Archive for June, 2009


“The general sat, and the lines on the map…”

Today, as the world little noted nor long remembered, was the 620th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. According to AFP, “no incidents were reported during the ceremony” held by Serbian pilgrims and officials near the battlefield that’s no longer Serbian territory, although Belgrade radio station B92 reports—how reliably I don’t know—that some Kosovars marked the day by bulldozing a 1999 monument to the medieval Serb heroes.

Pundits and politicians have forsaken the Balkans, but medievalists should keep Kosovo in mind—not because outsiders should rush to take sides, but because nowhere is a medieval conflict still burning quite so brightly. Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on this date in 1914, the 525th anniversary of the battle, and Slobodan Milosevic chose the 600th anniversary to visit the battlefield and rally nationalistic Serbs. The Battle of Kosovo hasn’t really ended, and one epic poet predicted what diplomats never fully grasped: “Earthly kingdoms are such passing things—/ A heavenly kingdom, raging in the dark, endures eternally.”

From the “Quid Plura?” archives, here’s the medieval background to Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, and here’s the capture of Radovan Karadžić and the ugly side of modern medievalism.

“Half of the time, we’re gone…”

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is that it was in The New York Times, and what the lousy novel sounds like, and how the author was occupied and all before he wrote it, and all that J.D. Salinger kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth:

On Wednesday, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order forbidding publication in the United States of “60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye,” a takeoff on — J. D. Salinger’s lawyers say rip-off of — “The Catcher in the Rye,” written by a young Swedish writer styling himself J. D. California.

Until the judge makes her final ruling, Mr. Salinger’s fans will be spared the prospect of encountering Holden Caulfield, the ultimate alienated teenager, as a lonely old codger who escapes from a retirement home and his beloved younger sister, Phoebe, as a drug addict sinking into dementia.

The Times adds that Catcher is showing its age: “Teachers say young readers just don’t like Holden as much as they used to. What once seemed like courageous truth-telling now strikes many of them as ‘weird,’ ‘whiny’ and ‘immature.'”

Of course: In a culture overripe with Facebook confessionals and reality TV, a million Holdens and Holdenettes have made the novel obsolete, and distance obscures what made it distinctive in 1951. Certainly no kid in 2009 gets the goofiness of Holden Caulfield’s name, the equivalent of “Affleck Paltrow” today. I’m surprised Salinger fans took it as earnestly as they did.

The debate over Holden Caulfield’s dwindling relevance is boring, but the plot of 60 Years Later is intriguing: It suggests that “J.D. California” left good ideas untapped.

Fifteen years ago, I found a photocopy of the pirated edition of Salinger’s other magazine stories, the ones that have never been legally republished (but which are now all over the Web). I read the thing in three sittings; I closed it enlightened and disappointed. With few exceptions, Salinger put his best material to better use in his tiny canon of “authorized” works; fans should be especially relieved that the dreadful 1965 novella Hapworth 16, 1924 was never republished.

But angstkind Holden earned my pity. In the early stories that became The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield never grows old; he vanishes in the Pacific during World War II.

Now, suppose Holden’s alternate fate explains his aimlessness and moping. He’s a smart enough kid, so he senses that something’s not right. And maybe one afternoon in the early ’50s, in a doctor’s office or a friend’s apartment or some other suitably phony place, a bored Holden picks up a chipped, battered copy of The Saturday Evening Post. He flips through its pages. He rolls his eyes at the goddamn fashion illustrations. He mentally draws mustaches on Jon Whitcomb’s elegant women.

But toward the back of the magazine, he freezes. There, somehow, is his name—no, not just his name, an entire story about some brother he didn’t know he had, and things he was certain were private.

He’s horrified—and baffled beyond cynicism. As night falls, he goes outside, and on the loneliest walk of his life, through a Manhattan that no longer makes any sense, he searches his soul, and he starts to understand what he is. In a flash of maturity no novelist could make plausible, the shaken young man knows what comes next. He’s forced to agree with the judgment of generations: despite the support of the people who love him and the universality of his youthful emotions, Holden Caulfield is living on borrowed time.

“…long-forgotten words, or ancient melodies.”

Twelve centuries ago, a certain Frankish king understood the need to remain clear-eyed after taking on too many tasks. “I know that I must do what’s right,” he confided to his queen in a letter from the front, “as sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.”

O Charlemagne, how right you were! Because of work, writing, meine Deutschklasse, and preparing a syllabus from scratch, “Quid Plura?” has inadvertently slid into what can only be called “summer hours.”

This slowdown is temporary—but while I catch up with my commitments, here’s some stuff worth reading.

No one does medievalism better than Scott Nokes, who scours the Web for links you might otherwise miss. Check out his miscellanies from June 16, June 17, June 20, June 22, and June 23. Book reviews! Scholarly musings! Sentence and solaas! How can you go wrong?

What’s the hottest book in Louisiana right now? According to my family, it’s a memoir about a leprosarium.

Let’s welcome a sociolinguist to the blog world: “As a Linguist…”

Are you reading Ephemeral New York? Why the heck not?

According to Twitter, Julius Caesar is currently floating off the coast of Sardinia.

Everybody needs a little time away, so check out my snapshots from Aachen.

“Ran down, and the lady said it…”

When the U.S. Postal Service issues a stamp tomorrow to honor Anna Julia Cooper, she’ll be remembered, rightly, as a remarkable woman. Born into slavery around 1858 in North Carolina, Cooper earned a degree in mathematics but also taught Latin and Greek. As principal of the nation’s best public high school for black children, she fought for high educational standards and prepared her students for top universities. In essays and lectures, she addressed racism, the concerns of black women, and other issues of the day. When women’s rights groups turned out to be white women’s rights groups, she started her own.

But Anna Julia Cooper was also a Charlemagne buff—and an inspiration to exhausted grad students everywhere.

From 1911 to 1913, Cooper spent summers studying French literature and history in Paris. In 1914—at the tender age of 56—she enrolled in the Department of Romance Languages at Columbia University with plans to earn her doctorate. Scholars of medieval French literature were clamoring for an accessible version of the epic Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne to replace a hard-to-find German edition, and Cooper gave them one, but Columbia didn’t grant her a degree. As a widow raising her dead brother’s five children while holding down a full-time job as a teacher and principal in Washington, D.C., she couldn’t fulfill the one-year residency requirement.

In response, Cooper sought out a university with no such requirement. The Sorbonne accepted her credits but her work on the Pèlerinage didn’t meet their dissertation requirements, so Cooper wrote a second dissertation. In 1925, she earned a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne and found a Parisian publisher for her edition and facing-page translation of Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. She was 66 years old.

Cooper’s Pèlerinage was never published in America. When she offered the book and all its proceeds to her alma mater, Oberlin, the school hemmed and hawed—and then nervously declined. Even so, the book was the standard edition and translation for decades, American libraries and language departments sought it out, and several pages were included in an anthology of medieval French literature reprinted as recently as the 1960s.

Beyond its manageable size, it’s not clear what drew Cooper to the Charlemagne project she cheekily called her “homework,” but few American teachers have so aptly encouraged students, then or now, through indefatigable example. Cooper, who lived to be 105, understood the pedigree of that tradition:

Being always eager to carry out your wishes faithfully, I have sent back to you this dear pupil of mine as you asked. Please look after him well until, if God so wills, I come to you myself. Do not let him wander about unoccupied or take to drink. Give him pupils, and give strict instructions that he is to teach properly. I know he has learned well. I hope he will do well, for the success of my pupils is my reward with God.

Alcuin wrote that. It’s a Carolingian sentiment, but one that Cooper, a proper medievalist, could easily endorse.

“Lie to me, tell me that they’re only robins…”

When educated people gather for food and wine and sparkling conversation, the intellectual give-and-take quickly grows tiresome, but in my experience it almost always leads to one worthwhile question: Who the heck played the gargoyle in the creepy 1972 made-for-TV movie Gargoyles?

It so happens that the gargoyle was played by Bernie Casey, an actor you’ve seen a million times: in blaxploitation pictures; in Roots: The Next Generation; as the teacher in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure who gets to call Julius Caesar “a salad-dressing dude”; as the fraternity president in three of the four Revenge of the Nerds movies; and on countless TV shows. A paragon of versatility, Casey excelled at college and professional football, and he’s also a painter, a poet, and former chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

So here’s to Bernie Casey, not only because he turns 70 today, but because in 1972 he brought baleful dignity to his role as a gargoyle who implored a human to teach him how to read while manfully protecting a nest of “wingéd breeders.” Casey may be a Renaissance man, but in the 1970s he demonstrated an unsung talent for making children nearly soil themselves out of terror. For that, to some of us, he’ll always be truly medieval.