Saturday, December 29, 2018


In Drawn and Quartered by E.M. Cioran, I noticed the the paragraph
The real writer writes about beings, things, events, he does not write about writing, he uses words but does not linger over them, making them the object of his ruminations. He will be anything and everything except an anatomist of the Word. Dissection of language is the fad of those who, having nothing to say, confine themselves to saying.
 That recalls Flann O'Brien, who wrote
Yes. Twenty years ago, most of us were tortured by the inadequacy of even the most civilized, the most elaborate, the most highly developed languages to the exigencies of human thought,  to the nuances of inter-psychic communion, to the the expression of the silent agonised pathologies of the post-Versailles epoch....
As far as I remember, I founded the Rathmines branch of the Gaelic league. Having nothing to say, I thought at that time that it was important to revive a distant language in which nothing could be said.
Yet is Cioran correct? The dangers of Alexandrianism lie on one side, yes. But on the other side there lie the dangers of too much trust in words and language to do what one counts on them to do, the possibility of thinking that one is writing something original when one is repeating the gestures of a writer of fifty or a hundred years ago.

Drawn and Quartered, I will add, has the wonderful paragraph
"A taste for the extraordinary is characteristic of mediocrity." (Diderot) . . . And we are still amazed that the Enlightenment had no understanding of Shakespeare.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Joseph Plumb Martin

On Sunday, that being the Third Sunday of Advent in the third year of the liturgical cycle (a "C" year), Roman Catholic congregations heard verses read from the third chapter of St. Luke, including
Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”
Joseph Plumb Martin, in his memoir of service in the Revolutionary War, wrote of hearing part of the passage during bad times in 1777:
While we lay here there was a Continental thanksgiving ordered by Congress; and as the army had all the cause in the world to be particularly thankful, if not for being well off, at least, that it was no worse, we were ordered to participate in it. We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous, except what the trees of the fields and forests afforded us. But we must now have what Congress said—a sumptuous thanksgiving to close the year of high living, we had now nearly seen brought to a close. Well—to add something extraordinary to our present stock of provisions, our country, ever mindful of its suffering army, opened her sympathizing heart so wide, upon this occasion, as to give us something to make the world stare. And what do you think it was, reader?—Guess.—You cannot guess, be you as much of a Yankee as you will. I will tell you: it gave each and every man half a gill of rice, and a table spoon full of vinegar!! After we had made sure of this extraordinary superabundant donation, we were ordered out to attend a meeting, and hear a sermon delivered upon the happy occasion. We accordingly went, for we could not help it. I heard a sermon, a "thanksgiving sermon," what sort of one I do not know now, nor did I at the time I heard it, I had something else to think upon, my belly put me in remembrance of the fine thanksgiving dinner I was to partake of when I—could get it—I remember the text, like an attentive lad at church, I can still remember that, it was this, "And the soldiers said unto him, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, nor accuse any one falsely." The Preacher ought to have added the remainder of the sentence to have made it complete; "And be content with your wages." But that would not do, it would be too appropos; however, he heard it as soon as the service was over, it was shouted from a hundred tongues
The message evidently goes over better with soldiers who do receive wages. And I doubt the chaplain dressed in camel hair and lived on locusts and wild honey.

The Continental soldiers were not above some sharp practice when foraging, but seem to have lacked the heart for extortion:
I do not remember that during the time I was employed in this business, which was from christmas to the latter part of April, ever to have met with the least resistance from the inhabitants, take what we would from their barns, mills, corncribs, or stalls; but when we came to their stables, then look out for the women; take what horse you would, it was one or the other's "pony" and they had no other to ride to church; and when we had got possession of a horse we were sure to have half a dozen or more women pressing upon us, until by some means or other, if possible, they would slip the bridle from the horse's head, and then we might catch him again if we could. They would take no more notice of a charged bayonet than a blind horse would of a cocked pistol; it would answer no purpose to threaten to kill them with the bayonet or musket, they knew as well as we did that we would not put our threats in execution, and when they had thus liberated a horse (which happened but seldom) they would laugh at us and ask us why we did not do as we threatened, kill them, and then they would generally ask us into their houses and treat us with as much kindness as though nothing had happened.
Martin served in some pitched battles, from Brooklyn Heights through Monmouth to Yorktown. Mostly, though, what one notices in his memoirs is the hard service and the lack of provisions, sound clothing, shelter, and pay. In his concluding chapter, he wrote,
But what did we ever realize of all this ample store:—why, perhaps a coat, (we generally did get that,) and one or two shirts, the same of shoes and stockings, and, indeed, the same may be said of every other article of clothing—a few dribbled out in a regiment, two or three times in a year, never getting a whole suit at a time, and all of the poorest quality; and blankets of thin baize, thin enough to have straws shot through without discommoding the threads. How often have I had to lie whole stormy cold nights in a wood, on a field, or a bleak hill, with such blankets and other clothing like them, with nothing but the canopy of the heavens to cover me, me, all this too in the heart of winter, when a New-England farmer, if his cattle had been in my situation, would not have slept a wink from sheer anxiety for them.
Oftentimes have I gone one, two, three, and even four days without a morsel, unless the fields or forests might chance to afford enough to prevent absolute starvation. Often, when I have picked the last grain from the bones of my scanty morsel, have I eat the very bones, as much of them as possibly could be eaten, and then have had to perform some hard and fatiguing duty, when my stomach has been as craving as it was before I had eaten any thing at all.
...reader, believe me, for I tell a solemn truth, that I have felt more anxiety, undergone more fatigue and hardships, suffered more every way, in performing one of those tedious marches, than ever I did in fighting the hottest battle was ever engaged in, with the anticipation of all the other calamities I have mentioned added to it.
For all that, Martin lived to be 90.  His memoir, The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, written when he was about 70, is available in a number of inexpensive paperback editions, and can be read online at Wikisource.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Chronic Discoveries

John Jay Chapman wrote in 1898 that
The history of these chronic discoveries of Whitman as a poet, as a force, as a something or a somebody, would write up into the best possible monograph on the incompetence of the Anglo-Saxon in matters of criticism.
About 1950, Randall Jarrell wrote that
Serious readers, people who are ashamed of not knowing all Hopkins by heart, are not at all ashamed to say, "I don't really know Whitman very well." This may harm Whitman in your eyes, they know, but that is a chance that poets have to take.
Having written that, he went on to write a score of pages discovering Whitman for his time. The essay, "Reflections on Whitman", is collected in Poetry and the Age.

By Jarrell's day, the Anglo-Saxons, or at any rate the Americans, had come to think of themselves as pretty fair critics. He published two books of criticism during his life, and his heirs brought out a couple later. Yet he complained that many among the reading public had come to prefer reading the criticism to reading the works criticized: the essay "The Age of Criticism", also collected in Poetry and the Age, discusses just that.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Abbot Aidan Shea, O.S.B., 1930-2018

This morning, I drove across town to the Requiem Mass for Abbot Aidan Shea, O.S.B. The St. Anselm's gymnasium was well-filled. Mostly of course, it was filled by laity, largely connected with the school as students and alumni, their parents, and often enough the children or grandchildren of alumni. (Abbot Aidan had officiated at the weddings of some of those children's parents or grandparents.) There were plenty of clergy: the monks of the abbey of course; a bishop, a secular priest or two, a Franciscan, some nuns, and a couple of men who by their hats must have been in Orthodox or Uniate orders. Abbot Aidan was a Benedictine for sixty years less eight days. He had served as abbot of St. Anselm's for sixteen years ending in 2006. For all I know, his titular abbacy of Tewkesbury Abbey may have continued until his death.

One of the two eulogists was a former student. He was not a child, having first encountered the then Brother Aidan as his third-form Latin teacher in the late 1950s. Most of the eulogy had to do with Fr. Aidan as friend, but he touched on other aspects: the priest, the homilist, the lover of animals. Among many most interesting things, he said that in sixth-form Latin he was "shutting down" from boredom with Virgil. Father Aidan considered the case, and set him to reading Juvenal, which was "sarcastic, rude, vulgar, right up my alley." His studies then went on smoothly.

I gather that Abbot Aidan was a remarkable teacher. My own acquaintance with him was slight. John Jay Chapman quotes an "old and very fussy" scholar at Oxford as saying of William James, "But he certainly has the face of a sage." Abbot Aidan had that, and the presence of a wise and holy man. The abbey has a brief,  readable notice on its website

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Very Thin Book

NYRB has brought out A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939-1940, assembled from the diaries of Iris Origo by Lucy Hallett-Hughes. I do not regret buying the book, but it strikes me as very thin for $15.95-- there are 146 pages, not counting the introduction by Ms. Hallett-Hughes and the afterword by Origo's granddaughter Katia Lysy.  The diary entries are perceptive and well-phrased; one sees how some, perhaps many, Italians thought as Italy drifted towards war; yet the entries are few enough, and I should say that they do not carry the heft of those in War in Val d'Orcia, written when Origo was again a perceptive spectator but also a participant with heavy responsibilities and in real danger. There is little new information in the foreword for anyone who has  read Origo's Images and Shadows, and less for anyone who has read Caroline Moorehead's biography of her. The granddaughter's afterword does have some curious information about Origo's habits of work and her eccentricities.

I wonder whether NYRB might not have done better to bring A Chill in the Air out in a single volume with War in Val d'Orcia, which it has also recently brought back into print. Yet I can see that chronology would demand that the diaries of 1939 and 1940 precede those of 1943 and 1944; and some readers might quit before War in Val d'Orcia, which is by far the more substantial book.

The person who has read either War in Val d'Orcia or Images and Shadows will find A Chill in the Air worth the small price and brief reading time. The person who has read none of Origo's memoirs would do better to start with War in Val d'Orcia, to see why one might wish to read her writings, and then go on to Images and Shadows for a fuller picture of her and her world.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Poet, Meet Pedant

A book club I know read Michael Ondaatje's Warlight, so a copy has been at hand in the living room. The club, I hear, on the whole enjoyed the book. I read in a steady condition of irritation. In this book, Ondaatje seems to prefer the portentous phrase to the accurate one, and his grasp of fact, where I can test it, is shaky. I concede that he may be playing a deeper game that I just don't grasp, but I doubt it. The novel is set for the most part in the middle to late 1940s.

Portentous: the author's mother, having done intelligence work during the war, is said to have listened "with her ears pressed against the complicated frequencies of a radio's headset." I don't know that the frequencies used for transmission were any more complicated than those of other electromagnetic radiation; and in the headphones one heard the frequencies of the human voice, probably simplified through loss in encoding and decoding. (Or one heard Morse, which required only simple frequencies.)

At a slow river, the day after bombs fell nearby,  "the water was flat, undamaged." Without the impulse of wind or a steep enough gradient, water is in general flat. And what can it mean to damage water? One can muddy or pollute water, but I never heard even the foulest rivers spoken of as "damaged".

A character "felt raised a league or a fathom into the air". Which? A league is three miles, a fathom is six feet, so a league contains is at least 2,640 fathoms, more if the miles are nautical rather than statute.

Facts: Early on, one encounters a man known as the Darter: under the nickname "The Pimlico Darter" he had some years before been the best welterweight north of the Thames. I suppose that I could have said with Jake Barnes, "Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title," and forgotten it. But in twenty or so pages, the Darter is described as tall. To box as a welterweight, one must weigh in at no more than 147 pounds. Welterweights are seldom tall as America judges height, or as I suppose England did.

In the Bibliothèque Mazarine, in entering which one somehow "entered the fifteenth century" (Mazarin was born in 1602), a character reflects that he prefers "older maps that are cityless, marked only by contour lines so that they can even now be used for accurate reconnaissance." The oldest maps with contour lines are from the nineteenth century.

An ethnographer (among her other vocations) "had risen into a dark sky infested with other gliders that shuddered in the air as brittle as glass, in order to listen to how porous the wind was and search for rainless light, so they could postpone or confirm the invasion."  How does one grade the porosity of wind, and are the gliders as brittle as glass, or is it the air? The gliders were fragile enough; but I believe that a) the meteorological observations for D-Day were made largely by ships on the Atlantic, and b) the only gliders then in the air in numbers that could could count as "infesting" were not observing weather but carrying troops.

A young expectant mother, reluctant to carry on her work as a waitress, finds work at an explosives plant. (I'm not sure that this is what the medical profession would suggest.) She works near "the Great Nitrator, in which nitroglycerine had been made for two centuries." Nitroglycerine was first synthesized in 1846.

And in general the notions of intelligence and counter-intelligence are silly. British intelligence as imagined by Ondaatje seems to have no idea of compartmentalization, of the sharing of data on a need-to-know basis. The same woman monitors transmissions from allied agents, broadcasts coded instructions, and carries out hazardous operations in the field. Agents knowing a great deal about sensitive operations are allowed to fall into the hands of hostile groups. I could go on, but won't.

Or is this all an elaborate leg-pull? There is nothing wrong with a bit of deliberate, elegant silliness. Yet the masters of that style--I think of Flann O'Brien in At Swim-Two-Birds or Gilbert Sorrentino in Mulligan Stew--make it clearer what is going on.