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.

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