Monday, June 25, 2018

Three Stray Comments and a Joke

Donald Trump walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Mr. President, I didn’t think you drank.” “I don’t,” says the President, “and people ask me all the time. But if you look at what’s going on; and I tell you it’s very simple. See, I give you $5, and all I get: it’s just a glass with a beverage. And believe me, trade deficits are bad.”

Donald Trump never actually had this conversation, and you know it. Dorothy L. Sayers, in the commentary to her magnificent translation of The Divine Comedy posits that Dante’s readers never took his placement of real people in Hell, Purgatory, or Heaven as literal statements, either. The celebrities Dante assigns to one place or another were accepted as recognizable types that helped make the points he was trying to make. As much as I love this classic of classics, I’ve always placed a little mental bracket around what I saw as Dante’s untoward willingness to judge. But Sayers has convinced me that he wasn’t predicting the eternal state of souls much more than someone telling a joke does. In looking up Trump jokes, I found some that put him in Heaven and some that put him in Hell, and I don’t take any of them as prognostications.

That’s the first of just a few stray comments I have to make on my reading this month. Living in south-central Texas for the school year put my bioliogical calendar out of whack. I wake up, go out for a walk on hot, humid mornings, and think, “Isn’t summer about over?” Then I realize that it’s June and that summer has just started. How can this be? Walking has become such a part of my reading routine, it’s difficult to read with full concentration when the walking is so uncomfortable, and I only feel enough energy for disconnected notes.

What can Patrick O’Brian not write about? Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin give their author cause to write about history, naval tactics, geography, anthropology, biology, geology, economics, politics, fashion, music, meteorology, family relations, literature, espionage, and more. In chapter 7 of H. M. S. Surprise we get an experiment in ethics, as Stephen walks around Bombay in amoral observation. He doesn’t judge prostitution, slavery, idolatry, or any other practice his church and countries might tell him to condemn, and as he brings me along into this morally neutral view, he reveals very clearly a new line of morality. Judging institutions he cannot change is pointless. Judging people who have grown up in a foreign environment is pointless. But Stephen must help one little girl who crosses his path.

Somehow, Shelby Foote conveys beauty in the pageant of stupidity and blood that we know as the American Civil War. He does it partly through focusing on individual stories: Lincoln and his yarns, Grant and his self-doubts, Jefferson Davis and his dyspepia, Longstreet and his hubristic disobedience, and a host of generals, colonels, quartermasters, abolitionists, senators, spies, reporters, ambassadors, diarists, soldiers, wives, authors, humorists, slaves, freemen, and others with a story to tell. He does it partly through phrases packed with powerful imagery: the “stars in the courses,” the “awful arithmetic” (did Lincoln actually coin the combination?), “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees,” and “We are all Americans.” And he does it partly by letting events lead (in stellar courses) toward known conclusions: the reader can sense for scores or even hundreds of pages the coming of the shots at Fort Sumter, the Emancipation Proclamation, Stonewall Jackson’s death, Pickett’s Charge, the crater at Petersburg, the surrender at Appomattox Court House. The effect is very similar to that of reading Othello or Oedipus the King for the umpteenth time – except that it lasts for three thousand pages.

I complained about the heat earlier in the post. Distraction from adjusting to the first month of retirement may have something to do with it, too. But whether I can put together a train of thought or not, it’s clear to me as I write these stray comments, that my reading has placed in the midst of the disorientation and weariness some profound, unforgettable moments.

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