For close to a decade, the eminent poet, essayist, former Columba University professor of poetry, translator, and linguist, Alfred Corn has been posting brilliant, pensées on Facebook, although he prefers to call them “flash essays,” in deference, I assume, to Pascal. These posts have inspired some of the most enlightened repartee on social media, focusing on topics that range from theology to semantics to fashion to politics to poetry to the cultural repercussions of our increasingly synchronic age. As a polymath, Corn explores subjects with rare erudition and graceful eloquence. After making probative, and often provocative observations about a particular topic, whether momentous or mundane, Corn invites comments at the conclusion of his posts with the simple question: “Thoughts?” His pensées invite his “friends” pensées. I can only hope that he has collected his Facebook threads, as they represent an invaluable omnibus of brilliant contemporary commentary.
FLASH ESSAYS by Alfred Corn
Most of us have read Joyce’s Dubliners, which includes the story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” but do we know what Ivy Day is in Ireland? It falls on October 6 and commemorates the patriot Charles Parnell, whose life and deeds are not forgotten in Eire, though they may not be remembered in other countries. Why “ivy,” we may wonder. Why not? That creeping and climbing evergreen vine has held a place in the European imagination for an indeterminate period, associated, for example, with Dionysus and his crew. See the extraordinary evocation of Dionysus’s overtaking a ship in Pound’s Canto II, an episode in which ivy exercises some of its magical power. Adapting the Homeric hymn to Dionysus, Pound depicts a seagoing vessel overrun with ivy and grapevine foliage, with Dionysus’s pet lynx purring and padding among the vegetation. It’s likely that ivy figured in Britain’s early Druidic rites, its magic associated with two special features: evergreen leaves and an ability to cling tightly to stone and bark. An old folk name given to it was “lovestone.” Bouquets of ivy were traditionally given to couples at their marriage, suggesting that they ought to hold fast together, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. Henry VIII’s carol “The Holly and the Ivy” figures holly as an emblem for the Christ, and ivy as the Virgin, both of course evergreens. But the tropes may be extended so that the crown-wearing holly is the monarch and the ivy is the church and its institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge, whose colleges were founded to educate priests.
Ivy, not native to North America, was nevertheless introduced here during the colonial period and seems pretty soon to have been figured as an emblem of status based on long standing. Brick construction, beginning here with the reign of William and Mary, was an ideal substrate for climbing ivy, a vine that doesn’t clad a building
façade overnight. Patricians in any country are those who can cite histories showing that their ancestors got there first, but meanwhile a convenient optical proof of earliness is a house covered with evergreen vines. (When ivy is absent, Hawthorne’s “mosses from an old manse” will do as a substitute.) In the same way, the phrase “Ivy League” consecrates the prestige accorded to the universities established early in U.S. history. Then there are the “ivy days” that some universities celebrate, these having nothing to do with Ireland or Parnell. It’s a practice mainly associated with universities in the Northeast, especially the Ivy League, but also the group of colleges known as the “Little Ivies,” (Bowdoin and Williams, for example). The ceremony involves affixing an inscribed stone (called an “ivy”) to an academic or administrative building as a gift from a class on the eve of graduation. It honors special academic achievement, even as it commemorates that year’s graduates. Most often a motto in Latin is part of the inscription, for example, the one attached in 1740 to a building at the University of Pennsylvania: Leges sine moribus vanae. [Free translation: “Where there is no morality, laws are useless.”] That motto might have been apropos in our recent impeachment proceedings, during which Republicans continued to insist that Trump hadn’t committed a crime.
Alas, ivy’s clinging rootlets will after many decades begin to destroy the brick supporting them, so eventually the vines have to be ripped down, and brickwork restored. Long standing has its perks and its drawbacks. Patriciates last until they don’t. Holly wears the crown until it doesn’t. And tyrants abuse power until the Grim Reaper shows up and says, “Time to go to your reward.”
August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven in the Catholic church calendar, a holiday based on the non-scriptural doctrine that Mary was taken bodily up to the divine realm rather than simply dying. Belief in the Assumption was optional for Catholics until November 1950, when Pius XII concluded that it was a settled dogma. Thereafter the Feast was a holy day of obligation. In his poem “Beyond the Alps,” Robert Lowell stated that this papal decree prompted his decision to leave the Catholic church, a decade after his conversion, but I’ve often wondered if that wasn’t just a convenient excuse. After accepting the Incarnation and Trinity, isn’t it like straining at a gnat to repudiate the Assumption? The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland rebukes Alice when the girl says she can’t believe what she’s just been told by remarking that she (the Queen) believes six impossible things before breakfast every day! Presumably they were believed when she said her morning prayers. Still, there may be a middle ground in which reason can understand religious doctrine as metaphoric, a series of tropes expressing human truths rather than a summary of literal and historical events. (That was the conclusion Santayana came to and that others have thought.) Believe it or not, the Assumption has been a fertile subject for painters, in fact, one of the pivotal paintings of the Renaissance is Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin in Venice’s Frari church, a work thoroughly familiar to all art historians. We can be moved by these artworks without believing they depict events that occurred in history. Or so I assume.
Context rules: How the time-frame context shapes our response to things. Disney’s Bambi, directed nominally by David Hand, who supervised several other directors, was released on August 13, 1942. The movie was probably first experienced as an allegory of the rise of Nazism, the advent of the Second World War, the London Blitz, etc. After all, the original Austrian novel, Eine Lebengeschichte aus dem Walde. written by Felix Salten and published in 1923, was inspired by the First World War. The American audience first encountered it in Whittaker Chambers’s 1928 translation, appearing under the title Bambi. The fawn’s name recalls the Italian word “bambino,” but to some ears “bomb”, too, a congruence reminding us that war kills children and soldiers alike. This film was, like all Disney’s products, re-released several times: in 1947, 1957, and 1966. Perhaps because of more recent TV screenings, it has seized the imagination of animal-rights activists, including Paul McCartney, who said seeing it prompted him to join the movement. Fox hunting is now illegal in Britain, though not deer hunting. The wildfire in the film was what led U.S. National Park directors in the 1940s to screen clips from the film as a warning against dangerous campfires. Disney gave permission for his images to be used for one year, after which the parks came up with “Smokey the Bear” as their emblem. I’m not sure Smokey is a charming or fully developed character when you compare him to Bambi, his father the Prince of the Forest, Thumper the rabbit, Faline the doe, Flower the skunk, or the Old Owl (who amusingly resembles Virgil Thompson). Besides its characters, the film contains (my opinion) Disney’s most beautiful visuals, the gorgeous forest backgrounds developed by Tyrus Wong in collaboration with Maurice Day. Painterly style rendering the wild settings of the action contrasts with the cartoon exaggeration of Bambi’s animals, a disparity that may amount to an aesthetic flaw, though an unsophisticated audience would never make such an observation. Anyway, viewing the movie this past weekend, I thought of animal rights, yes, but also the NRA, along with the wildfires in California in the Southwest. And then, inevitably, of climate change. Context rules.
DANDY AND DUDE
My grandfather, when given a fancy dessert, would say “That’s dandy.” As a child, I knew at least the first strophe of the folk song “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” without being entirely sure what a “dandy” was. Some years later I became aware that a jazz number I liked was titled “Fine and Dandy.” But that was the total of my knowledge about the word until advanced studies in French literature brought me to Baudelaire’s writings about le dandy and dandysme. He turned the early 19th-century vogue for refined male clothing and tonsorial finesse into a metaphysics. A dandy was someone who created his persona not only with carefully assembled clothes but also with a crafted air of ironic superiority, a witty, aristocratic sprezzatura setting him apart from the dull-normal bourgeois. But the origins of the term were humble. It is first heard in a Scottish border ballad, where “Dandy” is an affectionate substitute for the name Andrew. How it became the term to describe a man who devotes considerable attention to his clothes isn’t clear, but hints of the phenomenon began in the 1790s, where foppish men were referred to as “macaronis.” (Now go back to “Yankee Doodle” and you’ll understand why a feather stuck in a hat could be called “macaroni.”) Obsessive concern with a gentleman’s clothing came to its greatest prominence with the Englishman George Bryan (“Beau”) Brummell. This person, famous only for his clothes and acerbic wit, was for a time quite a close associate of the Prince Regent (“Prinny”), who enjoyed his company and imitated Brummell’s clothes. But then Brummell wasted his substance in riotous living, in snuffboxes and in cravats, and finally went so far as to inform the Regent that he was fat. A rapid decline began; Brummell, now bankrupt, fled to France where he died in obscurity. Still, he had changed male fashion top to toe, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that men departed from his insistence on manly understatement in clothing.
Beginning in the 1880s in New York, the replacement term for the dandy was the “dude,” possibly a short form of that “Doodle” mentioned in the song. Overdressed men who went out West to play at being cowboys were called “dudes,” mostly accommodated on “dude ranches.” But the word fell into disuse until the 1980s, when young men who had before called each other “man” began using the term “dude.” And it is still with us, a partly affectionate, partly mocking term when directed at a friend as you point out some mistake he’s making. “Dude, do you expect me to read an essay long as that one?” I wonder what Brummell would make of it all.
When I first came to live in London in 1986, I would occasionally see a “City Gent” on his way to work at some financial institution, carrying a rolled umbrella and wearing a bowler. By the end of the decade, bowlers were gone, the same as all other gentlemanly headgear. But they had a long run, beginning in 1849, when Lock & Co. in St. James ordered a new design from the Bowler brothers, respected London hat makers. The idea was to provide headgear for gamekeepers that wouldn’t easily fall off, as top hats were wont to do. But other types of working men began wearing them, followed by the middle and finally the upper class. In the USA they were called “derbys,” and were the kind of hat worn most often by cowboys out West—not the wide-brimmed sombrero that is standard in Western films. The famous picture of Whitman and his partner Peter Doyle shows that Doyle wore one of them. Decades later, the bowler was an essential feature of Chaplin’s Little Tramp outfit. In 1922 the Dada movement (for whom Chaplin was a tutelary spirit) split into two factions and then collapsed in the wake of a quarrel over the momentous question of which was more modern, the locomotive or the bowler. Surrealism stepped up and supplanted the earlier movement, and we can’t think of Magritte without the bowler coming to mind, though he also painted at least one train engine chugging out of a hearth. Probably the most bizarre fashion outcome was that the bowler went on to be adopted by Quechua women in South America in the 1920s when they saw railway workers wearing them. These women have never given it up, probably the last to wear this singular head covering, freighted with its varied history. Well, they, Liza Minelli in Cabaret, and a couple of rock performers. To be honest, the temptation has made itself felt, but affectations demand a kind of courage I don’t seem to have. Contemplation of the phenomenon is enough. Contemplation? Yes, that hat, I do sometimes wear.