Monday, August 31, 2009

Middlemarch Revisited, Part VI: George Eliot on Health Care Reform

When Dr. Lydgate arrives in Middlemarch, he immediately stirs up animosity among the medical establishment in town. Lydgate is a surgeon. In the rigid class system that pervaded all aspects of nineteenth-century English life, physicians were the gentlemen of the medical establishment; apothecaries were the lower class tradesman. Surgeons like Lydgate were of middling status, between physicians and apothecaries. For example, surgeons often dispensed drugs, like apothecaries. But Lydgate refuses to dispense drugs, viewing it as an invitation to quackery. He believes that many surgeons dispense drugs not because of their effectiveness against disease, but because they bring in extra income. In an age of reform, Dr. Lydgate is a medical reformer. This, of course, stirs up resentment and distrust in conservative Middlemarch. It makes little difference that his outcomes are as good, if not better, than those of other Middlemarch doctors.

As the Middlemarch lawyer tells Mr. Bulstrode: "If you like him to try experiments on your hospital patients, and kill a few people for charity, I have no objection. But I am not going to hand money out of my purse to have experiments tried on me. I like treatment that has been tested a little."

Dr. Lydgate's methods are generally misunderstood. When a patient dies of a mysterious illness, and Lydgate asks for permission to perform an autopsy, popular opinion caricatures him as a monster. "Mrs. Dollop [the landlady of a local pub] became more and more convinced by her own asseveration, that Dr. Lydgate meant to let the people die in the hospital, if not to poison them, for the sake of cutting them up without saying by your leave or with your leave..." (481).

George Eliot understands perfectly well how facts become distorted and how public opinion is shaped by that distortion. There would be nothing new to her in the gross distortion of end-of-life counseling (supported by the GOP in the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill) into government-mandated "death panels."

"Oppositions," she tells us, "have the illimitable range of objections at hand, which never need stop short at the boundary of knowledge, but can draw forever on the vasts of ignorance."

Friday, August 28, 2009

Middlemarch Revisited, Part V: On the Possibility of Dividing by Zero

And here I am naturally led to reflect on the means of elevating a low subject. Historical parallels are remarkably efficient in this way. The chief objection to them is, that the diligent narrator may lack space, or (what is often the same thing) may not be able to think of them with any degree of particularity, though he may have a philosophical confidence that if known they would be illustrative. It seems an easier and shorter way to dignity, to observe that-- since there never was a true story which could not be told in parables, where you might put a monkey for a margrave, and vice versa-- whatever has been or is to be narrated by me about low people, may be ennobled by being considered a parable; so that if any bad habits and ugly consequences are brought into view, the reader may have the relief of regarding them as not more than figuratively ungenteel, and may feel himself virtually in company with persons of some style. Thus while I tell the truth about loobies, my reader's imagination need not be entirely excluded from an occupation with lords; and the petty sums which any bankrupt of high standing would be sorry to retire upon, may be lifted to the level of high commercial transactions by the inexpensive addition of proportional ciphers (Middlemarch, chapter 35).
The funeral of Peter Featherstone has broken up and the will has been read—two wills, to be exact, the last of which leaves everything to the mysterious Mr. Joshua Rigg, on the condition that he adopt the name Featherstone. This leads Eliot “reflect on the means of elevating a low subject” by means of parables. If I tell a story about monkeys, it can be taken as a parable about margraves (i.e., princes). Or vice versa.

To make better sense of this passage, I turned a somewhat glazed eye to the critic J. Hillis Miller,* who reads it in the context of a discussion of the literary function of zero, and its association with irony and allegory (or “parable”). He points out the fascinating language of nullification in the passage—“not more than figuratively ungenteel,” “need not be entirely excluded”—and draws attention to the presence of zero at the end of the passage: “...and the petty sums which any bankrupt of high standing would be sorry to retire upon, may be lifted to the level of high commercial transactions by the inexpensive addition of proportional ciphers.”

Cipher, here, means “zero.” Any low number can be raised to a higher number by the addition of a 0. Thus, 1 can become 10 or 10,000, depending on how many zeros are added. The addition of a zero is “inexpensive” because a zero is, literally, nothing.

In the first will, Fred Vincy is left £10,000. In the second will, he receives nothing. Zero. Can it be that much of what distinguishes between individuals—measures of wealth, signifiers of class and rank, titles and names—is really nothing, an empty convention, a mere accumulation of zeros?

There is a fascinating kind of moral mathematics at work in Middlemarch. In chapter 18, when Dr. Lydgate enters the meeting at which the hospital chaplain is to be chosen, the voting has already reached a critical point. Bulstrode announces: “I perceive that that votes are equally divided at present” (216). The yeas and the nays cancel each other out, and in effect equal zero. Lydgate’s vote is now the only one that matters. His vote creates an immediate inequality: Tyke replaces Farebrother, and Farebrother—who has hitherto been working for nothing (zero)—loses a salary of £40.

Meanwhile, hapless Fred Vincy attempts to raise £160 to pay off a debt through some highly questionable transactions. Eliot writes: “Fred felt that he should have a present from his uncle, that he should jave a run of luck, that by dint of ‘swapping’ he should gradually metamorphose a horse worth forty pounds into a horse that would fetch a hundred at any moment—‘judgment’ being always equivalent to an unspecified sum in hard cash” (262). In Fred’s math, £40 seems to equal £100; he seems to think that his estimation of his own self-worth will have an equal value on the open market.

Earlier in the summer, while on vacation with my brother-in-law the mathematician, there was a long discussion about the impossibility of dividing by zero, a concept which I found difficult to understand. J. Hillis Miller seems to sympathize with my difficulties, saying that “zero plays havoc with meaning.” He then quotes Robert Kaplan, who explains the impossibility of dividing by zero in his book The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero:
Experience tells us that 6 isn’t 17, for example (and experience or no, our minds jusrt seem to come with distinctions built in). But if you really could divide by zero, then all numbers would be the same. Why? ... [A]ny number times zero is zero—so that 6x0=0 and 17x0=0. If you could divide by 0, you’d get 8x0/0=17x0/0, the zeros would cancel out and 6 would equal 17. They aren’t equal, so you can’t legitimately divide by zero. It doesn’t mean anything.
But Eliot almost seems to be playing with a different kind of mathematics, in which all numbers are the same. The monkey equals the margrave. The lord equals the looby. Parable, allegory, metaphor, irony—the fictional art as George Eliot practices it—seems to be a kind of division by zero. “It doesn’t mean anything.” Or does it approach an infinity of meanings?

*J. Hillis Miller, “The History of 0,” Journal for Cultural Research 8.2 (2004), 123-139.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Minnehaha Park

Minnehaha Falls

Today was a lovely day for my first visit to Minnehaha Park, originally Minnesota's first state park and now a Minneapolis city park. Peytie and I had a picnic under the beautiful bur oaks near the falls, then walked along Minnehaha Creek down to its confluence with the Mississippi River.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Obscure Victorians: Dr. Rolleston Dissects a Brain for George Eliot

May 26, 1870. G. and I went to the Museum, and had an interesting morning with Dr. Rolleston, who dissected a brain for me (George Eliot, Journals).

Dr. George Rolleston

On the May 1870 visit to the Pattisons in Oxford (when she saw Mrs. Pattison framed like a Greuze portrait in the window of the Rector's lodging), George Eliot and her partner George Henry Lewes paid a visit to the University Museum of Natural History as the guest of Dr. George Rolleston (1829-1881), the first Linacre Professor of Physiology and Anatomy. I suspect that Eliot would have found Rolleston a congenial host. He was known as a "fluent and rapid talker," with an ability to speak intelligently on a wide range of topics. The son of a Yorkshire clergyman, Rolleston was sight-reading Homer at the age of ten, and received a thorough classical education at Gainsborough before going up to Pembroke College, Oxford, where he received a first in Classics in 1850. He subsequently turned to medicine, served as a doctor at the British Civil Hospital in Smyrna during the Crimean War, and eventually became the first Linacre Professor at Oxford in 1860.

Rolleston was at Oxford during the religious upheaval of Tractarianism, and heard Pusey preach, but was drawn to the liberal Broad Church party, which "relieved his scientific work from the pressure of theological restraint, while enlarging his tolerance of other men's views to the widest stretch." George Eliot would have been sympathetic to Rolleston's views, emphasizing the importance of morality and tolerance over strict theological dogmatism. Rolleston once wrote: "To me there is no subject so pleasing and none so ennobling as the triumph of will over interest, and the victory of conscience over expediency."

A drawing from a paper by T.H. Huxley (1861), marking with a white "x" the hippocampus minor in a spider monkey.

As a scientist, Rolleston became a leading authority on the anatomy of the brain, and in the early 1860s was drawn into a famous debate between Richard Owen and T.H. Huxley over the comparative anatomy of the human and simian brain. Owen, representing the Oxford scientific establishment and allied with the Anglican Church, had claimed that the human brain contained structures not found in the brains of monkeys and apes, particularly a small structure known then as the hippocampus minor (calcar avis). Owen, a notable scientific opponent of Darwin, wanted to distance humans from evolutionary connection with apes implied by Darwinism (although Darwin himself didn't make the connection explicit until his Descent of Man in 1870). Huxley, a staunch Darwinist who stood outside the Oxford scientific and religious establishment, drew on Rolleston's brain dissections to prove that apes did, in fact, possess a hippocampus minor.

Although Rolleston, the Oxford scientist, sided with Huxley, his moderate temperament prevented him from adopting the thoroughgoing materialist view that Huxley's arguments promoted. He wrote: "It has always been clear to me that the true relation of man's body to his soul, to the world in which he lives, and to the Governor of it, can never be fully elucidated either by physiological or psychological researches, nor yet by both combined." In other words, Rolleston shared the view of Tennyson (also an adherent of the Broad Church), who wrote: "I think we are not wholly brain..."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reading Journal: "American Lion"

Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (Random House 2009). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Paperback. $18.00. Available at Monkey See, Monkey Read in Northfield.

The broad outlines of Andrew Jackson's Presidency are familiar. He put down nullification in South Carolina, eliminated the Bank of the United States, hastened the forced removal of American Indians from the southeast, fought divisions within his own cabinet, and greatly expanded the powers of the Presidency. These stories can be found in any textbook of American history, and are told at length in previous Jackson biographies like Robert Remini's The Life of Andrew Jackson (1988). In American Lion, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham covers all of this familiar ground, but wisely chooses to take a more personal view of his subject, drawing on family correspondence—some recently discovered—to explore the importance of family to Jackson and to reveal how Jackson, left fatherless at a young age, saw himself as a father at the head of a national family.

Much time is spent in Meacham's biography on the Margaret Eaton affair, and Jackson's lengthy struggle to harmonize relations within his cabinet and his family. Jackson emerges as both a stern disciplinarian and a tenderhearted old man, and his use of the power of the Presidency can be seen as a kind of patria potestas, the unchallenged power of a father to arrange the affairs of his family. He was , for example, the first President to use the veto power as a policy tool. Previous Presidents had used the veto sparingly, and only in cases where they deemed legislation unconstitutional. Jackson used it to kill legislation he didn't like. Many contemporaries—especially Senate adversaries like John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay—were greatly alarmed by the expansion of Presidential power under Jackson, and saw in him the makings of a dictator. But Jackson established the model of the modern Presidency, shaping it into the epicenter of American political power and paving the way for strong Presidents like Lincoln and the two Roosevelts.

Jackson, as Meacham recognizes, was not consistent in his political positions. On the issue of nullification (the claim that states could veto, or "nullify," Federal laws), Jackson was an inflexible Unionist, taking a firm stand against the states' rights position of politicians like Calhoun. On the issue of Indian removal, he allowed the state of Georgia to flaunt a decision of the United States Supreme Court that favored the Cherokees. More important than political consistency to Jackson was the successful exercise of his personal will. What Andrew Jackson wanted, Andrew Jackson got. Meacham sums up Jackson's iron-willed character with a neat anecdote at the very end of the book: "In Nashville, according to legend, a visitor to the Hermitage asked a slave on the place whether he thought Jackson had gone to heaven. 'If the General wants to go,' the slave replied, 'who's going to stop him?'"

Meacham's prose is appealing and accessible, and his admiration for his subject is evident. He doesn't gloss over Jackson's faults, but his attitude toward Jackson is generally positive. It's instructive to read Meacham's biography alongside Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848; Howe dedicated his book to the memory of John Quincy Adams, and his sympathies are clearly with Jackson's Whig opponents. (In his review of Meacham's book, Howe writes: "Even those who, like myself, prefer John Quincy Adams' statesmanship to that of Old Hickory will find themselves engaged by Jon Meacham's skillful narrative.") It's difficult to be entirely neutral when the issues raised in Jackson's time about the limits of Presidential power are still very much alive.

Although Howe's book, with its broader scope, does a more thorough job of placing Jackson's Presidency in the broader context of American history in the first half of the nineteenth century, American Lion is an excellent general biography of Andrew Jackson, placing him in a familial context that is often overlooked in political biographies, but which nevertheless illuminates his character as a politician and a man.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Middlemarch Revisited, Part IV: Jewels and Motives

When we are introduced to Dorothea Brooke in chapter one of Middlemarch, her younger sister Celia brings her a sandalwood box containing their late mother's jewels and suggests that they divide them among themselves. Puritanical Dorothea disclaims any interest in jewels, but the sunlight catches an emerald and Dorothea goes into raptures:
"How beautiful these gems are!" said Dorothea, under a new current of feeling, as sudden as the gleam. "It is strange how deeply colours seem to penetrate one, like scent. I suppose that is the reason why gems are used as spiritual emblems in the Revelation of St. John. They look like fragments of heaven. I think that emerald is more beautiful than any of them."

"And there is a bracelet to match it," said Celia. "We did not notice this at first."

"They are lovely," said Dorothea, slipping the ring and bracelet on her finely-turned finger and wrist, and holding them towards the window on a level with her eyes. All the while her thought was trying to justify her delight in the colours by merging them in her mystic religious joy (35-36).
In Goethe's Faust, Mephistopheles helps Faust seduce the innocent Gretchen by giving her a casket of jewels, and perhaps that scene is recalled here. Dorothea is revealing the sensual side of her nature, which she keeps repressed under her strong (but, in this case, adaptable) religious principles. In this case, she is able to "justify her delight" in sensual pleasures by presenting it to herself as "mystic religious joy." She adjusts her real, immediate, everyday reactions to conform with an ideal of motivation and conduct.

Throughout Middlemarch, Eliot is interested in exploring the conflict between our ideal and actual motives—between doctrine and actual conduct. She's interested in how we justify our actions to ourselves, how we convince ourselves that our motives and actions are consistent with our deeply held principles. Celia says to herself, after Dorothea accepts the emeralds: "Dorothea is not always consistent" (37). Dorothea, like most of us, want our actions to be consistent with our beliefs, but this often requires some mental adjustment.

Look at Mr. Bulstrode, the evangelical banker. He's the most obvious hypocrite of the novel. Outwardly pious and inflexibly doctrinaire, his true gods are power and money. But of course he doesn't see himself that way, and he is careful to find justifications for his own worldly, or inconsistent actions. "It was not in Mr. Bulstrode's nature to comply directly in consequence of uncomfortable suggestions," Eliot writes. "Before changing course, he always needed to shape his motives and bring them into accordance with his habitual standard" (160).

Rev. Camden Farebrother comes across better than most characters in this respect. "Few men who feel the pressure of small needs," Eliot tells us, "are so nobly resolute not to dress up their inevitably self-interested desires in a pretext of better motives" (207). He is, in other words, the antithesis of the hypocritical and self-justifying Bulstrode. He is candid and sympathetic, and conspicuously lacking in doctrine—which is why the evangelical Mr. Bulstrode wants to oust him as the chaplain of the local hospital.

The dilemma for Dr. Lydgate is whether to side with Bulstrode, and vote to oust Farebrother, or side with his friend and incur Bulstrode's dangerous enmity. Eliot shows Lydgate arguing with himself, attempting to convince himself that he has the proper motives for undertaking a self-interested course of action (siding with Bulstrode). When Lydgate finally casts his vote, we see him acting out of small pique and pride, reacting defensively to the comment of another hospital director, grasping at a justification for his self-interested action out of the thin air of circumstance.

Here's Angela Gheorghiu singing "The Jewel Song" ("Oh Dieu! que de bijoux") from Gounod's Faust.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Middlemarch Revisited, Part III: Dorothea at the Vatican

When we next see Dorothea, now Mrs. Casaubon, after an absence of eight chapters, she is on her honeymoon in Rome. A German artist named Naumann sees her standing abstractedly in front of the statue of the Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican Museum, and rushes to find his friend Will Ladislaw: "Come here, quick! else she will have changed her pose." Ladislaw comes, and the two men contemplate Dorothea as if she were herself a work of art.

Sleeping Ariadne (Vatican Museum). Roman copy of a Hellenistic original.
Known at the time of Dorothea's visit as "Cleopatra."

The scholar A.D. Nuttall points out that this scene is echoed in a story told by Mrs. Humphry Ward about a visit George Eliot and her partner George Henry Lewes paid to Mark Pattison and his wife in Oxford in 1870 (while Eliot was writing Middlemarch). Pattison, an aging scholar who married a beautiful young woman twenty-seven years his junior, is often cited as a model for Mr. Casaubon. Here's the scene as painted by Mrs. Ward:
As we turned into the quadrangle of Lincoln [College, Oxford]—suddenly, at one of the upper windows of the Rector's lodgings, which occupied the far right corner of the quad, there appeared the head and shoulders of Mrs. Pattison, as she looked out and beckoned smiling to Mr. Lewes. It was a brilliant apparition, as though a French portrait by Greuze or Perronneau had suddenly stepped into a vacant space in the old college wall.* The pale, pretty head, blond-cendrée, the delicate smiling features and the white throat; a touch of black, a touch of blue; a white dress; a general eighteenth-century impression as though of powder and patches:—Mrs. Lewes [George Eliot] perceived it in a flash, and I saw her run eagerly to Mr. Lewes and draw his attention to the window and its occupant...
As in the fictional scene in Middlemarch, the woman—framed in the window—becomes an aesthetic object, and the aesthetic experience must be shared. But in Middlemarch, Ladislaw insists that a woman is more than a "mere coloured superficies." He asks Naumann, who wants to paint Dorothea's portrait, "How would you paint her voice?" (222).

Jean Baptiste Greuze, Ariadne (1804)

It's interesting that Mrs. Pattison (who after Mark Pattison's death remarried and became Lady Dilke) later found her own voice as a respected art critic, specializing in French art.

In Greek mythology, Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, gives Theseus the thread that enables him to emerge from the Minotaur's labyrinth. Shortly after Dorothea first meets Mr. Casaubon, Eliot writes: "Dorothea by this tiime had looked deep into the ungauged reservoir of Mr. Casaubon's mind, seeing reflected there in vague labyrinthine extension every quality she herself brought; had opened much of her own experience to him, and had understood from him the scope of his great work, also of attractively labyrinthine extent" (46). But in their honeymoon, she finds that "the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither" (227). Already, Dorothea is Ariadne to Casaubon's dull, maze-minded Theseus, and in the Vatican she is brought together with her mythological double. In the classical myth, Ariadne is abandoned by Theseus, but later becomes the bride of the god Bacchus (Dionysus). As she stands beside the Sleeping Ariadne, Dorothea's own curly-headed Bacchus is waiting in the wings in the form of Will Ladislaw.

*There is a similar conceit in George Eliot's first published work, Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), in which she gives this description of a female character: "The tucked-in kerchief, rising full over the low tight bodice of her blue dress, sets off the majestic form of her bust, and she treads the lawn as if she were one of Sir Joshua Reynolds's stately ladies, who had suddenly stepped from her frame to enjoy the evening cool..."

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Several of my friends are coming out with new books this fall:

Kerry Langan, a dear friend from Oberlin, is publishing her first collection of short stories, Only Beautiful and Other Stories (Wising Up Press).

Obie Holmen, a new friend from Northfield, is coming out with his novel A Wretched Man: A Novel of Paul the Apostle (Mill City Press).

Shannon Tassava has an essay in P.S. What I Didn't Say: Unsent Letters to Our Female Friends (Seal Press).

Finally, I will be participating in two readings from the book Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose About Alzheimer's Disease (Kent State University Press) in Northfield on October 16. The first reading will be at 4:00 pm in the Viking Theater at St. Olaf; the second will be at 7:30 pm at the Northfield Retirement Community. Also participating will be the book's editor, poet Holly Hughes (a St. Olaf alumna) and Minneapolis poet Ethna McKiernan. Stay tuned for more details.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Middlemarch Revisited, Part II: Dr. Lydgate at the Opera

We have already met Dorothea Brooke, ardent and idealistic and eager for knowledge that she can translate into social good. To achieve her end of arriving at "the core of things," she has married the dessicated scholar, Mr. Casaubon, whom she hopes will open up new vistas of knowledge to her. She has, in other words, made a Faustian bargain.

Book I of Middlemarch was published in 1871, but is set half a century earlier, in 1829, the year in which Goethe published the corrected second edition of the first part of Faust. Dr. Faust, like Dorothea, is hungry for knowledge of "the core of things;" as Goethe puts it, was die Welt im innersten zusammenhalt." Faust promises his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge.

Dorothea is not the only Faustian character in Middlemarch. Tertius Lydgate is, like Faust, a doctor, a physician and scientist determined to discover "the very grain of things" (178). His ambition is to build upon the work of the French pathologist Bichat and answer the question: "What was the primitive tissue?" (178). In this, he is also like Casaubon, whose research is an attempt to arrive at the original "revealed truth" behind the multiplicity of world mythologies. Lydgate, the physician, is evidently attempting to discover stem cells.

George Eliot was a fan of opera, and one of her favorite operas was Charles Gounod's Faust. She was "much thrilled by the great symbolical situations, and by the music." In July 1863, a few years after the opera's premier, she saw the opera twice in one week, and told a correspondent: "The opera is a great, great product—pity we can't always have fine Weltgeschichtliche dramatic motives wedded to fine music, instead of trivialities and hideousness."

Eliot finds Verdi's La Traviata trivial and hideous, but she reserves a few words of praise for the composer's Rigoletto: "Rigoletto is unpleasant, but it is a superlatively fine tragedy in the Nemesis. I think I don't know a finer" (George Eliot to Miss Sara Hennell, July 11, 1863).

In Book II of Middlemarch, we are given Dr. Lydgate's back story, including the story of a love affair during his student days in Paris, where he became enamored of an actress whose performances he attended regularly. Eliot tells us that the play he attended was a "melodrama," in which it was the part of the actress "to stab her lover, mistaking him for the evil-designing duke of the piece" (180). This is strikingly similar to the "nemesis" in Rigoletto that Eliot admired: Rigoletto pays an assassin to stab the rakish Duke, but the assassin ends up fatally stabbing Rigoletto's daughter Gilda instead.

The episode in Middlemarch is operatic. Dr. Lydgate, the young medical student in Paris distracted in the midst of his scientific experiments by a doomed love affair with a woman accused of murder, seems further marked by the episode as a Faust figure.

Lydgate leaves his experiments in "galvanism" to attend the theatre. He's been applying electric shocks to the muscular tissues of frogs and rabbits. It was his scientific hero, Bichat, who famously distinguished between voluntary and involuntary muscles—between muscles like the muscles in the leg, which we move voluntarily, and muscles like the heart which move involuntarily. In his work Physiological researches on life and death, Bichat writes: "The exterior movements of the passions are not a fair criterion of the inward feelings of the individual, for these movements may be feigned as well as real: feigned if they originate in the brain; real if they have their sources in the heart;—in the first case voluntary, in the second involuntary. Touch the pulse of an angry man, if you wish to know whether he really is in anger."

Lydgate, the star-struck lover, is convinced that the actress's foot slipped and caused her to kill her husband accidentally. Finally, months later, he confronts her about it.
"I will tell you something," she said, in her cooing way, keeping her arms folded. "My foot really slipped."

"I know, I know," said Lydgate, deprecatingly. "It was a fatal accident—a dreadful stroke of calamity that bound me to you the more."

Again Laure paused a little and then said, slowly, "I meant to do it."
Her foot slipped, but the action was voluntary. Here, as everywhere in Middlemarch, Eliot is interested in confusion between brain and heart, in the difficulty of discerning true motives and interpreting the minds and hearts of others. Even the trained physician doesn't always judge the pulse of a situation correctly. As Eliot writes at the beginning of the chapter in which this episode is recounted: "For surely all must admit that a man may be puffed and belauded, envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband, and yet remain virtually unknown—known merely as a cluster of signs for his neighbours' false suppositions" (171).

Part of Rosamond Vincy's repertoire: "Voi che sapete," from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, sung by Maria Ewing.

Read "Middlemarch Revisited, Part I" here.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thoughts on the William Henry Harrison Dollar Coin

This morning I was pleased to receive in change at Eastman Music in Faribault a 2009 William Henry Harrison dollar coin. Harrison was the 9th President of the United States, and served from March 4 (Inauguration Day) until April 4, 1841—when he died of the pneumonia he contracted while delivering his Inaugural Address. I happen to have a copy of that address here on my laptop; it fills fourteen single-spaced pages. The speech was edited by Daniel Webster, who found it swimming with classical allusions. Webster deleted many of them, and later joked that he had killed "seventeen Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts, every one of them." Much of the speech is devoted to a discussion of the Presidential veto and the limits of Presidential power, which had expanded dramatically under Jackson and Van Buren. Before Jackson, there had only been six Presidential vetoes in forty years, and Presidents had only used it to stop legislation which they found unconstitutional; Jackson was the first to use it to kill legislation with which he disagreed. Jackson used the Presidential veto to claim legislative power for the Executive branch. But in his Inaugural Address, Harrison states: "To assist or control Congress, then, in its ordinary legislation could not, I conceive, have been the motive for conferring the veto power on the President."

I love the idea of dollar coins, and I miss the pound and two pound coins used in England, where there are no banknotes in denominations less than £5 (£1 notes were withdrawn from circulation in 1988). But I wonder what William Henry Harrison would have thought of his portrait on a dollar coin. In his Inaugural Address, he said this about American currency:
The idea of making it exclusively metallic, however well intended, appears to me to be fraught with more fatal consequences than any other scheme having no relation to the personal rights of the citizens that has ever been devised. If any single scheme could produce the effect of arresting at once that mutation of condition by which thousands of our most indigent fellow-citizens by their industry and enterprise are raised to the possession of wealth, that is the one. If there is one measure better calculated than another to produce that state of things so much deprecated by all true republicans, by which the rich are daily adding to their hoards and the poor sinking deeper into penury, it is an exclusive metallic currency. Or if there is a process by which the character of the country for generosity and nobleness of feeling may be destroyed by the great increase and neck toleration of usury, it is an exclusive metallic currency.
As the first (and, as it would turn out, only) Whig President, Harrison was signaling his opposition to the monetary policy of the Jacksonian Democrats, who had killed the national bank and opposed bank-issued paper money (banknotes) as a means of extending credit. Harrison evidently believed that an exclusively metallic currency would destroy credit and increase the gap between rich and poor as the wealthy hoarded their gold.

Bridge Chamber Music Festival

Last night was the opening concert of the 11th annual Bridge Chamber Music Festival in Northfield. The concert, at Urness Recital Hall at St. Olaf, featured works by Haydn, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, performed by members from the St. Olaf and Carleton music faculties.

The concert opened with a typically delightful and relaxed piano trio by Franz Joseph Haydn, who died in 1809, and ended with a typically frenetic and impassioned string quintet by Felix Mendelssohn, who was born in 1809. The contrast was striking. Despite a foray into the minor key in the slow movement, Haydn's trio was predominantly cheerful, full of invention and good humor. Haydn always makes me happy, even when, as they were last night, storm clouds are gathering. I imagine that Haydn himself had a warm and easy-going personality; in any case, he lived to the age of seventy-seven, an old man by eighteenth-century standards. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, died at thirty-five, and his music is tightly-strung and full of yearning. As bassoonist Jackson Bryce commented after the concert, "Mendelssohn always must have been on the verge of exploding."

Between the Haydn and Mendelssohn came Mozart's magnificent quintet for piano and winds, KV 452. The second movement larghetto was the highlight of the concert, with its beautiful interplay between the piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. The movement is gorgeous, and its deceptive simplicity merits close attention. About a minute into the second movement (1:00 on this 1955 recording by pianist Walter Gieseking and the Philharmonia Wind Quartet), a lovely little phrase is tossed gently from the clarinet to the oboe to horn to the bassoon, and we get to hear it again with the repeat. The same phrase returns near the end of the piece (5:12 on the Gieseking recording), but this time it passes from clarinet to oboe to bassoon to horn. When this happened at last night's concert, I noticed Jackson's eyes light up as he glanced at horn player Caroline Lemen. It was so clear that he was enjoying every moment of the piece, and that delight was richly conveyed to the audience in all of last night's performances.

The second festival concert takes place Friday at 7:30 pm at the Carleton Concert Hall. There's a Young Artists' Recital on Sunday at 2:00 pm at St. Olaf's Studio A, and the final concert of the festival at Carleton next Tuesday at 7:30 pm. Tickets are available at the Northfield Arts Guild or at the door. For programs and more information, see the Bridge Chamber Music Festival website.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Middlemarch Revisited

I'm currently rereading George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871), which is perhaps the culminating masterpiece in the great tradition of the nineteenth-century English novel. I wish I had kept a journal the first time I read Middlemarch. My mother-in-law says that Middlemarch was a different book when she read it at forty from the book she read at twenty. It was still different when she read it again at eighty. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I first read Middlemarch, but I must have been in my early twenties. My copy of the novel is a 1986 Penguin edition. I graduated from college in 1986. I was close, at least, to the age of Dorothea Brooke, who was “not yet twenty” at the start of the novel. Now I’m closer to the age of Mr. Casaubon, who is “over five-and-forty.” This time around, I'm keeping a journal, which can be found on my WordPress blog (which better accommodates long posts). The first entry, "Middlemarch Revisited, Part I: Reading Miss Brooke," can be found here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Island Music 2009

There was plenty of music-making on the island this summer. At various times there was guitar, piano, oboe, flute, recorder, banjo, violin, cello, harmonica, and ukulele. Will practiced his oboe for hours each day, and at the end of the last week got together with three of his cousins for a read-through of Bach's oboe and violin concerto. The Log Cabin Strummers, featuring various aunts and uncles on ukuleles, treated us to a sing-along of oldies from the 1920s and earlier. And, best of all, there was a stunning all-cousin performance of a medley of songs for my brother- and sister-in-law's 30th anniversary.

Peter was an eager volunteer at the kitchen sink after dinner, because it gave him an excuse to play his own music on the boom box. As often happens, there was one CD in his rotation that stood out for me. This time it was Blitzen Trapper's 2008 album, Furr. You can listen to the album here on Singer and songwriter Eric Earley manages to channel Bob Dylan, Alex Chilton, and the sounds of the 1970s, while still coming across as fresh and exciting and original. Will called the opening track, "Sleepytime in the Western World," a collection of "all of the catchiest cadences" in rock. The 1970s influences are unmistakable; even the band's logo looks like the kind of thing that was drawn endlessly on school notebooks in the 70s.

Here's the band's video for the title track, "Furr."

Reading Journal: Island Reading 2009

Tomás O'Crohan, The Islandman (1929). Oxford.
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008). Random House.

Paul Gallico, Flowers for Mrs. Harris (1958). Penguin. Published in the U.S.A. as Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris.

On days when rain prevented me from getting up on the roof, I managed to do a lot of reading on the island. A few summers ago, I started a tradition of reading a book about an island, or islands, each summer. I started in 2004 with Shakespeare's The Tempest and Kathleen Dean Moore's The Pine Island Paradox. This summer I read two very different island books. The first was The Islandman, originally published in Gaelic as An tOileánach in 1929, a memoir of life on Ireland's Great Blasket Island by Tomás O'Crohan (1856-1937). A fascinating narrative of a difficult life—fishing, cutting turf, hunting seals, scavenging shipwrecks, evading tax collectors—on the harsh edge of the Atlantic Ocean. O'Crohan's Irish voice, both rough and wry, sparkles through Robin Flower's translation.

The second island book I read this summer was the marvelous novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This was the loveliest and most satisfying novel I've read all year, and I can't praise or recommend it highly enough. The novel takes the form of a series of letters. On the island of Guernsey, in 1946, Dawsey Adams finds in the book shop a used copy of Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia with the name and address of its former owner written inside. Dawsey starts a correspondence with the former owner, a writer in England looking for an idea for her next book. From this correspondence flowers a rich and beautiful story about Guernsey during the Nazi occupation, and about the power of books to bring people together. I have to confess that there were times when it was difficult to read through the tears stinging my eyes.

The second most satisfying book I read on the island was Paul Gallico's Flowers for Mrs. Harris (1958), about a London char (cleaning woman) who saves up for a trip to Paris to buy herself a Dior dress. Like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, it celebrates the things that bring us together. Gallico is best-known, perhaps, as the author of The Poseidon Adventure, but Flowers for Mrs. Harris is something quite different. Mrs. Harris yearns for the beauty of a Dior dress—something so far out of reach for someone of her class—and ends up affirming the beauty of simple, honest human relationships. It's a simple story, and rather dated, but it was the perfect thing for a timeless island afternoon.

Hat tip: Justine Picardie on Flowers for Mrs. Harris.

Also read on the island:
Kate Douglas Wiggin, Jane & Mary Findlater, Allan McAulay, The Affair at the Inn (1904)
Penelope Fitgerald, The Bookshop (1978)
Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I'm back from nearly a month without internet access or electricity. I spent most of that time re-roofing the north porch of the main lodge where we stay each summer. Unfortunately, I neglected to take "before" photos of the old roof, which consisted of a thick layer of moss, a layer of old asphalt shingles, a thick layer of partially rotten cedar shakes, a layer of ants, and damp and rotting tongue-and-groove sheathing. I was greatly assisted in the demolition by my brother-in-law Jason, my brother Jim, and my sons Will and Peter. Jason and my friend Ken helped me with some of the reconstruction, and Clara was a genius at cutting shingles to fit. Here are some pictures of the work (the first three were taken by my sister Ruth).

Will and Jim amid the demolition debris

Jim, Will, and Rob demolishing the old roof

Rob removing old nails

Clara cutting shingles

The finished roof, with skylight

The north porch, ready for afternoon tea

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .