Heretic

Heretic

I try not to believe everything I think.

Both belief and thought are larger and more ineffible than I like to … think?…believe?  … they are.   It isn’t easy trying to keep track of what it is that I actually believe or think about believing.   I have been loping along on conceptul cruise-control for quite a while, and I suspect I am not alone in postponing a thorough examination of the convictions that underlie most of my actions and opinions.

So, when a friend passed on Heretic by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I quite literally did not know what to think.

The book’s introduction informed me that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Goverment, prolific writer and lecturer, a Muslim born in Somalia, raised in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and, since 1992, a resident of the Netherlands.  She sought and won asylum, worked cleaning factories, and was elected to the Dutch Parliament.  Her first published work, Infidel,  an autobiography, met with considerable hostility.  She was labeled by critics of her condemnation of female genital mutilation and the subjegation of women as an Islamaphobe, single-minded and reactionary.  Collaborating with Dutch filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh, she released a documentary entitled Submission, the English translation of the word Islam.  Both she and Van Gogh were threatened with death; Van Gogh was assasinated in 2004.

There’s controversy galore with every chapter of Ali’s recent history; she probably lied a good bit in petitioning for asylum in the Netherlands and cost the country a pretty Euro in requiring a safe house and security detail, not only in Holland, but also on her travels promoting her ideas and her books.  Big flap, by which I mean Kerfuffle, when Brandeis University withdrew the awarding of an honorary degree after an outpouring of protest from those who find her Islamaphobic, unless, as Brandeis maintains, the university had ony hoped to include her in a group of people to be admred.  Time Magazine names her as one of the 100 most influential, but  her critics slam her for painting all of Islam with the same brush, essentially arguing that Islam, in its unchanging rigidity, is radical Islam.  That’s a tough stance for lberals to accept, but, then again, she is a fierce advocate for the rights of women in the Islaic world and outspoken in describing the effect of genital mutilation – hard for a liberal to ignore.

Heretic : Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now is Ali’s fourth book, published in 2015.   Her views have changed somewhat in that she called for the defeat of Islam in earlier publications, but now suggests that reformation might be the more appropriate hope as Islam encounters Western modernity.  Much of the book describes the inherent structures of Islamic thought that have made reformation unlikely; reformation might be the best of all outcomes, but there appear to be very few ways in which reform can find traction.  She divides the Islamic world into three factions, each of which contend for authority of the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith.  “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah; and Muhammad is His messenger.”

She identfies herself as belonging to the third and smallest group: Muslims who have fallen away from Islam because of practices they cannot endorse but who would embrace the fath if it were to be reformed.  The group Ali terms “Medina Muslims”, Sunni or Shiite,  see the enforcement of sharia, Islamic religious law as a an absolute religious duty.  Zealous Shiites look for the restoration of the Twelfth Imam and the global estabishment of Islam, Sunnis to the establishment of a new caliphate, but both, Ali contends, practice fundamentalism allowing no change of religious law as established in the Seventh Century.  “Mecca Muslims”, the more moderate Muslims,  abide by religius observation in what they wear and eat, butdo  live in what Ali terms an “uneasy tension with modernity.”

Ali believes that five central foundations of Islamic faith have to be reformed, recognizing that no questioning of these precepts is currently open to question or discussion among Muslims.

  1.  Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status, along with the literalist reading of the Qur’an.
  2. .  Investment in life after death rather than life on earth.
  3.   Sharia and the rest of Islamic law.
  4.   Allowing individuals to enforce Islamic law.
  5.   The imperative to wage jihad or holy war.

Oddly echoing the Trumpist call to arms, Ali hopes the West will come to its senses and label zealotry “Radical Islam” as the five precepts above allow radical enforcement of sharia.

So, what does any of this have to do with what I think or believe?

I am only recently aware that I have moved through the last half century with the abiding conviction that modernity, in all its aspects, would inevitably bring rationality, compromise, tolerance, and mutuality of enterprise, seeing as how we are all stuck on the same planet and all.

I continue to be surprised by opinions other than my own, particularly when they appear to operate against all observable reality.  How is climate change a question of partisan politics?  How does grotesque inequality of wealth and resources serve the general good, or, at the most crass level, general prosperity?  How does fundamentalism not only survive but grow in an age of scientific and technological attainment?  How is it acceptable to live in  a nation in which violene has become normal, in which children go to bed hungry every night, in which an increasing number of people fall into poverty even as they work at any job available to them?

So, this week I am contendng with the growing certainty that modernity, technology, invention, medicine, satellite television, the World Cup, Coca Cola, I Phones are not likely to persuade a Medina Muslim not to hold women in subjegation, not to practice genital mutilation, not to see me and those I love as “pigs” and “monkeys”.

Obviously, I need to stick to reading books that allow me to sleep at night.  Except … I have also just finished Makers and Takers:  The Rise and Fall of American Business.

Next time.

 

 

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Holes and Creeps

Holes and Creeps

Let’s be clear.  This site continues to celebrate delicacy of language and moderation in all things, but, inevitably, a truly distinctive instrument of discrimination demands clarity, and so, recognizing that some opinions leave no room for debate, I pass along the useful division of all observable living things into the category of A**hole or Creep.  I’m not comfortable using the asterisk or “little star” as a glyph replacing two letters; it seems a bit precious.  For the purpose of discretion and convenience as well as brevity then, we’ll attempt to discriminate between two prominent sorts of life forms:  Holes and Creeps.

Holes, as you will immediately intuit, are annoying, insensitive, egotistical, thoughtless, and often mean spirited.  For the purpose of dividing the world in twain, I’ll also add too loud, too close, too persistent, and too physical.

Creeps, on the other hand, come in many odious flavors and sizes.  We identify a creep as someone who causes us to feel deeply uncomfortable, who makes our flesh start to crawl.  Creepiness comes from physical issues, lingering touches, unfortunate smells, but primarily from an unarticulated sense that danger may be near.

So, if the Hole is overt, the Creep is covert.  The Hole says unforgivably offensive things; the Creep posts them anonymously.  The Hole takes something that belongs to you; the Creep puts something in your drink.

Dogs are Holes.  You may not want the half-chewed gopher Barkley brings to the picnic, but gopher delivery is pretty much assured and expected of any dog within range of a gopher.  Dog behavior is straightforward, unmistakable, and unapologetic.  The thinking process of dogs is unfailingly transparent and usually involves eating something vile.

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Cats are Creeps.  In the first place, who has any idea what cats think?  What thought process causes a cat to leave six beheaded mice on a kid’s pillow?  Where are the heads?  I spend sleepless nights worrying about what I may find in my sock drawer.  A cat purrs, rubs its entire length against the human eager to offer a comforting scratch of ears or stomach, only to uncoil without warning, claws unsheated, teeth bared, leaving scars on flesh and psyche.

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And humans?  Obviously, struggles for power bring out Holism and Creepiness.  I would like to talk about the two categories in political circles  without ruffling contemporary sensibilities, and so, turn to two personalities from recent history who offer more than enough grist for this mill.

Lyndon B. Johnson, for example,  was an effective politician for a great many years.  His brand of personal politics often included high volume showers of vituperation upon perceived  enemies, arm-twisting, and thinly veiled intimidation.  The two images below put him squarely in the company of Holes; there are photo opportunities that speak volumes.

Rumors had been circulating that Johnson had undergine surgury for cancer rather than for the removal of his gall bladder.  To end speculation, Johnson lifted his shirt and displayed his scars.  Too much?  Not entirely presidential?  Up close, entirely too personal, and in your face?  Holic choices all.

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Fond of dogs, Johnson had a series of beagles, two of whom accompanied him to the White House.  The pair, regretably named “Him” and “Her”, often accompanied Johnson on walks, allowing photographers to pose Johnson with the dogs.  In  an attempt to show how pleased he was with “Him” and with his signature baying howl, Johnson pulled the dog’s ears  for what he took to be an admiring crowd.   Again, over the top.  Totally misreading the sensibilities of dog lovers everywhere.  Didn’t get it. Typical Hole behavior.

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Equally celebrated, Richard Nixon was widely described as a Creep, hence the sobriquet, ‘Tricky Dicky’, a  title he earned during his days as a congressman making good use of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings to further his own career.  Later, after having served as Vice-President, he took on John F. Kennedy, the young and fresh-faced Senator from Masschusetts, in a series of televised debates that further accentuated his general shiftiness.  In this case, it was his appearance and mannerisms that bellowed creepiness; television accentuated the difference between a poised and polished Kennedy and a sweat-stained, poorly shaven, fumbling Nixon.

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Successful in his next bid for the presidency and determined to win re-election by any means possible, Nixon recruited clandestine operatives who stealthily carried out a series of “dirty tricks” which have become the stuff of political legend.  Among the intiatives was the burglery of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate office complex.  Nixon was less than truthful throughout the subsequent governmental inquiries, famous for defending himself by saying, “…people have to know that their president is a crook.  Well, I’m not a crook.”  The wheels of justice turned slowly but finally brought enough presidential creepiness to light that Nixon was forced to resign from office.  ‘Well, I’m not a crook” rings through the ages as the Creep’s anthem.

 

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OK, enough high-minded, politically safe posturing about Holes and Creeps.  Time to take a stand.  Off with the gloves!

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Batman vs Superman.

What could be a more dramatic vindication of this bifurcation of character than a clear difference between the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight?   The recent release of Dawn of Justice in which a snarling Batman was pitted against a truculent Superman was apparently intended as the ultimate clash of cultural icons but lacked impact becuse one was such a Hole and the other such a Creep.

Bitter human orphan vs grandiose alien orphan?  Really?  In what universe does Batman vs Superman make sense?  The Bat-a-rang vs laser eyes?  The jet powered Batmobile vs the ability to fly faster than the speed of light, causing the reversal of the earth’s orbit so as to reverse time?  Pretty obvious mismatch, but there is some gold to be mined in this pairing, for, as I bet you have guessed, one of these characters is an indelible Hole, and the other a relentless Creep.

Not much mystery here.  If you have not yet accessed the painfully accurate website, http://www.superdickery.com/tag/superman-is-a-dick/,  please hang on for a wild ride.  With super power comes superdickery, but, to give the big guy some slack, large gestures are often misunderstood.  At the very least, even with the palpably transparent “secret” identity (I can’t recognize him without glasses!), Superman is an unapologetically large, brilliantly costumed, cleft-chinned openly alien agent, operating in full daylight.  He makes mistakes, to be sure, but the mistakes superpowered Holes are wont to make, although he can, on occasion, summon his inner creep.

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Batman lives in a cave, drops from the sky in the dead of night, dresses in black, writhes in self-tortured identity crisis, can’t maintain a relationship with anyone but his servant, and may be the single most humorless creature ever to claim human speech.  His career, his life, is dedicated to bringing pain to the afflicted, most of whom escape from the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Inssane on a regular basis.  To hark back to an earlier post, Batman resembles the petulant Achilles, sulking in his tent until moved to violence in order to avenge the death of Patroclus.  A little creepy as is Batman’s relationship with Robin.

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Finally, I encourage any who stumble upon this atricle to make your own determination as to the category into which characters should be placed.

Hillary and Trump?

Yankees and Red Sox?

Zombies and clowns?

Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer?

Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner?

Amy Schumer and Tina Fey?

Oprah and Ellen?

Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb?

LeBron and Steph?

New York and LA?

Nominations happily encouraged.  Operators are standing by to take your calls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Does A “Hot” College Get Hot?

How Does A “Hot” College Get Hot?

 

In one of my other lives, as a college consultant and author of college guides (America’s Best Kept College Secrets), I received a note from a reader, asking why his college, in this case Drew University, was not flourishing as other comparable colleges had.  Drew is in New Jersey, in a pretty town near New York City, but it hasn’t joined the ranks of “hot” colleges.  My first thought was to look at a few colleges that have bumped up a bit in the last few decades.  My own college, Kenyon, for example is considerably more competitive than it was only ten years ago.  Good things have happened there, but it is still in Ohio, which is not New England and not California.

My contention is that the tipping point for colleges like Kenyon, handsome enough, academically challenging enough, athletically successful enough, is that at some point, a critical mass of Kenyon sweatshirts begin to appear among the members of the Club.

It was easier to talk about the Club when I was in school.  Steven Birmingham’s best-seller, The Right People, identified the first families in every major city, the clubs and schools, and where they “summered”, summering being a verb pretty much only employed by people who summered in locations such as Newport, or Bar Harbor, or the Hamptons.  OK, slight digression.  I think the only similar verb used by the same echelon is the verb, “to lunch” as in, “Miss Otis regrets she is unable to lunch today.”

So, let’s consider the sweatshirt opportunities on a brisk evening (and the right people summer where evenings are brisk).  Where would a critical mass of Kenyon sweatshirts matter?  Here we go:

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Nantucket/ Martha’s Vineyard.  I put the islands first, not because they are the most exclusive but because the self-selecting summer population turns over a bit more quickly than at some other spots (fair number of three-week visitors) and because a number of young people work on the island throughout the course of the summer.  They have connections, through family and school; they could wear the Cate sweatshirt, or the Groton sweatshirt, or the Andover sweatshirt, but they want to project a more “adult” persona.  Unlike some of the other summer destinations which may actually be more expensive, the islands project a breezy opportunity for colorful casual clothing that is undeniably preppy.  A college sweatshirt and a pair of Nantucket Red (or madras or seersucker) shorts is always the height of fashion.  As nifty, eminently presentable (blonde?) college kids emerge from the waves and cover their tanned hides with a college sweatshirt, they shine like a beacon to the college aspirants, and, more importantly, to the parents of the next generation of college aspirants.

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Other valuable sweatshirt locales?  Sure, the Hamptons, Napa, West Palm, Aspen, Telluride, Jackson Hole, Newport.  But also, Deer Isle, Kennebunkport, Fisher’s Island, Watch Hill, Little Compton, Southwest Harbor, Seal Cove, Rockport, Northeast Harbor, Sea Island, St. Simon’s Island, Linville, Highlands, Malibu, Santa Barbara, Carmel.

There’s also a smaller but perhaps even more potent subset of sweatshirt opportunities in the twenty or thirty summer camps where children of the Club cavort for weeks on end.  For a mere $11,000.00 a child can make popsicle stick castles at:  Camp Dudley and Kinya, Four Winds Camp, Camps Cedar and Mataponi, Camp Laurel, Camp Vega, High Cascade Camp,  Camp Androscoggin, Brant Lake Camp, Tripp Lake Camp, Camp Skylemar, Camp Matoaka, Camp Manitou, Camp Wildwood, Camp Winaukee, Camp Seagull, Camp Seafarer, Camp Takajo, The International Riding Camp.  Think of the opportunity for a counselor to flaunt a college sweatshirt for eight long weeks.

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Can an ambitious college climb its way to giddy heights without the sweatshirt phenomenon?  Pitzer, Harvey Mudd, and Scripps, three excellent colleges have joined Pomona and Claremont McKenna as the entire Claremont cohort has become painfully tough to crack.  The colleges had been excellent all along, but now have the clout to spawn sweatshirts by the gross.  California has Stanford, USC, UCLA, and Berkeley but relatively few small colleges, and it is a huge state and awfully attractive in midwinter.  The Claremonts have long been reasonably well-known in  California, but Pomona and CMC hogged applications until fairly recently.  The University of Chicago has consistently been the University of Chicago, one of the most ambitious and challenging universities in the nation, but at times, its allure has been dimmed by the harshness of a Chicago winter and the harshness of intellectual combat.  Today, it’s among the most competitive; chances are it will remain at the top of the heap.  I’m pretty sure sweatshirts had very little to do with Chicago’s ascent.

Thirty years ago every college counselor knew that Washington University in Saint Louis and Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburg were among the best comprehensive universities in the nation; without a lot of sweatshirt posturing, they’ve climbed to the first rank.  Many of us think equally highly of  the University of Rochester, but it has not yet become entirely sweatshirt worthy.  Washington and Lee remains consistently sought out without a lot of national chatter while Saint Lawrence, Hampden-Sydney and Sewanee, certainly among the preppiest of colleges, have not yet found a similarly consistent following, although their apparel is top-notch.

The University of Richmond took a big jump about twenty years ago, thanks in part to some extensive growth in its endowment; it’s a beautiful campus with some distinctive program, and shows up in enough Division I postseason play to identify it as a great option for someone who wants big time sports in a park like setting..  Similarly, Elon College is far more commonly recognized than it was even five years ago, perhaps due to the ambition of its athletic program; other colleges are looking hard at the “Elon phenomenon” in the hope of copying their success.

It’s tough to identify why or how a college  breaks out of its place in the pecking order.  I watch the annual survey of admissions statistics with some delight, hoping I’ll see the next newly discovered, hot college.  Maybe I’d learn more by hanging out and counting sweatshirts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ivy Style

Ivy Style

In making a list of the ten most quixotic initiatives I have undertaken (and the competition for a spot in the top ten is ferocious), my curiously conceived book, A Whiff of Murder, appears to be the most indescribable.  I tend to write the sorts of things I like to read and at the time was absorbed with the history of Acappella music and intrigued by the notion of writing the sort of “cozy” mystery I’ve enjoyed for a lifetime.  So, A Whiff presents the history of the Whiffenpoofs against the background of Yale itself.

It’s an odd book and one that has a very select readership.

One chapter, however, stands on its own, and with no expectation that the audience for this piece will be larger than that for the novel, I present my research on the evolution of haberdashery as nurtured by the Ivy League:

It is not clear exactly how the distinctive style known as “Ivy League” came into being, but clearly much of it was born in New Haven. How it happened that the unholy mess that was American style at the end of the nineteenth century became a “classic” look in the midst of turmoil we can only guess.

There has been an endless stream of conjecture about the shift in the American psyche, from the grain-fed, agrarian, small town values of the nineteenth century to the raucous jangle of alcohol-fueled excess of the American cities in the third and fourth decades of the twentieth. Freud, Prohibition, Gangsters, Ennui – Any and all of it landed at once in a country that thought it had fought a war to keep the world safe for democracy.

The Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, The Age of Wonderful Nonsense – all describe what were essentially urban experiences, although staid conservatism still prevailed in the outlying country towns and villages and in the quiet cities of the prairie states. The conflict between the America that had been and the America in utero was probably most vividly revealed in the drama played out in Dayton, Tennessee where William Jennings Bryan defended the Bible against the slick agnostic, Clarence Darrow, in the Scopes Trial – Bible Belt faith pitted against emerging urban civil libertarianism.

As the twenties slumped into the thirties, popular entertainment became a national resource in the wake of economic disaster. Radio and film began to create shared entertainment experiences. The radio networks carried baseball games, election results, soap operas, Swing music. Few missed the broadcast of Our Gal Sunday, which began with the question: “Can a girl from a little mining town in the west find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?” Which, actually, provides the perfect connection between the sophistication and complication that came to America from Europe after the war and the simple virtues that were still honored in most of the country’s families.

Parallel to all of this there emerged in New Haven, Cambridge, Princeton, New York, and Boston a sensibility that would come to be known as “Ivy”

The term “Ivy League” itself has origins shrouded in mystery, or at least in folklore. The most unlikely suggests that a meeting between Yale, Rutgers, Princeton, and Columbia in 1873 established the rules by which collegiate football would be played. In 1876, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia met to formalize the rules of the game of football. In either case, the four colleges involved are described by the Roman numeral, IV, thereby, it is suggested, creating the IV League.

In 1902, Yale, Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton established the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball league. By the 1930s sportswriters covering football games distinguished the smaller and older established East Coast colleges from the newer and larger public universities by calling the smaller and older private schools, “Ivy colleges”. The eight members of the Ivy League include seven of the nine colonial colleges established before the American Revolution. Cornell is the newest of the Ivies, having been established in 1865. For reasons that remain obscure, West Point, Annapolis, and Rutgers – institutions once considered part of the group of similar institutions – were not included in the deliberations that brought the creation in 1952 of an athletic conference formally known as the Ivy League.   Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and Penn – these are the colleges that make up the Ivy League.

As is true in so many arenas, however, all things Ivy are not created equal. The academic and admissions pecking orders remain fairly consistent, and all of the Ivies turn up in the discussion of the most prestigious destinations in college admissions. In terms of style, however, there are really only two – Yale and Princeton. The rugged and athletic men of Dartmouth did contribute some notable articles of clothing – the challenge of a deep-snow environment limited muffled north-country men to gear that would emerge as the L.L. Bean or Orvis look. Later, of course, that hearty line of apparel would expand to include North Face, Marmot, Simms, Patagonia, and Mountain Hardwear.

Ivy somehow became Ivy as students, particularly at Yale and Princeton developed a self-conscious sense of fashion or style. There are other distinctive streams flowing into current campus sensibilities – Preppy and Collegiate to name the most conspicuous – but none is truly Ivy.

The popularity of Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook confused the issue of an original American fashion style considerably; the very popular book presented a clothing manifesto attached to the communities that most commonly send their offspring to boarding and independent day schools. The Grosse Pointe attorney arriving at a lawn party in lime green slacks festooned with whales may be considered “preppy”, no matter where he went to school or how long ago he went there. “Preppy” in the current vernacular, as touted by Ralph Lauren, J Crew, Talbot’s, Lily Pulitzer, Southern Tides, and Vineyard Vines, is expensive, casual, and often brightly colored. A preppy outfit may include the wearing of stripes and plaids or pink and green. In fact, the hallmark of the “preppy” attire may be the drawing of attention to the wearer. “Look at me! I’m dressed casually, but this cost a bundle!”

Similarly, the term, “collegiate,” is too broad and too inclusive to describe anything other than an audience rather than a style. Happy frat boys at Northwestern, business majors at USC, golfers at Furman, “good ole boys” at SMU or Tulane all dress comfortably, frequently expensively, but without particular identity. In the 1920s, for example, the raccoon coat was the rage at Ivy colleges and at Nebraska, Kansas, and Chicago.

Just as there is a difference between fraternities that grew up in ivied climes (Delta Kappa Epsilon, Alpha Delta Phi, Psi Upsilon) and those that popped up in the Midwest or South (Kappa Sigma, Phi Delta Theta, Sigma Chi, Phi Gamma Delta, Beta Theta Pi, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Kappa Alpha Order, Tau Kappa Epsilon and others), the identification of Ivy League as a distinctive style has much to do with the experience of a privileged class at Yale and Princeton in the first half of the twentieth century.

A freshman arriving at Princeton in the first half of the century might well have understood why Amory Blaine, central character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s evocation of life at Princeton, This Side of Paradise,knew instinctively that something was wrong with his clothes. At the height of Princeton’s self-conscious fashion hey-day, students were expected to observe the distinction between freshmen, sophomores and upperclassmen; only those in the third or fourth year, for example, wore Princeton’s signature white flannel trousers or striped neckties. Langrock’s, Princeton’s premiere clothing store, provided the most fashionable Princetonians the garb they required to take their place in one of the college’s most selective eating clubs – Ivy, Cottage, or Tiger Inn.

Fitzgerald’s take on the clubs is dated and certainly only his, and yet, the characteristics probably did have some legitimacy. Ivy for Fitzgerald was “breathlessly aristocratic”; Cottage, Fitzgerald’s own club, and perhaps the site at which he began writing This Side of Paradise, is described in the novel as a “melange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers,” and “the parlor-snakes’ delight.” One has to wonder if fellow members of Cottage, Senators Bill Bradley and Bill Frist, enjoy the parlor-snake reference, but it certainly did apply to Fitzgerald. Athletes found their way to Tiger Inn, a club marked, in Fitzgerald’s words, with “bluff simplicity,” and “…vitalized by an honest elaboration of prep-school standards.”

Princeton’s legacy includes the Princeton haircut (short back and sides – longer front and fringe), Norfolk jackets, Shetland sweaters, spectator shoes, raccoon coats, and rep ties. For better or for worse, the Princeton version of Ivy became the version Hollywood adopted and, to some extent, the Hollywood version came back to Princeton. The close connections between Princeton and the South may have something to do with the popularity of seersucker suits and white linen jackets in New Jersey.

The tradition of elegant dress for men was more restrained in Britain.   Sir Hardy Amies is said to have observed:

A man should look as though he has chosen his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care and then forgotten all about them.

There were certainly well dressed men in Boston and New York at the start of the new century, and the establishment of Brooks Brothers in 1818 is one of the landmarks in the evolution of an Ivy sensibility. Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt wore suits made for them by Brooks Brothers as has the company of actors in the widely admired series, Mad Men. Brooks Brothers is certainly properly cited when describing American Traditional menswear, but the company is also properly remembered in noting the innovations that have become part of the tradition – button-down shirt, madras, the polo coat, Shetland sweaters, Argyle socks, and light-weight suits. Of all its many notable creations, however, its greatest contribution to an Ivy League wardrobe is the sack suit. The sack suit includes a three-buttoned jacket (only two showing), a soft shouldered blazer without darts, and cuffed pants without a front pleat.

In 1902, Jacobi Press opened a shop on York Street in New Haven. At the height of its influence, J. Press had shops in New York, Cambridge, San Francisco, Princeton, and Washington, D.C. as well. Today, the shop operates in New Haven, New York, Washington, and Cambridge. From the outset, Press hired extraordinary tailors, making clothing that has stood the test of time; a vintage set of evening clothes or a blazer from J. Press is elegant and beautifully crafted and may be worn with pride by several generations of Ivy men. The tailors at Press stood ready in York Street to meet the demands of young men from across the country who landed at Yale with a handsome allowance and the desire to dress as Yale men ought. They also took to the road, visiting prep schools with trunks of material, taking measurement of the even younger men who would carry their loyalty to J. Press into their own collegiate wardrobe.

The tradition of made-to-measure clothing, “bespoke tailoring,” had come to New Haven from England as did many of the fabrics J. Press used. Bolts of English cloth are still on hand for those clients who wish to have a suit, trousers, or blazer made to measure. It is not only in the expert cutting and tailoring of fabric that Press excelled; its buyers found the most sumptuous cashmere, tweed, and velvet.

When George Herbert Walker Bush was accused of being just another “Brooks Brothers Republican,” he drew back the corner of his suit to reveal the label. “I’m a J. Press man,” he said, knowing that the difference mattered.

Later generations of tailors trained at J. Press would go out on their own. Sydney Winston founded Chipp, a much beloved purveyor of fine men’s clothing, especially noted for neckties and the linings of its jackets. Paul Winston, Sydney’s son, was the tailor who found and crafted the exquisite linings, so much admired that the lining was frequently selected before choosing the fabric for the suit itself. JFK was one of Chipp’s most loyal customers, although other Kennedys preferred the more traditional cut of the Press suit or blazer. Although Chipp is no longer one of the premier haberdasheries in New York City, Paul Winston still makes bespoke suits for the discriminating man of fashion.

Few men of fashion, however, step out of an evening in white tie and tails. The Whiffenpoofs do and have almost from the start of their history. British aristocrats (and wealthy Americans who copied them) had long “dressed” for dinner. The tailcoat had been worn in Britain since the Regency, during the day and in the evening. The model that is considered the highest degree of formality in evening dress today is actually the form of tailcoat known as the evening tailcoat or the dress tailcoat. In any case, gentlemen sat to dinner in a cut-away jacket, black waistcoat, stiff white shirt, and a white bow tie. Actually, sitting in a dress tailcoat was a bit of a problem. The advice given to those attempting it for the first time was not to divide the tails, but to flip them over the side of the chair.

Dress tailcoats and trousers are made of worsted wool, black or midnight blue. The shirt is white, cotton, and stiff (pique) as is the white tie. A distinctive difference between the full-dress shirt and the tuxedo shirt is that the full-dress collar is high and made of folded wings. Today, the more commonly worn waistcoat is white; all other features remain as they had been at the start of the twentieth century.

This is not the place to describe the many ways in which formal wear has changed over the decades, but it is worth mentioning that all formal wear evolved quickly in the 1920s and 1930s, sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of Formal Wear. A revolution had already taken place on both sides of the Atlantic, with the “invention” of the tuxedo.

Like the origin of The Whiffenpoof Song, the emergence of a formal jacket without tails comes from several directions. An American visiting London in 1886 was introduced to the Prince of Wales. James Brown Potter was taken with the Prince’s jaunty appearance; affecting the crisp elegance of the military officer, the Prince stepped out in society in a short jacket and a black bow tie. Returning to his home in Tuxedo Park, New York, Potter introduced the style to his tailor and subsequently to his friends.

The transition to a more “relaxed” dinner wear allowed gentlemen to move (and sit) with greater comfort; the style quickly took hold and is the standard for all but the most formal occasions. Today, formal dress can be described on three levels: “White Tie” demands the gentleman wear the tailcoat- ladies are expected to wear a ball gown. “Black Tie” invites the men to wear the traditional tuxedo and women to arrive in an evening gown. “Business Attire” announces the expectation that gentlemen will arrive in a conservative suit.

The Whiffenpoofs do not always perform in white tie, but they don their tailcoats often. Newly tapped juniors finally consider themselves fully members of the Whiffenpoof family when they have been awarded the white gloves they will wear on stage.

Other groups at Yale and elsewhere have developed distinctive costumes, and several have followed the Whiffs’ lead, appearing in white tie and tails. The practice does lead to the incongruous distance in dress between the group and its audience. Perhaps the over-formality of the Whiffenpoofs’ appearance is part of its appeal; anachronistic, a bit musty, the Whiffenpoofs tie together all that was Yale and all that men of Yale might yet become. The languid, well-bred prep school aristocrat still has a place on stage, but so do talented men from every background and circumstance of life, each standing, gloved and shining without regard to pedigree.

Brushing Up My Shakespeare

Brushing Up My Shakespeare

I’m not sure why some of Shakespeare’s plays remain classroom favorites and others go in and out of fashion.  Most of the students I’ve taught recently have worked with Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a few know Othello and The Merchant of Venice.  However, just as the Iliad, most of Dickens, and Huck Finn seem to have fallen off the the radar, Julius Caesar doesn’t often pop up in ordinary conversation.  I couldn’t seem to escape it in my own school days, not that I had anything against it; it was so commonly quoted then that familiarity bred undeserved disdain.

I came of age at a time in which public speaking, oratory, declamation was as important as penmanship and spelling.  I never mastered penmanship to any degree and was a misunderstood speller as I used British conventions (honour/ colour/ metre /theatre / liquorice / grey / cosy / draught / plough / aeroplane / aesthetic / pyjamas).  I had happily spent my formative years reading Dickens, Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle; those spelling issues persist to this day and may eventually land me in gaol.  Ah, but declamation was my meat!  Today’s tyros compete in spelling bees and geography bees; I regularly prepared for and occasionally won, speaking contests.

And, to connect the dots, Julius Caesar was a treasure trove of great oratory, although Marc Antony’s funeral oration was almost always the schoolboy’s first choice.  It appeared so frequently that “Friends.  Romans.  Countrymen.  Lend me your ears.” became fair game in cartoons and comedies.  The structure of the speech made memorization relatively easy, and the obvious points of emphasis allowed even the most tone-deaf orator to get through the address without much damage to the play or to the speaker.

I’ll return to Marcus Antonius and the particular genius of that oration, but there are a number of other remarkable constructions that deserve some attention.  As I read the play now, I am increasingly impressed with Shakespeare’s ability to convey nuanced characterization with the use of one or two specific words; a short interaction often determines the tone of the entire play.

Julius Caesar begins as Caesar is about to return to Rome after a successful military campaign against the sons of his former compatriot, Pompey.  Crowds are forming, the atmosphere is boisterous; within minutes, and without instruction, we understand that Rome itself may fall to this conquering hero; ordinary working people find him irresistable.  Equally quickly, we see that there are those, and they are many, who fear the loss of their position and place.  We’ll spend most of our time with the noblest Romans, senators from families with impressive lineage; Marcus Brutus we learn is, “the noblest Roman of them all,” although the line delivered by Marc Antony is dripping with irony as he seems to admire Brutus’ motives for killing his best friend, excusing him in order to excoriate him.

But I digress.  The Senators plot the murder of Caesar for the reason that we might expect; they think their days as top dogs are numbered, although most of their rhetoric has to do with the preservation of liberty for all Romans.  Underneath their polished debate steam two strong unarticulated convictions:  ordinary Romans do not have the capacity to rule themselves, and ordinary Romans are dangerous when crossed.

The opening lines of the play are delivered by Flavius, a tribune.  Since Shakespeare picked up his extraordinary knowledge of things beyond his own experience by digging up tales he had read in his schooldays and by hanging out at pubs and listening carefully to stories told by those who traveled, we can’t be sure what his understanding of the role of tribune was, and since there were several sorts of tribunes, we’ll have to guess that Flavius is a sort of peacekeeper, not entirely an agent of the patricians, but not entirely pals with the plebians.

Here we go.

ACT 1. SCENE 1. Rome. A street.
Enter FLAVIUS, MARULLUS, and certain Commoners

FLAVIUS

Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home:
Is this a holiday? what! know you not,
Being mechanical, you ought not walk
Upon a labouring day without the sign
Of your profession? Speak, what trade art thou?en

Flavius appears miffed, affronted by the presence of an ordinary person, dressed as an ordinary person, on the streets of Rome, without the tools that reveal the trade the commoner practices.  In Shakespeare’s time, a mechanical was a laborer with a specific skill, as the Midsummer Night’s Bottom is a weaver and Tom Snout is a tinker.  Hamlet’s sparring partner, the grave digger, is a mechanical.

Mechanicals were often played by a troupe’s comic actors, and they often serve to confuse their betters; in the case of Much Ado’s Constable, Dogberry, the confusion created almost leads to tragedy.  Flavius will be confounded by a mender of shoes, a cobbler, as the word “cobbler” also means a person who “cobbles” odd jobs together.  Let’s assume that this comic exchange also allows late-comers to find their way to their place so that the best lines can be delivered to an audience paying attention.

The better lines fall to Marullus, and while Flavius has revealed his contempt for the lower class, Marullus will put some meat on the bones of the larger issue; crowds for Caesar validate Caesar’s bid for power.  Marullus will attempt some quick re-education of the commoners, and that exhortation is helpful in advancing the plot, but my interest is in the language Shakespeare gives to Marullus.

Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home?
What tributaries follow him to Rome,
To grace in captive bonds his chariot-wheels?
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks,
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood? Be gone!
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.

Not bad!  Let’s assume that the mechanicals hear blah, blah, blah – go home, while we are filled in on the political shift.  This speaker uses rhetorical flourishes and keeps a fairly complicated structure in place from start to finish, but this language is too large for him and the occasion.  You rocks, you stones… wait for it … you senseless things.

In the next scene we meet Caesar for the first time.  Caesar has some memorable and oft quoted lines, but few of them are lengthy or polished.  He is a soldier, a wily tactician, for the most part, plain spoken.  He’s not entirely unaware of the hard feelings some may have toward him, and in describing Casca, one of the plotting senators, Caesar famously observes:

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

In response to Antony’s appraisal of Casca, Caesar argues that Cassius is more to be feared.  Why?

He reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men: he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock’d himself and scorn’d his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves…

To the point and concise.  Caesar is no fool, and his language is purposeful.  In his final moment, as he twitches to his death, stabbed on the steps of the Senate, he suffers the final blow, delivered by Brutus, a man Caesar considered a friend.

Et Tu, Brute! Then fall Caesar.

No lingering death throes rumination on the certainty of betrayal, no blood-soaked admonitions or dire warnings.  Then fall Caesar.  Of course, Romeo is also pretty darned concise at the end.  “Thus with a kiss I die,” but he’s had some lovely rhapsodies during the rest of the show.  Caesar keeps it brief.

OK, at last, the true purpose of this lengthy recapitulation.  I find in the two funeral orations the best example of Shakespeare’s genius.  Not only are there moments in each oration that are exquisite examples of sophisticated rhetoric, the two in comparison are a primer in the ways in which character, voice, and tone accompany particular kinds of language.  The two orations, one delivered by the most respected Senator in the nation and the other by a more roughly hewn soldier, have diametrically opposed intents.  Brutus is charged with placating a crowd that had witnessed the murder of the most famous and admired man in Rome; Antony, under close scrutiny lest he strike back at the conspirators, intends to rip the togas off the blooded traitors while seemingly sticking to the script he’s been told to follow.

And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

Brutus speaks first, with all the weight and dignity of his station.  He counts on his reputation as a man of honor ( or, as some might say, honour) to convince the crowd that he and his fellow conspirators have acted from the highest of motives and with the interest of the common people first in their thoughts and deeds.  And, he does a pretty good job of it.  The rhetorical construction of his most famous assertion, “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more,” is essentially the form John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter used in the “Ask not what your country can do for  you…” and it still sounds compelling.  I’d give Brutus a solid A- on the address, complimenting him on the structure of the piece, but reminding him that some of the convolutions of language may not have been as effective as he had hoped.  The “If then” construction might not have been not all that easy to follow in the heat of the moment.

Be patient till the last.
Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my
cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me
for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that
you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and
awake your senses, that you may the better judge.
If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar
was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
–Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and
die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live
all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his
ambition. Who is here so base that would be a
bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If
any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so
vile that will not love his country? If any, speak;
for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

And it works.  As we have learned in our own time, crowds can be swayed, and Romans shift from anger to acceptance (appreciation?) by the time Brutus is done, leaving Antony facing a hostile crowd, as the Senators had hoped.

Now, hardly breaking a sweat, Shakespeare jumps the rhetoric up a notch, giving Antony an A+ speech and inciting the crowds to riot.  In case you’ve not heard it spoken, go to:

 

I like the Brando version because he comes across as a tough guy working a crowd that wants his head.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

Now that he has the crowd, he will coyly pretend to be reluctant to reveal all that Caesar has left to the people of Rome in his will.  Voices swell as the tide turns and the conspirators are seen as the murderers they have been (Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!  Let not a traitor live!).

I am impressed that Shakespeare writes Romeo’s first encounter with Juliet so that they finish each other’s sentences in iambic pentameter – pretty good trick – but to write an excellent speech for one actor and an excellent plus plus for the next?

I am mute with admiration (finally).

 

 

 

 

Odysseus- A Retrospective

Odysseus- A Retrospective

A few days ago I bought Volume A of The Norton Anthology of World Literature for a dollar at a local thrift store.  I was probably looking for a canvas golf bag or a Hawaiian shirt, but stumbled upon Volume A, sat down, and started to read.

Volume A starts at the beginning, 1350 B.C.E., with The Great Hymn to the Aten, a hieroglyphic tribute to the sun-god.  The Babylonian Creation Myth brings the account of the god, Marduk, the creator god, who builds the world from the body of Tiamat.  From chaos and ocean, Babylon comes into being, but, before Tiamat is defeated by Marduk, she creates monsters, including the first dragons, whose veins are filled with poison rather than blood.  Hesiod in the late eighth century, B.C.E. recounts the birth of the Olympian gods and the encounters of mortals unfortunate enough to cross their paths – Prometheus and Pandora, among others. Out of chronological order, the anthology introduces, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Lucretius, the Epicurean Roman poet, and Genesis 1-4.

Dipping into literature at that distance from our contemporary imaginings is a daunting task.  How do we hear translations that can but imperfectly express notions that were subtle and nuanced in their time?  The cultural importance of the documents is incalculable, but the impact of language is muffled.

All of which is to say that against all odds, the first lines of the Iliad and the Odyssey knock me sideways each time I read them.  Norton has chosen translations by Stanley Lombardo, a translation I had quickly discounted when I met it in its truncated form in a condensed version of the Odyssey.  I am delighted to find that I judged Lombardo too quickly.

My first Iliad was the Lattimore translation, “Sing Goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son, Achilles, and its devastation…”.  I liked it fine, at age 13, especially as I had devoured Edith Hamilton’s Mythology at 11 and 12.  I read Bullfinch later, but Hamilton’s tales of the gods still amuses me.  “The Greeks did not believe the gods created the universe.  it was the other way about:  the universe created the gods.”  Over the years, I taught the Odyssey to sophomores, hoping they might find what I had found (and still find) in the epic.  I started with Lattimore, then fell in love with Robert Fitzgerald’s translation.  Colleagues touted Lombardo, Graves, and Fagles, and each had its own music, but it is Fitzgerald’s voice that I hear most clearly.

I’m a great believer in opening lines.  Best of times, worst of times, etc.  Here are the opening lines of the Odyssey as presented by the various poets:

W.H.D. Rouse – “Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices who wandered full many ways after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy.”

Richard Lattimore – “Speak to me, Muse, of the adventurous man who wandered long after he sacked the sacred citadel of Troy.”

Robert Fagles – “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns … driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.”

Stanley Lombardo – “Speak, Memory – Of the cunning hero, blow off course time and again – After he plundered Troy’s Sacred Heights.”

Robert Fitzgerald – “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end, after he plundered the stronghold on the proud heights of Troy.”

“…that man skilled in all ways of contending”.

It isn’t easy to present Odysseus as a hero to tenth graders, mildly skeptical and keen to see flaws in those presented as paragons.  This is one hero with more than a few flaws; he spends years in amorous dalliance with goddesses and demi-goddesses, spins false tales, manipulates, humiliates, and gives grievous injury to a disabled foe, loses the entire company of men who set out with him from the proud heights of Troy.  In one of the great action sequences in all literature,  Odysseus (with the help of his son, Telemakos) piles bodies of the men who had hoped to win his waiting wife, Penelope, to the rafters of the great room of his manor.  Two of the suitors, Antinoos and Eurymakhos,  have been particularly crass, plotting the death of Telemakos as well as the supplanting of Odysseus in his own bed. Antinoos is the first to die.

“Odysseus’ arrow hit him under the chin

and punched up to the feathers through his throat.

Backward and down he went, letting his winecup fall

from his shocked hand.  Like pipes his nostrils jetted

crimson runnels, a river of mortal red,

and one last kick upset his table,

knocking the bread and meat to soak in dusty blood.”

So, not entirely moderate as heroes go, but you have to admit the Fitzgerald translation certainly catches the attention of 10th graders accustomed to the Tarantino moment.  I read the Odyssey every year, a habit that persists into my retirement from teaching.  I am a creature of habit to be sure, but I think there is something about Odysseus’ journey in particular that seeks my attention again and again.

The epic has many of the elements of the monomyth, the hero’s journey.  Like Frodo, or Dorothy, or Theseus, Odysseus is called to an adventure he would rather not undertake.  This is one hero who goes to great lengths to duck the call, and with good reason.  As the fleet arrives in Ithaca intending to conscript him into the alliance of Achean kings under Agememnon,  Odysseus has just celebrated the birth of his son, Telemakos (Telemachus).  And I mean just.  To make matters worse, Agememnon has called together the Achean forces in an attempt to wrest Helen from Troy.  The circumstances under which Helen changed her address from Sparta to Troy are fuzzy and were unclear at the time.  Was she seduced?  Captured?  Bewitched?  Helen gets a  few lines in The Odyssey to explain the issue as she meets Telemakos on his own journey.  Describing the fall of Troy, Helen tosses in a quiet apology to Menelaos describing the last days of her life as a kept woman:

“The Trojan women raised a cry – but my heart

sang – for I had come round, long before,

to dreams of sailing home, and I repented the mad day Aphrodite

drew me away from my dear fatherland,

forsaking all – child, bridal bed, and husband –

a man without defect in form or mind.”

Aphrodite made me do it?  This was probably not the last time she had to offer up that excuse.  In any case, defection/abduction/witchcraft took her to Troy and all the king’s men were obliged to pack up for an extended (ten-year) campaign, and Odysseus was not able to come up with an effective scheme to keep him at home.

The Odyssey does not open with an account of Odysseus’s heroism but with the gradual transformation of Telemakos from lapdog to grown man capable of helping his father recover the kingdom.  He knows Odysseus by reputation but has been raised by his mother and nursemaids.  At the end of the first four books, we meet Odysseus for the first time, holding in mind the effect that his absence has had on his son, his wife, his mother, and his kingdom.  Although very curious and celebrated encounter  (Kyklops, Kirke, the sirens, Skylla and Kharybdis, the descent into Hades) seem to be significant as stirring adventure, their true purpose is to prevent Odysseus from returning to his home and taking up his life.  It is in the journey that he experiences captivity and has to walk through the darkness of the spirit.  The journey changes him, has to change him, so that he can carry something of value back to the world he will reenter.

After almost twenty years of exile, Odysseus washes up on the shores of Skheria Island, a seafaring kingdom from which he might finally reach the end of his journey.  He does not arrive with pomp and ceremony; he is tossed from the sea and left exhausted, naked and asleep, covered by branches.  A remarkable young princess, Nausikaa, has been moved by a dream to prepare for the suitors who must soon come to call.  She gathers her handmaidens and the clothing to be washed  and finds herself at the inlet where Odysseus is sleeping.

This creates a problem.

Actually, the situation is even more problematic than a contemporary reader might imagine.  The protocol of the day called upon Odysseus to approach the princess, fall to the ground, and hug her knees, an awkward encounter given Odysseus’ unkempt appearance and lack of clothing.  Here’s how the Fitzgerald translation describes the man who would spring from the bushes:

“He pushed aside the branches, breaking off

within his great hand a single branch of olive,

whose leaves might shield him in his nakedness;

so came rustling, like a mountain lion,

rain-drenched, wind-buffeted, but in his might at ease,

with burning eyes – who prowls among the herds

or flocks, or after game, his hungry belly

taking him near stout homesteads for his prey.

Odysseus had this look, in his rough skin

advancing on the girls with pretty braids;

and he was driven on by hunger too.

Streaked with brine, and swollen, he terrified them,

so that they fled, this way and that.

Only Alkinoos’ daughter stood her ground, being given

a bold heart by Athena and steady knees.”

In this moment, with the stakes as high as they could be, all of Odysseus’ practiced skills were useless.  This warrior, king, crafty adventurer has but a moment to size up the situation, correctly guess that this brave girl could be the one person able to help him finally get home, and decide how to engage her without frightening her.

He does not throw his briny, swollen, mountain lion carcass at her knees, but remaining covered offers this salutation:

“Mistress: please: are you divine or mortal?

If one of those who dwell in the wide heaven,

you are most near to Artemis, I should say -”

Yes, he is clever in suggesting that she is most similar to Artemis, goddess of the hunt and chastity; he removes any physical threat.   The change of tone, however, arrives as he intuits all that Nausikaa feels, not to manipulate her, but to honor her.  There is gentle empathy in Odysseus’ greeting; he takes responsibility for making sure she is safe.  This is the language of kindness.

In The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel Nikos Kazantzakis takes the tale into the years after the return to Ithaka.  Kazantzakis pulls Odysseus from his life as father, husband, and king and sends him on a spiritual quest that allows him to meet figures representing the Buddha, Don Quixote, and Jesus.  In the end, Odysseus is killed by an iceberg in Antarctica.  I mention A Modern Sequel only to note that in that work, Telemakos and Nausicaa are wed, an arrangement that always springs to mind as I observe the fondness and respect with which Odysseus treats her.   For Kazantzakis, struggle is more significant than arrival, but Homer’s Odysseus is a man who has struggled too long.

Despite the satisfactory pay-back that takes place in Book XXII, what Fitzgerald terms, “Death in the Great Hall,” Odysseus’ final test is in recovering his marriage, giving what he can to a son who has grown up fatherless, and in trading his skill in contention for wisdom in order to bring peace to his kingdom.

I think of the veterans I have known who have returned home damaged and disabled.  Their terrible journey did not end when they put on civilian clothes; they were at the start of the next set of trials and dangers.  Some were caught, trapped; some fell into the mouth of the whirlpool.  In calling Odysseus a hero, with all his failings, I honor those who, against very long odds, manage to find their way home, and I honor Homer (and his translator Robert Fitzgerald) for allowing me to see heroes emerge.

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Unfinished

Unfinished

The Met Breuer Museum is hosting an exhibition of master works that were purposely left unfinished.  “Unfinished – Thoughts Left Visible”

The Met is the grande dame of museums in New York, and one of the most visited museums in the world.  Celebrated for the depth and breadth of its collections, the museum could reasonably rest on its well established reputation, continue to buy extraordinary works of art (2012 expenditure of approximately forty million dollars for acquisitions), and celebrate its satellite gem, the Cloisters Museum and Gardens.  Events conspired, however, to allow the Met to toss its considerable resources into the highly charged universe of museums dedicated to contemporary art.  The Met received a donation of 81 Cubist masterworks from the estate of Leonard Lauder worth approximately a billion dollars just as the building formerly known as the Whitney Museum became available.

Architect Marcel Breuer had been comissioned to design the Whitney Museum in 1963, creating a distinctive landmark on Madison Avenue and 75th Street.  The critical reception of the new building was not entirely favorable. Breuer, who had been one of the Bauhaus luminaries, designed a remarkable building in what was subsequently called the Brutalist style.  Midcentury sensibilities welcomed steel, glass, and open space; Breuer’s design called for a building covered with 1500 slabs of granite, a staircase of a building, often called an inverted ziggurat.  When the museum opened in 1966, Ada Louise Huxtable was architectural critic at the New York Times and one of the few critics to be won over by the building; she knew she would be alone.  She described the Whitney as New York’s most disliked building but found it fascinating.  “Like that fine old saying about sin,” she wrote,”first the Whitney repulses; then it intrigues; then it is embraced,”   and added, “…the taste for its disconcertingly top-heavy, inverted pyramidal mass grows on one slowly, like a taste for olives or warm beer.”

It seems inevitable now that the Whitney would seek a new home, as it did in 2014, abandoning the ziggurat on Madison Avenue.  This is the sort of an Ugly Duckling story that has been  slow in transitioning to a happy ending.

Marcel Breuer (BROY-ER) may be best known today for his furniture design, the Wassily chair in particular, but he was among the most prominent architects of his generation.  His buildings include the stunning chapel on the campus of Saint John’s University, the UNESCO building in Paris, the US Embassy in the Hague, the IBM Research Building,  more than thirty significant buildings, and private homes which are considered among the most distinctive of the mid-century period.  His own homes in New Canaan, Connecticut and Wellfleet, Massachusetts are among those recognized by the Museum of Modern Art and the National Building Museum among many others.

Breuer was also a teacher at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he taught the next generation of architectural giants.  He taught I.M. Pei, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Eliot Noyes, Paul Rudolph, and my father; he married my mother’s sister.  He was my uncle, and so, I’ve not taken the shabby treatment of his building well.  With its adoption by the Met, and the adoption of the name, Met Breuer, both the building and the man have the recognition they have long deserved.

“Unfinished”.  The reviews of the exhibit have been mixed, in part because the extraordinary unfinished works are not entirely contemporary.  The 197 works include pieces non finito  (intentionally unfinished) by Rembrandt, Titian, Cezanne, and Turner, as well as work by  Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock.

The idea of looking at work intenionally unfinished so as to examine thoughts left visible, however, strikes me as a significant and entirely contemporary undertaking.  The definition of art itself has been tied to the completed act of creation or invention, but surely there is art in every preliminary brush stroke, in every decision an artist considers.  Conceptual art essentially asks art to question its own process and allows the artist to involve others in the completion of the work.  In a very real sense, art is an event, the conjunction of the work and its viewer.  So, I confess the title of the exhibition pulled me to a set of reflections not yet … finished.

The Met and the Whitney agreed to a sort of limited partnership, presenting the Met with the Breuer building for a term of eight years; after years of turmoil, the story of New York’s ugly  duckling has moved rather quickly toward a happier ending for the Breuer legacy, but remains, as all really true stories do, unfinished.