Thursday, March 23, 2017

Reginald Foster: The Vatican's Latinist

I wanted to recommend this article on Reginald Foster, "The Vatican's Latinist," by John Byron Kuhner. Foster was "part of a small team of scribes who composed the pope’s correspondence, translated his encyclicals, and wrote copy for internal church documents" for over forty years.

He has done so much more, though. He also taught Latin at the Pontifical Georgian University and began an intense summer school program. "He He also tutored, kept up a vast correspondence, recorded a weekly radio program for Vatican Radio called “The Latin Lover,” did any interviews he could, and kept up his priestly duties, saying mass and hearing confessions. All this while serving as the pope’s Latin secretary." After retiring from these duties, multiple people had to be hired to carry on what he had started. The article is a fascinating look at an inspirational man and teacher.

It's remarkable to see what Foster accomplished, but even more so to see the ripple effect, what he has inspired. Other links associated with the article and Reginald Foster:
  • Ossa Latinitatis Sola: The Mere Bones of Latin According to the Thought and System of Reginald by Reginald Thomas Foster and Daniel Patricius McCarthy from The Catholic University of America Press. According to Kuhner, the book gives a sense of what taking Foster's Latin class was like. (Update: I just read elsewhere that this is the first of a projected five-part work. More on Foster's approach compared to other approaches can be found in this article.)

  • The Paideia Institute was originally started to keep Foster's summer school experience alive, and has quickly grown. Part of the Institute is the Eidolon publication, "an online journal for scholarly writing about Classics that isn’t formal scholarship."

  • Another organization inspired by Foster is SALVI: Septentrionale Americanum Latinitatis Vivae Institutum (North American Institute for Living Latin Studies). It's mission is "to propagate communicative approaches to Latin language acquisition, making the entire Classical tradition of Western culture more available to—and enjoyable for—students, teachers, and the general public."

  • In 1994, Alexander Stille wrote a lengthy article on Foster and his "quixotic but compelling" attempt to save Latin. The article was for "The American Scholar" and can be found on JSTOR (the title is "Latin Fanatic: A Profile of Father Reginald Foster" in the Autumn 1994 issue). Stille would expand the article and include it in his 2002 book The Future of the Past. (Hopefully more on that later.) Here's a sample from the article:
    “Why do you want to study Latin? The question is, Why don’t people want to study Latin?” he asks the class in a loud rhetorical shout, pacing back and forth in front of the blackboard. “If you don’t know Latin, you know nothing! I had my first experience of Latin forty years ago, and I have not been bored by Latin for ten minutes in these forty years. Latin is one of the greatest things that ever happened in human history.”

    When Foster begins to shift into high gear, he picks up in speed and volume, like a high-performance car moving into overdrive. “If you don’t know Latin, you’re sitting out there on the sidelines—don’t worry, most of the world is out there with you. But if you want to see what’s going on in this whole stream of two thousand years’ worth of gorgeous literature, then you need Latin."

  • Fr. Gary Coulter has a copy of the chapter in Stille's book online. Coulter's site on Learning Latin with Fr. Reggie Foster is a great resource by itself, with links to coursework, sermons, and Vatican Radio programs by Foster.

  • Last in this list, but certainly not least, is Foster's website, maintained by his collaborator Daniel P. McCarthy. It's great to see Foster still active and teaching. Hopefully there will be more projects coming to fruition.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Jorge Luis Borges on Firing Line (1977)

I recently saw that "Firing Line" now has a channel on YouTube. I've mentioned the episode on "The Southern Imagination" a few times, with Eudora Welty and Walker Percy, and it is available here.

A different episode I wanted to share was the conversation with Jorge Luis Borges, recorded on February 1, 1977. If you're interested in Borges' work, I highly recommend watching the show. It's a wide-ranging discussion and Borges mind is a nimble match for Buckley's questions and comments. It's interesting to see the writers he esteems, such as Melville and Kipling, how he happens to read (or at this point, have read to him) more books in English than in Spanish, and why he believes Spanish too cumbersome a language for writing poetry.

Around the 40-minute mark Buckley and Borges take the discussion into political and nationalistic territory, but things get back on track about 10 minutes later when Borges begins to discuss teaching literature. Overall, it's a wonderful, lively conversation. Borges' endearing personality shines through, full of humor and self-deprecation. Here's one such example, starting at 8:20:
Buckley, Jr.: "Do you mean you have officially abandoned any intention of receiving the Nobel Prize?"

Borges: "No. I think it is a kind of game that is played every year. You know, every year I am to be given the Nobel Prize and then it turns out to be the next year. It's kind of a habit I have, or a kind of habit the Scandinavians have. In fact, it might be called an old Norse tradition, you know, not to give me the Nobel Prize. That's a part of Norse mythology. I'm very fond of Norse, all things Scandinavian. I love all things Scandinavian."

Buckley, Jr.: "Is it your point that you would lose respect in the Nobel Committee if they awarded you the prize?"

Borges: "I would think it was a very generous mistake, but I will accept it greedily."

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Furious Sound

Last night my son was watching Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage while I was fixing dinner. At one point I asked him to repeat a scene: "Did I just see Geddy Lee reading Faulkner?" Yes. Yes I did.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Meister Eckhart and The Joshua Tree

There was a flurry of news last week celebrating the 30th anniversary of U2's The Joshua Tree, and it brought back a fond memory I've always associated with the album. I hope you'll indulge this onion-on-my-belt moment...

The weekend after the album was released, I caught a flight to spend a weekend with my brother. I had copied a few albums to cassette, one of which was The Joshua Tree, to play during my flights. I ended up being the last person to board a full Southwest flight, so the only place open was a center seat near the back. The aisle seat was occupied by a bearded man I would guess to have been in his mid-30s. As he stands up to let me in to my seat, I notice he's reading a book about Meister Eckhart. After I get settled but before he had a chance to resume reading, I took a guess and asked, "Are you taking a course on mysticism?"

The look of disbelief on his face was priceless. He turned the book over so I could see the cover and replied, "Yes I am. Are you familiar with Eckhart?" I had to admit that I had only tried to read some of his work when I was in high school and didn't get very far. It turned out he was working on his doctorate at Southern Methodist University (another coincidence...from my office I had a beautiful view of the campus) and was doing some research. He was very gracious and patiently answered some questions I had and we had a brief discussion on other books he had to read for the class. I could tell he wanted to get back to his book, so I thanked him and put my headphones back on to listen to U2. Later, as we're getting off the plane, he laughed and shook my hand. "The guys in my class aren't going to believe this," he said, gesturing with his book toward me.

While it was an inconsequential episode, it has obviously stuck with me for some reason along with the association.

Friday, March 03, 2017

I wish I could come up with a catchy post title

I hope to post soon on some of the books I've read over the past few months. I can't make any promises, but I really want to relay a few comments on some of the better ones. Much depends on...well, a lot of things, not the least on some follow-up surgeries to help relieve the intense pain I've had for the past six+ months. It's remarkable the change in mindset that can occur in such circumstances.

Sorry for going into personal detail, but I wanted to say the blog and I aren't dead. Yet. Hopefully we'll both feel like rejoining the world of the living soon.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Mark Twain's mullet

Well, not Twain himself, but the mullets he ascribed to nobility in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, that is...
About bedtime I took the king to my private quarters to cut his hair and help him get the hang of the lowly raiment he was to wear. The high classes wore their hair banged across the forehead but hanging to the shoulders the rest of the way around, whereas the lowest ranks of commoners were banged fore and aft both; the slaves were bangless, and allowed their hair free growth.
(the beginning of Chapter 27: The Yankee and the King Travel Incognito)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Silence and fixity are forms of deference

I'm going through some short stories with the boys and need to remind myself that we need to read Ambrose Bierce (among others) when we go through the U.S. Civil War again. They will add some depth to their studies.

We just went over Bierce's most famous short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," and of course they loved the ending twist. Having read it several times, I still find parts of it to marvel over each time. Except for the name. I don't remember too many Farquhars when I was growing up in Alabama, but then this is the northern part of the state he's describing.

My favorite part this time through the story was the description of the Union soldiers facing the bridge in anticipation of the hanging. These are veterans of carnage and death, where what they're about to behold is just an everyday occurrence. Bierce's war stories are at their most appealing for me in their quiet certainty and respect for the participants:
Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.

Glancing back through some of his stories, it wouldn't have been out of place to amend that by saying, "Especially those most familiar with him."

Monday, December 26, 2016

Stone Tablets by Wojciech Żukrowski

Stone Tablets by Wojciech Żukrowski
Translation from the Polish by Stephanie Kraft
Paul Dry Books, 2016
Paperback, 733 pages

One may shake the Ten Commandments in helpless anger, but no one is exempt from them. They are always with us, etched on our consciences; they weigh every action, affixing their sign of approval or condemnation so as to crush us in the last hour and accuse us for eternity. (page 587)

Many thanks to Will Schofield at Paul Dry Books for sending me a review copy of this book earlier this year. I hate that it took so long to post on it, but that's been the fate of many things this year. I hope this serves as a partial offset for the delay.

Wojciech Żukrowski (1916 - 2000) was a new name for me, but his biography made me want to explore some of his work. Stone Tablets, published in 1966, was banned by the Polish authorities because of its comments on Stalinism. Set in India in 1956, Stone Tablets tells of a love affair between the Hungarian cultural attaché stationed in New Delhi and an Australian ophthalmologist. The diplomat, Istvan Terey, proves to be an unusual diplomat. He's not a particularly dedicated Communist party member, preferring to write poetry instead. While married and with two sons, his family remains in Budapest instead of joining him in India. Margit Ward, the Australian, works with Unesco to stop the prevalent spread of trachoma in the country. From a rich family, Margit throws herself into her work from the grief of losing her fiancé during World War II and from the guilt of her privileged status. We are introduced to her as looking for another cause, and she seems to view Istvan as just that. She wants Istvan to return with her to Australia so he can work on his poetry in a free country. For his part, Istvan seems torn between his concern for his family's safety and his desire to be free of them.

The affair between Istvan and Margit is central to the novel, and sadly it's the weakest part. Fortunately, other areas are extremely robust and well done. 1956 turned out to be a tumultuous political year. Nikita Khrushchev's speech denouncing Stalin and his protégés caused many ripples in the Communist world that year. The promise of change led to demonstrations in Poland and Hungary, where initial concessions emboldened further revolts. Istvan, thousands of miles away from home, is at the mercy of infrequent and incomplete information about events in Hungary. The brutal crackdowns in Poland and Hungary are swept away from the world's focus as the Suez Crisis begins.

While all these events unfold, Istvan searches for news from Hungary. He finds occasional updates through other diplomatic channels, but the most insightful comments come in letters from Bela, a reporter and close friend from Hungary. Through Bela, Istvan learns of the "fresh evidence of cruelty" from the past coming to light, where party members are "forced to feel the cruelty of the machine in which he had been one of the cogs," the changes in fortune for those once powerful in the Communist hierarchy. Istvan's boss refuses to change, believing that de-Stalinization had to proceed with caution since "if unleashed without restraint, may lead to internal upheaval." The party line is that moving too fast would favor Communism's enemies.

The political promise in Hungary of shaking off its past resonates with Istvan, who's unsure which direction he wants to go in his personal life. Like the upheaval back home, he realizes that it isn't possible to be passive and stay on the sidelines. He lacks the fortitude to commit to a decision in his personal life, though, choosing to continue acting as he has—in a sense, behaving just like his boss. His actions, or rather his inability to come to terms with what is happening around him, also mirrors some of the British he sees in independent India. Even though India is no longer one of their colonies, they feel more comfortable there than they do back home, where changes not to their liking are taking place.

The Hungarian embassy turns out to be a political cauldron. Istavan acts as if he is above the political dynamics there (he's a poet, after all), but like Hungarians realizing their country's insignificance in relation to others when other global events explode, Istvan comprehends too late he's just a small cog in the political machine.

The political discussions and events exhibited in the novel aren't its only strong point. Żukrowski's portrait of India, still feeling its way on the stage as an independent country, contributes a lustrous travelogue component to the novel. And it's a powerful portrait he paints. There's a political angle in these descriptions, where there is much talk about the potential that has yet to be realized. As some of the native characters realize, it was "easier to get rid of the English than to control" what was set in motion with their independence.

Żukrowski served in Poland's diplomatic service in India and it shows in his descriptions of everyday scenes. One of the characters describes India as a Breughal painting, and Żukrowski's portrait of India details a love of and appreciation for the lower classes similar to that of the painter's depiction of peasants. One example: there's a striking scene where Istvan finds himself in the middle of a demonstration made up of prostitutes and blind men (who play music in the brothels). These groups are protesting new rules relocating brothels outside the city, meaning a loss of their steady income. It's something so outlandish but presented in such a sympathetic light I have to think Żukrowski saw or read about a similar event. There are many such wonderful details and events shown in the novel as Istvan travels around India. Some of it is glamorized, but Żukrowski's love of the country shines through.

Even though the love affair central to the novel is the weakest component, the strength of the other parts, the political component and depiction of India in particular, made for a gratifying read. Recommended.

Additional links:
Stephanie Kraft discusses translating famous Polish novel into English: a fun five minutes on some of the difficulties on translating the novel

Paul Dry Books' reading guide to Stone Tablets. Contains a chronology of important dates around Żukrowski's life and the book, a character list (I found this handy), and chapter summaries (with spoilers).

Michael Orthofer has a more detailed review, including the insight below. It's one of the many parallels running through the novel that makes it enjoyable to read:

The lack of privacy Terey experiences is nicely presented, as he finds himself unable to keep even the locals who work for him from closely monitoring all his affairs, an amusing twist on the surveillance state he has otherwise been able to leave more or less behind... .

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Shakespeare in Swahililand by Edward Wilson-Lee

Shakespeare in Swahililand: Adventures with the Ever-Living Poet
by Edward Wilson-Lee
William Collins; London: 2016

One of the most striking things I found as I followed Shakespeare on his travels through East African history was the fact that the works were present at every stage of life in the region during the very period when the region was struggling to free itself from colonial rule. The plays were set as compulsory reading at school, yes, but they were not dispensed with after that as nothing more than rote learning. Many—even most—of those who would go on to become post-independence political, social and cultural leaders went on to study English literature at Makerere University, where the emphasis was heavily on the reading and performance of Shakespeare's plays. And though this odd fact in itself was the result of a curious set of historical circumstances, these readers of Shakespeare did not simply shake off their reading after graduation as so much colonial propaganda. Instead, they too Shakespeare with them out into the world, and he was woven into every part of the fabric of African life, into the speeches of politicians and lawyers, but also into the folklore of rural villages. Shakespeare even followed in times of crisis, into riots and guerrilla warfare and into concentration camps. Yet any temptation to write this love of colonial masters even as they overthrew them, is quickly dispelled as the trail is followed: these are wholehearted commitments to reading Shakespeare, and ones as likely to Africanize his works as to preserve him as a pristine European fetish. (137-8; quotes are from the U.K. edition)

Edward Wilson-Lee, raised in Kenya, teaches Shakespeare at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. He ran across the fact that one of the first books printed in the Swahili language had to do with Shakespeare, "a slim volume of stories from Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, published ... on the island of Zanzibar in the 1860s." Traveling through the countries where Swahili was common (plus Ethiopia), Wilson-Lee found "a hidden history that brought both Shakespeare and the land I thought familiar into richer focus than I had ever known them." Shakespeare in Swahililand records his journey and what he unearthed in these southeastern African countries, part travelogue, part literary and theatrical development, combined with the region's history. Many colorful characters, political and theatrical, grace the pages.

Early explorers to Africa's Lakes Region made a point of noting they carried Shakespeare (and other weighty works) in their safari kitbag, not to share with the natives but rather to remain in touch with civilization. Wilson-Lee visits Zanzibar, where the volume of the Lamb's Shakespeare translation was published, only to find that most archived documents of the mission house are in various stages of disintegration. While the man responsible for the publication of the translation, Edward Steere, initially came to the area as a missionary, it seems clear that in publishing this volume, and in other of his reports, he wanted to establish a shared culture, too. Explorers and missionaries lifted Shakespeare's narratives in writing their reports and memoirs, showing how integral the poet was in their lives and, possibly, how they thought he captured aspects of civilization and savagery.

I enjoyed the tie-in between the history of a region and how it impacted the theater, such as the use of Indian workers to build the East Africa Railway, running from Mombasa at the coast to the interior lakes. The side-effect of this was a "vibrant culture of East African Shakespeare performance in the early years of the twentieth century." All play performances had to obtain a license from the colonial authorities at the East African Protectorate, and Wilson-Lee includes an appendix showing approval for eight approved plays in Mombasa that are either performances of or adaptations from Shakespeare during February and March 1915. Reports of these and other performances provide interesting detail, especially surrounding the changes to Shakespeare's plots. There was also music added, of which Wilson-Lee was able to find two gramophone recordings on shellac (crushed battle-shell). The changes to Shakespeare's texts, or maybe better described as liberties taken, demonstrate an interaction with the poet, highlighting his appeal to audiences throughout time, language, and place.

Wilson-Lee illustrates presence of Shakespeare at the stages of life in the region by showing how Shakespeare may have been present in colonial run schools, but more importantly he wasn't discarded with colonial propaganda on the countries' roads to independence. His language "was woven into every part of the fabric of African life, into the speeches of politicians and lawyers, but also into the folklore of rural villages." What the people of East Africa did was take Shakespeare's writing and make it their own. Or as Wilson-Lee puts it, "the Shakespeare made in Africa has come to replace the one that was taken there."

I think it a little dangerous to view what happened through the lens of Shakespeare, such as British explorers viewing natives through The Tempest, but Wilson-Lee makes it clear when he does something like this it's only speculation. The book is a marvelous guide to the life of Shakespeare's writings and performances in the eastern Africa region, a travelogue of the poet's influence in the area. Even though his writings are understood in differing ways, his works have been available to the residents of East Africa for a while, open to their interpretations, and made their own. East Africa has appropriated Shakespeare, just as Shakespeare did with other works. Very highly recommended.

The abrupt withdrawal of Shakespeare from the front lines of East African life [at the end of the Cold War, post-1989] gives a strong indication of the extent to which his place there was sustained by power struggles rather than by disinterested love of his works. This, like so many other aspects of the story I have been pursuing, makes clear how difficult it is even to ask questions about Shakespeare's universal appeal. The Victorians' idolization of Shakespeare meant that he would have a place at the foundations of language learning in their colonies, and would serve as a totemic standard of beauty for the peoples over whom they ruled. In this respect there was a certain inevitability to the central place that he would have in East African history—first as something kept from the natives, then a test through which they could prove their allegiance to their colonial masters, then as something they could take over and make their own, and finally as something to be cast off, as the final and most internalized form of colonial power. It is possible that something would have serve this role even had it not been Shakespeare's works. (220-1)

Additional Links:
Edward Wilson-Lee's article in Foreign AffairsAfrica's Theater of War: Shakespeare and Nation Building on the Continent

A more detailed (and much better) review by Ramnik Shah.

Edward Wilson-Lee's essay A Voice in the Desert at FSG's Work In Progress blog

"The resulting book is bursting with stories about reading in unexpected places and how it changes what we read, but at its heart is always the question of whether there is anything that is beautiful and significant to everyone—whether, in a sense, in a world deserted by shared values, there is any voice that can speak to us all."

Shakespeare in Swahililand: In Search of a Global Poet
by Edward Wilson-Lee
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York: 2016

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Copperhead: Harold Frederic (1893 novel) and 2013 Film (Ron Maxwell, director)

Earlier this year Amateur Reader posted on Harold Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware, which reminded me of my reading of that novel as well as Frederic's novella The Copperhead. At that time, the movie adaptation was available on Amazon Prime for only a few dollars, so I splurged and watched it. A few notes about both of them, although I'll provide the caveat that it has been a while since I've read Frederic's novella.

Frederic's short stories about the U.S. Civil War have usually been published together, often including The Copperhead. Copperheads, for those unfamiliar with the term, were northern U.S. opponents to the Civil War. In the case of Frederic's novella, the central character of Abner Beech is adamantly opposed to the Civil War, causing friction with the other residents of Four Corners in upstate New York. Jimmy, an orphan the Beeches have welcomed into their household, narrates how the abolitionist movement took hold in the area:

There was a certain dreamlike tricksiness of transformation in it all. At first there was only one Abolitionist, old “Jee” Hagadorn. Then, somehow, there came to be a number of them—and then, all at once, lo! everybody was an Abolitionist—that is to say, everybody but Abner Beech. The more general and enthusiastic the conversion of the others became, the more resolutely and doggedly he dug his heels into the ground, and braced his broad shoulders, and pulled in the opposite direction. The skies darkened, the wind rose, the storm of angry popular feeling burst swooping over the country-side, but Beech only stiffened his back and never budged an inch. (from Chapter 1)

Frederic, a native of Utica, makes upstate New York as much a character in many of his stories as the men and women populating them. On his writing of the U.S. Civil War, Frederic takes a very guarded position. There is no righteousness of the cause, there is no romanticism of war. Frederic focuses on the men, women, and children left at home during the fighting. In the novella, Frederic makes it difficult to like Abner Beech. Beech is against the war, mainly because he doesn't think it worth spilling blood. He's as racist as they come and doesn't have a problem with slavery. Or at least he doesn't think it an institution worth fighting over. If the southern states want to seceded, Abner says let them leave.

Edmund Wilson wrote an introduction to a reissue of The Civil War Stories of Harold Frederic and had this to say about these stories:

His [Frederic's] stories of New York during the Civil War reflect the peculiar mixture of patriotism and disaffection which was characteristic of that region and for which [good friend Horatio] Seymour was so forthright a spokesman. Due to this, these stories differ fundamentally from any other Civil War fiction I know, and they have thus a unique historical as well as a literary importance. The hero of the longest of them—really a short novel—is not merely a critic of Republican policies but a real out-and-out Copperhead, an upstate farmer whose ideas are rooted in the principles of the American Revolution and who believes the South has the right to secede.

I recommend The Civil War Stories of Harold Frederic even though they don't represent his best writing and are uneven. The best of them, The Copperhead included, focus on "the mixed feelings aroused by the war but also in their realistic footage focusing on the civilians at home." (Wilson, again, in the introduction)

Abner was too intent upon his theme to notice. “Yes, peace!” he repeated, in the deep vibrating tones of his class-meeting manner. “Why, just think what's been a-goin' on! Great armies raised, hundreds of thousands of honest men taken from their work an' set to murderin' each other, whole deestricks of country torn up by the roots, homes desolated, the land filled with widows an' orphans, an' every house a house of mournin'.” (from Chapter 8)

I thoroughly enjoyed the 2013 movie Copperhead directed by Ron Maxwell and adapted by Bill Kaufman. Minor changes made to the characters, Abner Beech in particular, improve the story. Abner, played perfectly by Billy Campbell, focuses more on his belief that the Constitution should guide the states' and citizens' actions, and he's less than thrilled by the steps President Lincoln has taken. A major change to his character is that the movie Abner is very much anti-slavery, but he puts his dedication to the law over his hatred of slavery. There are other changes as well, and for the most part well done. If it's possible, there's an even stronger focus on the home front, as you see boys heading off to war and coming home, if they come home alive that is, irreparably changed.

The strength of the movie is its focus on the issue of community during wartime and the many divisive factors (political, religious, legal, familial, economic) that can tear it apart. If I had any complaints about the movie, it would be that the ending was even more heavy handed than Frederic's. In such moments, though, it's easy to see what Frederic was striving for. Men like Jee Hagadorn (played perfectly with scene-chewing aplomb by Angus Macfadyen) may be on the right side of this moral question, but at what cost in other areas? Fortunately the movie and the novella don't pretend to make either Jee or Abner representative of the pro-war or anti-war North, instead using them to highlight important moral questions about this tumultuous period. Highly recommended.

Billy Campbell as Abner Beech in Copperhead