Belly Laugh, Belated

It’s good to know that something I wrote to be amusing about Ovid ago can provoke a chuckle two decades later: 

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A Flavian Lady in Chattanooga

When I was in Chattanooga’s Erlanger Hospital recently to visit a friend, I passed by this bust on my way to the elevator.


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The baroness Marguerite Erlanger, wife of the French baron who endowed the hospital, was born Marguerite Mathilde Slidell (1842–1927), the daughter of John Slidell, the Confederate Ambassador to France.  The statue was put up in the hospital’s new “Baroness” wing in 2002. According to an article in the Chattanoogan

renowned Chattanooga artist Elizabeth Decosimo was commissioned to sculpt a bust of the Baroness Erlanger. Ms. DeCosimo’s model for the project was Meredith Dyer, a student at GPS, who was chosen for her resemblance to Baroness Marguerite d’Erlanger from photos submitted by the public.

It’s the hair-do, more than anything, that caught my eye. Instantly it occurred to me that her elaborate coiffure was modelled after the Fonseca Bust in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, nicely illustrated in this UGA slide below.  This hairstyle, dating to the era of the Flavian emperors in the late first century A.D., was sometimes called the orbis comarum, “the circle of hair.”


For years, it was assumed that this hairstyle was a sort of artistic fancy, unable to be created in real life for an actual person’s head.  This assumption was shown to be mistaken by Janet Stephens in an article entitled “Ancient Roman Hairdressing: on (hair)pins and needles,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 21(2008) 110-132– the Huffington Post ran a nice piece about this fascinating bit of hands-on re-enactment. Ms. Stephens, a professional hair-stylist, explains how she recreated the Flavian-era

I’m not sure whether Marguerite Erlanger in fact wore her hair like a Flavian lady, or if the sculptress Ms. Decosimo was engaging in some creative license. In any event, as the tutorial above illustrates, one can have one’s hair done up like a Confederate Baroness or Roman aristocrat with just a little effort.

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Augustine in the Wasteland

Notes from a lecture I gave in Humanities 104 this morning. Too preachy, perhaps, but given the events I begin with, perhaps that’s understandable.



About six weeks ago (Dec. 2), the mass shooting in San Bernadino took place


Initial reports: a man and woman. It was unclear why. Speculation rampant, motive unknown.


A few days earlier, a middle-aged man had gone into a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs and shot three people dead. In the early


Explanations would eventually emerge for each shooting, and the news cycle and pundit talking points would grind again with their the predictable spin—round and around, pointlessly spinning, getting all of us nowhere.  More and more repetitive bullshit, signifying nothing.


Nobody says anything that is of any substance. All we get with such analysis is a close look at details, and a rush to judgment that is really nothing more than a tremendous shifting of blame.


It was radicalized Muslims that did it. It was a right-wing nutjob that did it. These things, these horrific awful things, were carried out by people who had somehow gone off the grid of normal human behavior.


But let’s entertain for the moment, for one crazy moment, that we wanted not to let the wheels pointlessly spin, that get somewhere in our understanding, to comprehend for real


Hearing about Colorado Springs and San Bernadino, as I do whenever I hear such things—and we all hear about such things now with a dismaying predictability—I thought about St. Augustine.


What if the reason such horrific things take place is NOT an irregularity

but IN FACT an inherent component of human behavior?

What if we kill each other not in spite of our humanity but precisely because of it?


Trust me, that is a thing you will not hear somebody say on CNN or Fox News. That is the sort of truth you have to get from philosopher or a poet.


The problem is not the abnormal behavior, but lies in the “normal heart”


WH Auden, “Sept. 1. 1939”


Faces along the bar Cling

to their average day:

The lights must never go out,

The music must always play,

All the conventions conspire

To make this fort assume

The furniture of home;

Lest we should see where we are,

Lost in a haunted wood,

Children afraid of the night

Who have never been happy or good.


There’s truth here, of course, but it’s the truth of description. It’s possible to go still further.


In the first book of his Confessions—the work he wrote as a spiritual biography—Augustine had put this still more pointedly.


We hear of a murder, and we ask Why did it happen? Did one man take another’s money, or his wife? What accounts for this behavior?


But then Augustine turns the issue on its head, and in doing so, comes to a far deeper insight.


Yes, murder happens often. The question we should ask ourselves is not why such things happen. But rather, why do they not happen all the time?


Not why does one person kill another, but instead, why are we not constantly trying to kill each other?


THAT is the mystery

THAT is the question we should be pursuing

THAT is the way off of the pointlessly spinning wheels that get you nowhere


Why are we not always acting on our own worst impulses?

For Augustine, the answer is a simple one: because of the Grace of God.


A position we should rightly call anti-Pelagianism. Human nature not good by nature but inclined toward evil. Rather than focusing on Creation and the Creator, it focuses on Destruction and undoing the work of the Creator.


“In the beginning, when God created the heaven and the earth, the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”


Evil not as a thing, but the lack of things—the opposite of creation. Evil then is simply privation, the absence of good—to do evil is to tend away from what God has made and instead to seek the void and the darkness.


“So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” Portia in Merchant of Venice


not mischievous but rather characterized by naught— a world of absence and emptiness







OK, so let me back up. Who was this Augustine fellow?


Give you “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” (as The Catcher in the Rye opens)—all the stuff you can look up on Wikipedia if you’re inclined for a quick info-fix.


Born 354 AD in North Africa, and died in 430 AD


Roman Empire—converted to Christianity in the generation before he was born by the Emperor Constantine


In hic signo, vinces (Symbols and triumphs: an interesting motif of late antique and medieval Christianity)


Pagans, Jews, and Christians—a world of intellectual tumult. Different sorts of ideological claims and commitments


Not all theological controversies stamped out at the Council of Nicaea in the 320s.


Augustine himself an important contributor to the latter manifestation of these theological debates—


A good example is the Donatist controversy: under Diocletian, priests disqualified for collaborating, failing to stand up and resist, for failing to be martyrs


Virtue is no such short supply, so little reason to trust to human rectitude

Qualified trust in institutions for saving sould


In the same way that pagan people can be baptized, so pagan institutions can be turned to Christian purposes—turning from pointlessness toward positive goal


Romanesque and Gothic architecture developing from forms of Roman buildings


Same period: Jerome translating Bible into Latin, for the people (Vulgate)

(Luther will do the same a millenium later)


Appropriation? or CONVERSION


What can be done for a culture can be done for the individual, Augustine feels and the Confessions his story of how this happened with him.




In the opening of the Confessions, Augustine reflects upon his own coming to terms with the need for God’s grace.


The opening chapters are elaborate and complicated, not simple and straightforward. When you read them, do not think of them as wordy meanderings but rather as a sort of labyrinth that is intended to disorient and then re-orient the reader.


I think you should think of it then way you might when you look at a the ornate lettering of a medieval manuscript


Didn’t these scribes realize that those things are hard to read? You know, they did know that. But they didn’t feel that their purpose was to ease people’s reading, making it possible to get through it more quickly so they can—what? get on with more important things of their day?—but rather to slow them down, spend more time with it, so they would realize that this was the more important thing they had to do with their day.


“The restless heart which does not find its place of rest until it comes to rest in you, O Lord.”


In his prologue, Augustine is enacting the idea of the journey, a disorienting, unsettling, criss-crossing journey—a thematic miniature of the Confessions as a whole,


in which we feel strongly that the author is writing his life as a kind of welding-together of significant Greco-Roman themes and Judaeo-Christian insights. He lives in the Roman Empire but called to


The Confessions—for those of you who might have been here last term and read Virgil and Genesis—is a spiritual Aeneid or the story of Abraham–journeys off to an unknown but somehow promised worlds.


Such literature, and its interpretation [careful examination, reflection, discernment, considered judgment] is Augustine’s milieu.


A world of learning—where salvation comes not as it did for St. Peter, who was approached by Christ as doing his job as a fisherman, or St. Paul, who was knocked off his horse in a very dramatic fashion. I don’t think many of us anticipate personal appearances by Jesus or blinding flashes of light. Books, though.


Tolle, lege.


In some ways, he’s a very familiar sort for all of you at this point in your —steeped in an elite form of education, training for a white-collar job, ready to take your place in government, business, finance, management, etc.


Wonderful moment when A has delivered a panegyric for the emperor – with the drunk.


Not true Happiness, but at least not true Unhappiness, such as he was feeling.


It’s worth thinking about Augustine and that definition I had mentioned before of EVIL


Augustine—focused on things many of us here would also focus on. Worldly achievement, material well-being, sexual pleaure


AND YET: Factus Sum Mihi Regio Egestatis


Not productive, not creative but solipsistic, stunted, a life without any larger meaning





Here let us turn Prodigal Son story—his highly allegorical reading


Older brother/youunger brother

Jews (those of the old covenant)


God would save us, Augustine says, and the means of salvation are at hand if only we seek them.


Signs are around us—the book of Nature itself instructs us


It is necessary for the younger son to realize his disgrace (dis-grace) and to seek his father


But what is it we seek? Quote Merchant of Venice again:


Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy.


Links to other readings:


Now, I can see Prof. Macdonald, who’s a genuine English professor that the full quotation “Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this”

anti-Semitism we will encounter


Already mentioned Luther

I think we will see, from Prof. Maclaren’s discussions of visual culture the ways in which allegory is operative.


Sexuality : “Grant me chastity, but not yet” –Courtly Love, as well as Bocaccio’s Decameron. Plague, widespread death, celebration of life– not as Augustine would see sexuality


The theme of pilgimage and journeying


Community, esp as institutionalized: what we owe others and how we live together to bolster and support one another: Benedict and Beowulf, and perhaps even Machiavelli & Castiglione

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Floridiana, December 2015

I75 observations
Free world not slave world end whale slavery
Rv all brown why? Fun and sassy stripes. Yet no driver of an TV looks fun or sassy. i75’s greatest mystery.
Pilot exit 460– truckers tshirts: I get past to haul your load not take your crap! Also a hat– I was hauling before you were crawling. 
Will we be able to get fireworks at this exit? Oh yes.
Suwanee– how I hate it ya
So many anti-Abortion billboards
18 days after “con-cep-tion”– why the hyphens? 1-800-848-LOVE
“Salt Life” decal– why?”
“narrow road” Jesus signs who are they?
Me me 425 rocket shuttle?
Dong Fang

O’Leno State Park. What kinda name?  Some Irish-Ialian amalgam. In fact, there’s an interesting story here. According to the historical marker onsite, the town was called “keno,” after the bingo-esque game of chance. Attempting to incorporate later on, the town was denied official status by the postal service due to the association with gambling, so they changed the name to Leno. Concerned authorities were evidently unaware that leno is Latin for “pimp.” In time Old Leno became O’Leno.


We Bare All
Piknik mayo truck
Inverness– mamas “kuntry kafe” for real 

Citrus high school -2 home of the Hurricanes, unironic 
Tavares? Band from here?

 Seen in Inverness: Mama’s Kuntry Kafe. All the online reviews look good, but man, the name. By contrast, the Little Flower Shop next door seems to have the right idea.   

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A Pewter Linden amid Pine and Palm

I wrote this originally in March, 2015– it had been my intention to post it after talking to Dick, to make sure he was OK with what I’d said. As some of you will know, he died just after his 80th birhtday in August. We passed through again just after Christmas, so I thought I’d put this piece up. 

Ruhe in Frieden, Uncle Dick. Rest in Peace.

We were in Florida last week, and stopped off for a visit with my wife’s aunt and uncle, whose house, surrounded by palms and scrubby pines, has several large rooms and an even larger swimming pool with a hot tub.  Though they have lived in the area for over a decade, I wouldn’t say that they’ve gone native in any way (besides the nightly soaks in the hot tub), but scattered around the house are mementoes of their former life in the Northeast, and their lives even before that.

Uncle Dick is almost eighty, but seems no different than when I met first met him two decades ago. He was born in the German-speaking part of Slovakia in the 1930s, during the build-up to the Second World War, and feels a strong attachment to his heritage. “It’s like Quebec,” he told me. “Even though the rest of the country speaks one language and has one culture, we were completely part of another one.” One of the ways in which he expressed the pride he takes in his ethnic background is in collecting beer steins.  There are quite a few of them around the house, on top of the kitchen cabinets, the bookcases, and on the window behind the TV.

 I happened to take one of them down to look at. “That belonged to my father,” Dick said. As you can see, it’s a engraved pewter stein that comes with two little identical shot-cups. They could easily be over a cnetury old. On the back is a poem, which is illustrated on the front.



Keinen Tropfen im Becher mehr
Und der Beutel schlaff und leer,
Lechzend Herz und Zunge,
Angetan hat’s mir dein Wein,
Deiner Äuglein heller Schein
Lindenwirtin, du junge!

Not a drop left in my cup
And my purse, spent and empty
A longing heart and a thirsting tongue
Your wine has done it to me
Your eyes shine brighter for me
Linden Hostess, young lady!

Obverse: Czech lion with Slovak shield, date below Reverse: Linden branches and wheat springs bound with ribbon

Obverse: Czech lion with Slovak shield, date below
Reverse: Linden branches and wheat springs bound with ribbon

The verses are in fact the first stanza of a longer poem called Die Lindenwirten, “The Linden Hostess,” written by the nineteenth-century German poet, Rudolf Baumbach.  In it, a young man addresses a barmaid about his lack of resources, and you can see him on the front of the stein holding up his empty sack, while an empty jug of wine sits on the table beside him. The barmaid, who urges him to leave the sack with her for credit and to continue drinking, can also be seen; later, at her urging, he leaves his walking-staff, coat, hat, and finally his heart.  Above them can be seen the branches of a linden, among the most beloved of trees in Germany and Slovakia–indeed, on coins of Czechoslovakia the linden is prominently featured to represent the Slovaks.

According to Wikipedia, “Baumbach was a poet of the breezy, vagabond school and wrote … many excellent drinking songs, among which Die Lindenwirtin (‘The Linden Hostess’) has endeared him to the German student world.”  It’s easy to see a connection between The Linden Hostess and the popular 20’s operetta, The Student Prince, in which young prince Karl Franz enjoys his college days in Heidelberg in the company of other young rakes and the beautiful Kathie, the barmaid of the beer-garden. Of course, his father will die and, amid great melodrama, he’ll have to leave her behind to assume the throne.  But first some great drinking sings will be sung, among them Gaudeamus Igitur and the ever-popular, Drink Drink Drink!.  It would be fun to sing one of them holding Uncle Dick’s stein some day, overflowing with a foamy German beer.

Postscript.  Of course, the real point of the Linden Hostess is to remind us to enjoy ourselves while we can. Concerns about money, about reputation, all worldly things– these pass away, like the leaves and lovely blossoms of the linden. There are things more lasting, like the palm or the pine, and even more enduring than those, like or the pewter cup or the poem of romantic love.


From from the 1954 movie of THE STUDENT PRINCE starring Edmund Purdom and  Anne Blyth, with the voice of Mario Lanza:

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Dido Nix et Trojanus

In an even more spectacular and embarrassing fiasco than the election, Nixon played Aeneas in a reenactment of Virgil’s Aeneid, which the school ambitiously staged on the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Rome’s greatest poet. Nixon had an ill-fitting costume and was completely unrehearsed apart from his lines, and the love scene with Dido, involving an energetic and prolonged embrace, replete with passionate dialogue, brought down the house with brickbats and catcalls. It was a horrendous experience … (Conrad Black, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full [2008] 22-23)
I’m torn about this anecdote.Certainly the easiest reaction is to laugh snidely at Nixon failing miserably as the romantic lead. Har har, serves you right for your future invasion of Cambodia!
Another part of me feels, very deeply, the acute embarrassment of the scene.Being onstage spouting love poetry while your whole school laughs at you? Really, the whole thing’s a Fellini-esque nightmare.
To my mind, there’s something about the story that explains why it is that a man who would win the ’72 election by a 49-state landslide STILL felt the need to bug the Democratic headquarters, as though he felt the stinging derision of that high school play all those years later. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
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Fulminating at Job

Class assignment for Book of Job: “On Friday, we will spend the class thinking about God’s response from the whirlwind. In fact, I am going to ask you to imagine yourself as God— the all-powerful and all-knowing creator of the heavens and earth—dealing with this whiny pipsqueak. You will bring to class a few verses written from the perspective of God in the style of the Book of Job, and will recite them in a loud and thundering voice.”


Where were you when I made the wolf, with its ravenous appetite, hunts the deer in packs, or chases down the rabbit to its hole? Where were you when I made the dog, with its abiding loyalty, who chases the squirrel without success and lies on the couch to watch TV with you, a faithful companion to people and fierce to thieves and the Fedex deliveryman?

Student examples:

Explain energy,

tell me how the bear knows to hibernate,

how the blind man can see?
How does your suffering surpass,

the birth of another human being?
Be grateful that I’ve chosen

to spare thee.

For death may have been,

a better choice for you.
Maybe your silence would,

let me re-think your punishment,

that your punishment has gone long enough.

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