Reader’s Diary

Big Enough to Be Inconsistent

As we watch the current presidential candidates dance and weave in rhythm with whatever they perceive to be public opinion, it becomes ever more difficult to differentiate their political calculations from true moral principles. Most of us decry the way our electoral process diminishes candidates, and look back longingly at the days of real political “heroes” — Abraham Lincoln, FDR, whoever you will — but it is important to remember that those men were just as hamstrung by political expedience as their modern counterparts. George M. Fredrickson, an emeritus professor of history at Stanford, makes the point neatly in Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race (Harvard University Press).

This small book (actually a printed version of the author’s Du Bois lectures at Harvard) addresses the contradictory Lincoln that W.E.B. Du Bois described as “big enough to be inconsistent — cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves,” a man to be admired “not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet he triumphed.” Tracing Lincoln’s evolving attitudes on slavery and race through his early political struggles, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and finally the Civil War, Fredrickson delivers a salutary reminder that what we should be looking for in our leaders is not heroic posturing but the ability to think deeply and critically, to grow and evolve, to educate and lead.

Save the World on Your Own Time

And speaking of education, literary scholar Stanley Fish has some unorthodox ideas on the subject. Fish has been a high-profile provocateur for many years, ruffling feathers and challenging academic pieties in his many books and articles. Now, in Save the World on Your Own Time (OUP), he gripes about the widespread politicization of higher education in America. “Pick up the mission statement of almost any college or university,” he complains, “and you will find claims and ambitions that will lead you to think that it is the job of an institution of higher learning to cure every ill the world has ever known: not only illiteracy and cultural ignorance, which are at least in the ball-park, but poverty, war, racism, gender bias, bad character, discrimination, intolerance, environmental pollution, rampant capitalism, American imperialism, and the hegemony of Wal-Mart; and of course the list could be much longer.”

What exactly is the job of higher education? It consists of two tasks, Fish affirms: to introduce students to unfamiliar bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry, and to equip them with the analytical skills necessary for their study. “If you think about it,” he says, “that’s a lot to ask.” The central purpose of a university should be the pursuit of truth, and “the serious embrace of that purpose precludes deciding what the truth is in advance.” Passionately political readers — whether liberal or conservative — will find plenty to argue with in Fish’s jeremiad, but it contains plenty of common sense and will surely incite some salutary reflection on just what we ought realistically to expect from our academic institutions.

Death of a Murderer

In his novel Death of a Murderer (now in paperback from Vintage), Rupert Thomson has taken the darkest possible material and created something strangely restorative and beautiful. Policeman Billy Tyler has been assigned the job of sitting up all night in a hospital morgue to guard the body of a child murderer, the most hated woman in England. During the course of his vigil Tyler has cause to reflect on his own life: the little daughter with Down syndrome of whom he is both protective and resentful; the sad, pretty wife; the consciousness that he falls far short of his own moral ideals. By juxtaposing the sins of this rather ordinary man with those of the dead killer, Thomson is able to pose profound questions. What is evil — how do we define it, and find it in ourselves? Must we accept it? Can we overcome it? What separates us (for surely all of us have had murderous impulses) from the vilified murderer in the hospital morgue?

Antoine’s Alphabet

Sobered by the rather harrowing thoughts Thomson’s novel inspired, I turned to life’s gentler side with Jed Perl’s Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World (Knopf). Perl, The New Republic‘s brilliant art critic, masterfully synthesized criticism, history, and personal reflections in his encyclopedically rich New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century. He brings the same skills to this more subjective and fanciful book, an idiosyncratic study of the great Rococo painter Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).

“Watteau’s work has always appealed to people who are at once in love with the beautiful surfaces of the world and suspicious of the ease with which they’re seduced ,” Perl writes. The author clearly belongs to that category himself, and his treatment of this favorite painter, “a master of silken surfaces and elusive emotions” who created “a late afternoon world where the classical ideal has all but perished and the modern ideal has not yet been born,” is deeply empathetic. Perl spent years accumulating material relating to Watteau, which he has arranged in the form of a dictionary — an appropriately oblique angle from which to approach this most intangible and elusive of artists.

The Story of French

Continuing with things Gallic, I picked up The Story of French by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. This Canadian husband-and-wife team have produced a very informative and readable history of the French language, from its origins in pre-Latin Gaulish to its long reign as the supreme language of culture and diplomacy, and on to the present day, with French eclipsed by English as the international language of choice and apparently fighting a losing battle with Spanish and Chinese as well.

But French is resilient, as the authors demonstrate. It managed to hang on in countless places where the odds were against it: British-ruled Quebec, for instance, and African-ruled Congo, and Vanuatu, and even in American school and college curricula. Nadeau and Barlow are especially interesting on the subject of French language purism, a concept Anglophones find mystifying, and on the function of the Acad&eacutemie Française in maintaining it. “Francophones are not the only ones who cherish their language,” the authors admit, “but among international languages their attitude is unique?.French speakers not only accept the idea that their language should adhere to grammar and spelling standards, but many francophones even refer to their language as a ‘monument’ or a ‘work of art.'” True; and millions of people around the world would probably concur with Algerian-born Albert Camus’s statement: “My homeland is the French language.”