Rear-View

Dr. Christopher M.  McDonough,

At the request of the PROVINCETOWN ARTS magazine I have been asked to  write a review of the recent biography of Tennessee Williams by John Lahr, TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,
For this review, I ask your permission to reproduce a rear- view photo of Williams copper statue, “Testa dell’Efebo” [attached]
PROVINCETOWN ARTS IS A NONPROFIT PRESS FOR ARTISTS AND POETS,
Provincetown MA 02657
Respectfully,
Leona Rust Egan, Theater historian
author, PROVINCETOWN AS A STAGE
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Posted in Boston, Classics, Sewanee, Statues, Tennessee | 2 Comments

At Armfield’s Grave

This morning I went to the Beersheba Springs Assembly for the Posse Retreat, which had as its focus “Crime and Punishment.”  This was a great event, with many good conversations, impressive facilitating, lots to laugh and think about.  After lunch, I made my way home (though vowing that next year I’d attend the entire weekend ), but first stopped off at the Armfield Cemetery, just down the road from Assembly.

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The graveyard dates to 1871 and, on a sunny February afternoon, the old trees, leaf litter, and ironwork gates give the place a certain Victorian Gothic charm.  Across the street are modest, old-fashioned homes which, being built on the bluff, have a commanding view off the plateau into the Savage Gulf State Park. The most prominent monument in the cemetery is that for John Armfield, below.

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IMG_7786I have a profound antipathy for Armfield who, with Isaac Franklin, ran a successful slave-trading operation. “With headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, Franklin and Armfield conducted gangs of chained and shackled slaves down the Natchez Trace and sold them in the slave pen on the edge of that Mississippi town,” writes Herschel Gower in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.  “The arduous journey took seven or eight weeks, but wealthy cotton planters paid Franklin and Armfield well for their traffic in African flesh. Armfield’s biographer, Isabel Howell, estimated that the pair averaged sales of twelve hundred slaves per year for every year from 1828 to 1835.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 6.21.40 PMIn the 1850s, Armfield– now rich from slave-trading and enjoying his retirement– began buying up property in Beersheba Springs.  Many of the cottages he built at that time are still to be seen in the town.  He was close with Bishops Otey and Polk, who owned summer homes in Beersheba, and helped to convince them to build the University of the South on the Cumberland Plateau. In this same period, as James L. Nicholson writes in his Tennessee County History Series: Grundy County, “to show his endorsement and in a typical display of  his munificence, [Armfield] pledged $25,000 a year during his lifetime  to the university.”  His name survives on the University’s Domain today as Armfield Bluff.

At lunchtime at the retreat, I had spoken with one of my former students, Gabby, who knows all about the biography of Armfield and Beersheba’s early history.  It’s ironic, we agreed, that the retreat, where so much great work is done to confront ingrained issues of institutional racism, should be held here. “But it makes sense, too,” she said. “It’s a sort of re-claiming.”

She’s right, of course. As I drove back to Sewanee, it happened that I was listening to a podcast from Radio Diaries on George Wallace’s famous segregation speech (re-broadcast from 2012 in connection with the release of “Selma”).  In later years, Wallace would be deeply regretful of his position, and he even went on an “apology tour” of Alabama.  Among the people he apologized to was John Lewis, one of the Selma marchers who is now a well-known Congressman from Georgia:

“And I remember the occasion so well,” Lewis says. “It was like someone confessing to their priest or to a minister. He wanted people to forgive him. He said to me, ‘I never hated anybody; I never hated any black people.’

“He said, ‘Mr. Lewis, I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘Well, governor, I accept your apology.’ ”    . . .

“Does it hurt me? No,” Lewis says. “In the end, I think George Wallace was one of the signs on this long journey towards the creation of a better America, toward the creation of a more perfect union. It was just one of the stumbling blocks along the way.”

 Postscript, Feb. 7. My friend, David Haskell, sends along a link to a blog called “US Slave” which has images of Franklin and Armfield’s slave-trading business:

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Postscript, Feb. 9.  In an eleventh-hour attempt to block same-sex marriage in Alabama, State Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore–in defiance of a federal judge’s ruling–forbade probate judges to issue license marriages to gay couples. “Roy Moore standing in the courthouse door: Where have we seen this before?” runs the headline of Charles J. Dean’s opinion piece on al.com, likening Moore’s actions to Wallace’s in 1963. “What happens next? I don’t know. Moore is standing in the courthouse door. He represents the old days, the days of fear and misunderstanding and the denial of equal rights.”  As of this morning, most probate judges have ignored Moore’s illegal order.

 

Posted in Cemeteries, Education, Sewanee, Slavery, Statues, The South | Leave a comment

An Ancient Source for the Winking Pizza Chef

4474884936_0dea8212d2According to a piece on pizza box art on the CBS News website today, “The caricature of a smiling mustachioed chef has been a popular feature of pizza boxes for decades. Sources say it dates back to the 1950s, to a hand-painted sign on the roof of Schaller’s Drive-In in Rochester, N.Y., though some claim it dates back even before World War II.” CBS calls this image “The Winking Chef” although, in the example they give online, both of the chef’s eyes are open so that he is not actually winking.

In fact, the gesture he is employing is an ancient Italian one.  There is a famous description of the extremely beautiful Psyche found in Apuleius’ Golden Ass, from second-century AD which bears a striking resemblance to what the Winking Chef is doing.  As Apuleius writes, “Many of the citizens and plenty of visitors whom the rumor of an outstanding spectacle had gathered with crowded curiosity, would be stupefied in admiration of her unapproachable beauty.  Moving a right hand to their mouths with the forefinger resting on an outstretched thumb, they revered her as though she were Venus herself in religious adoration.”  Multi denique civium et advenae copiosi, quos eximii spectaculi rumor studiosa celebritate congregabat, inaccessae formositatis admiratione stupidi et admoventes oribus suis dexteram primore digito in erectum pollicem residente ut ipsam prorsus deam Venerem religiosis <venerabantur> adorationibus. (Golden Ass, 4.28)

It doesn’t go so well for Psyche, being compared to Venus. The goddess sets her son Cupid on the beautiful by hapless girl, but he ends up falling in love with her.  Adventures ensue, jealous sister are involved, an obligatory trip to the Underworld. It all works out in the end for Cupid and Psyche. I have to think that, with his knowing look, Winking Chef understands it all.

Posted in Cartoons, Classics, Italy | Leave a comment

The Butt-Millet Fountain, A Memorial Hidden in Plain Sight

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Major Archibald But, All Saints Chapel, Sewanee, TNI have written before about Major Archibald Butt, a notable alumnus of Sewanee who died heroically aboard the Titanic.  That’s him to the right, together with President Taft, from a stained glass window in All Saints’ Chapel which commemorates the presidential visit to Sewanee a year before Butt’s death. His traveling companion on that fateful voyage was the artist, Francis Davis Millet, who shared a house with Butt in Washington where they hosted large social gatherings.  As it happens, the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain erected by their powerful and well-connected friends was only  few blocks from the hotel I was stayed at last weekend in our nation’s capitol, so I took a morning to go over and visit.

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 3.50.52 PMThe fountain could not be have been more prestigiously located, as befits two men so well-loved in their day. “Taft In Tears As He Lauds Major Butt,” reads the headline of the New York Times (May 6, 1912, p. 4).  It only makes sense that the memorial to a man whom the President loved as a son would be placed close to the White House, close to the very top of the Ellipse.  And I suppose it only makes sense that, as the years pass–indeed over a hundred of them–the depth of such feelings for a brave and noble man would subside into oblivion.  Today, the monument is hard to find, hidden behind the iron fencing and Jersey barriers that ring the White House. One has to pass by the monument to Butt and Millet, but given all the visual noise along the Ellipse Road and E Street, as well as the yelling Capitol police, it’s easy to overlook the eight foot stone fountain.

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The fountain base is made of Tennessee marble, appropriate for Butt, whose connection to the South was a fundamental part of his identity.  Above the base on the granite slab is, n one side, a symbolic representation of Valor, fitting for Butt as a military man. Just behind the trees is the White House.

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On the other side one sees a representation in Millet’s honor of the Arts. In the distance you can see the Washington Monument.

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It has been reasonably suggested Butt and Millet were lovers and if so, there is something poignant about the fact that this memorial stands in so prominent location, a place where tourist go by in droves and droves, and yet somehow seems to go unseen, to be somehow hidden in plain sight.

 

Posted in Cemeteries, Military, Nautical, Sewanee, Statues, Tennessee | Leave a comment

Ave atque Vale, Treebeard

A boy and a big black pine in Oxford, 2012.

A boy and a big black pine in Oxford, 2012.

Two and a half years ago, I wrote a post about the famous black pine in the Oxford Botanical Gardens called “Twists in the Plot.”  As I found out only today, the pine had to be taken down this past summer, after a large branch collapsed.  Though clearly its time had come, I’m sad to see the old tree go.  Why do we love old trees? asks a columnist for the Independent on the occasion, though she does not really get around to an answer.  And why is it so heartbreaking to see them go?  I’ve had occasion to ask this myself about a tree in Sewanee, now gone.  I suppose there’s no better answer than that we might infer from a poet who himself knew Oxford well:

   Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Still better, also by Hopkins:

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Posted in Oxford, Poetry, Sewanee, Trees & Flowers | Leave a comment

Inde Ira et Lacrimae

   The_Interview_2014_poster“Cuius non audeo dicere nomen?
quid refert dictis ignoscat Mucius an non?”
Pone Tigillinum, taeda lucebis in illa             
qua stantes ardent qui fixo gutture fumant …

It has been a bitter time for satire these past few weeks.  In November, the North Korean government hacked into Sony’s databases and released thousands of confidential records in retaliation for the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy, The Interview, in which the assassination of Dear Leader Kim Jong-Un is a major plot point.  Last month, in fact, the movie’s release was cancelled when the hackers threatened a 9/11-like terrorist attacks at cinemas which showed the movie.

In cancelling the release, President Obama said, the company had made a mistake. We cannot have a society in which some dictator in some place can start imposing censorship in the United States. I wish they’d spoken to me first. I would have told them: do not get into the pattern in which you are intimidated.  For Sony, though, issues of liabilty trumped those of liberty. But when The Interview was finally released on-line on Christmas Eve,  the political editor of the Canadian news-magazine Macleans, Paul Wells, watched it and was amused by the film’s “gleeful disdain.”  As he writes, A regime that can’t take a joke doesn’t deserve to live. This one won’t, not forever, and when it falls, the horrors it reveals will make us glad we were able to have a laugh or two before it was done.

220px-CharliehebdoA triumph, then, at the end of the year for freedom over tyranny, for the prancing jester over the vengeful dictator.  The New Year has brought more bitter news, however, when yesterday in Paris, the office of the satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was attacked by three men carrying AK-47s and shouting, Allahu Akbar, “God is great!”  Eleven people were murdered–eight Charlie Hebdo employees, a visitor, and two policemen– in what French President François Hollande called a terrorist attack of exceptionnelle barbarieThe apparent cause of the attack was the paper’s unrelenting satire of Islamic culture, including naked cartoons of Mohammad.

It is not that Islam was especially targeted–Charlie ridiculed everybody mercilessly. But there are some who cannot bear to be ridiculed and who put their beliefs beyond criticism even of the silliest kind. Such people truly are the enemies of free speech, and of every other freedom by extension, as satirists know full well.  In an essay for the New Yorker today, Philip Gourevitch writes, But those dead French cartoonists were braver by far than most of us in going up against the deadly foes of our civilization, armed only with a great talent for bilious ridicule. On any given day, we might have scoffed at the seeming crudeness of their jokes, rather than laughing at their jokes on crudity. But the killers proved the cartoonists’ point with ghastly finality: theirs was a necessary, freedom-sustaining, and therefore life-giving, form of defiance. Without it, they knew, we—humankind—are less.

The quotation with which I begin is from Juvenal’s first Satire, a long poem written sometime around 100 AD.  Juvenal’s Rome was certainly a dangerous place for critiquing the powerful: Kim Jong-Un would have been comfortable enough with the tactics employed by Nero or Domitian, no doubt.  The passage above is a short inner dialogue between Juvenal’s satiric persona and his more cautious self.  “Whose name do I not dare to say?” asks he former. “What does it matter if Mucius [a pseudonym of sorts for a powerful politician] forgives what I say or not?”  It is a brave stance the satirist stakes out, but one which the imagined interlocutor confronts. “Send up Tigellinus [the ruthless head of Nero’s Praetorian Guard, who at this point, however, had been dead for a few decades] and you will burn on the very stake where other men have stood smoking with their throats pierced. …”

At the end of the poem, Juvenal backs away from his initial stance, all too aware of the deadly implications of being too successful s satirist.  The victim all too likely will be angered and retaliate, he imagines, though the poet puts this much better than I ever could.  Inde ira et lacrimae, he writes, “From this comes wrath and tears.”  Only too well do we understand what Juvenal means today, as US authories continue to investigate the hackers who took down Sony and police actively track down the gunmen still at large somewhere in France.

 

 

Posted in Cartoons, Classics, Poetry, Rome | 1 Comment

Walking with Brontosauruses, or, The How and Why of What We Know

This is the text of an address I gave this morning to the Cum Laude Society at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School, in Sewanee, Tennessee this morning, January 6, 2014. It was a privilege to be asked to speak, and am grateful for the opportunity.

Good morning, and many thanks to all of you for your kind invitation to speak on this happy occasion, the induction of this year’s seniors into the SAS Cum Laude society. It is an honor to be with you today as you are yourselves being honored for your academic achievements. As you have heard, I am—among other things—a professor of Classical Languages at the University, and I suppose you are filled with dread at the thought that here is some boring old geezer who used to ride on a brontosaurus who’s come to bore us with Latin stuff, so let’s go ahead and get the boring Latin stuff out of the way. I expect you all already know and so don’t need to be told that cum laude means “with praise.” It is, some other unfortunates among you may know, an ablative of manner, indicating the fashion in which a thing has been said or done. At the University of the South, as at most universities, students earn the right to graduate cum laude, “with praise,” or, if they’ve done very well, magna cum laude, “with great praise,” or for some very accomplished students, summa cum laude, “with greatest praise.” There are some students whom I tell that they might boast that they graduated nulla cum laude, “with no praise,” though perhaps they ought not translate it.

What I like about the phrase cum laude is its emphasis on how one has achieved scholarly success, and I hope you will not mind if I talk for a few minutes about manner, this business of how you know. You will meet cynical people, I hate to say, who will inform you it’s not what you know but who you know that will get you anywhere in this world. It’s not entirely true, but it’s also not entirely false that you will find people in the world who have gotten much further than they ever should have by taking advantage of connections that bear no resemblance to merit or ability whatsoever. This is an unpleasant fact of life, but, as you are here at a school with a Christian tradition, you already know that we live in an imperfect world and so we just to put up with and hopefully try to overcome any number of its imperfections.

But as I say, it’s only a partial truth that who you know is what matters, because there will always be a market for bright and energetic people like yourselves who can be counted upon to have the right answers and to ask the right questions at the right time. True talent such as you all have displayed and which we celebrate here this morning rarely goes unrewarded, though whether it is rewarded in just proportion is another matter altogether. A school like Saint Andrews-Sewanee is a place where scholarly capability is prized and where achievement when earned is granted due recognition. This is one of the things about your education here that will be a happy memory for you throughout your lives.

So the who and the what of success are elements I’ve spoken enough about, but what about the how, that ablative of manner with which I began? To me, the how—together with the why—are really the most important components of your education, here at SAS as well as in the learning you will do throughout the rest of your life. Why you have done so well is a deeply personal matter, as I am sure you will understand. Some are driven to know things and to do well at it because of parental insistence; others are induced by peer pressure; still others by personal satisfaction, or by a desire to help others with what they have learned. Each of us has motivations of our own, and it may take you a lifetime to ascertain in the end just what it was that made you tick.

The why of our educations is, in other words, deeply personal. The how, on the other hand—the manner in which you have done this—is another matter altogether. As we sit here today, you recognize the intensely public nature of praise, how it emanates not from yourself but from others—from teachers, to be sure, and from parents, naturally, but then also from others further outside your range of friends and acquaintances—from administrators, perhaps the Sewanee Messenger, later college admissions personnel and professors of Classical Languages at nearby universities, et cetera et cetera. The circle widens and, if you keep up the good work, you will find yourselves shaking the hands of people you hardly know in the future and murmuring thanks to words of congratulations from perfect strangers.

A thing I find interesting about such praise—this public acclamation of what you have accomplished for reasons barely acknowledged in your innermost slelf—is the strange language in which it can be clothed. The high school I went to did not put you on the honor roll when you got A’s and B’s; instead you were given a Certificate of Approbation. If you got all A’s, you earned Approbation with Distinction. We used to laugh about this archaic terminology, and wonder why it all had to sound so fussy and old-fashioned. And yet, we used to also mimic it in our day to day interactions. I can recall distinctly playing a game of volleyball one day in tenth grade gym class and joking about a friend’s serve that it had earned Approbation with Distinction. We all laughed, because it was silly, and yet to my friend it probably didn’t sound all that bad at the time. Nobody really minds to be praised when we know that it’s justified.

Now I know you will be thinking, Yes, this is all very nice, but what do you mean about this How of What We Know? At the risk of abusing your patience, let me say just a few words about this before I come to my much-hoped for conclusion. You will know already from things your teachers have told you here that most of what we know is really only provisional, subject to revision upon receipt of contravening evidence. When I was a boy, Pluto was a planet and the one dinosaur we all knew about was the brontosaurus. Well, I don’t need to tell you that the brontosaurus has now been revealed to be a model based on faulty reconstruction, and Pluto is now just a large trans-Neptunian orbiting object of indeterminate status. Sic transit gloria mundi, as they say in Latin, “So passes the glory of the world.” That at least hasn’t changed, the translation or the sentiment.

A little over a century ago, when my grandmother was born, there was no way she could have imagined a career in the as-yet undreamt worlds of the airline industry or nuclear energy. The Wright Brothers had only just taken their first flight a few years before Grandma’s birth, yet by the time my own mother was a young woman in the 50’s, there were a great many Americans employed as commercial pilots and nuclear power was a growing part of the economy when she brought me into the world in the 1960s. Nobody was talking about web development to me in elementary school, but I have quite a few friends from high school and college who have done very well with online businesses. (I only wish I had let them talk me into buying stocks in their companies as they got under way! ) The ablative of manner has remained pretty consistent over time, I will admit, but the way we read the texts has changed considerably since my grandmother’s day, in ways that are every bit as exciting as the scientific changes we can readily see.

What we know to be useful or true is subject to change, then, and sometimes the changes are so radical that they requires an entire paradigm shift to understand them. I cannot imagine what things I have known for certain will turn out to be so many trans-Neptunian objects by the time you are older; I can’t imagine what things as amazing and unexpected as airlines, nuclear energy, or the internet will be everyday matters to you in a few decades’ time, or what to your children will seem hopelessly outdated. This is not just a failure of my imagination. It is, I think, an essential quality of human knowledge itself that inherent in it is its own dynamic nature, unfolding endlessly into greater and greater areas of ingenuity and truth. The great eighteenth-century English poet, Alexander Pope, once compared the acquisition of knowledge to mountain climbing. You get to the summit, and look out only to realize that [quote] “Hills peep o’er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!”  The view from the top shows you just how many other mountains there are.

Sometimes it can all be very overwhelming, and humbling as well. And I suppose, at such times, when I realize that what I know is so little of all that can be known and that even the little I know is itself subject to likely modification, I reflect that what really matters is why I want to know it, though as I say, the answer to that question is profoundly private, as it is for all of you. But I also ask myself, in these humbling moments, how do I want to know these things? Not how, the ablative of means, by what instrument have I come to know them, through a book or a website or from a teacher, but how, the ablative of manner, in what fashion have I come to the increase in my knowledge. Have I gone about my search in a way that could be described as honest and honorable? Has my search been one that I can be proud of? Pluto continues to orbit the sun in its trans-Neptunian, non-planetary way, and the brontosauruses have come and gone (though actually it looks like they may have never done either), but as we are gathered here today, you know this much, that your travels thus far in the world of learning are ones considered worthy of esteem and praise, cum laude, and that is no small thing to know about yourself at all.

Posted in Animals, Astronomical, Boston, Classics, Education, England, Family, Language & Etymology, Poetry, Sewanee, Sports & Games | Leave a comment