Clinton the political animal.  Believe me, there is enough ammunition to use on the latter without resorting to portraying her as a cartoon villain.  Two examples:  when it comes to “Benghazi,” or the emails, Republicans ought to be screaming to high heaven about Judgment.  Instead, they go for Criminality, with chants of “Lock her up,” or questioning how she could even be allowed to run.  These narratives are reinforced by the Epistemic Bubble of the Right’s social media, from which Republicans refuse to venture outside.  They will believe anything and everything, no matter how outrageous.  Congressional Republicans have signaled that they are ready to start impeachment proceedings now, as well as declaring that they will refuse to consider any of her Supreme Court appointments.  This explains why they always lose up against her.  Like the Bourbons of old, they have forgotten nothing, and they have learned nothing.

So, would all this suggest a vote for Clinton?  Well, not for me, at least.  We have multiple avenues to not vote for Trump that do not require voting for Clinton.   For let’s face it, she represents nearly everything that is wrong with our system, as well as everything that people despise about our governing elites.  After being in the political arena for so long, it is almost sad that her main selling point is that she is NOT Donald Trump.  She may well get us into a war with Russia.  But if she does, it will be because of her ideological worldview, one who remains wedded to a dangerous, confrontive, and increasingly outdated and discredited foreign policy.  But Trump could just as easily get us in a war with Russia, as well.  All Putin would have to do is to publicly repeat the comment many have made before--that Trump’s hair looks like a wolverine crawled up on top of his head and died.  Again, with Trump everything is personal.  I would prefer to take my chances with the first scenario.

If Trump were to win, I believe things would start to come apart, probably starting with a stock market crash.  That would not be good.  If Clinton wins, things will stay as they are.  And that is not very good, either.  To look beyond this particular election, our Great Experiment may be winding down.  Winston Churchill, I believe, once quipped that democracy was the worst system of government in the world....except for all the others.  The applicability of this axiom may be nearing the end of its lifespan.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

In Praise of Declinism

I consider myself a thorough-going declinist, which is easier than saying hell-in-a-handbasketist.  And I am quite comfortable in that worldview. To be clear, this is not at all the same thing as doom-and-gloom pessimism.  For us, the situation is hopeless, but not serious.  For them, everything is forever hopeless and serious.  The cramped and self-pitying view of these dour and sour pessimists is not for me.  Avoid such people at parties, if you can.  Dispassion and/or realism in the face of the overall fallenness of our world does not fit neatly into a binary choice between optimism and pessimism.  It does not take a particularly perceptive person to note the weariness in our sagging old Western civilization.  In the meanwhile, small kindnesses abound.  If not exactly happiness, then certainly joy can be had, which is, anyway, far better and more lasting.  Laughter, food and drink can still be shared and enjoyed around the table.  Think “Love in the Ruins.”    
The confused bright-and-sunny optimists miss out on all of this, doomed as they are to live lives of perpetual disappointment.  The declinist is rarely disappointed, and certainly not when things go amiss.  He is, however, pleasantly appreciative when events (often) do not turn out as grim as was expected.  And he savors this experience to the fullest, knowing it will not last long.  
The realist generally looks to the peripheral edges of both Leftist and Rightist thought for support.  We look askance at all utopian schemes--the progressive technological/capitalist fantasies of the Right, as well as the progressive social constructions on the Left.  A pox on both their houses.  The very idea of “decline” is anathema to American progressives, whether liberal or conservative, for the Left and the Right both worship at the altar of Progress; just on different days and observing different liturgies.
The Left usually rejects declinism out of hand, and when the Right does engage our civilizational collapse, it is usually some variation of the “We are Rome” argument, or the apocalyptical histrionics of the “God and Country” crowd.  Both fall far short of any meaningful assessment of our situation.
I’ve heard the “We are Rome” argument for decades, but I never really bought into the “we are just like Rome” argument.  Sure, some broad comparisons can be made between the breakdown of society in the West during late antiquity, and the fraying of Western civilization in late modernity.  Decadence is not hard to spot.  But as a historian, I was always aware of the vast dissimilarities between Rome and America.  And then again, Rome did not really “fall” in 476 A.D. did it?  As one who now often approaches things from a Byzantine perspective, I know that “Rome” lived on and prospered for almost another 1,000 years.   
Maureen Mullarkey has an interesting take on this in a recent article here.  She too warns about the danger of reading ourselves into the past.  The quote sometimes attributed to Albert Schweitzer is appropriate here--”looking into the well of history and seeing only ourselves in the reflection.”  Mullarkey warns that to say “that conditions today are ‘shockingly similar’ to those in Rome at the advent of Christianity is to confuse symptoms with causes."  Nor, she says, should we “bend history to fit homiletics.”  Her conclusion is well worth noting.  Mullarkey posits that pagan Rome was, in fact, deeply religious, committed to ritual, if not dogma.  “The pagan temperament was not nihilist.  By contrast, modern man has put God out of mind...What we face today is not paganism.  It is the desolate freedom of the nihilist.”  

The “God and Country” crowd erroneously believe they own the “decline” argument.  Their solutions are nostalgically simple, usually involving decisions made at the ballot box or on the battlefield: If only we could go back to the Reagan years; If only we could elect a President who will appoint conservative judges; If only we could reverse Roe v. Wade.  If only. These arguments are often cast in apocalyptical terms, with the U.S. cast in the role of God's chosen people, who will face His judgment raining down on us, as in Sodom and Gomorrah, if we do not repent.  This forlorn hope, a nostalgic, nationalistic fantasized idealization of a recent past, is not realism at all, but simply utopianism of the conservative stripe.
Michael del Sapio, in a recent article has something interesting things to say about our decline.  I took note of the article because of his reference to Jacob Burckhardt, a historian I first read twenty-five years ago. Burckhardt:
I have no hope at all for the future.  I am tired of the modern world. I want to escape them all, the radicals, the communists, the industrialists, the overeducated, the fastidious…the -ists and -ers of every kind.
The author notes that “a sick, worn-out mood dominated intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century, a feeling that the Western cultural tradition was going to seed. This is in contradiction to our often rosy view of the nineteenth century as a time of progress, relative peace, and self-confidence.”  He sees several explanations of the West’s cultural atrophy:  loss of a spiritual core, simple exhaustion from striving after progress and change--in time, “all the possibilities are exhausted,” and creativity being drained away by material comfort and opulence.  
The main point of del Sapio’s article is that our decline has been in place for far longer than those who see only recent developments. And I would add that the roots of decay run so deep that they transcend traditional political remedies.

Since the late nineteenth century, each generation has managed to put enough gas in the vehicle of Western culture to keep it going. But in any decline, one eventually reaches rock bottom. The question facing us is, have we now reached it? The jadedness, ennui, and mind-numbed distraction of many modern people—a tableau of decadence mimicking The Romans of the Decadence—seems to suggest that we have. The only response to such a situation is what Jacob Burckhardt did: rediscover, hoard, and cherish the cultural treasures of our past.
As John Lukacs observed, living at the end of an age is not such a bad thing, if you are aware of it.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Boyhood of Cyrus

"A Dance to the Music of Time," Nicholas Poussin
For well over 30 years, I have been a fan of the English novelist Anthony Powell.  A prolific writer, he is best known for the twelve novels he wrote between 1951 and 1975, known collectively as A Dance to the Music of Time.  I have read through them at least three times, or perhaps four, and hope to do so at least one more time.  My son is slowly working his way through the Dance while in Tbilisi.  He is about halfway through.  I have a complete collection of first editions, as well as a Folio set, but the copies I read from are four thickish volumes, each containing three of the novels.  They were my introduction to Powell back in the early 1980s.  I am a founding member of the Anthony Powell Society, as well.  So you could well say that I am a serious Powellian.

The series takes its name from the painting by Nicholas Poussin, and indeed art plays a prominent role in the weaving of Powell's narrative.  The opening passage describes a street scene evoking images of Poussin's Dance, and the ultimate passage in the twelfth volume is a conversation within a London art gallery.  In between, there are countless encounters with, and allusions to art and artists, both real and fictional.  Charles Stringham's Modigliani appears regularly in the narrative, but my favorite has to be The Boyhood of Cyrus by Edgar Bosworth Deacon.  The work appears early in the narrative, and the irascible Deacon is a recurring character in some of the earlier novels.  He is somewhat at war with the modernists and paints in a classical and realistic style, falling somewhere between Alma-Tadema and Burne-Jones.  By the 1920s, this sort of thing was long out of favor, having lost out to modernism.  But by the end of the series--in the early 1970s--Deacon's work had undergone a reappraisal, was being snatched-up by collectors, and the subject of "retrospective" exhibits.  As The Boyhood of Cyrus was the fictional work of a fictional artist, I could only picture it in my mind's eye.

I suppose I have always enjoyed art, if in a casual way.  From my earliest childhood, I remember visits to my great-aunt's house.  Each of my parents, on their own schedules, were in the habit of dropping by for a quick visit there on trips between our house and the farm.  The aunt's house was the simplest of four-room affairs, with no running water.  A quilt frame hang over the bed in my great-aunt's mother's room.  This was where we visited.  My attention was always drawn to an oval picture hanging in the back corner--a sentimentalized pastoral scene depicting two swans gliding across a reed-enclosed glade.  No doubt it was only an inexpensive print, but to me it was a thing of beauty, and I knew that we had noting to compare with it in my home.
"The Beheading of St. John the Baptist," by Puvis de Chavannes

I have been very fortunate in life to have visited a number of great art museums.  Only in recent years, however, have I been able to intelligently categorize the type of painting I appreciate.  My wife and I were at the Met in New York City back in 2015.  A snowstorm had blown in, which delayed our arrival and necessitated leaving in a timely manner.  And so, I spent my limited time upstairs with the Great Masters.  Then earlier this year, when in New Haven, I took the train into the City and returned to the Met.  I went directly to the wing housing the work of the European artists of the 18th and 19th century.  This might not be to everyone's taste, but I realized that I had found my artistic home.  I was introduced to new artists--Gustave Moreau, Edward Burne-Jones, and most of all, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.  The Met owns four of this latter artist's work--The Shepherd's Song, Allegory, Cider, and Sleep.  I stood, almost in amazement, at these paintings.  Once I returned home, I began to familiarize myself with Puvis de Chavannes' body of work.  Then in May of this year, when in England, I made a special trip to Birmingham to the Barber Institute.  Without this museum, I can assure you that there would have been no reason for a detour to this city.  I did so because the Barber Institute contains, among other excellent paintings, Puvis de Chavannes' The Beheading of John the Baptist.

To return to Anthony Powell, when pursuing the odd Powelliana online, I recently came across this site.  The writer muses on the fictitious The Boyhood of Cyrus, and which real life painter and painting could have served as Powell's inspiration for Deacon and his work.  Perhaps it should not have surprised me, but he suggested Pierre de Chavannes and his Ludes Pro Patria.  In some way, I found this satisfying, the way things had come full circle.
"Ludes Pro Patria," by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Cultus

A typical Romanian wagon
During my recent travels around Romania, I was reminded of the Orthodox custom of crossing oneself whenever passing a church. I know this is not unique to Romania, for Georgians have the same practice.  I observed this throughout the country--from Bucharest to Curtea de Arges, to Siniai, to Brasov, to Sighisoara, to Suceava, to Iasi, and back to Bucharest.  I detected no discernible difference between urban and rural areas.  To be sure, not everyone does it, but enough people do it that it is noticeable to the casual observer.

This custom does not come naturally to Orthodox Americans, and the reason is pretty obvious.  While one might pass several Orthodox churches in a small Romanian village, and in many of these locales, everything is strung out along one main road.  In the U.S., you can easily drive 100 miles between churches, and even so, the Orthodox churches would have to be sought out.  In this context, crossing yourself while passing churches is a hard habit to form.  When in Romania, at least, I assumed the custom and enjoyed being able to do so.

While driving through Romania, you quickly become accustomed to the ubiquitous Romanian wagons on the roads--long, almost canoe or dug-out shaped carts, open-ended on the rear.  Romania is rich agriculturally, but I saw little in the way of mechanized farming.  I observed lots of hay and grain being cut by scythes and gathered by hand.  Only in Moldova--south of Iasi--did I really see anything in the way of tractors and harvesters and hay bailers.  And I did not see a single pickup truck in the country.  So these wagons are absolutely necessary for hauling any number of things down the road: hay, equipment, small livestock, children, or mothers-in-law.  The sheer number of these one-horse carts does not necessarily imply backwardness.  Many of the riders were as modern looking as anyone, perhaps talking on their cell phone as they clip-clop down the road.  I did not take advantage of the countless opportunities to snap a photograph of these carts on the back roads of Romania.  I have always refused to treat people as if they were quaint photographic props.

I visited seven monasteries in Bucovina alone.  The neglected and down-at-its-heels Arbore Monastery was the only one that was not a going concern, with monastics in residence.  I pulled off the road and was locking the car before going through the gate.  Two carts approached me, each with two adults in the driver's seat and a wagon load of children behind.  These Romanians were clearly what we call "country people," a bit poorer in dress than many I saw.  As they drew even with the abandoned monastery, all of them--and there were ten to twelve altogether--started crossing themselves.  As each of them did it three times, it was a bit hard to miss!

No doubt, some readers will shake their heads over this, dismissing it as a silly superstition, if not an outright cultish practice.  Well, I will reject the superstition argument out of hand, but I fully embrace the accusation of cultishness.  Christopher Dawson, one of the greatest historians of the last century (or any other century, for that matter), always maintained that the "cultus" (the cult, or religion, if you will) came first.  From this foundation, a culture emerged.  Given enough time and favorable condition, the culture could blossom into an actual civilization.  But then something very interesting sometimes happens.  The civilization, in its hubris, thinks that it was self-creating, and its verities self-evident.  Having no more need for the cult, it kicks it away.  Of course, what happens next is what always happens when a foundation is destroyed--the superstructure begins to crumble and fragment.  This fragmentation is where we are now as a country--albeit with the appearance of a myriad of new cults.  But they are all cults of Self, and offer no foundation with any real permanence.
Romania has lots of problems.  Four millions of its citizens live elsewhere, in order to simply survive.  The country needs good governance, jobs and security--and of course, by this I mean jobs offering a livable wage.  But as long as their citizens still cross themselves while passing their churches, I wonder if they don't have strengths that elude us in our bracing age.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

(5) In Mercia

Mercia was one of the kingdoms of the old Saxon Heptarchy.  Their boundaries were fluid, but roughly corresponded with the region known today as the Midlands.  The Mercians played the role of spoilers in the history of Dark Age Britain.  Late-comers to Christianity, they warred against all their neighbors, though it seems the Welsh kingdoms benefited from having them as buffers against the other Saxons and Scandinavian invaders.  The Mercians brought down the nascent Northumbrian civilization, and were for a couple of generations, the preeminent power on the island, before themselves succumbing to ascendant House of Wessex.  Mercian history does not elicit much sympathy, having neither the chroniclers of old Northumbria, nor the romance of the House of Alfred.  I would have liked to have visited sites associated with Aethelflaed "Maid of Mercia, the extraordinary daughter of Alfred the Great.  Those sites, such as they are, presented too much of a logistical stretch, though I did visit the early Norman church at Kilpeck, and the Saxon churches at Deerhurst, Repton, Breedon and Brixworth, as well as the Cathedral of St. Alban's.

In addition, to my Saxon sites, I also made one of only two forays into urban areas (the other being in Newcastle).  I drove into Birmingham, and visited the Barbour Institute on the University of Birmingham campus.  The museum is of modest size, free, and absolutely exquisite.  I like nothing better than visiting art museums.  I am not an art scholar, but I know what I like--and what I do not.  Although I am very fond of impressionism, I have no taste for modernism, nor its early antecedents.  What I appreciate, I now know, is referred to as the "realist" school, to contrast them with modernism.  The latter won out, unfortunately, for a 100 years or so, and the realists of the 19th-century were largely overlooked or discounted.  They are coming back into their own now, however, and the Barbour Institute has them in droves, as well as many by the Old Masters.  My favorites, below:

"The Crucifixion" by Cima da Conegliano

"The Beheading of St. John the Baptist" by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

"The Blue Bower" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

"Paolo and Francesca" by J. A. D. Ingres
"The Visitation" by Veronese

"Ecce Homo" by Anthony van Dyck

"The Marriage at Cana" by Bartholme Esteban Murillo

"Isaac Blessing Jacob" by Matthias Stom

The Parish Church of St. Mary and St. David at Kilpeck lies just across the border from Wales into Herefordshire.  The church is noted for its unique outer stone carvings.  The Church of St. Mary and St. David dates to the year 1143, during the "Time of Troubles."  The interior, of course, has been stripped bare and scrubbed, so that it is as stark as most any other Anglican church you would visit.  The allure of Kilpeck, however, is in its exterior carvings--particularly framing the south door, and along the roof line all around the building.  The artistry is an intriguing mixture of Christian, Celtic, and animalistic imagery.  There is even a Sheela-na-gog.  Visitors end up walking around the outside of the church, their eyes craned to make out the sculptures high above.  The site itself is idyll, adjacent to a ruined castle and a small cluster of houses, surrounded by fields and meadows.  But like I say, the attraction here is all on the outside of the church.

The Church of St. Mary's at Deerhurst is one of the larger churches from the Saxon era.  The church appears to be the center of active parish life.  The structure has been the subject of quite a bit of archaeological investigation through the years.  For example, researchers using advanced technology have shown that St. Mary's was awash in color during the Middle Ages--dramatically at variance with the drap interior today.  There seems to be a growing realization of just how much was destroyed and lost during the English Reformation.  One of the treasures of the church is an immense, intricately carved Saxon font from the mid 8th-century.  I also noted that an Orthodox iconographer had donated an icon of St. Alphege to the church (as he was connected to it).  It seemed to me that they didn't know what to do with it, exactly, but they did have it on a stand in one of the back corners.
"Peasants Bundling Faggots" by Pieter Breughel the Younger

Repton is a Norman church, but it is built over a Saxon crypt dating back to the early 8th century and only rediscovered in 1779.  The crypt served as the burial vault for Mercian royalty, including St. Wystan, murdered in 849.  The stairway going down into the crypt was not lighted, so I had to feel my way down.  Once into the crypt proper, I lit a candle on the candle stand that illuminated the room.  Sir John Betjeman described the space as "holy air encased in stone."  The crypt with its graceful columns and alcoves does not fail to impress.  I wandered around a bit, said a prayer to St. Wystan, and started to ascend the stone steps to the ground floor.  I was startled and briefly alarmed to see that the pathway was shut tight.  I went back into the crypt, looked around for an explanation, and then realized that I had descended from a stairwell on the other side of the crypt.  I quickly scurried up into the daylight.




8th-cetury Saxon font, Deerhurst
The Church of St. Mary and St. Hardulph at Breedon on the Hill was a favorite of mine.  The church is perched atop a lone hill outside the village of Breedon.  A Saxon church existed here by the beginning of the 8th-century.  The present structure dates only to the 13th-century, but contains remarkable Saxon stone frieze carvings from the earlier church.  In all, there are 63 feet of these carvings, which have been called the equivalent of the Lindesfarne Gospels in stone.  A separate carving, known as the Breedon Angel, is considered to be one of he best examples of Saxon art, though unfortunately hidden away from view in the locked tower.  
St. Wystan, Repton

 All Saints Church at Brixworth has the distinction of being the largest surviving Saxon church.  The  structure has been little changed on the outside since its construction in the 8th-century.  Of course, the extensive monastic complex which the church once anchored is long gone.  There is nothing of particular interest in interior of the church, however.  All Saints is as bare and austere as any church I visited.  The church has a relic of St. Boniface, and Orthodox and Catholics make pilgrimages here because of that.  The church volunteers I encountered, however, really did not know about it, or where it had been tucked away.  They didn't know seem to know much about the historical significance of the church either.
In the Saxon crypt, Repton

I avoided cathedrals on this trip.  I made an exception with St. Alban's, as it retains the shrine to the British protomartyr.  I have mixed feelings about St. Albans.  If you enjoy cathedrals, then St. Albans should certainly be on your list.  It is reputed to be the longest in England, and the soaring interior is as impressive as any.  And prior to the Reformation, St. Alban's was the premier English Benedictine abbey.   By the 19th-century, the immense building was in near ruins.  Wealthy benefactors saved the church, though with some questionable restorations.  

These soaring Gothic cathedrals no longer impress me as they once did.  Even large Orthodox cathedrals (Sameba in Tbilisi, Alexsandr Nevsky in Sofia, for example) have an intimacy to them that is foreign to the cathedrals in the West.  The best explanation I have heard about this difference in sensation is that while the Gothic cathedral seeks to reach the heavens, the Orthodox cathedral seeks to contain the cosmos.  And so, I found the very size of St. Alban's to be off-putting.  There are a dozen things going on at once inside--multiple tours, plant sales, a gift shop, a cafe (off to the side), concerts, classes, masses, and lots and lots of pleas for contributions in a thinly-veiled and almost desperate attempt to raise fund to maintain this pile.  I found the shrine to St. Alban behind the main altar.  (Another nave and altar lay east of that.)  An organist was plying his trade in the easternmost nave.  I do not like organ music.  Not even a little bit.  I attempted to block out the noise while I venerated the relics of St. Alban, along with a Filipino woman and her small child.  
Saxon frieze-work, Breedon-on-the-Hill

One intriguing aspect of St. Alban's is the Nave Screen Martyrs Statues.  There's something here for just about everybody:  St. Alban, St. Amphibalus, George Tankerfield, St. Alban Roe, St. Elizabeth Romanova, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Blessed Oscar Romero.  

St. Alban
Shrine of St. Alban, St. Alban's Cathedral
In conclusion, I do not believe I experienced enough of Mercia to draw any noteworthy conclusions.  I dipped into the region from Wales, and then looped through it again coming from the North of England down into East Anglia.  The region was not the main focus of my travels, and I did not stay overnight there.  There are certainly some Saxon treasures in Mercia, but you have to look for them.
All Saints, Brixworth