Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Psychology -- a toast of water -- then again ...

Doesn't this say it all? I mean the silver sticker on a bottle of a little-known (surely) champagne, Forget-Brimont, boasting 91 points from Wine Spectator.

Of course I liked the wine. So biscuity, so almost almond-like, so light and bubbly and yet with a solid little buttery core of body or mouthfeel, too. Of course it was delicious. I should hope any normal person would like good champagne -- and be appalled, like me, at people who don't. I say this, remembering the poor soul who came to buy "champagne" over the holidays "just for a toast, because nobody drinks it." Many people do buy sparkling wine just for a toast but no one else has ever clarified the matter to me to that extent. Why not, then, sir, "toast" with water? Toast: "[n. from the use of toasted spiced bread to flavor the wine, and the notion that the person honored also added flavor] 1. a person, thing, idea, etc., in honor of which a person or persons raise their glasses and drink; toast from the Middle English tosten < Old French toster, < Vulgar Latin tostare, < Latin tostus, < torrere, to parch, roast, see THIRST."  

To be fair I'm no one to talk. I mean as far as blissful ignorance is concerned. I have been in the liquor industry for almost ten years, and yet up until two nights ago was not aware, off the top of my head, that the town of Calistoga is in Napa County. I may plead mea culpa, or I may riposte that here you see it is possible to be in the industry for ten years, and be competent, and yet not have any reason to know that the town of Calistoga is in Napa. What then must I know? "Where is the moscato? It's for my mom ... I don't know anything about wine."

Me neither, much. I had to fumfer around and act humble and charming (I hope), in my ignorance, for the young couple who didn't know Calistoga either, but who bought two thousand dollars' worth of fine wine in ten minutes anyway. They went for big points, big names, and big expense. Bless their hearts they ended up choosing the Napa Valley monster cabernets that tick all three of those big boxes. If only I had had my cheater eyeglasses with me, I could have spotted the name Napa clearly placed on a label of Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill Calistoga cabernet. The wine got 100 points from Robert Parker. Incidentally I still say that gentleman has thrown out perfect ratings abundantly and meaninglessly since he retired from tasting Bordeaux in 2015.

We all, the nice young couple and I, kept squinting at the fine print of his review, on a paper "shelf talker" clipped to the shelf, to confirm we saw the word Napa. But at his level Parker is far beyond signaling something so basic given a fifty-word space. It was all cassis and graphite and sexiness. I was almost sure this must be a Napa wine, how could it not be? Only the nice young man with a young man's eyesight said the label didn't say. I thought, well it is very likely I am wrong. Until I can retrieve my glasses, I must fumfer. It might be Sonoma, it might be Paso Robles, it might be Santa Clara, Santa Rita, Santa Lucia, it might be mountains or counties or highlands or benches, or who knows how many other nomenclatures or subregions extant within the large state of California. A day or two later I had occasion to tell another customer so simple a thing as that Paso Robles is south of San Francisco. This was a fact I absolutely knew. But then I looked at a map and double checked distance, since I had a funny feeling. It turns out that Paso Robles is south of San Francisco in the same way the Mississippi River is west of Chicago. Way west -- way south.

All in all it is peculiarly satisfying to have just finished reading Kermit Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route (1988). Here, Kermit does France. And Kermit complains, thirty years ago already, of the big-point, big-expense uniformity, plus the legal tinkering with appellation boundaries, that makes knowing wine place-names -- even in France -- more and more an academic exercise. Cote Rotie (the northern Rhone) -- or Bordeaux or so by extension even Calistoga -- what matter? The consumer wants lush, fruit-pie wines, and if, say, wines called Beaujolais (a part of Burgundy) used to be light and fizzy enough to wash down Lyons' robust tripe-and-garlic cuisine and now no longer can, well then. It is done. Already thirty years ago Beaujolais had grown "fleshy," "supple," words Kermit considers profanities. He called what consumer taste and winemaker sellouts had done to this region, rather extravagantly, "genocide." "I cannot begin to communicate how profoundly the critics' embrace of such freak wines depresses me," because the critics' embrace persuades new wine drinkers that each new bosomy style is traditional. And so that's where they spend. Ah, the critics and the points, even then. We remember also Michael Broadbent's tired dismissal of the "global red" (Vintage Wine, 2003). And yet everyone is also trying to sniff out complexity, now! Like it's there.  

So that's half the theme of the Adventures: uniformity smothering terroir. The other half is that a handful of producers were or are still doing it right, and Kermit will find them. Full circle: Kermit Lynch's name on a back label now is an indication of a palate and a badge of this-isn't-"supple"-it's-what-it-used-to-be-warning:-probably-surprisingly-thin approval, just as much as are Robert Parker's breathless "100s" on reviews clipped to the shelf beside Calistoga monsters. Broadbent has his own selections, too. 

So back to the champagne at the top of the page. We could fumfer, and ask whether it's Ay or Epernay, and what was the precise dosage. But the silver sticker is the first thing we see. Do you think someday archaeologists will dig this bottle out of the ground and wonder what the sticker meant? We know the ancient Romans liked "Falernian" but we don't know what it was. We know the still more ancient Egyptians were serious connoisseurs, but can't imagine what swill must have come out of that desert furnace climate (see Hugh Johnson's Vintage). Would someone looking at this bottle understand, oh yes, they must have had a 100-point rating system for their wines, the points allotted by respected authorities in the trade who published their scores in famed magazines. Naturally a vintner whose product received such a "score" would want to boast about it, and so the business practice developed of affixing proof of the score to the actual bottle. It helped drive sales. Curious ... the archaeologist of A.D. 4017 will cock his head to one side, as he thinks alone in a windy field. The public themselves must have had little knowledge .... 

This is why I declare that the people and the psychologies in wine are far more interesting than wine itself. Though generally it tastes very good of course. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A grand day out

To begin your day with your nice tax lady, who in twenty minutes calculates that you owe the feds $36, and that the state of Illinois, I repeat actually the state of Illinois, owes you $84, is to begin a grand day out.

(Her office is a sight. It never changes from one year to the next. Carpet unspeakable -- not necessarily dirty, just unspeakable -- then see the ancient, leather, tufted, nail-studded couch in the "marsala" shade so popular a few years ago, the same shade I daresay we all once called maroon, when the couch was made. [Maroon: from the Fr. marron, chestnut; It. marrone, the same.] Two ancient wood-veneer bureaus stand directly beside each other to your right, of what use God knows. The lady's own desk is purely office-functional, carrying a huge flatscreen computer on top. Her chair is office-functional too, some kind of black mesh or black cushion or something; there is a fancier tufted sort of red leather nail-studded armchair for the client to sit in across from her, while he peers over at the computer screen at an awkward angle. Another bureau or two, or a filing cabinet, sit cramped to one's left on the other side of the tiny room. After that the eye is drawn to a waste of decorations. We see unused photo holders, their empty twirly prongs sticking up out of odd corners next to monkey sock puppets, children's artworks and children's portraits, and piles of envelopes and papers, and the crooked matched framed photos of nice nature scenes, the beach, the woods, a meadow, slung about on the wood paneled walls. Of course we are seated in a sort of inner sanctum, beyond the foyer, beyond the secretary's desk, carpet still unspeakable, past the ancient confusing double doors that seem not to open either out or in without a struggle, and the half-dead trailing pothos yearning at basement-style glass block windows. There are no windows at all here, in the lady's office. A diploma or certificate hangs on the wall. And lost in the mess is a photo of Mother (I have no doubt), smiling out from more dark paneling on some Occasion. Little do any of us realize what will be the picture of us that gets immortalized into a frame with a faux misty cloud accompanying, and a poem about our worth printed in some meditative font. I don't sneer, I simply take note. Meanwhile my tax lady herself is sharp as a tack, a pretty forty-five perhaps, with a complexion just going velvety with a bit of middle age, and bright brown eyes and bright brown hair a little differently styled each year. She has lovely small differently pointed teeth, which show when she smiles -- "wow, they've sold your mortgage already haven't they." I know, I answer, I thought that wasn't done anymore? -- wasn't that the big problem, in 2008? She shrugs, her pink lipstick softly gleaming. She wears soft purple or mint-green blouses, and this time a parure of greenish-moonstone earrings and necklace. Her right hand works the number keyboard at lightning speed.)    

Thirty-six dollars, plus eighty. I could have hugged her.

That done, let's go buy a Monstera deliciosa, a plant wrongly once called, it seems, a "split-leaf" philodendron. I have wanted one for a while, but never more so than since seeing, for the first time on the big screen at a real theater, All About Eve. Margo Channing has a huge Monstera in her home. I bought a tiny $5 specimen a week ago, labelled hopefully monstera but with its leaves uncut. Then today I turned a corner in my neighborhood big-box home improvement store and spotted three of the real thing. I picked the biggest. I now think of it as "Bette Davis plant."

Gardening books won't tell you why it is called deliciosa, except that it bears a fruit which is poisonous when young but sweet when mature. That takes a year. Perhaps the people who compile the books don't actually grow plants. I think the real reason it is M. deliciosa is because the roots, actually the roots, are sweetly fragrant. Fragrant enough, on the first day at least, to perfume a room.

Next, we'll go to the local woods carrying a friend's borrowed binoculars. I now live five minutes away from scenes that were a great treat to visit in childhood. When you look through binoculars, the grasses and water seem like a painting up close. I saw an American coot -- a duck, not a person -- and I may even have spotted a green-headed teal, another duck. The great heron, who quit flying when I arrived in my obvious white parka, stood still among the grasses, just a slim wash of blue-gray and a watching black eye in low beige thickets.

To return home is to see snowdrops -- surely? -- for the first time in a garden. This is the garden I was telling you about last summer, the one tended for twenty years by one woman who didn't ask permission of the condo association or the village or anybody, but simply started planting and kept on. Last fall I added tulip bulbs, which are sprouting also. If all goes well they should turn out orange. But these are snowdrops.

Last project of all was to carry on making my retro '50s art corner in my living room. At Allposters.com I found the art of Donna Mibus, who I assumed on account of her output must be some legend whom I, in my ignorance, was only just discovering. Not exactly, although to have one's art for sale at Allposters, and art.com, and Etsy, and featured in the magazine Atomic Ranch, is something of a feat. She explains at Etsy that she is a grandmother and only began painting when she turned fifty. I -- and many other people -- love her "MCM" (mid-century modern, i.e., retro '50s, and isn't it great that in Roman numerals MCM means 1900?) love Donna Mibus' retro '50s art. It's all full of flat bright pastel colors, egg-chairs, and elongated cats and dogs gazing at elongated '50s-worthy visiting aliens. Pairing it with a garish Debra Paget movie poster for Princess of the Nile, and a pastel cocktail-shaker-with-martini print, seemed just right. I must tell her.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

The moon, and the modern mind; and things

Really. One comes across the wildest things in Barbara Pym novels. Here is page 2 of No Fond Return of Love:

"But at least it would be interesting, she told herself bravely, to share a room with a stranger."

One imagines this sentiment rendered into a work of art to be found for sale in the Acorn or Bas Bleu catalogs. Distressed wood, I think, unframed, or a canvas painted over in pink maybe. The words to be spelled out in blue, black, and sea-green; some of them placed sideways and some very much larger than others. Certainly interesting, room, and stranger would be written large. She told herself bravely might go sideways.

And then there is this, from the same novel.

" 'What does one do and wear?'

" 'I suppose nobody really knows,' said Dulcie. 'It might be like the first night on board ship when nobody changes for dinner.' "

So that's it. I have always wondered what it meant in the superb, old (dear me it is old, 1985. When  P.G. Wodehouse wrote novels in the 1920s featuring elderly gentleman characters who had been roustabouts in "the 'Seventies," we understand the young Wodehouse is talking about antiquity), I say, I have always wondered what it meant in the old Mapp and Lucia TV series, when Georgie admires Lucia's costume for their first dinner intime in holiday Tilling. He exclaims, "Oh yes, very chic! And I'm glad to see we think alike. Not dressed like the first night out on board ship." Since in this scene they are both smartly, if unfussily, got up, he must mean that they have each made an effort to look good. To not dress like the first night out on board ship. In other words, yes they changed for dinner.

I love little bits of knowledge like that. They are the peaks, perhaps the froth, of a civilization, capping the bulk or ocean of magnificent, fathomless, living achievement below. When the peaks and the froth are forgotten, when they are not thrown up anymore by the living bulk below or are not recognized, well it's time to worry.  

The same thing with the moon. Though the moon is much more basic.

I work with a man who is of those who say "I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but." Why does not only British literature but British comic television seem to have an answer for everything? -- for one thinks now of comic John Cleese, interviewed around the time of some Fawlty Towers anniversary or compilation. He noted that the character Basil Fawlty was one of those prudes liking to protest "I'm not a prude, but." What Basil really means, Cleese laughed, was "I am a prude, and."

What my friend really means, I fear, is "I am a conspiracy theorist, and." He entertains quite a few, the most recent of which was something to do with a great light seen at "the Arctic -- the South Pole," [sic, of course], over the length of a whole night. It wasn't a helicopter, and it wasn't a passing comet. It lit up everything like it was day, for hours, and they're not saying what it was because they don't want you to know. It was like another sun.

A second man in the warehouse had marveled -- as my friend told the story -- "so you think there's another sun?" "No, I don't think that," my friend said, testy probably.

I marveled at him too, but noncommittally. This technique of manners helps greatly in society. "Wow, I hadn't heard that...."

Then I did some searching at home because the internet is out there for you to do research on, and anyway isn't Christian love (remember we've been blogging the Gospels occasionally) all about "willing the good of the other --- as other"?

It turns out that the great light at the pole, whichever pole, that shone all night and wasn't a comet or a helicopter, and lit up the landscape like it was day, might have been the full moon. The full moon will do that, at the poles' (whichever one's) winter, when night lasts for months anyway. This in turn would correspond to my friend's story of "what they don't want you to know" having happened recently. It's been winter in the Arctic. 

But isn't it idiotic that neither my friend nor I thought at once of the full moon? Isn't it idiotic that I had to look up "light mystery Arctic" and only then learn? I told him, by the way. He said, "Ah, there's an explanation for everything."

Far more than shipboard dress, I sometimes think the moon should represent that great bulk and froth of civilization, all that is lost among ordinary people's knowledge of the world. The moon is very basic. Knowing what it does and how it appears is like knowing enough to boil unsafe water, or to avoid a wild animal .... The earth only spins one way. A half-moon overhead, in an indigo-blue, late winter dusk, is heading toward the west, like the sun toward sunset. This is literally just a phase. All of the moon's phases are regular and eternal. It will grow to full, and then shrink to a crescent facing the other way, and while it is doing that you will see it, in a week or so, weirdly in the western sky at 9 or 10 in the morning. It's setting then. After that, it will be a crescent facing the other way once more, only it will set -- in the west of course, we only spin one way -- but at twilight. You might even see the outline of the whole moon then, faintly, as if drawn with faint moonshine chalk from the guiding tips of the crescent. I believe this is called "the old moon in the new moon's arms." Things like that.

As for other things. Here at Pluot we have read Rex Stout's Please Pass the Guilt (1973). Excellent as always, even though the mystery is never such as to make Nero Wolfe lean back in his chair, close his eyes, and move his pursed lips in and out, which is the sign of real intellectual struggle for him. Author Stout deftly threads the modern world into what he might have kept, always, the pristine, postwar, somewhat gritty but never degraded "private dick's" Manhattan of say, the month of Sometime, 1952. Here in the late 1960s, Nero Wolfe fears his cleaning lady may be a Black Panther; the method of murder is a bomb in a desk drawer; there is an Arab terrorist false clue; and a liberated young woman studying etymology speaks the words pecker and prick. (And why does modernity always seem to equate with 'more degraded, more vulgar'? The '50s were modern too.) Wolfe still says " 'Pfui' " when exasperated, and cookery and orchids still feature.

As for still other things, well. Marvelous biography of Alicia Markova by Tina Sutton (The Making of Markova, 2013). At first one thinks the author could have cut down the bulk a little -- 623 pages -- by not reprinting every press clipping about the prima ballerina there ever was. But then, it does help recreate some of the excitement about her at that time. In Kansas City and everywhere.

Lastly (one must stop somewhere), what about interior decoration? An English manor called Barsham is for sale for millions of dollars. Henry VIII used to visit on country jaunts. So one longs to bring Tudor effects into the apartment, like steeply pitched ceilings, stone fireplaces, and random heavy wood mouldings and doorjambs. I may have to settle for "heavy, rich draperies -- nothing filmy or lacy" as online interior decorating guides suggest. But "MCM," mid-20th century modern, is also very chic: streamlined looks, low-slung plain furniture, colors of pink and green, and what I think of as those '50s advertising sparkles everywhere. There's even a giant sculpted one in the lobby of the Inland Steel building in Chicago. 1957. You can just see Cary Grant in a suit and thin tie walking in, on some very suave business. I'm sure he knew what the moon is.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Stories that are now moot; or -- Two women, one house; or -- Three English words: privacy, nice, and moot

Moot. From the ME [Middle English] mote, via OE [Olde English] mot, gemot, a meeting, and prob. ON [Old Norse] mot, both from the IE [Indo-European] base mod, to encounter -- "an early English assembly of freemen to administer justice, decide community problems, etc.;" ... "a discussion or argument ... subject to debate" ... finally, "so hypothetical as to be meaningless." As in, a moot point.  

Many years ago there was some kerfuffle in my family about my grandmother perhaps moving in with us. I was perhaps sixteen, my parents in their fifties. She did move in, briefly, but it didn't work out. When the mistake became inarguable my father ruefully and sympathetically sighed and said, as if it was the wisdom of the ages -- "Two women cannot live in the same house."

It was the wisdom of the ages. He was standing in the kitchen as he said it, so I think of him also as saying "two women cannot run the same kitchen."

I proceed carefully because the analogy I am going to draw will link ever so discreetly to the workplace, and I remember the famed blogger "Dooce" who got fired from her day job for just such writing. To be sure, that was in the primordial ages of the internet, when privacy still mattered perhaps, and when there were so few bloggers that all five or six of them stood out, and their bosses read them and got mad. Things have changed, completely, by now. Everybody blogs, or has moved on to Instagram and Snapchat. Privacy is unknown (from the ME priuace, pryvat, by way of the L privatus, "belonging to oneself, not to the state" (ah hah!); from privare, to separate, "prob. akin to the OL pri, see PRIME"). How do I know the dangers of blogging indiscreetly are less? Dooce herself, Heather Armstrong, relates breezily that now "blogging is so flush with money" that the writers of them, no longer five or six but numberless, simply skip over telling the "messy" personal stories which earned them their salaries at first (no kidding?), and instead "curate," "monetize" images of their lives, a la Instagram. I'll say. Remember the beautiful young fashionista who directed me to a fashion blog for seventy-year-olds? She had a baby. She now therefore understands all about refugees, through nursing her infant son and wondering how she would ever do that, and get fresh diapers and things, if she were a refugee. News reports seem to show that most of the strong young men who are refugees have other concerns, but we move on.

In sum I think I may link my dad's wisdom of the ages, from a girlhood kitchen to a current workplace, without worrying too much that it will be seen and will offend. Besides, my small tale of one woman coming into a job and supplanting another woman who thought the job was hers, can be quickly told. Here's the real interest -- is it possible to read someone else's thoughts?

Of course you can guess people's thoughts by their behavior. The annoyed sigh, the rough picking up of a phone when the newcomer is not familiar with all the buttons; months later, the soft "tsk-tsk-tsk" (so faint I almost don't think I heard it), and the pointed walking away, when a certain plan is not what the Other would have allowed.

But can you read someone's thoughts merely through the air, when behavior is nice enough? (Nice: interestingly, a word derived from the Latin nescire, to be ignorant, as in ne, not, + scire,  to know, see SCIENCE. In ME the word nice meant "strange, lazy, and foolish," and has since gone from what I think of as eighteenth-century-novel meanings -- delicate, precise, subtle, "minutely accurate" -- to our own "generalized term of approval" for anything pleasant.) Is it, mind-reading, a vital human ability or is it just imagination? I remember learning somewhere the psychological opinion, the result of a survey perhaps, that most people perceive positive comments as neutral, and neutral comments as negative. We hear "you have a pretty houseplant" as houseplants are pretty and we hear "houseplants are pretty" as ... yes, but not yours. Now in my workplace we both of us have pleasant, light conversations about family or romance or the weather, and yet our hearts don't seem to be in it, not remotely. But am I right, and can I therefore read thoughts, and she the same? Or am I hearing positive-as-neutral and neutral-as-negative, and she the same? Of course the tsk-tsks and the pointed walking aways do linger in the memory. I'm sure whatever I've done lingers in hers. I exist, mostly.

One great proof of two people not getting on must be the absence of good-natured everyday mockery between them. There wasn't much of that sort of fun when Grandmother moved in. If you know someone well enough to see his flaws but still enjoy his company, happy mockery is possible. Lacking same, mockery is too dangerous a ground to tread on. I wouldn't dream of making light fun of my co-worker who thinks I have her job, and she the same. We're just nice. 

It matters because if something could be done to improve the relationship, if we could stop reading or sending thoughts or if we could dismiss it all as imagination, then that would be good. So much more relaxing, so much less silly. A certain amount of bitter, piquant excitement would be lost, which I am sorry to say does keep human feuds boiling doesn't it, whether between persons or families or nations probably. Love can cool, perhaps it matures, but hate is always fresh and fun, always righteous. We don't hate, my co worker and I. How else could we talk nicely? But I see workplace hatred elsewhere and so I see the freshness and the excitement of it every day. So do we all, if we look at the news.  

Which brings me to this: now don't blanch: we laugh along when Harriet the Spy asks "what kind of a pill brings a Bible to the beach?" (or lugs the Bible into everything) but this does shape our civilization. You have heard it was said, do not kill; I say, do not be angry at all ... you have heard, do not commit adultery; I say, do not even look; ... love your enemy, greet more than just your brother; be perfect. All this is from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5 only. Here we have instructions not just to control our behavior but, almost ferociously, to amend and control our thoughts.

Why on earth? Unless yes of course they can be read, and they are the source of everything?

Years ago Grandmother eventually moved in with independent granddaughters, and later, when it was inevitable, to a nursing home. Two days ago co-worker got the news that she is moving on, too. So it's all moot. "An assembly of freemen ... debatable ... so hypothetical as to be meaningless."

Friday, January 13, 2017


You can keep your Cabo and your Florida. Most of the time.

Would they be as atmospheric as this? Would they inspire you to think of Yorkshire fogs -- all right, suburban Chicago fogs -- and ravens perched on bare branches, and footsteps echoing along the stone-flagged passageway to the ruined chapel?

Best of all is the knowledge, amid the weird January thunder, that you have the day off tomorrow. Let the freezing rain freeze as it may. You have Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, just bought this afternoon; you have a Bombay Sapphire gin sour in your glass -- two lemons a day plus that flu shot in September seem to be keeping you safe so far; you have a filet of salmon to cook, and Hildegarde of Bingen's chants from a thousand years ago on YouTube to listen to. How she would marvel! Or possibly not. She might take it as merely the good Lord's due.

My friend has lost a friend, moving to Miami because his wife leaped at the chance for a better job, with a better future than his seems to have. My friend actually introduced his friend to the wife to begin with. She was a waitress. "I know a young stud I want you to meet." I don't know how two tough guys, forty years apart in age, who have worked together for twelve years, say goodbye.

Then again, guys are different. They're already talking about the charter fishing business they will start. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

What we're reading -- books with beautiful covers

We're reading Spice, by Jack Turner (Knopf, 2004). The cover image is Conrad Witz' Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, ca. 1435.

Here are careful and wonderful scholarship; and hesitant prose. One thinks the book might have done well as a perhaps 30-page pamphlet. One senses a certain over-writing, as if a person who wanted to say "part of the appeal of cinnamon as an aphrodisiac was its great expense" instead labored on. As if he said,  at that time as throughout most of the beleaguered human story, the more precious a commodity, the greater its cost -- or rather, perhaps, the greater a commodity's cost, the more precious it seemed to become. And rarely more so than with the very thing everyone hoped must be useful in the bedroom of  emperor and slave, king and washerwoman: wonderful and wondrous -- and expensive -- cinnamon. Yet strangely, as it perfumed Cleopatra's writhing young limbs, so it also swathed the dead in their billowing funeral pyres .....

Like that. Reading young Jack Turner's Spice (he's thirteen years older now), one wishes for the relaxed, musing, confident style of those middle brow dons, male and female, of the mid-twentieth century, who kept, for example, an old magazine like Horizon in business. We remember J.H. Plumb, Morris Bishop, Henry Steele Commager. We wish for a story, even in a history. But there is a something in careful modern scholarship which tamps down stories. Over-writing occurs when the thrum of a story is absent. And stories can be strangled in their cradle anyway by modern liberal scholarship's command that, where the West is concerned, the story is bad. Mr. Turner knows this. "The real prize [this is a real quote, p. 26] in everyone's mind was the fabulous, far eastern Indies. Whom did they really belong to, Spain or Portugal? (The possibility that the Indies might belong to the Indians did not enter into consideration)."

Say you want actually to learn about spices. Why is it that Sylvia Windle Humphrey, in A Matter of Taste (MacMillan, 1965), can simply tell us so much more?
Ginger is a romantic plant. The beckoning perfume of its pure white flower leads needy man to its fabulous roots. According to Oriental legend, the flower lends some of its allure to whoever wears it. The plainest woman who understands the ways of the root of ginger will be sought by many husbands, for she will be the finest cook.  
Here we have pure information, the composure of lovely imagery, and an acknowledgment of the worth of a non-Western culture all in one breath. We have, in short, gusto.

(Cover image, Lorenzo di Credi, Portrait of Caterina Sforza, signora di Imola, ca. 1500)

What else we're reading is Elizabeth Lev's The Tigress of Forli (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), a very good if rather abstractedly clinical biography of "Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici." This was a minor Renaissance lady whom I had never heard of either. Born a Sforza (major Italian aristocracy), married to a Riario (minor Italian aristocracy, assassinated), then to a Feo (jumped up stable boy, assassinated) and finally to a de' Medici (very major Italian aristocracy, died of a fever), I don't understand why her name on the cover does not go chronologically "Caterina Sforza Riario Feo de' Medici," but that's unimportant.

If I give this lady more time than I give to spices it's because her story raises a personal moral question which spices do not. Except in the eyes of God I would say this lady's name and life were not historically important anyway. But because the fine old world keeps spinning around and the West is still standing if only just, there is always a market for new biographies of women, just as there always seems to be a market for new nuggets of romance fiction. The whole fine, Western world is romance's oyster, a few pearls of course being the biggest. When you've strung Tudor and Regency England and Eleanor of Aquitaine's France on the thread, who knows where you might not go? Byzantium, Rome, Greece, perhaps Sam Spade's 1940s L.A. are some of the smaller pearls. And surely this, Renaissance Italy? Yes. In fact, to glance over the mere three-star reviews of The Tigress on Amazon is to see the disappointment in readers who thought they were picking up a bodice-ripper only to find the book "reads like a textbook." It kind of does.  

Halfway through the Tigress' life -- the book takes its name from contemporary comparisons of the Countess to a mother tiger, reputed occasionally to eat its young; this was after she had stood on the ramparts of her castle, Ravaldino, and had delivered "the retort," defying a besieging army's threats to kill her children -- halfway through, my thought was: modern scholarship has to cope with a sort of Rubik's cube of intellectual and moral, or amoral, demands when it comes to past lives, most especially now women's lives. Jack Turner didn't have to cope with it so much because he did not concentrate on any one life.

It's like this. Since we are all good liberals, we understand that everyone is equal and that women used to be oppressed. (Grasp the cube.) Because they were oppressed, their stories and accomplishments have been unjustly neglected, so here let's dust off Caterina. (Shift.) There's a contradiction, since if women used to be oppressed then there can't be much accomplishment to unearth (shift). If it does exist, then they weren't so oppressed (and again). The liberal answer to all this for a long time has been not much better than "never mind," like when you were a kid and you gave up on the Cube temporarily.

The next shelf of the Rubik's cube that modern biography must grapple with, like the kid picking it up again, is Christianity: the reality of it in Christian people's lives in Christian Europe long ago. That includes Caterina. The correct modern mood about the religion seems to be, well -- as Christians they should have been tolerant liberals like Jesus and they obviously were not (they oppressed women), therefore the faith is meaningless to understanding them. They didn't do it correctly. Shift. And anyway Christianity, as a private matter, was always a bit like any old concurrent belief past people might have had, say in the efficacy of leeches in medicine. It was a part of their lives too big for them to see, but as we know now, absurd. We look with objectivity. (Shift, shift, shift. ...but howso?) Once in a while, biographer and reader together come across some quaint detail about a holiday or a procession, that's all, and we note it exactly as we note a death by doctor-bleeding.

An aside. Really even the most sympathetic and imaginative modern writers never seem to enter into the mind of a time, good or bad. By the same token, history-epic movies never show any historically correct abuse of animals, let the human characters be how bathed in gore soever. Not that we want to see animals tortured. Precisely -- we do not. Or, for example to read the actual letters of Lord Byron is to encounter reality in 1808. The teen aristocrat, in debt over women and liquor, goes to "the Israelitish tribe," Jewish moneylenders, for loans even while outraged that they dare dirty him with help.  

As for the mind of the Renaissance, there seems only one scene in The Tigress in which we do enter into it. The Rubik's cube drops from our hand.

Countess Caterina led a rather ghastly life, though with bravery. She was married off at age ten, her own father substituting her in the marriage bed of the Pope's nephew after another little girl, a cousin, was shielded from that fate by an outraged mother. (Ah, what then was "Costanza's" story? Now there is a romance.) For our Caterina there followed all those assassinations, and a general atmosphere more like today's drugland Mexico than anything sunny and art-filled, anything Renaissance. Talking of oppressed (or not) women, when a twenty-something widowed warrior-countess' lands are repeatedly invaded by neighboring men, what does that mean? That she kept her domains in such a plum state that they were always tempting? Or that she, busy mother of six, was incompetent to manage them? Or that it drove premodern, illiberal men mad to take a woman ruler seriously and so they battered pathetic Forli as they never would have each other's properties (but they did)? These are the truths it seems we cannot learn from modern biography, because the modern scholar must first address himself to the proprieties of his cube. Women were oppressed ....

Caterina's stable-boy lover was murdered. She caused anyone remotely involved to be hunted down and killed, including collateral wives and babies thrown alive down wells. I believe the grand total was thirty-eight dead. For our pivotal, mind-of-the-Renaissance scene the Countess, now at bay herself, bangs on a door and screams to have removed from her presence an anonymous priest who has warned her she may go to hell for her crimes (p.129). Elizabeth Lev treats this episode as though the "weary" Caterina was only appalled -- "horrified" -- by perhaps the man's bad taste. What can't be suggested is that she, fifteenth-century Christian in a Christian world, believed in him. Thus for a moment we enter into the mind of the time.

The curious thing is that later in her life and in the book, she seems to know repentance and some sort of peace of mind. Total defeat in war and a stint in the dungeons of a castle-prison she once ruled, helped. But because the modern outlook cannot cope with the true Christian roots of this -- Lev does tell us she met with Savonarola -- we still find, as with questions about her political and military management, we don't know her. Christian salvation in Renaissance Italy surely did not just give peace of mind to a weary, but justifiably outraged, but perhaps overvengeful (shift, shift, shift) and lifelong-oppressed-because-she-lived-before-liberalism murderess' conscience. Even if peace of mind did and does come, repentance, salvation for Caterina would have meant confession of sin and faith in the sacrifice and Resurrection of Jesus as having bought forgiveness for her immortal soul. It would also have meant donations for a purpose to her favorite convents. The monies were not just woman-to-woman supportive business transactions, which seems to be the way the author records the several dealings between the countess and the nuns she supported. The money, instead, said "pray for me (keep me out of hell)."

Here is where a biographer not beholden to his cube might step in and give us a deeper understanding of a human being long ago. Elizabeth Lev plunges heroically into fifteenth-century provincial Italian diaries and into the wasps' nests of Renaissance city-state family wars too, to build the Countess of Forli's story. What I find frustrating is this cool amoral skirting, this obedient skirting, of the very matter -- apart from survival, maybe -- that would have mattered most to this lady.

I don't ask that a biographer switch to theology in the last chapter. But: if you are in earnest about writing a life, could you not explore, a little, the soul? My understanding of Christianity tells me that yes, with repentance even Caterina's sins can be pardoned by God, because of the gigantic truth of Jesus' atoning for all sin for all time. My understanding of Judaism (and Caterina would not have dreamed of thinking this way, no more than Byron, but it is the only other meaningful moral code) tells me that you may ask God to forgive your sins, but if you have offended another person you must first ask pardon of him. If you have killed him you can't ask his pardon. His life and all that he might have been, even to that infant down the well, is lost forever. The point is not that a vengeful Old Testament God does not forgive. The point is, don't kill.

No I don't expect a biographer to switch to theology in the last chapter. But I scribbled this note while reading The Tigress --  

Without a moral reaction on the part of the chronicler, future generations cannot know the truth of what happened even if they know all the facts. Even the revelation of your prejudice helps toward the truth because it is also true.

Reader reviews of the book at Amazon tend to describe Caterina delightedly as "bold" and "dynamic." Those are adjectives to apply to anything. Colors, architecture, Hitler. They mean nothing about a human being possessed of an immortal soul, one of us, but shaped by her own era and by truth also. And what is truth? We think we are objective, but howso? Because we have exchanged a religion which understood sin, for a modern one that only asks you to hate intolerance? 

Her readers' reactions on Amazon are not quite Elizabeth Lev's fault of course. My question is, what could biography do today to more honestly bring past people to life? What could be done to call to life even the scraps of people's stories? -- like those explorers who shipped us cinnamon, even though we know they were intolerant? Modern biography makes such stick figures of the past. Stick figures are bold and dynamic too. To cease doing that biography, scholarship, would almost have to cease to be liberal, to drop -- for good -- the shifting, teaching cube. Which seems unthinkable. Which is why in my reading I hunt for publication dates before the mid 1970s. They tend to be better books, and to have uglier covers.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

"Inside baseball" talk -- about wine

In all the rush of the holiday season working retail liquor (yay! six weeks of six-day weeks!), I had forgotten to tell you about the attractive lady ambassador representing an extremely prestigious Napa winery, and what she told us.

She told us about her winery's experiments with biodynamic farming. It turns out that there is, the winemaker thinks (I emphasize: the winemaker thinks), not much in it. He tried the buried-horn-of-cow-dung, moon cycle rituals, and found that his best grapes were unimproved. Grapes in need of some improvement might have benefited by anything, so he sensibly did not try the practices on them. Hurrah for actual scientific thinking. And good question, from the man in the back row.

Yet the winery keeps on farming biodynamically. Why? The ambassadress' explanation seemed to me extraordinary. It's so honest that it almost can't be honest.

She said they maintain the rituals in the vineyard because the Mexican workers, "Mexican-American," she quickly corrected herself, like them. They are Catholic, she said, or "very religious." They believe in ... God, "or Mother Nature, whatever you want to call it." And so they like the ....

Her explanation couldn't help but trail off, because it was approaching on to attitudes that surely must be taboo to say. What, Mexicans like superstitious rituals? They like theatrical tasks which make them feel close to the land? Why, because they're primitives? Why is it all right to not tell them this labor is meaningless?

I hope the intelligent vineyard staff are in fact laughing up their sleeves at being paid to do crazy work. I suspect the truth under this startling honesty is that the attractive ambassadress, the winemaker and everybody else in charge of this wealthy Napa combine, farm biodynamically because they like it. They believe in "Mother Nature or whatever" and they like theatrical, close-to-the-earth rituals. Or they are selling their wine to people who like it, which is just smart business. At any rate we needn't blame the Mexicans, or worse, some vague idea of peasantry. The intelligent and laughing vineyard staff would probably prefer to skip the moonlight pruning and the dung horns, get home earlier, and go on Facebook like everybody else.  

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