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Roger Kimball

Opera buffa, real and imagined

I suspect it is a bad sign when comic opera starts to remind you of your country’s political life. I went with some friends last night to the Santa Fe Opera to hear Mozart’s early La Finta Giardiniera (“The phony Garden Girl”).  No, I had never heard, or even heard of it, either.  It was written early in 1775, when Mozart was 18. There being no video games or internet to distract him, he dashed it off in a couple of weeks. There is some dispute about who wrote the libretto, which is good news for the true author, since it is pretty silly.  The opera was first performed where Mozart wrote it, in Munich, in 1775, and he later rewrote it for a German version (Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe), which was the only complete score known until the Italian version was discovered in the 1970s.

The pretend gardener of the title is, naturally, a noblewoman in real life, the Marchioness Violante Onesti.  She is disguised as a lowly gardener at the estate of the town’s mayor, Don Anchise, toiling in obscurity after her  excitable lover, the Count Belifore, stabbed her in a jealous rage.  There is a lot of jealous rage in this opera, and many cross currents of passion and mistaken identity. Don Anchise is in love with the pretend gardener, who, wouldn’t you know it, loathes him.  His niece, Arminda,  meanwhile, is engaged to the knife-wielding Count, who of course discovers his lost and perforated love in the cabbage patch.   “When Belfiore confesses his lingering love for Violante,” one reads in a précis, “Arminda jealously conspires to abduct the other woman. When Violante is found, she and Belfiore lose their minds and believe themselves to be Greek gods.”

It was at this point that I began to see shades of Washington, D.C., wafting over the stage. The opera opens with everyone declaring what a splendid day it is: “Che lieto giorno.” They say that, but they know it isn’t true.  A sassy servant has her cap set for the mayor, who pines for the gardener, who discovers she still loves the Count, who also loves her, while the mayor’s temperamental niece rants and raves before finding solace with the Cavalier Ramiro, sung by a castrato in the original but since Bruce Jenner wasn’t available last night, the part was sung by a female mezzo in drag. (I wonder if the current transsexual craze will bring back the castrati?)

By  the end of the opera everyone has paired off—the two real servants with one another, as decorum insisted, the niece and the Cavalier, and the Count and the Marchioness—except the mayor. He, alas, is left out in the cold to accept his fate and await another beautiful girl gardener. Good luck with that.

Well, it was an agreeable way to beguile an hour (three, actually).  The staging was only mediocre, I’d say, but the acting was by and large appropriately buffa.  The mayor’s sassy servant (Laura Tatulescu) and the mayor’s niece (Susanna Phillips) were especially droll, as was the mayor himself (William Burden). The air is thin in Santa Fe (elevation 7,199 feet) and, while the singers had acclimated, the orchestra wanted a bit of puff, I thought.

I have been to 5 or 6 performances at the Sante Fe Opera.  It is always an agreeable experience. The setting is breathtaking there in the New Mexican desert, and the roofed but open-air theater, though architecturally severe, is engagingly dramatic.  In recent years, however, I have tended to get the uncomfortable sensation that I am watching some sort of allegory.  Last night, Mozart’s opera buffa reminded me of the bumbling absurdities of our masters in Washington, pretending to be what they aren’t, casting about in the dark in jealous rages, deluded into thinking they’re pagan gods of some description. It’s a good thing I didn’t go on Monday: Salome  was on offer that night, and I shudder to think what parallels Strauss’s gory entertainment would have suggested.

Posted at 8:03 am on July 30th, 2015 by Roger Kimball

Thoughts on Trump

Here in the desert fastness of Santa Fe, the air is thin and Donald Trump seems very far away. I have been partly amused, partly alarmed, by the frenzied cataract of abuse Republicans have heaped upon the Donald. Just a few weeks ago, he was merely an annoyance, entertaining if you like bluster, but certainly not serious.  Then he made his remarks about John McCain not being a war hero, or at least, not the sort of war hero he, D. Trump, really likes.  I was at a dinner party the day Trump made that remark and was assured by a prominent pundit that Trump was now finished and good riddance. That hasn’t happened yet. In fact, Trump seems to keep rising in the polls. Today’s RealClearPolitics running average has Trump at  18.2 with someone named Bush a fairly distant second at 13.7. At this point in the game, that  same pundit assured us assembled serious thinkers, polls don’t matter. So we can discount the numbers.

Or can we?  The late, not-really-lamented Spy magazine used to described Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian,” which seems about right.  What, when you come right down to it, does the man stand for?  What does he believe?  As Kevin Williamson has tactfully pointed out, we don’t really know. Trump has supported and indeed donated to Hillary. He is pro-abortion.  He was, judging by his actions, pro-illegal immigration until, fifteen minutes ago, he was against.  He is good friends with Chuck Schumer.  And he sees nothing wrong with Kelo-like deicsions enabling the state to confiscate private property for (just to take a random example) casinos emblazoned with large gilded Ts.

No, Donald Trump is, as Kevin remarks, a clown.  But here are two things to bear in mind.  First of all, the wave Trump is riding will probably help Jeb Bush more than anyone.  As the Serious People who actually choose our political leaders contemplate the Trump phenomenon and panic, they are likely to do what they did with Bob Dole and cluster round the most anodyne, least threatening candidate, and that means Jeb, who is clearly the Establishment’s choice. (Headline in today’s Wall Street Journal: “Bush Drawing Big Bucks From GOP Establishment.”) As I have said before, I would rue a Bush candidacy, and indeed a Bush presidency.  For one thing, two men from the same family in a quarter century is enough. For another, Bush is wet. Even assuming he won, he would merely keep the seat of the presidency warm for the next left-wing Democrat who would embark anew on the process of dismantling the capitalist, freedom-loving principles that made the United States a beacon to the world.

But let’s leave Bush to one side—if only we could!—and return to the clown in mufti, Donald Trump.  What only a few commentators have cottoned on to is that Trump has touched a nerve. His popularity may be fragile, may even be illusory.  But he has, in his semi-articulate jabbering, reminded people that there is a world outside the beltway.  It’s partly a matter of substance, partly style.  People in many parts of the country are appalled by the flood of illegal immigrants that is changing the character of this country.  Trump speaks to that.  He also, quite obviously, eschews the focus groups.  He doesn’t care about donors because he could himself pay for his own campaign several times over.  He says what he thinks.  It would be nice, perhaps, if the path between his cerebellum and his mouth were a bit longer and more circumspect, but his bluntness plays to the masses. He delights in tweaking the politically correct establishment.

In the locker room at my gym a week or two back, two blue-collar chaps were talking about a house in a town near me that has been taken over by illegal immigrants.  A dozen or more people live there, drifting in and out. The house is a wreck, as are the grounds.  The police take no notice.  Something, one of the fellows said, should be done. That’s when the other chap mentioned Donald Trump.  I didn’t catch all the details of their conversation, but it was clear they liked what he said, and they liked the way he said it. He didn’t care whom he offended. He just said what he thought. Maybe he went a little far. But wasn’t that better than the (my term) milquetoast establishment terrified of offending some constituency, somewhere?

I don’t think Donald Trump will be the GOP candidate in 2016, and I don’t think he would win if he were.  But he has raised some issues that the high and mighty dispensers of conventional wisdom would do well to ponder. Moreover, he has done it in a way that, though terribly, terribly vulgar, is catapulting Trump to first place in the polls. What does that tell us?  That the people are stupid and need to be guided by the suits in Washington?  If you believe that, I submit, you are going to be profoundly disappointed come November 2016.

Posted at 10:05 am on July 29th, 2015 by Roger Kimball

A Modest Proposal for the New York Times

The New York Times is very keen that somebody, anybody, “lend” Greece more money so that it can stay in the eurozone a bit longer.

I put scare quotes around the word “lend” because, as everyone knows, any money that is shoveled into Athens’s coffers will be spent and not repaid. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” advised Polonius, “for loan oft loseth both itself and friend, and borrowing dulleth the edge of husbandry.” Shakespeare is not popular by the Piraeus.

No, Greece faces what the economist Steve Moore, writing yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, called “financial oblivion.” There are about 11 million Greeks. They owe some $350 billion. That’s 350,000,000,000.  You do the math.

Moore thinks that “the big loser” in Greece is socialism. Maybe. Moore is right that “the natural and unavoidable consequence of socialism everywhere it has been tried” is that financial catastrophe he warns about. And in a rational world, people would notice the regularity of this process — install socialism, ruin the economy (among many other things) — and they would conclude that socialism was a bad idea.

That’s in a rational world. In this world, we have the New York Times, which just yesterday had at least three handwringing articles about the situation in Greece. An unsigned editorial argued that, “for Europe’s sake,” Greece must be kept in the eurozone, cost be damned. OK, the Greeks have been profligate, the editorial concedes, but “European leaders have made the crisis worse by their mismanagement.” (I bet that staggered you.) Now it is incumbent upon “Europe,” i.e., Germany, to save “a small, paralyzed country.”

While you wipe a tear away at the spectacle of a country that is presented as a hurt puppy, consider “Soften the Greek Deal,” Roger Cohen’s article in yesterday’s Times. Oh, it’s a “tough” decision, Cohen allows. The Greeks have been naughty. Still, on balance, taking everything into consideration, keeping an eye on the long view and being statesmanlike and adult about the issue, Germany ought to fork over more money lest “medicines and imported foods disappear from pharmacies and supermarkets within a week or two” and the euro suffer a “body blow.”

But my favorite of yesterday’s pieces about Greece in our former paper of record was by Old Reliable, the Times’s resident economic Dadaist, Mr. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman. According to Mr. Krugman, Europe must act now to stop the “bleeding” in Greece. Those nasty Germans have been like doctors of yore, bleeding patients because they didn’t know what else to do. And when the patient failed to improve, they prescribed more leeches. “If the money doesn’t start flowing from Frankfurt,” Mr. Krugman warned, Greece will have to start using Monopoly money, aka the Drachma, to “pay” its bills.

What do all these pieces have in common — apart, that is, from that insufferable tone of unearned moral superiority that comes with publication in the Times? Yes, that’s right, they all grandly recommend that someone else fork over the truckloads of cash that Greece wants. Everyone knows Margaret Thatcher’s quip about socialism: sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money. Sooner or later, and it is looking more and more like it might be sooner, the Germans are going to run out of money to pay for the Greeks’ lavish pension plans and retirement schemes.

But all is not lost.

Posted at 4:46 am on July 8th, 2015 by Roger Kimball

A couple of summer offerings

This is the season where various publications ask their friends and acquaintances for some suggestions for summer reading.  National Review has just published their roundup  here, to which I have contributed several extremely brief suggestions (along with the suggestion of one entire book).  I will only be giving away a little if I reveal that the centerpiece of the miniature chrestomathy is a tidbit from the Declaration of Independence. Remember the “self-evident” truths that Thomas Jefferson enumerates?

The list begins with what the philosopher Harvey Mansfield described as “the self-evident half-truth” that “all men are created equal,” and  proceeds with some other thought-provoking assertions. Consider: we are all, said Jefferson, endowed by our “Creator”—hey, wasn’t Jefferson supposed to be an atheist? Then why did he speak of a rights-endowing “Creator”? Er, um . . . Anyway, according to Jefferson we have these “unalienable Rights,” e.g., “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

One other side track: Some churls have pointed out that happiness is not a possible goal of human activity and that John Locke’s original phrase, the pursuit of life, liberty, and property, would have been better. Logically, perhaps, but in the 18th century, as today, “happiness” produced more emollient psychological vibrations.

But let’s leave the happiness/property issue to one side. Since we are now being ruled by a majority of nine unelected, black-robed lawyers from Harvard or Yale (apparently no other institution will do), it is the next clauses of Jefferson’s literary firecracker that seem to me especially pertinent. One: “That to secure these rights [life, liberty, etc.], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”; and Two: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, . . .”

I am past believing that the torpid American people will rise up to protest anything short of an effort to take away their central heating or access to Netflix and HBO. Who needs the “consent of the governed” when 320 million people have a majority of nine lawyers to rule them—not, note well, to interpret the law (that was the original job description) but to make policy by dint of hermeneutical ingenuity, e.g., the statute says “exchanges establish by the state,” where by “state” was meant one of the fifty states that compose the (once) United States.  It is the work of a moment for our masters to say that by “state” Congress, which framed the law, didn’t mean “state” but rather meant “the federal government.” Or squash pie. Or whatever.

Which brings me to Jefferson’s main event. He thought that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” He then went on to enumerate the many ways in which the king of England had trampled on the rights of the colonists, e.g., “He has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat our their Substance.” Who knew that the EPA, the IRS, and other such entities were of such long tenure? Or consider this complaint: “ He has combined with others to subject is to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; . . .”

Posted at 6:01 am on July 6th, 2015 by Roger Kimball

Justice Kennedy’s Matryoshka Doll

At a small dinner party last night, our host glided lightly over the activities of the Supreme Court this past week in order to canvass the table’s thoughts about who the candidates might be for the 2016 presidential election.  The usual names percolated through the sands of our discussion. My suggestion that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was by no means a sure thing was met with friendly disbelief.  The Democrats do not have another plausible candidate, ergo, the Hillary is it. I still have my doubts. The aging activist clearly has health issues and is so festooned with scandal—not to mention her utter lack of accomplishment as a senator or secretary of State—that even James Carville must be worried. “No, no,” it was explained to me. “The Hillary is it.  It doesn’t matter what she’s done. Someone could turn up a video of her selling Libyan women and children into slavery and she would still get the nomination. It’s not her against the other chap (or, as it may be, the other lass), it’s their team against ours, blue against red. American politics are increasingly polarized, which means they are increasingly nasty. What matters is power, not principle.”

Maybe so. Or rather, indubitably—at least so far as the concluding observations are concerned.  We’ll see about the Hillary. My friend’s observations about the character of contemporary American politics were still echoing in my mind when I read Andy McCarthy’s essay “Let’s Drop the Charade: The Supreme Court Is a Political Branch, Not a Judicial One.”

McCarthy began by noting the risible anguish of Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote in his dissent from the Court’s support of same-sex marriage yesterday that “the Court is not a legislature.” No? A scant 24 hours earlier he had joined the majority in saving Obamacare—what Justice Scalia memorably rebaptized as SCOTUScare—by the simple expedient of hermeneutics (that’s Greek for “dissimulation”). The law that Congress wrote states that in order to qualify for health care subsidies people must be “enrolled in through an exchange established by the state.” But the law that the Supreme Court wrote Thursday says that “established by the state” didn’t mean “established by the state.” It meant “established by the federal government.” It’s the Cole Porter school of  legal interpretation: “good’s bad today,/ And black’s white today,/ And day’s night today, . . . Anything goes.”

Amid the cataract of commentary on the Court’s SCOTUScare and same-sex marriage decisions —gloating and ecstatic on one side, anguished and despairing on the other—there has been a curious obbligato from some precincts of the Right, namely, that the decisions are a “gift” to conservatives because now these hot-button issues will not be part of the 2016 presidential campaigns. I think that Michael van der Galien comes closer to the truth when he says: “Conservatives Should Rejoice at the Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Ruling? Are You Kidding Me?” The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Which Chief Justice Roberts might want to gloss as “are reserved to the federal government, not the states, and certainly not the people,” because, after all, who’s to say that the Tenth Amendment does not suffer from what the Chief Justice deplored as “inartful drafting”? Whatever.

Andy McCarthy, in the column I link to above, touches on one of the most disquieting features of this orgy of  judicial legerdemain. “[F]or all the non-stop commentary,” McCarthy notes, “one detail goes nearly unmentioned”:

Did you notice that there was not an iota of speculation about how the four Progressive justices would vote?

There was never a shadow of a doubt. In the plethora of opinions generated by these three cases, there is not a single one authored by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, or Sonia Sotomayor. There was no need. They are the Left’s voting bloc. There was a better chance that the sun would not rise this morning than that any of them would wander off the reservation.

Think about that for a moment.  “Jurisprudence,” as McCarthy observes, “is complex.”

Supple minds, however likeminded, will often diverge, sometimes dramatically, on principles of constitutional adjudication, canons of statutory construction, murky separation-of-powers boundaries, the etymology of language, and much else. Witness, for example, the spirited debate between the Court’s two originalists, Scalia and Clarence Thomas, over a statute that, in defiance of Obama policy, treats Jerusalem as sovereign Israeli territory.

When was the last time you saw such debate and principled differences of interpretation on what Latinists might call the Court’s sinister side? Take your time. On the Court, as well as in electoral politics, it’s increasing us against them, our team against theirs, red v. blue. This is not a reassuring development.

Posted at 12:29 pm on June 27th, 2015 by Roger Kimball

Thoughts on satire

I have often noted here the difficulty our progressive and enlightened age poses for the art of satire.  Satire depends on some palpable distance between common reality and the thing satirized. “Ha!,” we say, we feel viscerally, when confronted by effective satire, “that exaggeration, that caricature, that satire dramatizes a dangerous tendency in our culture. Of course, no one really tries to extract cucumbers from sunbeams, as Swift suggests in his great satire Gulliver’s Travels, but the idea that they might shows you how absurd so much academic culture is.”

But what if it turned out people really did try to distill cucumbers from sunbeams? What then?

To bad for Swift’s narrative. For the satire only works if the extreme thing it presents really is some distance from the quotidian world.

What absurdity, what outrage, what assault on common sense (to say nothing of common decency) is safely beyond enactment that the satirist can rely on its being safely beyond the pale? For decades now, the art world (which is not to be confused with the world of art) has specialized in mounting raids to efface the distinction between outré  and acceptable: the ne plus ultra is now the status quo, the surreal the new documentary.  The same is true in the world of education, where delicate feminist snowflakes recoil from the perturbations of Ovid even as they broadcast videos of their sexual escapades. The normalization—that is to say, the currency, for there is nothing normal about it—of transexualism and attendant phenomena from the Baedeker of Kraft-Ebbing might make for a pandering line in Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address,  but it is hard, hard on the would be satirist, for if the world can celebrate Bruce-Caitlyn Jenner, it’s pretty much knock-off time all around. And then there is the world of politics. It’s almost sweet that some conservatives are scrambling to explain how Chief Justice John Roberts’s assault on the Constitution  and what Antonin Scalia mournfully called the plain meaning of words is really, deep down, an opportunity  for conservatives and a good thing because now they won’t have to dealing with the yapping disruption of the Left. How can you satirize that? 

I was chatting (that is to say, emailing) with a percipient friend yesterday who, having cast a doleful eye about the mad, mad world we inhabit. “You ought,” he said, “write something on Juvenal.” Ever happy to oblige, I pointed out that I had done just that. Lessons from Juvenal appeared some years ago in The New CriterionI hope and expect that most of my readers will have functioning subscriptions to that beacon of sanity, but since the piece is behind a paywall, I post it here free and for nothing for the delectation and guidance of neophytes and random web travelers. I begin with a few eipgraphs:

It is difficult not to write satire.
—Juvenal, on the Rome of his day

J’ai en ce moment une forte rage de Juvenal. Quel style! quel style!
—Flaubert, in a letter of 1853

Satire, if it is to do any good and not cause immeasurable harm, must be firmly based on a consistent ethical view of life.
—Kierkegaard, The Present Age

Probably the most politically incorrect Roman poet, certainly the most caustic, was the satirist Decimus Junius Juvenalis—Juvenal to us. We expect satirists to expose hypocrisy, injustice, corruption. Juvenal does this. We also expect satirists to exaggerate, to caricature, to lampoon. Juvenal does this, too, in spades. But satire, like liquor, comes in a variety of flavors and potencies. There is mild satire, whose means are gentle and whose aim is comic. Gilbert and Sullivan are satirists in this sense, as, in his satirical forays, is Horace, Juvenal’s meticulous, urbane precursor. Gentle satire pokes, but gingerly, in fun. Its goal is enlightenment, yes, but also laughter.

Juvenal belongs to a different tribe. When he pokes, he pokes hard, to hurt. His satire is bitter—an adjective that is never far from the poet’s name. The phrase “savage indignation”—often in Latin—is another epithet unfailingly applied to Juvenal, though it does not, I believe, occur in his work. Jonathan Swift, a rival in acerb satire, employed it in his epitaph, which pictures him happy at having finally escaped the saeva indignatio that so lacerated his heart during his life. There are plenty of hilarious passages in Juvenal. But in the end, as F. H. Buckley notes in The Morality of Laughter, Juvenal’s “savage indignation stifles our laughter.” Juvenal aims primarily at the catharsis of exposure, only incidentally at justice and reform. The element of humor is but an intermittent companion to his verse.

Juvenal’s signature disposition is rage—rage against women, foreigners, and pandering homosexuals; against cruel and decadent rulers, unresponsive patrons, uppity parvenus; against greed, pomposity, extravagance, vanity, innovation, stupidity, bad manners, and urban blight. Why write satire? “I will enlighten you,” Juvenal tells us in his the first Satire:

When a flabby eunuch marries, when well-born girls go crazy
For pig-sticking up-country, bare-breasted, spear-in-fist;
When the barber who rasped away at my youthful beard has risen 
To challenge good society with his millions; when Crispinus,
That Delta-bred home-slave, silt washed down by the Nile—
Now hitches his shoulders under Tyrian purple, airs
A thin gold ring in summer on his sweaty finger
(“My dear, I couldn’t bear to wear my heavier jewels”)—
Why, then it is harder not to write satires; for who
Could endure this monstrous city, however callous at heart,
And swallow his wrath?

“Today every vice/ Has reached its ruinous zenith. So, satirist, hoist your sails.”

Juvenal’s loathing is visceral, breathtaking, unforgettable. His ninth Satire (he wrote sixteen altogether) is a conversation between Juvenal and an unpleasant, discarded rent-boy who rails against the perfidy and stinginess of his even more unpleasant former keeper. (“‘I paid you so much then,’ he says, ‘and a bit more later, and more that other time.’”) Gilbert Highet, the great classical scholar and an expert on Juvenal, called it “one of the most shocking poems ever written” but also “a masterpiece.”

Highet is right on both counts. The shock stems not so much from overt obscenity. There are only a few passages that the Loeb deliberately euphemizes (only once, I believe, does it render Juvenal’s Latin into Greek). Many classical poets outdo Juvenal in the deployment of four-letter words and the depiction of the actions they name. But no poet exceeds him in portraying the chilly perversion of human affections—not just sexual affection, but all the many forms of intimacy that bind us one to another. Juvenal was a connoisseur of contempt. But he was a dazzlingly eloquent connoisseur. His stinging hexameters glitter with linguistic brilliance and moral outrage. (They glitter, too, with a demanding vocabulary: of the 4790 words in the Satires, 2130 are hapax legomena.)

Who was Juvenal? We hardly know. If he wrote letters, none survives. For all their panoramic detail, the Satires contain only a handful of autobiographical tidbits. There are no contemporaneous accounts of Juvenal’s life or work. He savaged his fellows; they responded with a consuming silence. In the introduction to his excellent translation of the Satires (Penguin, 1974), Peter Green notes that Juvenal is among the most elusive of classical writers. We do not know where he was born, or when. We do not know whether he was married (probably not), or whether he had children. Highet conjectures that Juvenal was or became homosexual, chiefly on the evidence of his fearful contempt for women. But “probably” is the best we can do about even basic signposts. Juvenal was probably born between AD 55 and 70, which is to say during or just after the reign of Nero (54–68): a period of ostentatious corruption and moral breakdown. He was probably born in Aquinum, a town about one hundred miles north of Rome. His father seems to have been a well-to-do Spanish freedman. It is possible that Juvenal saw military service in Britain—there are some scattered allusions to Agricola’s campaign in the Orkneys (84–85) in the second Satire—and it seems likely that he embarked on a career in the civil service. Some speculate that he studied with the great rhetorician Quintilian (c. 35–c. 95).

Juvenal was obviously in and about Rome a good deal: his vivid, omnivorous descriptions of life there bespeak intimate knowledge of the city. He may have been exiled—possibly to Egypt—by Domitian around 92. If so, it may have been because Juvenal made a slighting remark about an actor called Paris, one of Domitian’s favorites (until, that is, Paris was suspected of pursuing an affair with the emperor’s wife, at which point he was promptly executed). Those who suffered exile had their property confiscated, which would explain Juvenal’s bitter depictions of impoverished writers seeking favors from indifferent patrons.

Exile in Egypt would also help explain Juvenal’s loathing for all things Egyptian (an animus he cordially extended to all things Greek). Would Domitian really have exiled someone simply for criticizing Paris? Probably not. Probably he would have had him executed. That, after all, is what he did to a poor chap who just happened to look like Paris. Ditto for some youths who put flowers on Paris’s grave. Domitian was—or became by the end of his reign—a paranoid, murderous tyrant. If Juvenal was exiled, he might well have been recalled when Nerva became emperor in 96 and issued a sort of general amnesty for those exiled by Domitian. The sixteen Satires—we possess a full fifteen and a fragment of the sixteenth—were probably begun in the late 80s. They amount to some four thousand lines of verse. Juvenal published them in five books between about 110 and 130—during, that is, the relatively benign reigns of Trajan (98–117) and Hadrian (117– 138). The only contemporary reference to Juvenal is by his older friend Martial, “the fashionable social pornographer” (Green’s phrase), who mentions Juvenal a couple of times in his Epigrams. In one epigram from the 80s, Martial called Juvenal “facundus,” “eloquent,” but he probably referred not to the Satires (as yet unpublished) but to Juvenal’s skill at oratory. Juvenal mellowed with age. His last satires lack the biting invective and linguistic pyrotechnics of the first dozen. After a period of poverty, Juvenal seems (judging from some hints in the Satires) to have acquired a modest competence: a small farm at Tibur where he could quietly entertain a few friends.

Posted at 6:51 am on June 26th, 2015 by Roger Kimball

Summer Solstice

Where I live on Long Island Sound, something noteworthy is scheduled to happen today at about 12:30 post meridian. The sun will reach its northernmost point of the year, pause briefly, and then begin the (at first) slow movement to the south, bringing with it shorter days and colder temperatures.  Today, the summer solstice (“solstitium,” Latin for “sun-stopping”) in these parts, we’ll have 15 hours and five minutes of daylight. By the time the winter solstice rolls around near Christmas, we’ll be down to 9 hours and 8 or 9 minutes. Brrr! And, turn on the light!

I remember as a child overhearing my mother remark to other grownups early in July that summer was “basically over” once the 4th of July had come.  “What, are you nuts?” I thought at the time. The 4th of July might not be the very start of summer but think about how many glorious days and weeks lay ahead.  So many you could hardly count them. Now that I am at least as old—in truth, a good deal older—than my mother had been when sharing that observation, I have a visceral appreciation of her point.  Time, as I’ve had occasion to point out here before, really does seem to speed up as you get older. We’ve hardly stowed the bunting from the July 4th festivities before people are talking about Labor Day and back-to-school sales. What happened to the intervening dispensation?

In a charming essay about growing up at the rural fastness of Great Elm in Sharon, Connecticut, Bill Buckley recalls his discovery of the awful truth:

It was about that time that I came upon nature’s dirty little secret. It was that beginning on the twenty-first day of June, the days grew shorter! All through the spring we has had the sensual pleasure of the elongating day, coinciding with the approach of the end of the school year and the beginning of summer paradise. My knowledge of nature and nature’s lore has never been very formal, and so . . . I came to the conclusion from the evidence of my senses that in late July it was actually getting dark when it was only 8:30! I wondered momentarily whether we were witnessing some sign of divine displeasure.

By rights, today, the summer solstice, should be a dazzling sun-drenched day.  At the moment, thanks to emissaries from Hurricane Bill down south, it is wet and foggy.  The weather report (to which for some reason I pay much more attention these days than I ever did in the past) is hinting at a break in the weather this afternoon. “Partly cloudy” is what I am reading, though I prefer to describe it as “partly sunny.”  And besides, the days ahead will shorten so gradually and gracefully that no one will notice for months that the days are actually getting shorter. Right?

UPDATE: As I had hoped, partly, even mostly, sunny!

 

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Posted at 7:43 am on June 21st, 2015 by Roger Kimball

The Assault of Free Speech, Judicial Overreach Edition (Part 8796)

The heavy hand of the judiciary, in the form of a subpoena followed by a gag order, descended upon the great Reason magazine early this month.  The story, thankfully, has been widely covered by the alternative internet press (nary a byte, the last time I looked, from such legacy outlets as the New York Times) beginning with the redoubtable and amusingly named Popehat (which also has a roundup here). The background: the U.S. government, in the person of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, demanded that Reason magazine turn over all the identifying information they had about six people who left hyperbolic Website comments sparked an online story about the conviction of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht. The object of the commentator’s rage was Judge Katherine Forrest, who, going beyond what the prosecutors asked, sentenced Ulbricht to life in prison.

Now Silk Road, a sort of black-market internet emporium where users could get just about anything they wanted, legal or not, was a dubious enterprise. But the US government’s heavy-handed attack against Reason was disproportionate and ill-conceived. The government claimed to be investigating threats against Judge Forest. It was interested, for example, in the identities of the authors of such comments as these:

  • “Its (sic) judges like these that should be taken out back and shot.”
  • Why waste ammunition? Wood chippers get the message across clearly. Especially if you feed them in feet first.” (Movie buffs will recall a famous scene from Fargo.)
  • “I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.”
  •  “I’d prefer a hellish place on Earth be reserved for her as well.”

What do you think, Dear Reader, threats? Or typical, if juvenile, letting off of steam on the internet?  I think it’s clearly the latter. And what bothers me much more than such over-the-top comments is the display of naked coercion on the part of the government.

Having been served with a gag order, prohibiting its editors from speaking about or even publicly acknowledging the subpoena, Reason only Thursday managed to get the order lifted.  Yesterday the magazine’s editors Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch published a long and disturbing piece on the episode under the title “How Government Stifled Reason’s Free Speech.” It is very much worth reading. “Reason’s experience needs to be understood in a larger context,” they write.

Posted at 11:15 am on June 20th, 2015 by Roger Kimball

Checkpoint, Charlie

 

The British travel writer Alexander Kinglake (1809-1891) once suggested that the legend “Interesting, if true” be inscribed on the lintels of the Churches of England.

That was a mildly amusing mot, not least because of its pertinent application in so many other circumstances. If the doctrines of the Church of England strain one’s credulity, or one’s allegiance, how much greater is the strain exerted on those moral resources by our intercourse with certain other institutions.  Consider, to take just one example, our institutions of so-called higher education.  You know as well as I how thoroughly that “so-called” is merited by sodden, politically correct swamps that our colleges and universities have occupied in recent years.  Those scenes of spurious “micro aggressions” and  “trigger warnings,” of mephiticrievance mongering, sexual inversion, and infantile political posturing: is there any aspect of American society more distaste, more pampered, more epicene?  I doubt it. Kinglake’s wry observation might be justly applied to those portals of inanity, but a friend who recently visited Berlin had an even more appropriate label.  It is this advisory from Checkpoint Charlie, which divided the American from the totalitarian zone of Berlin.

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Really, is there any more pertinent sign for most colleges and universities?  Cigarettes manufacturers are required to ornament their wares with all manner of alarming advisories, why shouldn’t institutions of higher education face similar requirements?  After all, the noxious atmosphere they diffuse is perhaps even more dangerous than cigarette smoke, which harms only the body.  A college education threatens to eat away at a student’s soul and capacity for a healthy, robust, adult emotional life.  “You Are Leaving the American Sector.”  For many, perhaps most colleges and universities today, that about sums it up.

Posted at 5:28 am on June 6th, 2015 by Roger Kimball

The Relevance of the House of Usher to the Way We Live Now

Towards the beginning of Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre romance “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the unnamed narrator describes his first sight of that gloomy old pile. Among other eldritch features, he noticed  “a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn” below the house.

Careful observers will have noted analogous fissures in what, for lack of a better term, I will call the “progressive consensus.” “Progressive” is not quite right, because there is no progress—if by progress you mean movement from a given point to something better. But “progressive” is preferable to that other favored verbal specimen of evasiveness, “liberal.” As the word’s etymology suggests, “liberal” has to do with liberty, with freedom, and there is no mainstream ideology in modern Western democracies that is more inimical to freedom than “liberalism.” If you doubt that, try starting a business or uttering a “non-progressive” sentiment on college, running a bakery, hobby shop, or jeweler’s. It is a curiosity of our times that many words now signify more or less the opposite of what they originally meant.  This is not, of course, an entirely new development. “Sanctimonious” once meant “holy.” Now it means “pretending to be holy, while actually being venal.” Just so, “liberal” once meant “on the side of freedom.” Now it generally means “pretending to be on the side of freedom while actually working to enforce conformity and intolerance.” Again, a quick look at life on almost any college campus today will illustrate the truth of this assertion.

The interesting, the hopeful, development is that House-of-Usher-like fissures seem to be penetrating the adamantine carapace of that “liberal” consensus.  You can infer that partly from the increasingly surreal quality of what goes on under the aegis of so-called progressive ideology. The level of hysteria is a good index of the extent of their desperation. Consider this bulletin, just sent to me this morning by a friend,  from the Board of Trustees of Bryn Mawr College outlining their new “inclusive” guidelines for undergraduate admission:

After months [Months!] of study and consultation, the Board of Trustees of Bryn Mawr College voted at its Feb. 7 meeting to accept the recommendation of its board working group charged with reviewing the College’s mission with regard to transgender, non-binary [!] and gender nonconforming applicants.
Specifically, the board-accepted recommendation . . . more clearly articulates the eligible undergraduate applicant pool. In addition to those applicants who were assigned female at birth, the applicant pool will be inclusive of transwomen and of intersex individuals who live and identify as women at the time of application. Intersex individuals who do not identify as male are also eligible for admission [Whew!]. Those assigned female at birth who have taken medical or legal steps to identify as male are not eligible for admission [Too bad!].
In cases where an applicant’s gender identity is not clearly reflected in their application materials, the College may request additional information, which could include verifiable legal or medical steps taken to affirm gender. In evaluating such additional information, the College fully intends to be as flexible and inclusive as possible [Who would doubt it?].

You might think I am making this up.  I wondered at first whether it came from The Onion.  But no, the link to the Bryn Mawr site seems legit.  I submit that the correct word for this new policy is not “inclusive” but “insane”—“sad” and “pathetic,” too, no doubt, especially for the creatures it is intended to cater to, but definitely “insane.” Any parents who were thinking of sending their delicately brought up progeny—especially the ones that were “assigned female at birth,” or, in ordinary language, are girls—any parents, I say, who were contemplating Bryn Mawr will want to ponder carefully the implications of this extraordinary directive.

I do not discount the element of cynicism in this trendy new policy. Heck, even the president of the United States is on the transexual bandwagon, having mentioned this specious new category of victims in his State of the Union speech. What new opportunities for padding the administration the new policy offers! You may have a dozen deans of diversity, but how many administrators looking into the “legal or medical steps taken to affirm gender” do most campuses have? It is an opportunity for growth at a time when many colleges are facing cutbacks. And what’s to prevent an enterprising chap from applying as a woman and then deciding that “she” is a lesbian? But beyond the opportunities for fraud, emotional grandstanding,  spurious claims of victimhood, and outright hucksterism,  there is something else fueling this pathological bilge. The truth is, our nation’s higher educational establishment really has entered definitively upon that realm of “polymorphous perversity” and “primary narcissism” that the Sixties guru Herbert Marcuse extolled in his crack-pot countercultural bible Eros and Civilization. Is that what you want to spend $60K or more per annum financing, a celebration of perversity?

Posted at 10:15 am on May 28th, 2015 by Roger Kimball