Father Robert Palladino, former Trappist monk and professor of calligraphy at Reed College, has died. His obituary at the New York Times contains a number of interesting links pertaining to his life and letters: the calligraphic variety, of course. Palladino is noted for having been an influence on Steve Jobs during his time at Reed, and thus on the design of the fonts and general aesthetic of the Macintosh computer.
Reed College itself has a page dedicated to its Calligraphy Heritage, although unfortunately it seems that the class itself is no longer taught there. Nevertheless, there are a several videos of Father Palladino and others at work that are worth watching, including an entire television series by Palladino’s predecessor at Reed, Lloyd Reynolds. There’s never been a better time for a handwriting renaissance.
I can’t stop watching When The Song Dies, a video about the disappearance of folksong and memory in Scotland. Nothing underscores the loss of a culture like prolonged shots of soulful stares and windswept landscapes. But it’s also amazing how much still survives in songs and stories and superstitions: strange creatures in the rafters and words not spoken before noon, reminders of a numinous and sometimes sinister world.
I spent a week last summer in Glencolmcille, County Donegal, taking language classes and learning traditional songs in Irish Gaelic. No one knows how old some of the songs are; most have been passed down from ear to ear, mouth to mouth, and some seem to be missing verses. They take great pride in their Irish there, in St. Columba’s valley at the end of the world: “It’s the oldest language in Europe, they say… except Latin and Greek, of course.” Sometimes it does feel that way. Age is measured by memories, not by years.
“And everybody sees a ghost in a different way.”
I am not a beach person, and I prefer to take my long walks along rocky coastlines or in the mountains, where I am free from the distractions of beach towels, beach umbrellas, beach volleyball, sunscreen, sunglasses, and sun worshippers. If I go to the beach, it will be in late winter or early spring, perhaps in Florida, perhaps in the south of France, where I will fly kites or gather pebbles from the sand and collect foreign coins. But although I am not, as I say, a beach person, I think I know what the beach means. If the ocean is the primordial chaos, the beach is our earthly paradise. It is a Garden of Eden, and an angel stands over it with a burning sword. Dante thought of heaven, and he saw a mystic rose with the company of saints enthroned upon the petals, illuminated by the light of God. When we think of paradise we see palm trees and sand and the company of tourists enthroned upon beach chairs, illuminated by the tropical sun.
I suppose we’re no longer encouraged to think of heaven in anything but earthly terms, and that is why the first explorers of the South Sea islands believed that they had stumbled upon an earthly paradise, and projected upon its inhabitants the corresponding state of primeval innocence. Who was more surprised: the islanders to find out that they were innocent, or the explorers to find out that they were not? Even Dante placed the terrestrial paradise in the southern ocean, but he understood well enough to know that it could be found only by winning to the summit of the mountain of Purgatory. Are we wrong to think that the beach is a symbol of paradise? No, but we forget that it is only a symbol of paradise, and to enter paradise itself may call for devotion, purity of heart, and a clarity of mind not always found among beachgoers.
If you disbelieve in Heaven because you cannot imagine it, or because you can imagine only an eternity of clouds, harps, and music, and are not thereby filled with longing for the courts of the house of our God, then you might be listening to the wrong music. There is a story that St. Augustine, trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity, was reproved by the example of a boy trying to empty the sea with a shell. And there was once a king of England who placed his throne upon the seashore to show his flatterers that he was not the master of the tides. The beach is not the least of the places where wisdom may be found, if you know where to look.
Pity the peoples of the South Pacific islands, not because they have been misunderstood, but because they themselves know nothing of autumn and of winter, of the remarkable evergreens that never change their color, of the remarkable maple trees that do, of the snowfall whiter than the finest sand and the sea that freezes over. Untaught by the discipline of the seasons, they do not know that the blazing noondays and swift sunsets of their perpetual summer are not an eternal and universal possession but a gift that others dearly buy and slowly earn. Pity the islanders, for they have had their reward. Pity the beachgoers, for they have theirs. Pity the Australians, and all who must celebrate Christmas in the summer, and who miss the symbolic interruption of summer in winter, of day into night, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness that comprehendeth it not.
I am not a summer person, but I think I know what summer means. Summer is a reward in proportion to what we have earned. Summer is also a symbol of heaven, as all the poets agree, and heaven too is a reward in proportion to our capacity to enjoy it. I spent several of the past few summers in graduate school. I won’t say that graduate school is heaven, but when I recall the hours of reading Dante in the classroom, eavesdropping on a rehearsal of a Bach aria in the great hall, glimpsing the rings of Saturn from the observatory telescope, or demonstrating geometrical propositions on the blackboard, I’m inclined to compare it favorably with the beach. I know that school is not nearly so popular as the beach, probably because it takes more practice to enjoy it. But I also suspect that school has a higher graduation rate. The rules are clear for both: you take out what you carry in. But you can always find something new: a shell, a metaphor, a message in a bottle. Keep looking.
Poet, translator, and classicist A.E. Stallings has been nominated for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry. The post was established in 1708; if elected, she’ll be the first woman on a list that includes Matthew Arnold, Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, and Seamus Heaney. Stallings herself has a few remarks. Angela Taraskiewicz has more to say in an essay for the Valparaiso Poetry Review that touches on strings, female storytelling, and classical mythology.
In other Oxford news: at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Carol and Philip Zaleski discuss Oxford’s Influential Inklings and their enduring cultural legacy. Elsewhere in England and the British Isles, Robert MacFarland is teaching us about landscapes, languages, and landspeak, ever since the Oxford Junior Dictionary decided to refine its vocabulary in ways that would make Hopkins weep.
Whatever else one may say about a Hogwarts education, it’s clear that it enjoys an advantage over most other schools in the realm of practical philosophy. Instead of bewailing the fate of the humanities, perhaps it’s time to realign our priorities and focus on the true issue at hand: the fight against evil. To that end, therefore, we present The Defense Against the Dark Arts Reading List for immediate adoption by English departments, classical academies, and Comparative Literature professors.
Aristotle, On Dreams
Cicero, On Friendship
The Song of Roland
Dante, The Divine Comedy
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur
Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress
Grilled cheese is, of course, the perfect food with which to celebrate Poetry Month, combining as it does those two ingredients both universal in their appeal and infinite in their variety. As poetry transforms and elevates language, so the grilled cheese sandwich transmutes the humble elements of bread and cheese into a golden unity. Indeed, in the realm of edible alchemy it would not be unfair to draw a comparison with the mythical Philosopher’s Scone.
It’s no surprise, then, that many poets have turned their hands to the subject of grilled cheese. Most famous, perhaps, was Robert Frost, who saw so clearly the transience of earthly things in “Nothing Grilled Can Stay”:
So curds go down to whey.
Nothing grilled can stay.
W.B. Yeats saw all too well the limitations of earthly food, but he also saw a promise of transcendence. These lines recall another famous verse about a grain of wheat.
A grain of wheat is but a paltry thing,
A tattered groat upon a stalk, unless
Mill turn its wheel and sing, and louder sing
For every kernel in its stone compress.
“Grilling to Byzantium” gives eloquent voice to his desire for immortality, for “monuments of melted magnificence” that stand beyond the natural world and its ceaseless cycle of death and rebirth.
O bread-loaves standing by the flour mill
As in an old prosaic pastoral,
Come from the flour mill, burn on a grill,
And be the sandwich-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dieting animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artistry of the panini.
For Wallace Stevens, though, there is nothing beyond the circle of the dinner plate.
Let catsup be finale of squeeze.
The only emperor is the emperor of grilled-cheese.
These lines place the grilled cheese squarely within the philosophical traditions and concerns of the twentieth century. But the concept of heated sandwiches long predates these poets, and has hardly been limited to poems in the English language. Grilled cheese may be a quintessentially modern and Western food, but scholars have traced the genre back as far as Bashō.
The hot grill–
Sandwich jumps on,
Sound of butter.
This too has found its twentieth-century adherents. It was from the quasi-Imagist manner of this haiku that Ezra Pound derived “In a Station of the Food Court”, with its arresting vision of
Cheeses on a hot, black grill.
And no one who has heard these lines of Octavio Paz can ever forget his idea of a midnight snack:
Si abres los ojos,
se abre la noche de tostado de queso,
se abre el reino secreto del sopa
que mana del centro de la noche.
Y si los cierras,
una sopa, una corriente dulce y silenciosa,
te inunda por dentro, avanza, te hace hambre,
la noche calienta emparedados en tu alma.
In nineteenth-century France, Baudelaire himself was not immune to the seductive lure of the cheese sandwich, but in “Fromages du Mal” his imagination, unsurprisingly, takes a surreal turn.
On dirait ton sandwich d’un fromage couvert;
Fromage mystérieux (est-il bleu, jaune ou vert?)
Alternativement tendre, crémeux, cruel,
Réfléchit le splendeur et l’éclat du ciel.
In the midst of these competing visions and interpretations, Archibald MacLeish pleaded for simplicity and a return to basics in “Ars Sabulovica”.
A sandwich should not go to waste
But the last word, of course, must belong to Elizabeth Bishop who alone had the courage to transform grilled cheese into an imperative and a formula for living.
The art of grilling isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be grilled that their loss is no disaster.
Grill something every day. Accept the fluster
of melted cheese, the sandwich badly burnt.
The art of grilling isn’t hard to master.
Then practice grilling farther, grilling faster:
flatbread, pizza, and what it was you meant
to stir-fry. None of these will bring disaster.
I grilled my tuna melt. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three grilled reubens went.
The art of grilling isn’t hard to master.
I grilled two burgers, lovely ones. And, after,
some cheddar cheese, two pickles, a condiment.
I grilled them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
Even grilling this, (the turkey club, a sandwich
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
The art of grilling’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Grill it!) like disaster.
It is a strange bargain we strike with ourselves this time of year, as if time and light were really interchangeable, as if either were truly measurable. But somehow it seems to work. What is an hour of sleep to the luxury of later sunsets, of lengthening evenings that hasten the equinox? What is spring break but a dream of summer, anyway?
It is a false dream, surely. Here in New England snow still blankets the ground and the wind blows cold from Canada. The month of March is mud-time and flood-time. And we are only paying ourselves back for the hour we grasped too greedily in fall. But there is still hope. Perhaps the true light is on its way.
When Thorne Smith liberated the gods from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the results were as disappointing as they were hilarious. His 1931 novel, The Night Life of the Gods, involves an eccentric scientist, a mischievous leprechaun, and the Greek gods set free from their pedestals to roam the streets of Prohibition-era New York. The story is witty, absurd, and strangely poignant. The gods are, at first, delighted by the joys of swimming pools, department stores, and illicit whiskey. Venus enjoys a good deal of attention, with and without arms, and Neptune is fascinated by fish markets. But in the end it is all too much for them, and for us. “In a world that has forgotten how to play there was no room for the Olympians,” muses Meg, the leprechaun. True enough. The gods become statues again. And so, in terms of interest, does everyone else.
Would they fare any better, now? The Icelanders are building their first pagan temple in a thousand years. One wonders what kind of welcome Thor and Odin would find on the streets of modern Reykjavik, if they were restored to life. Those who plan to frequent the temple hasten to remind us that the gods are merely metaphors, which seems a little unfair. These are gods without faces: they have no personalities, they demand no sacrifices. They are museum pieces: missing an arm here, a head there, stripped of their paint, cold, austere, damaged, and distant. What life the statues of Greek gods now have for us is in their material history: the hands that shaped the stone, the eyes that first beheld them. It’s something to meditate upon, certainly, although a place like the Metropolitan can overwhelm the imagination. But it’s not the same as what we’re looking for.
To live in a world that is charged with the grandeur of God is no light undertaking. The gods of Thorne Smith are both playful and terrifying. It is their playfulness that makes them terrifying and masks it at the same time. They are above consequences, even more so than their Homeric antecedents; they are also, of course, without consequence, because this is a comic novel, not an epic poem. But for Smith and his protagonists they are also alive in a world that has forgotten how to live. That is why we seek them out, desire their company, and overlook their terror. Unless we cannot, in which case we run the other way. No one in their right mind now would want to live among the Greeks, the Romans, or the Vikings, let alone their gods. Nor should we worship their statues, unless we are prepared to see their faces. But they can still remind us how not to be statues. Thorne Smith was right about that much.
It should be pretty clear that the gods will not save us from a world without God. One might say that they have had their chance. But one might also say that we are living in the Golden Age of mythology, and that is an interesting thought. The gods were never so free to be themselves as when they stopped having to be gods. Somewhere between statues and metaphors, they still roam free in the Metropolitan, and everywhere else. But with what faces they will meet ours in this present age remains to be seen.