Friday, May 28, 2010

The Letters of the Right Honourable Lady Mary Wortley Montague (1790); Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe (1676)

Two English ladies, living two generations apart, travel half the world in pursuance of their husbands' careers. Lady Mary made a circuit from London through the Low Countries to Austria to Hungary to the Ottoman capital, and from there via the Mediterranean to north Africa, Italy, and thence to Paris and then home; all this over the course of about two years, 1716-1718, while her husband was an ambassador. In the 1650s and 1660s, Lady Fanshawe covered less ground but also had a rougher time of it, for the English Civil War you might say crafted her itinerary. Her husband, later the baronet Sir Richard Fanshawe, sided with the monarchy against Oliver Cromwell, and so the couple spent a great deal of time during the Commonwealth beating about from England to the Netherlands to France to Spain -- anywhere royal heads were still safe -- raising money for the dispossessed prince who, on Cromwell's death, became King Charles II.

Both women wrote books which, if not timeless repositories of wisdom, are nevertheless remarkable time capsules of life and adventure in their respective eras. Lady Mary's Letters are the more interesting to read, since she was a better, indeed a delightful writer who not only performed at concert pitch for an audience of great friends like Alexander Pope himself, but also carefully chose and polished what she wanted posterity to see. Her book only came out decades after her death. She was probably a fun person to be around, too, if perhaps a little snooty. She loves being the clear-eyed, liberated and logical Protestant Englishwoman, asking tough questions of the friars showing her holy relics in Bavarian churches. If the church possesses, for instance, both the mantle of a saint and a silver-plated griffin's claw, does that mean the griffin was also a saint? Her host smiled abashedly.

Lady Fanshawe, however, probably led a more interesting life, at least to the reader sitting in comfort and clicking through her Memoirs on a Kindle. (What would the ladies have thought about that?) In old age, she wrote in firm but somewhat pedestrian style of all the things that had happened to her on her travels, almost week by week, for years. She wrote for her one surviving son, so there are many family details that he could have untangled better than we can do. She seems to have had no desire to please a fretful posterity with gay, polished summations: these memoirs were meant to honor her late husband, and so she fleshed out anything and everything that concerned him, right down to the apparently photographic memories of official state ceremonies (he was an ambassador, too), and to what guards wore which uniforms, and what the people lining the dusty roads, cheering, looked like.

Yet what with the travel and the narrow escapes and the forged passports, the shipwrecks and the perpetual hunt for money, one wonders how the former Ann Harrison herself stood it. Perhaps she found it wonderfully "interesting" too, and all for the service of a noble and godly prince. Perhaps seventeenth century Englishwomen were simply made of sterner stuff than we can imagine. I would think after a while, the adventures would simply turn ghastly, and the reward of reaching a career in the wasp's nest of Stuart diplomacy, only to find betrayal and disgrace there, would finally break anyone's spirit. The twenty pregnancies added in must have been small help in times of family turmoil. (For her part Lady Mary, in the course of her Letters, appears to have had two.) Six miscarriages, including a set of triplet boys, fourteen births, withal four survivals to adulthood: Lady Fanshawe recounts them all, and notes in every case when death happened and where "my son" or "my daughter" is buried. For one decade-long stretch, she lost a child, on average, every two years.

It's best to let these ladies speak for themselves, but before listening to them, it's also wise to note one way in which both their eras now overlap our own. It lies in their experience of Islam. For several centuries now, we Westerners, we Americans especially, have been able to develop an amnesia about Islam because we have not much encountered it. Until very recently, the U.S. Marines' hymn's lyrics about "the shores of Tripoli" might have been the only (and beyond oblique) reference to Islam remotely a part of American life. We are accustomed instead to religion as a sedate, gentle human construct -- each one a part of the civic fabric -- and to understanding that everyone simply agrees, one day a week, to let one another worship peacefully where all choose, all faiths being essentially the same: benign.

Islam is different, and our ancestors saw it. Lady Fanshawe, sailing from England to the safety of the Continent circa 1650, knew that the approach of a Turkish vessel meant the real threat of a combat, capture, and slavery. "When we had just passed the Straits, we saw coming towards us, with full sails, a Turkish galley well manned, and we believed we should all be carried away slaves ...." She was not a hyperventilating Islamophobe. The Muslim slave trade was vigorous to say the very least. Two generations later, Lady Mary traveled and lived in the Ottoman Empire as a distinguished guest, made great progress in learning Turkish and appears also to have made polite noises when her hosts encouraged her to study "alcoran." She wrote, for public consumption, glowing descriptions of splendidly rich, beautiful cool Turkish homes sumptuously appointed in rare woods and and glowing fabrics, all plashing with fountains, and of fields and gardens blooming in the warm Mediterranean January; she wrote of her cloistered friend, the enchanting Fatima, exquisite and serene.

But she also traveled through the wild Serbian countryside in company with "bassas," imperial Ottoman officials, and their guards, the "janizaries" (slave soldiers, originally kidnapped Christian boys forcibly converted to Islam), both of whom preyed grotesquely on the helpless Serbian peasants. They slaughtered their animals, ate their food, and then charged them "teeth-money," "a contribution for the use of their teeth, worn with doing them the honour of devouring their meat. ... the wretched owners durst not put in their claim, for fear of being beaten." She notes that all this oppression is owing the "natural corruption of a military government, their religion not allowing of this barbarity, any more than ours does." Here, she is wrong. The bassas and the janizaries could certainly have pointed to Islam's laws demanding the jeziya, the tax levied on infidels for being infidels.

And in a section of letters at the end of the book, which seem to have been intended to remain private (from Letter LIII forward -- "Footnote, this and the following letters are now first published"), she is even less sanguine about the wonders of Muslim civilization. Men go in terror of "the vile spirit of their government," which "stifles genius, damps curiosity, and suppresses an hundred passions." Women go in terror of men.

The luscious passion of the seraglio is the only one almost that is gratified here to the full; but it is blended so with the surly spirit of despotism in one of the parties, and with the dejection and anxiety which this spirit produces in the other, that ... it cannot appear otherwise than as a very mixed kind of enjoyment.

Even the lovely Fatima herself is of startling parentage. She is the daughter of a Polish Christian woman, kidnapped and enslaved in one of the many running battles the Ottoman Turks fought in eastern Europe, always lunging for more conquest -- more jihad. Mind you, this was long after the Crusades. They had only just been beaten back from Vienna in 1683, about halfway through our two ladies' flourishings. The date of that Muslim defeat was September 11.

It is all part of a pattern that we have had the luxury of forgetting, a historical truth that was delivered to our attention in short doses during the 1980s and 1990s, and then with ferocious confidence on another September 11. This historical truth is not that Muslims are awful people; it is that Islam is the only major world faith which demands the subjugation of all non-believers, period. When its most passionate adherents take the mandate seriously, war, conquest, enslavement, punitive taxes, and the raising of mosques on other people's sacred sites are the norm. Two vigorous, educated women, living in the most civilized cities in Europe three and four hundred years ago, saw normative Islam in action on their travels in Europe. They recorded it, matter-of-factly. Pay attention to these voices, for, not only can they help cure us of our pleasant and dangerous amnesia, but the more you read in old books, the more you'll find these ladies are just two of a surprisingly large company of witnesses.

But, we said we would let them speak for themselves. They did take notice of less deadly subjects. They enjoyed audiences with royal personages, cast a jaundiced eye over other women's dresses and hair, attended archery demonstrations among court ladies, went to the opera. The great disadvantage of reading on a Kindle is that you cannot ruffle back and forth through the pages. You have to click about, one little screen at a time, and you forget things. I had forgotten that Lady Mary, gadding regally about, saw the ruins -- or what she believed were the ruins -- of both Troy and Carthage. For a gentlewoman of the Augustan age and a friend of Pope, this must have been a supremely pleasing experience. And early on in her travels, she wrote with delight of Vienna as a garden spot for mature women:

A woman, till five and thirty, is only looked upon as a raw girl, and can possibly make no noise in the world, till about forty. I don't know what your ladyship may think of this matter; but 'tis a considerable comfort to me, to know there is upon earth such a paradise for old women; and I am content to be insignificant at present, in the design of returning when I am fit to appear no where else.

And as for the storm-tossed Lady Fanshawe, wife of a Stuart cavalier from the age of sixteen, this is her first meal after a shipwreck, and she's enraptured to get it:

... we sat up and made good cheer; for beds they had none, and we were so transported that we thought we had no need of any, but we had very good fires, and Nantz white wine, and butter,and milk, and walnuts and eggs, and some very bad cheese; and was not this enough, with the escape of shipwreck, to be thought better than a feast? I am sure until that hour I never knew such pleasure in eating, between which we a thousand times repeated what we had spoken when every word seemed to be our last.

These women lived lives, if I may mix a metaphor, at full throttle and without a safety net. Lady Fanshawe and her husband were glad to start married life with a fortune of £20 cash, which he used to buy pen and paper, the tools of his trade (diplomacy). For her part, Lady Mary wrote her friends, half-jokingly, that she hoped to survive the trip from Vienna through Hungary to Peterwaradin in Serbia, in the depths of winter, but that it would make her of necessity incommunicado for a while. Her steely, un-self-pitying address to a correspondent could sum up any one day or year that either of these two ladies ever lived through: "Adieu, dear sister: this is the last account you will have from me of Vienna. If I survive my journey, you shall hear from me again. I can say, with great truth, ... 'I have long learnt to hold myself as nothing'; but when I think of the fatigue my poor infant must suffer, I have all a mother's fondness in my eyes, and all her tender passions in my heart."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Typhoon by Joseph Conrad

The sea story. The fo'c'sle and the mizzenmast, the bosun and the 'tween-decks. The storm.

I have tremendous respect for Joseph Conrad, even though I never could finish Lord Jim. I understand that Conrad muscled himself into being a gorgeous stylist of English prose, and an utterly natural recorder of English dialogue, despite not knowing the language until he was twenty (he was born a Polish aristocrat). Still, there is something about the sea story that must only appeal to a limited cadre of readers. If you have lived on a boat and loved it, perhaps you're the cadre; but in that case you would not need the careful descriptions of rigging, pistons, and booms. They are for the landlubber, and more power to Conrad and his fellow sea-writers for trying to make it all clear to us. The trouble is, after a while, all the fo'c'sle talk does become so enervating. It would be as if an ordinary writer were to tell a tale set in a house, and painstakingly depict everything about how the faucets and the doorknobs work. Perhaps, by definition, the writer of sea stories is no ordinary writer.

In Typhoon, Conrad sets himself the task of recording two things, apart from the fo'c'sle talk which sets the stage. He records the reactions of a good, competent, but by no means dazzling man, to his first life-and-death challenge from his chosen element, the sea. We know that Captain MacWhirr ran away to be a sailor when he was fifteen, and has ploddingly loved it and never looked back. Now he is well into middle age. And Conrad tells us, as well as he can, what a typhoon is.

That last is hard to do, though I doubt anyone could do it any better or try any harder. Deafening noise, blackness, the glimpse of huge walls of water approaching the crew on deck, and then the sensation of their weight hitting, which is all the passengers below can know, all give as good an idea as any of a storm that lasts hours, and that seems to take place in some other universe, where calm and sunshine are unknown.

One more obstacle to the landlubber's enjoyment of the sea story, and one that is not remotely Conrad's fault, is the tendency while reading it to remember your undergraduate training in everlastingly analyzing Litt-trah-ture. It poisons good books in any case, but the sea story in particular is so helpless to defend itself against English Lit preciousness. Of course any voyage in a boat represents life. Of course the passengers below decks, scrambling in the midst of the storm to recover their money scattered from the broken chests, represent the futility of man. Since the passengers are "Chinamen," and are brought to order and given lifelines to cling to by the actions of the English captain and crew, I suppose today that must raise shrieks of racism and the condescension of the imperialist West towards the East. Reading the story as Conrad wrote it, and not as the poison of your training has taught you to read it, will be your best corrective here.

At the end we come away, lubbers though we are, with an affection and respect for Captain MacWhirr, unimaginative, untalkative, untried man who had to consult books about typhoons when he noticed the "glass" falling, but in whom the storm finally "met its match." And there are some great lines, lessons really, which stand out partly because they are great and partly because the ex-English major has been trained to spot them. In a lesser author they would merely be precious, attention-please, drumroll prose. In Conrad they are true, and striking. At the beginning, we read,

Captain MacWhirr had sailed over the surface of the oceans as some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror. There are on sea and land such men thus fortunate -- or thus disdained by destiny or by the sea.
But midway through, already things have changed. They have encountered far more than "dirty" weather, and the worst is to come. Expecting he might die, he tells his second in command,

"Don't you be put out by anything. Keep her facing it. They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it -- always facing it -- that's the way to get through. You are a young sailor. Face it. That's enough for any man. Keep a cool head."

"Yes, sir," said Jukes, with a flutter of the heart.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The gigantic universe of book review blogs

And they are often gorgeous looking and are run by people who read seven or eight books a month, even if they are working, pregnant, and also garden and bake. (I do, but I'm not and I certainly don't.) There are monthly or yearly Challenges -- read French historical romances, read Tudor historical novels, read art history, read Jean Plaidy, read graphic novels -- and the happy blogrolls on the sidebars groan (like a sideboard?) with material. For your surfing pleasure, here's just a tiny bit of it:

So Many Books

Victorian Geek

The Duchess of Devonshire's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century -- so charming, but dear Madam, do please attend to your grammar. " ... an heiress whom suffered an unfortunate dancing accident which left her prematurely in the throws of death." It makes Death sound like an eiderdown quilt. And a very slow moving one. If Madam is not a native English speaker, then I apologize.

Enchanted by Josephine

Blogging the Canon (refreshingly male -- not so much about queens and princesses)

Magnificent Octopus

The Blog Jar

Whispering Gums (the tree, or what holds your teeth in place? Not sure.)

Wuthering Expectations (Wow.)

And, an honorable mention for sheer cuteness:

Geoffrey Chaucer hath a blog

I am about to begin Hilaire Belloc's biography of Oliver Cromwell (1934). I aver it, just to prove that my "chops," is that the word? -- are in somewhat good repair.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Human Accomplishment by Charles Murray

A book about what made the greatest works of art and discoveries in science come to be, and why; and why these came to be where and when they did, and at the hands they did. A book, at the end, about whether or not human accomplishment is actually declining, whether or not it is true, as Keats -- Keats! -- lamented, "the count of mighty Poets is made up, the scroll is folded by the Muses ... the world has done its duty" (Endymion, Book II, lines 720 ff).

Human Accomplishment is clear but still difficult, loaded with propositions and proofs drawn from statistics which, far from being "damned lies," show themselves as very logical and reliable tools to help explain how things shake out in the collective human experience. The book is also loaded with painstaking goings-over of every possible exception and argument that might be presented to everything the author says. That is not a fault, far from it of course, it's the sign of an honest and a rigorous mind trying to out-think you before you do. But you'll have to follow along closely in order to keep up with him, through five hundred pages and nearly three thousand years of world cultural history.

Charles Murray starts, as he started The Bell Curve years ago, by insisting that a few basics of his present study are beyond quibble, never mind laymen's quibbling. They exist. In The Bell Curve it was the fact of I.Q., and its measurability. In Human Accomplishment it is the fact of objective excellence in the arts and sciences, and its measurability.

To find and catalogue excellence in the arts and sciences, Murray does something that you or I could have done if we had thought of it. He consults mini-libraries of the definitive encyclopedias on all his topics -- dictionaries of music, of scientific biography, of mathematics, books of the Oxford-Companion-to- sort -- which chronicle the considered judgment of experts in all fields regarding the finest artists, scientists, and mathematicians who ever lived. If any person is important enough to be mentioned in half the sources, he merits inclusion as a "significant figure" in Human Accomplishment. (And as Murray reminds us, if you happen to paint just one canvas, or write one book, that people still look at or quote a hundred years after you die, you are already in a tiny and honorable human minority.) The very, the extraordinarily rare souls who are mentioned in many sources, or even in all, men like Shakespeare, Milton, Galileo, Mozart and Wagner, earn a kind of raw score -- 20, 50, 93, most rarely, 100 -- and are either "major figures" or simply "the giants."

To readers who would object that consulting encyclopedias simply means consulting and trusting the very fallible and prejudiced opinions of men passing on received tastes about great men, Murray replies, no. Excellence is not subjective. Everyone recognizes that difficult human pursuits have standards of achievement, and everyone can think of something in his life in which he is expert, some topic the amateurish treatment of which will bore him. Understanding and accepting the status of a Michael Jordan or a Jack Nicklaus, even if we don't know basketball or golf, means that we are intellectually obliged to understand and accept the status of Michelangelo, agreed upon among people who know art. Or, in everyday terms: you know how you react when a neophyte innocently expands upon some subject that has been the joy of your lifetime.

It's hardly my task to recapitulate Murray's book here, but I must also salute (in some detail) his dealing deftly with that other objection to one of the facts of excellence in human achievement, namely, the modern whine that the majority of the excellent in all the sources unfailingly turn out to be dead white European males, and that this can't be right. But it is. Even very up-to-date scholars who make reputations purporting to disprove it, to "set the record straight," don't actually do so. Consulting new mini-libraries of histories and encyclopedias loaded with carefully researched entries for ambitious but little-known women and non-Europeans still produces lists of the great which agree, statistically, with his lists, loaded in turn with the usual Bachs and Dantes. Murray's simple phrasing here can't be bettered. Looking at the revisionist books attempting to show that artistic and scientific achievement as great as Europe's has happened consistently outside Europe, and has been ignored, he says:
[Revisionist authors'] language evokes the image of an exaggerated European contribution without ever specifying that it is exaggerated. It is standard practice. ...

... Science and Technology in World History presents material on non- European societies. But [the authors] are also trying to present the substance of what crucial things happened where, done by whom. The ten people with the most index entries are, in order, Aristotle, Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Ptolemy, Kepler, Descartes, Euclid, and Archimedes -- a wholly conventional roster of stars. ...

The contrast between the packaging for the books and their actual texts is emblematic of our times. The packaging evokes the way that intellectual fashion says things should be. The facts reflect the way things really are (pp. 254-255).
At the heart of his argument, Murray thus comes to the question: why the preponderance of dead European males at the very pinnacles of literature, music, painting, mathematics, and science? What makes human beings -- what made those men especially -- create and discover grand things, difficult things which benefit mankind, or which still please and teach him centuries and millenia after the giants' deaths?

He carefully works out a formula. You need incomprehensible talent, for one thing. There must be talent of the kind that causes us to gawp at the Sistine chapel ceiling "and ask, how can a human being have done that?" You also need a "monomania" for work. Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven or was it thirty-eight plays, plus all the sonnets plus the long poems, and died at fifty-two. Keats died at twenty-five, Mozart at thirty-five. The poor health and medical care of previous eras is not the point. The point is what these men accomplished even in so little time. They were working, always working, and would have gone on working had they lived to be ninety-nine, as Titian claimed he had.

And, outside the person with talent, you must have a world that gives him a chance. It has nothing to do with a white male world giving a black man or a woman a chance. Talent and a monomania for work can show up in any person, anywhere. Human Accomplishment includes graphs and tables on Chinese painting, Indian philosophy, Arab literature, and more. Part of Murray's theme is that, given even a little time for each generation of humanity to look about it, sublime achievements are not ignored. To the question, for example, why do we not hear more of great women composers? the answer is, there really, really aren't any.

To have a chance, for the talented man or woman with a monomania for work, meant not to be born a subsistence farmer. To have a good chance meant not to be born into a culture which valued duty to family and community -- medieval Islam, Confucian China, even traditional Judaism -- above any inner duty to achieve a personal vocation at any cost. And to have a chance meant to know and contribute to artistic and scientific "structures," ways of working all ready or at least getting ready for the artist or scientist to fill in. The writer needs the structure of the epic poem or later the novel, the composer needs the structure of the symphony. The structures themselves grow out of what Murray calls "meta-inventions," huge mental leaps forward which gave creative people new things to do. In the West the secular observation of nature was one, the development of polyphony (several different lines of melody in one piece of music) another, the working out of linear perspective in painting a third.

And above all, Murray thinks, to foster great accomplishment the talented person needs to be encouraged by his culture to believe that an ultimate Truth, Beauty, and Good exist, which he in turn is personally valuable enough to uncover. Without that confidence, meta inventions don't necessarily happen, and structures can remain empty. It's a kind of double-whammy "aren't things divine/aren't I, too" attitude. It's a religious attitude, shared by hyper-achieving ancient (pagan) Greece and hyper-achieving (Christian) Europe, yet not shared with the same fervor by otherwise deeply religious cultures (Islam), and certainly missing from the modern secular West. Driven out by intellectuals like Freud, Darwin, and John Dewey, who have shaped our modern ideas of relativism and being non-judgmental even though we remain vague about their actual works (and anyway these men certainly did not intend to wreck Western achievement), it has been fiercely kept out by their intellectual disciples. These are the MFA professors who train artists and writers, the people who run galleries and edit poetry journals and would laugh out of court any protest that the creation of objective Beauty, say, is pleasing to God. And yet, strangely, the West suspected accomplishment was collapsing before "postmodernism" came along: recall our friend Keats and his folded scrolls.

Where a culture's elites, artists themselves or gatekeepers of the arts, deny the possibility of finding objective Truth or creating objective Beauty, great lasting art will not be made. The times matter; artists can't rise above their culture, and see what "pygmies" refuse to see. But this is difficult to accept. Shouldn't any real talent still know some sort of inner vision, exactly right, Beautiful, Truthful, and perfectly his in any age?

(Incidentally, scientists here are more or less off the hook when it comes to failing to achieve because their elites discourage the pursuit of truth and beauty. Scientific achievement has declined, but largely, Murray shows, because so much work of the greatest importance has already been done, and scientists know it. He describes science as a kind of jigsaw puzzle whose hugest pieces were fitted into place by men like Aristotle and Galileo. Their professional descendants, however gifted, appear to have little left to do but tinker, to help improve humanity's lot; if they truly were to fall into postmodernism's trap, and start doing bad science for some ideological cause, or because "truth is subjective," the result would only be error, which other scientists would be glad to pounce upon. We hope. Nevertheless, the pouncing scientists would have still to pursue the scientific method to begin with, and the scientific method itself is one of those meta-inventions which, once hit upon, cannot be stolen or lost, but can be forgotten.)

... an inner vision, exactly his, and beautiful in any age? Not particularly. If that were true, there should be hoards of art and literature from talented people who lived in cultures hostile for centuries to individual achievement. By the same token, there should be hoards of superb art from the last century or even the last fifty years, when we all understand that everything is relative and there are no right answers. There are no such hoards. If you would counter that of course there are, only Murray is a judgmental ass, he would counter-counter with the desert island question. It may seem trite, but it provokes honesty. If you were to be stranded on a desert island for ever, what books, art, and music would you pack in one suitcase? Now look carefully at them. What did that era of human accomplishment know that we refuse to know?

The reader can protest he won't recapitulate Murray's book and yet end up doing it, badly, because the work is so involved. It's really not the sort of book you can argue with, because he smothers you with proofs and that rigorous out-thinking of all your protests. Perhaps the best we can do is give ourselves a sort of pop quiz about the whole thing.

Let's see if we understand. Meta-invention: polyphony (France, 12th century); structure: fugue; human accomplishment: the "Little" Fugue (G minor). Creative giant: Johann Sebastian Bach, Germany, fl. 1725. Bach's index score, Western music inventory: 87. Compare to Beethoven (Germany), index score 100 -- i.e., mentioned in all sources, Schubert (Austria), index score 44, and Aaron Copland (USA), index score 7. Duke Ellington (USA) and Walter Piston (USA), index score both 2.