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A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis

7.3 (Summer 2007)

A quarterly publication of The Center for Literate Values


Board of Directors:

John R. Harris, Ph.D.

Executive Director

Thomas F. Bertonneau, Ph.D.


Helen R. Andretta, Ph.D.

York College-CUNY

Ralph S. Carlson, Ph.D.

Azusa Pacific University

Kelly Ann Hampton

Michael H. Lythgoe

Lt. Col. USAF (Retd.)

The previous issue of Praesidium (Spring 2007) may be viewed by clicking here.

ISSN  1553-5436

©  All contents of this journal (including poems, articles, fictional works, and short pieces by staff) are copyrighted by The Center for Literate Values of Tyler, Texas (2007), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.



A Few Words from the Editor

No particular theme emerges in this issue: our recurrent concern for the decay of Western culture and our vigorous interest in "the finer things" is again at center-stage.

The New Berlioz: Musical High Romanticism in an Age of Technical and Ideological Correctness

Thomas F. Bertonneau

 Arguably the greatest composer to be produced by France was constantly ignored, obstructed, and insulted by a stuffy establishment in his day.  Now, in a telling irony, France ’s ruling elite will have none of him for imaginary slights to unhealthy sensibilities..

Orality and Literacy Revisited: Beleaguered Allies Against the Technical Onslaught of the Visual

John R. Harris

 Scholars have conventionally dramatized the struggle of the written word against the spoken one.  When the contest shifts from history to psychology, however, these two means of communication may be allies against the visual.

Ends of the West

Mark Wegierski

This review of Frank Ellis’s Marxism, Multiculturalism, and Free Speech maintains that the author has failed to arrive at the essence of political correctness.

Painting Dick Tracy into Heaven  (poem)

Michael H. Lythgoe

This poem was inspired by one of Philip Morsberger’s paintings.

Still Life (short story)

Fiona MacAlistair

A close encounter with a tornado is insufficient to lift a sensitive young man from a life of quiet desperation.


A Few Words from the Editor


     As an American, and indeed as a Westerner, one is thoroughly programmed to view every sequence of events as either progressive or decadent.  Things don’t just stay the same.  Indeed, lines such as, “It hasn’t changed in the past twenty years!” usually pop up in public discourse as spirited criticism, their outrage considered to be self-justifying.  For a people which can place a man on the moon to permit any mass-transit system’s or chronic health problem’s unaltered persistence through two decades smacks of incompetence, if not malfeasance.  Why, we must be losing ground: if we still do something—anything at all—the same way that our parents did it, our society must be embarked upon a decline.

     And the sensation of decline is very real.  Because we make money by changing things and amuse ourselves by changing things, the experience of the unchanging alarms us.  How will we survive?  How will we avert boredom?  The incomparable author of The Revolt of the Masses, José Ortega y Gasset, has been much on my mind lately and often appears among my citations (as in my piece for this issue); yet I have come to recognize upon re-reading Ortega y Gasset this summer that he presupposes the presence of a great void just beyond all human affairs and, for that matter, beyond all terrestrial existence of any kind.  It’s a familiar theme in authors who came of age just after the Great War.  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, about whom I once wrote a book many years ago, gropes in his writings toward just such an “arbitrarism”—a worldview, that is, in which value begins in the arbitrary declaration of some founding group that this ritual is reverent, this mountain holy.  The savants of our own day have carved notches into their academic six-shooters by blasting away lustily at human culture’s whimsical origins; but before World War II, one finds that the very vulnerability of our institutions and beliefs to the iconoclast’s assault rendered them more precious.  They were like delicate plants that required a highly artificial environment.

     Specifically, Ortega y Gasset builds his case for a new United States of Europe upon the notion that societies must be inspired with a sense of common endeavor—of mission—if they are not to wilt and perish.  Saint-Exupéry’s literary hymns to technological advance (such as the early Vol de Nuit) are fully in step with such an outlook.  The trouble here is that human values cannot be arbitrary, after all, if vast numbers of people are not to be beguiled by a very small elite of paternal nihilists pledged to shield them from the void: the creed of Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor.  For why would an entire society race to the moon or dedicate itself to colonizing a new planet if its members understand full well that croquet on a Martian Sunday afternoon would end up being as boring as croquet on a Sunday afternoon in mid-American suburbia?  The masses would have to be kept busy, kept too preoccupied to think.  The President or Emperor or People’s Choice would have to resemble the Duke of Marlborough in the English nursery rhyme: “He marched his soldiers up the hill / And marched them down again.”

     The impression grows upon me daily that we are being marched in any number of directions by drill instructors who themselves can foresee perfectly well the sterility of each particular destination.  We are being kept busy—with war, with pleasure, with neurotic anxiety, with drooling ambition.  We are being handled quite deliberately so that we may not stop and think any of it through.

     My own inclination, as must be quite apparent, is to see such trends as degenerative… but then, degeneracy is the flip side of progress.  If I really believed in the vast downward turn of things, why would I be so committed to the work of The Center for Literate Values?  Why would I be so delighted to report that we have just received a grant of $1,000 from the Earhart Foundation—the first four-figure donation in our brief history?  Our position as a society is unstable, to say the least; but this journal and those who create and read it are proof that the will to resist unpromising trends lingers on.  Despite the very best efforts of our surroundings to keep us from it, some of us are indeed thinking very hard about where we’re going.

     My own suspicion, revealed in this issue for the first time, that our communications technology is dumbing us down primarily by emphasizing the visual came to me recently and as rather a shock.  The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to explain.  Another happy accident occurred when Tom Bertonneau, quite unprovoked by me, decided to train his vast learning and keen understanding in the direction of music—real music, the kind which can only be appreciated after several hearings in a quiet, still environment; the kind that has been supplanted by highly lucrative racket.  Can it really be complete accident that our declining taste in music has paralleled our declining familiarity and facility with the written or printed word?

     Yet as our own creative artists remind us in these pages, high expectation and bitter disillusionment are a substantial part of what stays the same in human affairs.  If there is not much cause to hope in this world, there’s plenty of cause to smile… and the expectation of a smile is not at all an uncivilized hope.

J. H.

back to Contents



The “New” Berlioz: Musical High Romanticism in an Age of Technical and Ideological Correctness


Thomas F. Bertonneau


Berlioz was not merely a composer mis-heard by… critics and neglected by… conductors; he was not merely an extraordinary artist fighting the usual losing battle with his contemporaries and early posterity; he was also an archetype whose destiny, when retold, was the story of an age; he was the incarnation of a style and spirit that we can no more expunge from the history of western man than one can expunge a stretch of years from one’s own past. 1

   – Jacques Barzun


     Before he became a Teutonic enormity and an artistic prophet, before he had made his own mark in the world of music and well before he had conceived his monumental Ring of the Nibelungs, while writing during his Paris sojourn of the early 1840s, a sharp-witted Richard Wagner (1813-1883) declared keenly of the Gallic composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) that he stood out against the prevailing un-musicality of the French capital both as a phenomenon and a paradox.  “Berlioz is no incidental composer,” Wagner writes in a dispatch for the Dresden Abendzeitung; “he is in no way related to and has nothing whatever to do with the pompous and exclusive art institutions of Paris: the Opéra as well as the Conservatory hurried to close their doors at the very first sight of him” (Wagner 129).  As for Berlioz’s not being “incidental,” this means for Wagner that he boasts no organic relation to metropolitan musical life but constitutes rather something sui generis within it—“within it,” one might say, spatially or phenomenally while yet existing spiritually apart from and artistically entirely beyond it.  Wagner hesitates to call Berlioz either a Parisian or even a Frenchman, since he seems so antithetical to his scene: “Berlioz was forced to become and to remain an absolute exception to long-established rules, and such he is and always will be, both inwardly and outwardly…  You will hear Berlioz’s compositions only at the concerts which he himself gives once or twice a year” (129).2  Wagner notes that “nowhere else will you hear anything by Berlioz, except perhaps in the streets or in the cathedral, where he is summoned from time to time to take part in some politico-musical state occasion” (129).  Not even Republican or Imperial acknowledgment, however, served to guarantee critical respect; it could exacerbate critical hostility.  Conservatory professor F.-J. Fétis wrote meanly of Berlioz in 1837: “His rare melodies are deprived of meter and rhythm; and his harmony, a bizarre assemblage of sounds, not easily blended, does not always merit this name.”  In Fétis’ snide opinion, “What Monsieur Berlioz writes does not belong to the art which I customarily regard as music, and I have the complete certainty that he lacks the prerequisites of this art” (Slonimsky 57).

     Wagner’s “rules,” which Berlioz fought to dissolve lest they dissolve him, were those associated with the operatic activity of the Italian-born composers who supplied the steady fare beloved and patronized by concert-going bourgeois custom in the City on the Seine .  The names of Gasparo Spontini (1774-1851) or Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) emerge nowadays only in musicological investigation, but in 1840, along with Daniel-François Auber (1782-1871), they dominated the lyric stage; and opera as a genre dominated Parisian musical life to the virtual exclusion of instrumental and orchestral concerts, notwithstanding a few visits in the 1780s and 90s by Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  Music historian Martin Cooper in effect seconds Wagner’s characterization of Berlioz as a creative sport, hard to apprehend directly but describable by reference to that from which he so radically differs, by placing him hors de continuité in the chronicle of the Gallic muse.  Cooper thus begins his classic account (1951) of French music with Berlioz’s death, just before the Franco-Prussian War, and carries it forward to Gabriel Fauré’s demise some fifty-seven years later.  In Cooper’s thinking, first there is Berlioz and only then comes along something identifiable as “French Music”; the latter is unthinkable without the former, who gradually eclipsed the Italians and opened a space, but the former may not be conflated with the latter, for it absorbed no influence from the master, who indeed offered it none.  Cooper judges that “Berlioz was fortunate to die without witnessing the miseries of the Prussian War and the Commune…  The complete failure of [his opera] Les Troyens had finished him; he could struggle no longer against indifference and misunderstanding” (8).  Cooper contrasts Berlioz’s philosophic attitude with “the deliberate frivolity of the Second Empire, the shameless place-seeking and corruption of Napoleon III ’s régime,” and he links Berlioz with the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), as an instance of “the serious artist” who “turned his back on public life in a gesture natural to those who inhabit and cultivate exclusive, ‘private’ universes” (8).

     Nativity explains Berlioz’s lifelong eccentricity and privacy somewhat, for his birth was eccentric in the sense that it was provincial; then again his boyhood was often solitary despite his sisters.  La Côte St. André, more village than town, lies almost adjacent to the Swiss canton of Grenoble , where relatives of the Berlioz family lived; the nearest French city of significance is Lyons .  The district’s ingrained cultural conservatism meant that it remained moderately royalist in temperament after 1789 despite the imposition by the Directorate of a Revolutionary government.  The Revolution temporarily confiscated the family property, although the Consular government soon restored it.  La Côte St. Andre also escaped the worst distortions of the First Empire, again because of its remoteness from the political center.  In the early Nineteenth Century, parents did not speak of home-schooling, but Berlioz learned at home, with his physician-father as general tutor, even after he turned ten years old and began to participate in a day academy in the town.  Berlioz père approached education unsystematically but enthusiastically and humanely, stressing literature, history, geography, and science.  In his Memoirs, knowing the answer, Berlioz asks, “How much tenderness must a man feel for his son to undertake to carry through such a task?” (Berlioz 34).3  The young Berlioz balked at committing lines from Horace by rote, but he delighted in maps and surveys.  He records how he “would spend hours poring over the atlas, examining the intricate system of islands, straits and promontories in the South Seas and the Indian Archipelago, pondering on the origins of these remote regions, their climate and vegetation and the people who lived there, and filled with an intense desire to visit them” (34).  The father also made a gift to the son of a flute and a guitar, to which the budding musician applied himself with natural eagerness, and which he soon mastered.  A charcoal sketch of Berlioz with guitar exists showing him at age fifteen or sixteen seated alone in deep concentration over the instrument.

     Cooper alludes to Berlioz’s late masterwork, Les Troyens, produced in truncated form in 1863 at the Théâtre-Lyrique, which can trace its origins to the days of childhood tuition.  Berlioz étudiant felt his reluctance about Latinity suddenly diminish when he graduated from the sententiousness of Horace to the romance of Virgil’s Aeneid, which inspired him, as he read it aloud, with a sense of large action and high-pitched emotion conveyed in the loftiest diction.  He would recite from the text, a quaint exercise that has dropped out of the pedagogical repertory.  “How often,” he writes, “construing to my father the fourth book of the Aeneid, did I feel my heart swell and my voice falter and break!” (35).  Berlioz recalls a particular incident involving Virgil’s line, at Regina gravi jamdudum saucia cura, which “disturbed [him] from the outset of the lesson:

Somehow or other, I struggled on till we came to the great turning point of the drama.  But when I reached the scene in which Dido expires on the funeral pyre, surrounded by the gifts and weapons of the perfidious Aeneas, and pours forth on the bed—“that bed with all its memories”—the bitter stream of her life-blood, and I had to pronounce the despairing utterances of the dying queen, “thrice raising herself upon her elbow, thrice falling back,” to describe her wound and the disastrous love that convulsed her to the depth of her being, the cries of her sister, her nurse and her distracted women, and that agony so terrible  that the gods themselves are moved to pity and send Iris to end it, my lips trembles and the words came with difficulty…  I was seized with a nervous shuddering and stopped dead.  I could not have read another word.  (Berlioz 35)

     The Memoirs address the rest of Berlioz’s childhood bibliography less specifically than one would hope, but they do cast forth a few hints, which the biographers help in piecing together.  Jacques Barzun, in Berlioz and His Century, mentions François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) and his Genius of Christianity (1802), from which a teenaged Berlioz transcribed a passage into his commonplace book.  This concerned André Chenier, the young poet, a kind of Gallic Chatterton, whom Robespierre condemned and sent to the guillotine.

     Berlioz’s religiosity always takes its bearings from his sense that personal integrity is morally superior to anything that might call itself official justice; that, indeed, the individual’s decency is always at odds with civic institutions.  Just so, the solitary knight of the medieval centuries is Chateaubriand’s paragon of Christian temperament, acting on conscience rather than on social cue.  Berlioz’s intense reaction to Aeneas’ betrayal of Dido foreshadows his interest in the case of Chenier, as narrated by Chateaubriand, and undoubtedly informs it; Chateaubriand discusses the case of Dido as foreshadowing Christian suffering in The Genius of Christianity, for she becomes innocently a victim to Aeneas’ imperial destiny.  An Imperium or a Révolution by its nature tramples the subject’s conviction that he is an autonomous person not at the service of an arbitrary and libidinous collective.  Decent men honor Love over Fate; Love is self-guaranteeing while Fate is only so much nebulous verbiage—a claim on the future as worthless as a junk bond.  Another source for Berlioz, Bernard Gavoty, mentions Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an individualist in his qualified way, but names no titles Gavoty, 57).  The posthumous Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, an account of Rousseau’s Swiss exile, seems to have exercised some attraction over Berlioz and the chapters plausibly assert themselves in the composition that established the young composer’s reputation, for good and for ill, in 1830.  In the Symphonie fantastique, the Rousseauvian influence especially inveigles the lonely idyll of the third and middle movement in a music contemplative and almost static.  Rousseau would have sharpened Berlioz’s sensitivity to nature, to which the finely tuned idyllic aspects of Virgil’s poetics had already awakened him.  Hellenistic pastoral is the background of the Carthaginian sequence in the Aeneid; the orchestral interlude from Les Troyens called Chasse royale et orage echoes the “Scene in the Country” from thirty years later.  One may speculate additionally, on the basis of the Symphonie, that Berlioz had some acquaintance with Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821).

     By his late teens or early twenties, Berlioz must have encountered Lord Byron, Thomas Moore’s Irish poems, Gérard de Nerval’s translation of Goethe’s Faust, and the first-generation French Romantic poets such as Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869) and Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863).  He would later make vocal-orchestral settings of Moore and Goethe, although regrettably he made none of Lamartine or Vigny; his second symphony, Harold en Italie (1834), takes its program from Byron.  Barzun remarks that Berlioz became who he was early through intensive reading.  Berlioz had thus put his period of intellectual formation behind him by the time the Parnassians and Symbolists came on the scene, but as Théophile Gautier began to publish, Berlioz began to read him; he would eventually set six of Gautier’s poems under the collective title of Les nuits d’été (1856).  One of the poems, “L’isle inconnue,” has an obvious geographical character to supplement its amorous main trope.

Dites, la jeune belle,

Où voulez-vous aller?

La voile enfle son aile,

La brise va souffler.


Est-ce dans la Baltique?

Dans la mer Pacifique?

Dans l’île de Java?

Ou bien est-ce en Norvège,

Cueillir la fleur de neige,

Ou la fleur d’Angsoka?

Dites, la jeune belle,

Où voulez-vous aller?

Menez-moi, dit la belle,

À la rive fidèle

Où l’on aime toujours!

Cette rive, ma chère,

On ne la connaît guère

Au pays des amours.

     Another of the poems, “Sur les lagunes,” perfectly exemplifies the resignation to exile of the one who prefers a “private” to an étatist dispensation. Sur les lagunes” is almost a Symbolist poem, as is “L’isle inconnue”; neither one is a public oration.  Gautier and Nerval would have made Berlioz aware, in any case, of Baudelaire and the Bohemian poetics.  As we have seen, Cooper sees similar creative psychologies in Berlioz and Baudelaire.  One, like the other, fixed his direction by pure meaning, by correspondence, by signatures and the stars, turning his back on la foule, while becoming morbidly conscious of ambiant hypocrisy and philistinism.

     Of novelists, the evidence suggests that Berlioz read Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo.  He regarded Sir Walter Scott’s work in translation with fondness and wrote a Waverly Overture (1827).  Much later he would keep current with Gustave Flaubert, whose Salammbô (1862) he particularly liked; the composer indeed consulted the novelist on the topic of Carthaginian attire for the production of Les Troyens, Part Two.  Yet the life-altering—the cataclysmic—literary experience descended de haut en bas, not to say rather incongruously, on Berlioz while he reluctantly pursued medicine in Paris in the mid-1820s, obeying the wishes of his father.  One writes “incongruously” because the French had always disdained the Hamlet playwright, Voltaire having described, or rather condemned, him as violating capriciously all the Aristotelian canons; of course, that was just the kind of fixed opinion to provoke Berlioz into an opposite frame of mind and incline him to unqualified receptivity.  “Shakespeare,” he testifies, “coming on me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt,” revealing at once “a whole heaven of art,” in which the percipient “recognized the meaning of grandeur, beauty, dramatic truth… and the pitiful narrowness of our worn-out academic, cloistered traditions of poetry” (Berlioz 95).  Berlioz’s devotion to Shakespeare can take on features of religious veneration: “Shakespeare! Shakespeare!  I feel as if he alone of all men who ever lived can understand me, must have understood us both; he alone could have pitied us, poor unhappy artists, loving yet wounding each other…  It is you that are our father, our father in heaven, if there is a heaven” (462).

     One stresses the literary background of Berlioz’s creative impulse and the particular bookish influences on it because his oeuvre, from its earliest items to its last, always aims at a fusion of two things: the moral specificity that one associates with poetry or narrative and the abstract beauty inherent in purely instrumental expression, which bypasses the concept to speak directly to the subject’s moral apprehension.  One reason for calling Berlioz a Romantic, despite the frequent classicism of his subject matter, is that he believes in the morally transfiguring and potentially redeeming power of music.  For Berlioz, music answers the deformation and dissatisfaction of the public world, twisted by lunatic political schemes and blighted by the false piety of preening egos in official positions.  Conservatory director Cherubini, whose heavy Italian accent Berlioz mocks, once actively schemed to prevent Berlioz from giving a concert of his own works at his own expense for which event the Secretary of Fine Arts M. de la Rochefoucauld had already granted permission.  “So you are planneeng an insult for the Academy,” Cherubini posed rhetorically, adding: “I will not ‘ave it, I will not.  I will write to the Secretary and ask heem to withdraw his permission” (Berlioz 99).  It fell out otherwise.  Cherubini especially resented the fact that Berlioz intended to perform a cantata, La mort d’Orphée, which the Prix-de-Rome Committee, whose members vetted aspiring composers, had rejected.  For Berlioz, as for many an artist, the antique figure of Orpheus stood for the socially antithetic character of the creative person, doomed to be misapprehended and to compensate misapprehension by his own spilt blood.  It was no mere theory.  In the revolutionary convulsions of the French nation between 1789 and 1870, Parisians and their countryman saw plenty of spilt blood and it was always the mob, egged on by its leaders, spilling it or shouting for it to be spilt; the victim was more likely than not a dissenter, a person of conscience.

     The Symphonie fantastique, inspired by the advent in Paris of a traveling Shakespeare company, while not a vocal work, nevertheless has a “text” or, notoriously, a “program.”  This program, compounding Shakespeare, Goethe, and de Quincey, is nevertheless every bit from Berlioz, who wrote both it and the score on which it comments in a caloric seizure to attract the attention of one of the traveling players in particular.  Harriett Smithson performed as Ophelia in Hamlet, sweeping the admirer off his proverbial feet; she would become, after a prolonged suit, the composer’s first wife.  Franz Liszt and Heinrich Heine would stand witness at the nuptials.  Like the Orpheus cantata, the Symphonie comments directly on the passion, in the sense of his suffering, of the artist and on the implacable opposition of society to the individual, as individual, rather than as docile, obedient citoyen.  The Symphonie fantastiques program reaches its climax, moreover, in an explicitly sacrificial scene where the artist himself, like a new Orpheus, succumbs to the hysteria of an orgiastic crowd.

     Subtitled An Episode in the Life of an Artist, Berlioz’s Symphonie remains a controversial work even while contemporary high-profile musicians argue over its character and meaning and—the erudite question lying at the center of a technical debate—whether the string band should play it with vibrato or without.  Berlioz dreamed up for his opus fantasticus a palette of orchestral sonorities unprecedented in the symphonic literature; and he insisted that a purely instrumental score could mediate a complicated semantic intention.  Early criticism set the long-sustained tone—with even Berlioz’s admirers admitting a measure of ambiguity into their appreciations.  “Hearing the Fantastic Symphony,” Wagner writes, “one has the feeling of being confronted with an unparalleled wonder.”  Berlioz’s score, “at which Beethoven would have laughed,” declares “a huge inner richness, an imagination of heroic strength” that “hurls out passion like an erupting volcano…  Everything is huge, bold, but infinitely desolating.”  Yet Wagner also says, “beauty of form is nowhere to be seen [in the score] and nowhere a quiet and majestically flowing current to whose steady movement we could gladly abandon ourselves” (Wagner 130).  Fétis had said as much in nastier terms.

     By an irony, Fétis and Wagner got it descriptively right even as they got it judgmentally wrong, for agitation of the soul, constant intellectual disequilibrium, and unpleasant contingency are experiences that the Symphonie aims to convey.  Thirty years later, the Bostonians reacted in a similar fashion to Fétis and Wagner, their representative critic referring to “a nightmare or the delirium tremens set to music” and concluding that “we must protest against the idea of endeavoring to reproduce repulsive scenes by sound.”[i] (Slonimsky 60). One imagines the fellow looking down his nose as he penned the period.  Wilfrid Mellers, however, calls the same work “one of the most tautly disciplined… in early nineteenth century music” (183).  Hugh MacDonald, a dean of Berlioz studies, assesses the Symphonie fantastique as “at once the most bewildering, the most novel, and the most popular of [Berlioz’s] works” (30).  He praises “the uncanny translation into sound of mental images… the resourcefulness of the instrumentation, [and] the modernity of [Berlioz’s] sense of color” (38).  Time has not resolved these contradictions.  


The young Berlioz (about 30) and an older, caricatured Berlioz.


     Only well into the Twentieth Century did the Symphonie fantastique begin to gain a foothold in standard repertory, with other items in the Berlioz catalogue slowly and belatedly catching up.  A current controversy, fired by a kind of antiquarian passion among musicologists and orchestral players, picks up a thread from Barzun and hinges on the question whether, after one hundred and seventy-five years, anyone but Berlioz has ever interpreted the music as he intended it to be interpreted; or on the question whether modern orchestral practice adequately reflects the materiality (gut strings and pre-modern woodwinds and brass) of the early-Nineteenth Century orchestra on which the composer founded his conception of how the score should sound.  In simple, is Berlioz heard or mis-heard?  And what does it mean to say that we mis-hear him?  If modern orchestral practice had diverged significantly from early-Nineteenth Century fashion, as the antiquarians posit, then Twentieth Century representations of the Symphonie would not have gotten it right.  Audiences beyond those that heard Berlioz himself conduct would never have heard the “real” score; they would have apprehended him, as it were, from an obtuse angle.  One writer cites performances after 1870 or so by acolytes of Wagner as the source of troubles, as these technicians of the baton, inappropriately translating from Wagner to Berlioz, applied a surplus of rubato to a score that remains classically rigorous in its indication of tempi, even as, with Romantic audacity, it tests tame notions of scope and color.  Berlioz’s Idée fixe is not Wagner’s Leitmotiv; Berlioz’s textures tend to openness while Wagner’s tend to saturation.  Post-Berliozian performances of Berlioz would be, by these lights, paradoxically too Romantic.  It seems abundantly evident that criticism cannot separate the Symphonie fantastique either from the many-layered circumstances of its conception or from its provocative “program,” also tied up in the same tangled knot of place and persons.  This too belongs to its paradigmatic Romanticism.  In deference to Berlioz, one looks again to the Memoirs.

     A group of itinerant players had come to Paris to perform at the Odéon, including the fetching Miss Smithson.  “The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent, nay her dramatic genius, was equaled only by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted” (Berlioz 95).  So powerfully did Hamlet affect Berlioz that “a feeling of intense, overpowering sadness came over me, accompanied by a nervous condition like a sickness, of which only a great writer on physiology could give an adequate idea” (95).  During sleepless days, Berlioz wandered in a stupor through the streets of Paris and along the Seine .  In his rooms one evening, he found Moore’s Irish Melodies open on his desk at the “Elegy,” a poem to hopeless love, in which the poet testifies that, “a sorrowing heart will find its own likeness” (96-97).  Unable to fulfill his ascetic promise to himself to stay away from the Odéon, so as “not to expose myself a second time to the flame of Shakespeare’s genius,”[ii] he returned for a performance of Romeo and Juliet.  “At the time,” he writes, “I did not know a word of English; I could only glimpse Shakespeare darkly through the mists of Letourneur’s translation…

But the power of the acting, especially that of Juliet herself, the rapid flow of the scenes, the play of expression and voice and gesture, told me more and gave me a far richer awareness of the ideas and passions of the original than the words of my pale and garbled translation could do.  An English critic stated in The Illustrated London News last winter that after seeing Miss Smithson as Juliet I exclaimed, “ I shall marry that woman and write my greatest symphony on the play.”  I did both, but I never said anything of the sort.  (Berlioz 97)

     Contemporaneous illustrations preserve for posterity Smithson’s effective posture and gesticulation; Delacroix later painted her from memory as Ophelia.  Berlioz first responded to the fiery provocation by arranging the concert of his own works that Cherubini tried to prevent; he calculated (wrongly) that publicity would call him to Smithson’s attention.  He then rapidly wrote the Symphonie fantastique, incorporating some already existing material, including the Idée fixe and the entire fourth movement, or Marche au supplice, a discard from an unfinished (a hardly begun) opera.  Again, he hoped to become public enough for Smithson to notice him.  What the British journalist of the time refers to as Berlioz’s “greatest symphony” is not the Symphonie fantastique but rather the later symphony with chorus and vocal soloists entitled Roméo et Juliette (1839), another generic hybrid that continues to inspire controversy.  The Memoirs passage quoted above in description of the dual revelation of Shakespeare and Harriett Smithson employs a vocabulary intimately related to the one that informs the program of the Symphonie fantastique.  Perhaps the Memoirs, being retrospective, merely absorb the earlier text.  One suspects, however, that in his autobiography Berlioz engages in a real exercise of disciplined anamnesis and that inquirers can trust the account.

     Phrases from the autobiography such as “the rapid flow of scenes” and “the play of… ideas and passions” offer themselves as especially pertinent.  They suggest, as a number of commentators have remarked, the “vague des passions,” a coinage of Chateaubriand’s in The Genius of Christianity, which Berlioz himself cited in explanatory connection with his Symphonie.  This “wavering” or turbulence of affect Chateaubriand associates with the disestablishment by Christianity of the old, comparatively more stable, pagan emotions; modernity, he says, has disgruntled human emotions even more, rendering them motile in the extreme and hypersensitive to all chance provocations.  Modern passion has no fit object, as medieval passion had, in saintliness or Godhead, to provide it with direction.  The modern subject’s faculties, “confined in the breast, act only upon themselves” and receive fresh nervousness from a deluge of “knowledge without experience” (Chateaubriand 296), which implies journalism and popular fiction.  In addition, while we live in unprecedented material affluence, full of stimulation, “our existence is poor, insipid, and destitute of charms” (296).  The problem becomes exacerbated with each passing year.  “The more nations advance in civilization,” writes the Viscount, “the more this unsettled state of the passions predominates” (296).  Formerly, when a sensitive soul reacted in this way to the world, he or she might seek refuge in a cloistered life, “but nowadays, when those ardent souls have no monastery to enter, or have not the virtue that would lead them to one, they feel like strangers among men” (298).

     The program of the Symphonie suggests radical discomfiture with the world leading to a psychological crisis.  It begins with a narrative “frame” that puts the rest into a unified sequence: “A young musician of morbid disposition and powerful imagination poisons himself with opium in an attack of despairing passion.  The dose of the drug, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a deep sleep accompanied by strange dreams in which sensations, feelings and memories are transformed in his sick brain into musical images and ideas” (MacDonald 33).  Berlioz appends separate titles to the five movements of his Symphonie: (I) “Reveries—Passions”; (II) “A Ball”; ( III ) “Scene in the Country”; (IV) “March to the Scaffold”; and (IV) “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.”  Each carries an additional weight of programmatic verbiage.  Thus, for (I) Reveries—Passions: The beloved herself appears to him as a melody, like an Idée fixe, an obsessive idea that he keeps hearing wherever he goes.  He first recalls the sickness of the soul, the flux of passion, the unaccountable joys and sorrows he experienced before he saw his beloved; then the volcanic love that she suddenly inspired in him, his delirious raptures, his jealous fury, his persistent tenderness, and his religious consolations” (MacDonald 33).  It is not only in the rhetorical supplement to the score, however, that listeners encounter the expression of arch-Romantic inner turbulence and disequilibrium of the spirit.  The music represents these states even more vividly—that is Berlioz’s point—than do the words.  MacDonald writes of the Idée fixe, one of the most striking melodies ever written: “The contrast of passionate legato and gruff angularity is deliberate, and though we may not admire the melody as a beautiful entity in its own right (Berlioz did not intend that we should), the rise and fall of its phrases, the violent expression marks, and the insidious chromaticisms perfectly serve his purpose” (34).  Mellers sees it this way: “This initial arpeggiated phrase, with its rising sixth, suggests a Beethovenian challenge; but it is asymmetrically extended in declamatory style, always aspiring upwards but straining back to the F which droops to E natural.  This aspiring phrase is balanced by a clause falling through a seventh, followed by the original sixth inverted, with the chromatic intrusion creating a change to a triplet rhythm” (182).

     Mellers’ reference to Beethoven brings up the question of what relation, if any at all, the Symphonie fantastique bears to the Viennese composer’s Sixth or Pastoral Symphony (1808).  The Pastoral’s five-movement layout and its quasi-literary, rather Rousseauvian program together suggest that Beethoven’s score anticipates that of Berlioz, perhaps even by supplying a model.  Berlioz had in fact heard the Pastoral when the Société des Concerts traversed eight of Beethoven’s mighty nine in 1828.  Berlioz would also probably have had heard Liszt’s piano reductions of the symphonies.  The Pastoral would have suggested to Berlioz the possibility of purely instrumental music as the medium for apprehensible narrative, although Christoph von Gluck’s opera-interludes already do this in the mid-Eighteenth Century—and Berlioz knew Gluck’s scores intimately.  Beethoven’s symphony purports to convey the emotions inspired by a day spent walking in the country, listening to the sounds both of nature and of rural society, and giving oneself to the non-civic immediacy of it all.  The first movement, for example, would represent the “awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country” and the second movement a “scene by a brook.”  As in Berlioz, the idea is to capture by purely instrumental means intense subjective reactions by a sensitive or poetic soul to the sights and phases of country life, some entirely natural and others having to do with peasant rituals, such as a village dance with pipers and a hymn of thanksgiving offered in prayer after the passage of a thunderstorm.

     Beethoven’s musical material nevertheless differs entirely from that of Berlioz.  Despite its folksong-like character, the first subject of Beethoven’s first movement functions, without any preliminaries, as the main theme of a clear sonata-allegro; whatever the undoubted subtleties of the working-out, listeners immediately grasp the direction of the musical argument.  A crisis comes with the thunderstorm—the effects are vivid, even cinematic—but the crisis also passes: the experience for the listener is positive and restorative.  In Mellers’ words, nature constituted for Beethoven “a refuge from people” so that the Pastoral becomes “a deliberate study in innocence by a sophisticated consciousness”; and “by making his modulations simply an effect of color,” Beethoven creates an idyll in which “there is no conflict” (65 and 66).

     The Symphonie fantastique, by contrast, is all conflict; Berlioz allows no reconciliation of subject with object-world, and he permits no restorative assimilation to the natural scene.  Starting from critical premises about the modern Self, Rousseau’s and Chateaubriand’s, and building on his own experience of impossible desire, Berlioz tells the story musically in his Symphonie of the subject’s inevitable annihilation, of his sacrifice by a demonic world that despises integrity and authenticity and mocks them ruthlessly until they are humiliated.  The listener’s vicarious experience of the Symphonie fantastique must correspond more to that implied by De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater than it does to that implied by Rousseau’s Reveries.  While one might analyze the first movement as a sonata-allegro, it behaves almost as though Berlioz conceived it as an anti-sonata; for always and everywhere, by abrupt modulation, rhythmic displacement, and bizarre instrumental timbres, he subverts one’s expectation about what the music ought to do and where it ought to travel.  Even the Haydn-like slow introduction to the Allegro Agitato proper of the movement challenges inherited form, since it borrows its basic intervals from the very thematic stuff to which it is supposed to serve as a mere preamble.  The Idée fixe, always present, tends to retain its shape, but the accompaniment renders this shape unstable by attacking its elegance through offbeat nervous figurations, like thromboses, in the bass.  It is as though a subject apprehends an object but only under fitful strobe-like illumination among twilight and shadows.  The fact that the Idée fixe, although an integral melody, is also an extended one makes it difficult to apprehend in another way: on its initial appearance (violins), it stretches through forty bars of plastic unpredictable motion; it thereby exceeds the ability of any ordinary “listening memory” to record it and in this sense it possesses just the sublimity that Berlioz requires it to have.

     The “subverted melody,” as one might call it, recurs in the Berlioz oeuvre, operating like a structural principle.  The gripping Act I aria from Les Troyens, Du Roi des Dieux,” sung by Cassandra while the Trojans fatuously drag the wooden horse into their city, pits the anxiety ridden minor-key desperation of the prophetess against the major-key exuberance of a triumphal march in the nationalist idiom.  In the “Ride to the Abyss” in Part IV of La damnation de Faust, the steady gallop of the horses, represented by the celli and basses, trips constantly against offbeat bleating interjections in the high woodwinds, culminating in the condemned man’s affrighted shout of, “Il pleut du sang,” just before he plummets into the pit.

     The Symphonie fantastique also illustrates Berlioz’s concern for spatial effects as an enhancement of the musical meaning.  In the third-movement Adagio, the “Scene in the Country,” for example, a lonely shepherd pipes a simple song, given to the Cor Anglais, which invites an answer; the response comes from an oboe that the score explicitly positions backstage of the orchestra so that the effects of distance and separation strike listeners realistically.  MacDonald notes that in the “Scene in the Country,” more than elsewhere in Berlioz’ score, “the debt to Beethoven’s Pastoral is… most obvious” (36).  But Beethoven gives out nothing in the Pastoral so desolate as Berlioz’ forlorn piper; even the storm, when it passes, does so distantly, mixing fragments of the Idée fixe with the tremolos on the muted drums.  When at last the Cor Anglais plays its plaint again, no answer comes.  The fourth movement, or “March to the Scaffold,” masses a military instrumentarium, with prominent trumpets and side drums with snares attached.   The program tells how “the artist,” in his opiate delirium, “dreams that he has killed his beloved, for which he has been condemned to death and led to execution…  At the end, the Idée fixe reappears for a moment like a last memory of the beloved before being cut short by the fatal blow” (MacDonald 36).  The fifth-movement finale, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” calls for offstage bells that intone the medieval plainsong Dies Irae, subsequently taken up and distorted by various combinations of instruments all playing in extreme registers.  Here, the spirit of the deceased finds itself, like Faust in Goethe’s drama, condemned to hellish tortures, completing the victimary trajectory of the supplementary story.  The subject of the drama discovers his Orphic fate and succumbs to his tormenters in a sparagmatic tableau.  The movement is partly fugal, fugue being the musical procedure par excellence for bringing a crisis to its head.  MacDonald refers to the “Witches’ Sabbath” as “a scene of chaos and a Bosch-like profusion of ungainly figures,” in which “the orchestra is exploited in an altogether revolutionary way” (37).  Again, a number of later musical moments in the Berlioz catalogue plausibly stem from this movement, most especially the Dies Irae of his Grande Messe des Morts (1838), with its four brass bands deployed north, south, east, and west around the orchestra and chorus, and the final sequence (Part IV) of the “Légende dramatique,” La damnation de Faust (1842), with its demon-chorus and weird instrumental effects.

     As a lure to snag Harriett Smithson as his wife, the Symphonie fantastique proved slow-acting; the marriage needed four years after the premiere to happen—and it was a less than satisfactory match despite its producing a son, Louis, whom both parents loved even when he tested that love severely.  As prophecy, however, the Symphonie fantastique proved canny, as though Berlioz had predicted (he had!) how the critics would pillory his autobiographical-expressionist appropriation of the hitherto genteel musical form known as the symphony.  Beginning the first movement of the Symphonie fantastique as a slow introduction on the model of Haydn is probably a calculated gesture to make the subsequent disruption of inherited form all the more shocking.  Shocked listeners were.  We have sampled contemporary Parisian reaction.  Foreign reaction employed terms no less harsh.  The London Athenaeum opined in March 1839 that the Symphonie “is a Babel , and not a Babylon of music” (Slonimsky 57).  The Dramatic and Musical Review registered its judgment in January 1843 that “Berlioz, musically speaking, is a lunatic,” a view echoed by another London paper, which called the composer “a daring lunatic” (Slonimsky 57).  An anonymous New York reviewer wrote in November 1868: “The third movement [of the Symphonie] ends with what the programme calls ‘the sinking of the sun—a distant roll of thunder—silence.’  The thunder is well imitated, and the silence is delicious” (Slonimsky 59).   At least orchestras were playing the score.  A second symphony, Harold en Italie after Byron, appeared from Berlioz in 1834, rather more conventional than its precursor, but with the novelty of requiring a solo viola in an obbligato or concerted role.  A third symphony (1839), involving vocal soloists and choruses as well as a large and variegated orchestra, sets portions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and has obvious links to the original Smithson-cataclysm of 1827.  Wagner liked a fourth and final symphony, the Symphonie funebre et triomphale, scored for a massive military wind-band or harmonie to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the 1830 Revolution.  Berlioz financed his own orchestra concerts, as Wagner reported, and he struggled to get his operas performed, pulling strings, entering into exchanges of favors that typically fell into delinquency once Berlioz had delivered on his side of the bargain.  Benvenuto Cellini (1832) failed through active sabotage by its reluctant producer; theaters pronounced La damnation Faust unperformable, and Les Troyens could only be mounted, shorn of its first two acts, in the inadequate Théatre-Lyrique five years after its completion in score.

     The Old Berlioz, as we might call him, held the status at the end of the Nineteenth Century and the beginning of the Twentieth of a sport or a curiosity, to be sampled on rare occasions for his outrageous and possibly entirely non-musical qualities, while being otherwise safer to ignore.  The practical demands of his scores, such as the three on-stage brass ensembles required for Les Troyens, baffled and irritated his contemporaries; but the very challenge constituted by these demands would eventually attract to the composer’s posthumous cause the advocates of a new technology, recording, that became adequate to symphonic and choral music with the arrival of the electrical process in the mid-1920s.  French critics of the 1840s despised Berlioz—or welcomed the rhetorical opportunity to pretend that they did—but stereo “buffs” of the 1950s and 60s learned to love him.  In the 1980s a battle took shape with competitors claiming laurels for having set down digitally the “definitive” enrigistrement of the Symphonie fantastique or the Requiem.  The name of Berlioz even got swept up in debates over what falls outside the limits, not just of musical, but also of political correctness, with ministers of state and descendants of Richard Wagner weighing in on the issue.


     The “Berlioz Phenomenon” raises a number of esthetic and epistemological questions in acute form.  What do we mean when we speak of Romanticism in music?  How is Romantic music different from the “Classical” music that preceded it?  Can music, especially instrumental music, convey meaning, as the “program” describing the “action” of the Symphonie fantastique implies?  Or can music express the events that generate a cluster of emotions, as the Symphonie fantastique is supposed to express Berlioz’s emotions on being bowled over by Harriett Smithson playing Ophelia?  What constitutes a “correct” or “authentic” performance of a particular score?  And what, given the inevitability of temporal distance, are the chances of recovering from one hundred and seventy years in the past the composer-intentions that would permit a “correct” or “authentic” performance?  Do the criteria of musical beauty change or are they related to Platonic ideals whose being is changeless and eternal?  If the criteria of musical beauty do change, then what forces bring about the changes?  What does representation mean in the realm of music?  Does music really represent anything except itself?  How does technology influence musical reception?  Does technology—recording—remove listeners even farther from the composer-intention than a live performance given many decades or even a century after a score’s composition and premiere?  Or does a recording in fact produce intimate knowledge impossible in the distracting conditions of a public concert?

     Consider the question concerning how one defines Romanticism as applied to music rather than literature.  For Jacques Barzun, Berlioz epitomizes the entire Romantic Movement, exhibiting on the one hand a Shelleyite or Byronic “fire” and on the other hand a “cool self-criticism”: “From the first he displayed a rational conservatism, a prudent regard for the significant proprieties, which in any man doubles the offense of his revolutionary acts” (61).  Barzun compares Berlioz to Vigny, remarking that “aristocratic self-control” signally characterized both men, each of whom knew how to balance “now his intellectual good breeding, and now his daemon” (61).  Hence the weirdness, melodically speaking, of the Idée fixe as against the studiously polite clarity of the orchestral textures that it inhabits—or rather haunts.  The balance that we locate in the man we may, moreover, also locate in the music where, in Wilfrid Mellers’ summation, “the asymmetry of the [melodic] clauses is complemented by a tonal precariousness created by chromatic intrusions in the melody, and by a dialogue between the melody and the bass” (185).  We might think again of that Gothic arch of a melody in the first movement of the Symphonie funebre et triomphale as against the Prussian Army of wind-players assembled by the score to give it voice.  And while Berlioz is always expressive he is never narcissistic.

     If, as Mellers says, “Wagner’s grandeur is the apotheosis of the personal,” then Berlioz by contrast “thinks melodically in vast phrases that acquire a more than personal grandeur” (185).  The scale of Berlioz’s works would derive, on the convergent accounts of Barzun and Mellers, from the scale of his melodies, each being conceived in a kind of liberation from any preordained harmonic scheme and each therefore requiring a new conception of harmonic architecture.  The work grows organically from the melodic seed, to invoke a botanical metaphor; and it is with the seed that Berlioz always starts.  “Organicism” belongs with Romanticism.  Not by coincidence was Berlioz an early and a lifelong devotee of Goethe.  Veteran Berlioz specialist Sir Colin Davis goes so far as to claim for the composer the title of “the first and only genuine Romantic.”  But—here’s the rub—in almost the same breath Davis also says that Berlioz “remained a Classicist all his life; his roots were firmly there with Gluck, Beethoven and Weber.”4

     To assess Berlioz’s Romantic qualities, one might compare his work with the work of his (inevitably younger) contemporaries, all of whom are Germans.  Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and Franz Liszt (1811-1886), with both of whom Berlioz maintained friendly and mutually edifying contact, gravitated to the same literary sources as Berlioz and both, like Berlioz, made ambitious settings of Goethe’s Faust.  A random few bars of any of Schumann’s orchestral compositions reveal a world of difference from Berlioz.  Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, like the Symphonie fantastique, follows the five-movement pattern of Beethoven’s Pastoral, but there the resemblance ends.  Schumann orchestrates in a famously “thick” manner, with many octave doublings; the French horns provide the dominant coloration at the climaxes, supported in the Finale by the trombones.  The rhythms, once established, roll on predictably.  In fact, Schumann in the Rhenish coins the archetypal sound of German Romantic Music, a sound we hear also in his one-time protégé, Johannes Brahms.  Liszt, like Schumann a pianist, also tends to score in a “thick” manner, writing piano chords for large ensembles.  His thirteen “Symphonic Poems” take a cue from the Symphonie fantastique in that they aim to narrate a story or expose an idea by purely instrumental means.  The most Berliozian of them, Héroïde Funèbre (1854), probably directly imitates the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, but like the others it consists of a single movement, and it creates a sound as much anticipatory of Wagner’s as it is dissimilar to that of Berlioz.  Neither Schumann nor Liszt is ever detached from his treatment, as Berlioz almost invariably is from his; they are perfervid (gloriously so) where he is cool and, at least some of the time, ironic.  Listeners sense this irony or distancing strongly in Harold en Italie, where the solo viola stands apart from orchestral incident and “comments” on it.  Both Schumann and Liszt entered the repertory swiftly, despite controversy—and there is no doubt but that they both are much more “listener friendly” than Berlioz.  Their appeal, finally, is less intellectual than that of Berlioz.  Then again, just as Davis says, Berlioz, while more audacious formally than his peers, keeps a stronger orientation than they do to Eighteenth Century music, especially to the formalism and nobility of Gluck’s operatic ethos.

     In the early days of recording, Beethoven, Wagner, Schumann, and Liszt had their advocates.  Large chunks of Wagner, a difficult and challenging composer, had entered the discography as early as 1914 when Karl Muck (1859-1940) made acoustic recordings of the Bayreuth Master’s ultimate opera, Parsifal; in the same year, Arthur Nikisch (1855 -1922), Chefdirigent of the Berlin Philharmonic, made an acoustic recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, complete.  Oskar Fried (1871-1941) committed Liszt’s Preludes to disc by the same rudimentary process.  As far as I know, no one ever recorded Berlioz acoustically, but Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) made platters of the Symphonie fantastique using the new electrical process as early as 1925.  The British composer Sir Edward Elgar (1854-1934), a pioneering gramophone “buff,” preferred Weingartner’s Fantastique to the one set down the following year with the Orchestre des Concerts Colonne under Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937), omitting the first and third movements.  The founder of the Concerts Colonne, Edouard Colonne (1838-1910), knew Berlioz and sought his counsel about how to interpret the score; Pierné used Colonne’s score, with its composer-sanctioned annotations.  Another conductor associated with Colonne, Pierre Monteux (1875-1964), tackled the Fantastique in 1930, leading his specially constituted Orchestre Symphonique de Paris in the advantageous sonic environment of the Salle Pleyel.  He too used Colonne’s annotated score.

     Weingartner and Pierné belonged to the Nineteenth Century; neither of the two men trafficked much with Twentieth Century music.  Monteux, on the other hand, had the reputation of being avant-garde.  Not only had he stood on the podium at the scandalous 1913 Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, a concert ending in a riot that required the police to put down, but he had also made the first recording of that same Red Banner of musical modernism, with the Orchestre Symphonique, in 1929.  Monteux’s 1930 Fantastique has survived in two forms, the recording itself and a documentary film of the studio sessions, including the Finale in dress rehearsal.  On the basis of these, Monteux clearly regarded Berlioz neither as Classic nor as Romantic but rather as a modernist of the same order as Stravinsky.

     Building on their experience of recording Le sacre, Monteux and the studio technicians spent much time and effort in finding the optimal deployment-pattern for their multiple-microphone setup.  Multiple microphones served the aim to make the clearest master-disc representation of the important inner parts of the Fantastique’s score; Monteux understood that, although Berlioz calls for close to 140 players (about equal to the number specified by Stravinsky for Le sacre), the Symphonie’s textures run toward those of chamber music except in the climaxes.  At nearly eighty years of age, the 1930 Monteux Fantastique remains revelatory, not only of Berlioz’s music, but of the conductor’s certainty that he deals with a modern composition and of his conviction that this Episode in the Life of an Artist speaks directly to the alienated, shell-shocked, demon-haunted world of the Twentieth Century as much as the Russian’s pagan ballet.  Connections bind Le sacre to the Symphonie.  Berlioz made several forays into Russia , playing concerts of his music and establishing contact with Russian composers, like Peter Tchaikovsky and Nicolas Rimsky-Korsakov.  The latter translated the Frenchman’s Traité sur l’art d’instrumentation into Russian; Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov’s student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, studied the Traité and spoke candidly of his debt to it.  Technical features of Le sacre reflect a Berliozian influence: one is Stravinsky’s fondness for combining instruments at their extreme range, so that the double basses stomp like elephants while the flutes skirl out their highest notes.  The general scenario of these “Scenes of Pagan Russia” is ritualistic and sparagmatic, as though Stravinsky had taken the idea of Berlioz’s “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” and expanded it to embrace the entire score.

     One might hazard that Monteux has divined the following common “moral” in the two scores: in seeking the erasure of inherited belief—of Christian restraint on desire, for example—every self-consciously revolutionary age unwittingly opens a space for the resurgence of beliefs that antedate the eradicated creedal inheritance and which it had previously obviated.  Modernity thus seen resembles a great stumbling parade advancing drunkenly toward the tumbrels and guillotines upon which the intoxicated worshippers must die.  The Dies Irae, made into a grotesque of itself in the “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” symbolizes the subject’s wrath, as turned against itself perversely; and so it reminds us of the viciousness of our resentments and the vanity of our contradictory desires.

     In purely musical terms Monteux deserves praise for bringing out the inner voices—which in Berlioz usually means the woodwinds—of the polyphony.  Monteux’s tempi are fairly steady, with just a bit of rubato in the “Rêveries—Passions” where the various apparitions of the Idée fixe justify nuances of acceleration and deceleration.  The second-movement valse is suitably brilliant and flottante, although the cornet obbligato at the reprise for enhancing the luster of dance-tune is missing.  Monteux plays the “Scene in the Country” as bleakly as it has ever sounded, suggesting the distance of the offstage oboe almost as neatly as a post-war stereo recording.  In the “March to the Scaffold,” deliberate roughness of playing generates an atmosphere of horrific spontaneity such as might accompany a public execution.  The Finale leaves the listener stunned, partly because Monteux speeds along like an express train, partly because he emphasizes the panic quirkiness of the fugue.  The film of the performance shows Monteux, always from the back, waving his baton as though he presided at something like the end of the world.  In the era of the 78-rpm disc, there were a handful of other recordings of the Symphonie fantastique.  The number of catalogue entries under that title only began to increase significantly, however, after World War Two.  In the 1940s, meanwhile, recordings appeared for the first time of Le grande messe des morts, under Jean Fournet, and Harold en Italie, under Serge Koussevitsky.  Berlioz expert Matthew Tepper describes Fournet’s Requiem as “rather dim and the closely-miked,” with the chorus being “short of men” and the score being played with “a slight cut in the Sanctus (essentially, the omission of a written-out repeat).”5  Tepper acknowledges Fournet’s to be “a very passionate reading,”6 even if technically it came prematurely.  The situation— France had fallen and German armies occupied the country—demanded a service for the dead and wounded, for the dissolution of the Gallic nation, and only the Berlioz Requiem could have addressed these needs adequately.

     In the mid-1950s, it became a matter of French national policy to record the Requiem in stereo, so as to do it justice with new technology.  A consortium of companies pooled resources with Radio France, the official partner in the undertaking, to make the first multi-channel documentation of Berlioz’s choral monument, choosing the German conductor Hermann Scherchen to lead the combined forces in St. Louis des invalides, where the great work had its premiere.  Engineers placed forty microphones in the Gothic space to capture the sound of three hundred performers, among them ten timpanists and twenty or so extra brass players.  Technique met technique.  Berlioz himself, as his Traité implies, understood the orchestra as technology and thought scientifically about how to get the effects he wanted.  Scherchen and his assistants did the same as they approached the Requiem and if the result sounds a bit artificial this is not necessarily a betrayal of the composer.

     The Symphonie fantastique, more than the Requiem, lay at the inception and at the heart of the Berlioz oeuvre.  To it, “Berliozians” ever returned.  The post-war Fantastique went stereo at last with Sir Thomas Beecham’s French National Radio Orchestra studio sessions in 1958, followed closely by Paul Paray’s Detroit Symphony foray on the Mercury “Living Presence” label in 1959.  Monteux re-recorded the Episode binaurally with the San Francisco Symphony that same year.  It can be said of Beecham, Paray, Monteux, and Charles Munch, who issued his performance with the Boston Symphony in 1960, that they all adapt Berlioz’s partitur to the contingencies of the Twentieth Century symphony orchestra, substituting for putatively obsolete instruments like the ophicleide or the Sax horns that the composer so liked their modern equivalents while making little fuss about such specifications as locating instruments elsewhere in the auditorium than in the orchestra.  The merits of these interpretations individually considered might be high (they are), but the proliferation of Fantastiques on record portended the descent of the vivid sport into the familiarity of routine, the artistic default against which Berlioz articulated his creative life.  In addition, the Fantastique had gained status as a test case or demonstration-disc for “hi-fi buffs,” eager to show off their twin loudspeakers, a development reflected in the marketing of all these platters of long-playing vinyl.  The “New Berlioz” of 1960 was no longer the curiosity of 1900, to be gingerly sampled; he was the author of a fifty-minute symphonic essay, perfect for the LP-format, whose felicitous luster could be emphasized in post-production by tweaking the treble-bias of the master tape or adding artificial reverberation to the bass.  This derailment of artistic intention into pure technical ostentation would definitely qualify, in Barzun’s term, as mis-hearing the composer.

     Into this potential embarrassment, determined to recover Berlioz for art, stepped Colin Davis (not yet “Sir”), in 1963.  Twelve years earlier, at Bryanston summer school in 1951, Davis heard a performance of L’enfance du Christ (1854) whose melodies knocked him off his feet.  Berlioz, remembers Davis : “was unlike anyone else…  Berlioz—with his unique voice, and with the kind of music he was writing—had to be especially in control.  Rather like Sibelius, another wild spirit, he had to have enormous discipline to get down onto the paper what was burning in his mind.” 7  With a contract from the recording division of Philips, Davis entered a London studio to produce the first installment, the Fantastique, of an integral Berlioz “cycle” using the identical forces for each item: the London Symphony Orchestra, the John Alldis Choir, and later the Royal Opera, with a consistent stable of vocal soloists.  With his intuition of Berlioz’s music as being grounded in Gluck’s aristocratic operas and an interest in scraping away modern alterations or omissions in the score, Davis created a “classicizing” interpretation that not only stood out in the competition but also altered the way people thought about the composer.  Davis took the exposition repeats in the first movement, restored the cornet part in the valse, and replaced the tuba with the original ophicleide in the “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.”  The Philips engineers unobtrusively archived the sessions in an extraordinarily transparent audio image, with a good deal of “space” around the instruments even when they “spot-miked” a solo.

     In de-emphasizing Berlioz as a psychedelic hipster, Davis breasted the cultural stream of the 1960s, nowhere more than in his performance of the Requiem, a work that could be and was, like the Fantastique, misapprehended—with Scherchen’s version perhaps contributing to the error—as a Dionysiac celebration or pandemonium purely for the sake of it.  Berlioz himself wrote of his Grande messe des morts that “the text of the Requiem was a quarry that I had long coveted”; and that, on receiving the state commission to write it, “I fell upon it with a kind of fury” (Berlioz 228).  When Berlioz set the medieval vision of the Last Judgment, as he does in the Dies Irae of his choral-orchestral office for the dead, he must have done so with the conviction that he lived in apocalyptic times, this despite his un-churched condition and default-status agnosticism.  Berlioz remarks explicitly that he lavished abundant attention during composition on the segué from the Dies Irae proper to the Tuba Mirum, which is the most complicated passage of the score, and he added exact verbal directions for the benefit of others who might conduct.  He worried, not without cause, that careless execution would reduce the entrance of the four brass bands and the ten timpanists to “mere noise and pandemonium, a monstrosity” (231).  Indeed, at the premiere, conductor François-Antoine Habaneck, planning sabotage, deliberately withheld a cue at the critical moment, forcing Berlioz to leap to the platform to save the ensemble.  For an agnostic, Berlioz has conjured up vivid musical imagery that speaks of some kind of genuine conviction.

     Davis makes a meritorious comment: “I think that, even though he grew away from or out of his belief like Verdi or Beethoven, he never forgot what it was like to believe.  He still remembered what it was like to be afraid of the Last Judgment and to feel the intolerable weight of sin he was dragging around him.”8  As Davis added new items to his “cycle,” audiences gained from his careful readings a heightened appreciation of how archly visionary the Berlioz oeuvre was and in how craftsman-like a way the artist had devoted himself to each of his creations in succession.  Davis and his studio team had found a formula for employing the latest recording techniques to serve Berlioz neutrally rather than featuring themselves with the composer as a convenient occasion.  Davis seemed to have taken to heart Mellers’ pithy comment that while “Berlioz intended to revolutionize,” he always fomented and innovated “in the interests of order” (180).  Davis thus brought a renewed seriousness to the Berlioz reputation by treating the works with both ardency and scholarship.  By the time he had committed the magnum opus of Les Troyens to disc in 1970, music-lovers could hardly think the name Berlioz without also thinking the name Colin Davis.

Harriett Smithson, inspiration of the Symphonie fantastique and (eventually) Berlioz first wife, also inspired Delacroix’s brush in La Mort d’Ophélie.


     Two younger podium professionals began to take an interest in Berlioz in the 1980s, both of them British, both of them ambitious, and both of them after traversing in concert and on disc a veritable archive of representative Western music from the Seventeenth through the early Nineteenth Centuries.  Their rise in the concert world coincided with the demise of the twelve-inch vinyl long playing disc and the switchover to the compact disc as the new medium of musical conveyance for home listening.  That shared ascent also coincided with the abandonment by long-standing labels of their classical catalogue and the shift in production of classical-music CDs from the old corporate model, focused on performer-superstars, to new small-scale entrepreneurial one operating with a more modest and democratic notion of performer-status.

     The espousal of Berlioz by these two men would embroil France ’s greatest composer more than a century after his death in the sharpest musicological issue of the late Twentieth Century: the debate over historical authenticity in musical performance.  Neither Roger Norrington (born 1934) nor John Eliot Gardiner (born 1943), both later knighted, invented the term “historical performance practice,” but the activities of both of them in the 1980s and 90s informed the term’s standing definition: it came to designate what they and what a proliferating nucleus of industry trend-setters did.  In The Maestro Myth (1991), classical-music iconoclast Norman Lebrecht describes the “historical performance practice” movement—and it behaved like a movement in its sloganeering, our-way-or-no-way manner—as having taken life in the 1980s at the same moment when in “post-industrial societies” people “were discovering real ale, wholewheat bread, carbonated spring water and open-toed sandals” (276-277).  There is indeed something of “Bourgeois Bohemianism,” as of the hackneyed ethos pour épater les bourgeoises, about musical authenticity.  “Its basis,” writes Lebrecht, “was academic and its premise inarguable: to perform exactly what the composer wrote, in the way he wanted to hear it, on the instruments and in the style of his time” (277).

     The “Authenticity Craze” exhibited many symptoms of invidious reaction, and like most reactionary agitations for a cause it made its key critical points against the status quo through selection and exaggeration.  Quite probably, when Wilhelm Furtwängler or Hermann Abendroth in the 1930s performed the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 with the full string complement of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, using a Nineteenth Century edition with bowings penciled in by the High Romantic violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, they produced a Romantic version of the work that falsified the intimacy of its conceptual scale.  Possibly, when Leopold Stokowski transcribed Bach or Handel for full modern orchestra, he took liberties and so put on offer something that stemmed more from Stokowski than from Bach or Handel.  Like their literary precursors the Existentialists, the “Authenticity Types” wanted to impose on culture, or at least on concert-audiences, a new regimen of ascetism.  Lebrecht justifiably refers to their Puritanism, although to call them puritanical is not the same thing as saying that their case means nothing; like most fads, historical performance practice, while claiming to be more than it really is, points to a few truths and deserves a hearing.  One should recall Chateaubriand’s remark about the plight of desire in a world that has dismantled all the spiritual disciplines and banished them elsewhere.  The “Authenticity Types,” like Berlioz according to Davis, were Classicists and Romantics, reactionaries and revolutionists, all at once; they bounced back and forth between the extremes and in true extremist fashion their rhetoric sprang in equal parts from resentment and self-certifying illumination.

     According to Lebrecht, Norrington qualifies as the “Bernstein” and Gardiner as the “would-be Toscanini” of the trend (282).  This remark means left-handedly that Norrington is showy and demonstrative where Gardiner is a martinet who seeks more rigorously than Norrington to exercise control over every detail of an interpretation.  Norrington and Gardiner insist in common on small ensembles, justifiable in Baroque and early Classical music, if less so in cases like Beethoven’s Choral Symphony or orchestral music by Brahms or Wagner; on gut rather than wire strings for the violins, violas, celli, and basses; on only those instruments that would have been available at the time of a work’s composition or (stretching the point) within the lifetime of the composer; on literal tempi, as predicated by the metronome markings that appear in scores beginning at the end of the Eighteenth Century; and—absolutely essential to the sound that their specialized ensembles produce—no vibrato on the strings, except where explicitly directed in a score.  Finally, they insisted on tuning about a quartertone lower than the Concert A that had been standard since the middle of the Nineteenth Century.

     For Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven, these choices made readily discernible and often startling differences from the usual representation that convinced intuitively, more or less.  Sharp thwacks on a drum with a leathern rather than a polyethylene head simply sound right for Haydn’s Military Symphony, just as gut strings sound right for Beethoven’s Pastoral.  Even Norrington’s outing with Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony makes a point: with a reduced string band, the woodwinds and brass, which give the music its characteristic German-Romantic coloring, resound more prominently than they do with the usual large philharmonic-type string complement.  Both Norrington and Gardiner policed rhythm assiduously, bringing in many cases a new rigor of articulation to the phrasing of themes and melodies in older music.  Having covered the Baroque and Classical repertory, filling the catalogues with their discs, they naturally turned to works of later periods.  Both took an interest in the Symphonie fantastique.  Norrington entered the lists first in 1989, with his London Classical Players; Gardiner took his turn in 1991, with his French-named, Paris-based Orchestre révolutionnaire et romantique.

     In the booklet-apologia accompanying Norrington’s recording, the maestro mentions right at the start that he selects an appropriate tempo for each movement of the Symphonie and then sticks to it: “Since it is immensely detailed and the work of a genius, it does not seem necessary to add all sorts of extra speed changes or to alter those that Berlioz prescribes.”9  This by itself would not distinguish the interpretation Norrington from that of Monteux or Davis—and the ear in fact detects some pushing and pulling here and there, so more than a steady tempo is at stake.  Meticulous obedience to Berlioz’s dynamic markings plays a role.  In “A Ball,” for example, “Berlioz marks the woodwind entry of the Idée fixe piano, while the waltzing strings remain mezzo forte, almost drowning the thought.”10  True to his intention, Norrington plays the passage just this way, where even Davis cannot resist equalizing the dynamics to lend obviousness to the Idée fixe.  Norrington employs four Erard harps of the 1830s, smaller than modern harps, with a brighter sound, for the same movement, where Twentieth Century practice has almost invariably reduced the complement to two.  “An even greater revelation,” Norrington writes, “is the sound of Berlioz’ array of brass instruments…

Not only does he have horns, still carefully insisting on the stopped (“bouché”) sound passed down by the classical hand-technique, but he also has pairs of old-fashioned valveless trumpets right alongside the most modern cornets (making quite a different sound from the older instruments and today’s).  And in addition, he has the older narrow-bore trombones alongside the brand new ophicleides, which are now extinct (or were until this recording!).  With all this wonderful range of sounds the habitual “blare” of a Berlioz brass section gives way to a kaleidoscope of colours.11

     Norrington has given thought to seating, placing the first and second violins respectively to the left and right of the conductor on the stage and separating the instrumental choirs as much as possible.  These gestures, historically informed, aim at increasing aural awareness, during the performance, of the antiphony inherent in Berlioz’s orchestration and thus in making the counterpoint, often dependent on antiphony, as clear as possible.  What results stem from these scholarly preparations?  The period-instrument band indeed generates a more nuanced and variegated range of sounds compared with the standard modern philharmonic orchestra.  While Norrington’s palette of timbres need not replace the standard one, listeners must acknowledge the boon in its non-mandatory presence.  In “A Ball,” for example, the quartet of Erard harps lends an element of glittering phantasmagoria to the ballet-like ambiance, just as the valveless trumpets lend much to the deliberate crassness in “March to the Scaffold.”

     But Norrington really achieves his ambition of revealing previously unknown layers in the music in the “Scene in the Country.”  Mellers remarks that Berlioz’s music exhibits a “basically polyphonic nature” growing always through a process of “melodic generation” (188).  Through Gluck, Mellers argues, Berlioz maintains contact with the procedures of the French Baroque—with the music of the two Couperins père et fils, and with Jean-Philippe Rameau.  Under Norrington’s direction Berlioz’s Adagio takes on the character of a chromatic Ricercar, developing the plainsong-like shepherd’s lament into a web of increasingly dense counterpoint, adding the Idée fixe to the texture, and finally fading away into the simple yet startling combination of Cor Anglais and tympani.  Norrington almost shifts the emphasis of the Symphonie as a whole to the middle movement.

     Gardiner’s note to his 1991 Symphonie fantastique shows him to be more acutely aware of the received tradition—and of the competition—than Norrington; where Norrington’s prose is rhetorical, Gardiner’s is polemical.  Gardiner testily quotes Colin Davis as having pronounced that period-instrument performances of Berlioz signify nothing but “desperation to say something new about an aging repertoire,” to which Gardiner responds that it is not so: “There are signs that for all the illuminating, pioneering work of great Berliozians like Beecham, Munch and above all Davis himself, awareness of the full extent of his creative originality is only just beginning to dawn.”12  In Gardiner’s opinion, “Berlioz’s music has often been pummeled into conformity with the sonorities of the standard modern symphony orchestra,” a tendency that exerts the effect of “sapping the music of its innovative life-blood.”13  Not content only to duplicate the likely instrumentarium and seating-chart of Berlioz’s day, Gardiner has taken his orchestra to record the Fantastique in the venue of the piece’s premiere, the auditorium of the Conservatory where Berlioz, in considerable tension with the administration, spent his years as a composition student.  “We have seated the orchestra,” writes Gardiner, “as Habaneck [who presided at the début] is known to have done in his concert series… with first and second violins separated on either side of the conductor, and with the lower strings ranged with the woodwind and brass across the steeply rising tiers at the rear of the platform.”14  According to Gardiner, it is “fundamental to our performance… to recapture as precisely as possible the sound of the instruments in Berlioz’s orchestra, for which he wrote with such specific instructions to create aural pictures of unique immediacy and clarity.”15

     And what of Gardiner’s results?  As does Norrington, Gardiner undoubtedly forces listeners to hear the familiar anew.  The hand-stopped horn-motifs in the slow introduction of “Reveries—Passions” exemplify Gardiner’s attention to specific timbres, as they do also in “Scene in the Country.”  Gardiner’s valse manages to outshine Norrington’s in glissando brilliance, although a careful audition hears only two harps to Norrington’s four; but Gardiner’s cornet-descant in the reprise of the waltz-tune comes off more brightly than Norrington’s.  Gardiner takes the “Scene in the Country” noticeably more slowly than Norrington; this comparative slowing-down adds something to the concluding bars, where listeners become intensely aware of how Berlioz achieves his thunderous onomatopoeia, but it also makes the movement as a whole seem sectional, as compared to its seamlessness under Norrington.  Gardiner outdoes Norrington in supplying the bloodthirsty crassness essential in the “March to the Scaffold,” where his two ophicleides vent forth with ripe raspberries deep down in the bass range of the texture.  Where Gardiner is slower than Norrington in the Adagio, he is faster in the “March” and in “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.”  In the “Dream,” he moves at a clip even faster than Monteux’s in the remarkable 1930 Paris recording.  So virtuosic are Gardiner’s players, however, that the rhythmic articulation is always crisp and obvious, the sculpting of the melodic phrases always clear.  The two ophicleides are up to their fruity high jinks once again; the skeletal col legno passages in the string band, which forecast one of the stock gestures of the horror-movie score, sound truly and appropriately bizarre.

     Norrington has recently (2004) recorded the Fantastique a second time with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra using modern instruments but applying historical performance practice to the execution; he has also documented the Requiem, in a daringly slow but awe-inducing interpretation, also in Stuttgart.  Gardiner has produced a slightly larger Berlioz discography than Norrington, his interpretation of Roméo et Juliette, again applying historical performance practice to the execution, being especially noteworthy; and Gardiner has advocated Berlioz as an opera composer, contributing to the 2003 Berlioz Bicentenary a production of Les Troyens at the Théatre de Chatelet, Paris, said to be the first truly integral staging of Berlioz’s masterwork.  (This is Gardiner grabbing at the moniker long applied to Davis’s 1969 performance.)  One might ask, do not Norrington and Gardiner protest a bit too much when they insist so volubly that their readings banish a century and more of obscuring accretion to reveal the true old formerly hidden newness of Berlioz’s plus-Romantique-que-le-Romantisme scores?  In one salient matter neither seems much to respect Berlioz, who stipulated a personnel of at least 130 as necessary for an effective demonstration of his musical intention; and neither of the two Authenticity mavens uses more than eighty, making almost any standard interpretation more authentic than theirs.  Perhaps this is quibbling.  It is merely an observation, after all, and takes away nothing from the obvious achievements of both men, which I have granted.  Perhaps what the triangulation of Berlioz, Norrington, and Gardiner most powerfully signifies is that the name Berlioz remains inescapably controversial more than two hundred years after his birth.  During the Berlioz Bicentenary, the controversy would spill over from the domain of musical argument into that of political contention.


     British musicians, not French ones, dominated the bicentenary celebrations in honor of Berlioz, even those in what ought to be the undisputed heart of Berlioz country, the city of Paris .  True to their history, the French only granted their stellar son his due in a mean-spirited way, undercutting the recognition.  Their rancor had two foci: a plan to remove Berlioz’s remains from their private grave and re-inter them in France’s national shrine for the illustrious dead, the Panthéon in Paris; and the announcement by managers of the Théatre de Chatelet that they intended to stage the great work that Berlioz saw as the summation of his creative life but never actually saw in performance in a complete or adequate way—his Virgilian opera Les Troyens.  The reaction to these two issues emerged conjointly with the same plaintiffs lodging the charges in both cases.  As reporter Hugh Schofield writes, the plan to move Berlioz’s mortal remains “met with unexpectedly harsh opposition from many of the composer’s own fans, as well as from critics who say Berlioz was a right-winger with no place in France ’s Republican Valhalla.”16  Schofield quotes Berlioz biographer Joël-Marie Fauquet as saying in an editorial in Le Monde, “The fact is inescapable: the Berlioz who invented the modern orchestra also showed himself in his life to be an ardent reactionary.”17  By this argument Berlioz should therefore not receive official recognition through ceremonial reburial in the nation’s mortuary shrine.  A committee supervising the Bicentenary celebrations referred the matter to then Président Jacques Chirac, who by his silence and inaction sided with the Fauquet position.  Berlioz remained in the ground at Montmartre .

     The Parisian productions of Les Troyens, then in the planning stage, became an opportunity for additional censorious agitation.  Historian of ideas Paul Gottfried summarizes the spasm of righteousness: “Since Berlioz had based his opera Les Troyens on Virgil’s Aeneid, a Roman epic that celebrates Latin antiquities, honoring Berlioz would be tantamount to glorifying Mussolini and his brand of Italian fascism.  Such a move [i.e., staging Les Troyens], Le Monde seems to be arguing by quoting the admonitions of Jean Kahn, Philippe Olivier, and Gottfried Wagner, should be reconsidered, particularly when decent people are battling fascist residues.”18  The guardians of political correctness in the European Community had already lobbed the f-word-grenade against Berlioz and Les Troyens on the occasion of the annual Salzburg Festival in the summer of 2000, when conductor Sylvain Cambreling and scenic-designer Herbert Wernicke mounted a production; it was this version that elicited the screed from Gottfried Wagner.  We know Berlioz as a profoundly literate man; so we know his puritanical detractors as in like degree illiterate.  The accurate description of Berlioz’s attitude toward the tumult of French politics in the mid-Nineteenth Century is that he taught himself to disdain the recurrent fervor of an indefinite succession of soi-disant revolutions punctuated by bouts of sclerotic dirigisme.  That attitude hardly qualifies him as reactionary, although political agitation for radical causes and revolutionary movements against the prevailing dispensation does qualify itself as reactionary.  Near the end of Berlioz’s life, in a letter to Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, he would write, “Those pathetic little gangsters known as great men rouse me only to disgust—Caesar, Augustus, Antony, Alexander, Peter [the Great] and all the rest of those glorified brigands” (Berlioz 555).

     Martin Cooper has written that Berlioz, like Baudelaire, sought refuge from secular disappointment in his “private world” of artistic endeavor.  Berlioz lived in the French polity perforce but he sought no redemption in politics; he necessarily communicated with ministers of state and even kings and emperors, as did Beethoven in Austria and Dmitri Shostakovich in the Soviet Union —that is to say, with reluctance and distaste.  Characterizing Caesar and Augustus as “brigands” illuminates the argument of Les Troyens, which declares Fate and Empire to be, if not outright delusions, then derailments of constructive life, inimical both to private happiness and to love.  The Symphonie fantastique is a unified five-moment orchestral composition on the topics of love and betrayal and Les Troyens is a unified five-act operatic composition on the same; Les Troyens might be said to objectify what in the Symphony fantastique remains subjective.  The opera’s scheme two female protagonists, Cassandra and Dido, replace the male protagonist of the Symphonie.

     “I had conceived,” Berlioz writes in the Memoirs, “of a vast opera on the Shakespearean plan, based on the second and fourth books of the Aeneid” (484).  Princess Carolyne urged Berlioz in 1856 to write the libretto, which he completed in 1858. He read it privately to friends in various salons until rumors of its existence began to circulate in public.  The Opéra showed no interest, but gradually Berlioz convinced his acquaintance Léon Carvalho, director of the Théatre-Lyrique, to back the effort.  A smaller venue than the Opéra, the Théatre-Lyrique could not adequately mount the grand tableaux indicated by the score, which Berlioz brought to completion in all its aspects in 1860.  The composer and playwright bowed to practicality and not only agreed to jettison the first two acts but to adapt the remainder to Carvalho’s smaller cast and facilities.  The excised acts (I and II) together constituted Part I of the opera, La Prise de Troie, which the composer would never see staged and which no company would tackle until an ambitious production in Karlsruhe in 1897.  The remaining three acts ( III , IV, and V) became Les Troyens à Carthage, with a summary prologue devised by Berlioz for the occasion to give the audience some sense of the omitted action.  The disruptive, inhuman Destin of Berlioz’s scenario seemed to fall on the production like an Olympian curse, with every conceivable annoyance conspiring with every other to force the author into further artistic compromise.  The fire marshal of Paris forbade the extras from carrying torches in the pantomime to accompany the Chasse royale et orage, making the effect ridiculous; the same interlude required a set-alteration that the stagehands were habitually slow to make, necessitating the institution of a dramatically awkward half-hour intermission.

     Carvalho argued with Berlioz about the diction of his libretto: “There’s a word in the prologue that worries me… Triomphaux”; “It’s the plural,” said Berlioz, “of triomphal, as chevaux is of cheval, originaux of original, madrigaux of madrigal, [and] municipaux of municipal” (Berlioz 488).  By a miracle, the November to December 1863 run of Les Troyens turned a small profit, but nervous, Carvalho closed down the production after twenty-two performances.

     Mellers puts his finger on the real disconnection between Les Troyens and its mid-Nineteenth Century French public—or possibly any public of any time:

Les Troyens…is an idealized vision of a new heroic civilization: or rather of the old world, and the old technique born anew.  This was no puerile utopia.  Dido is a heroic figure, but also a woman, with human passions and frailties.  In Berlioz’s imaginary aristocracy, people, like Dido, would still love, suffer, and die, as they have always done; but human life would acquire once more the dignity and sanctity of the heroic age.  (189)

     Mellers says that Les Troyens expresses Berlioz’s “growing sense of disparity between the ideal and the real” (189).  David Cairns remarks that Berlioz shares with Virgil “fear of the collapse of civilization as they knew it” (Kemp 77).  Both Mellers and Cairns could be quoting the man himself: “The mass of the Paris public” regards “all music that deviates from the narrow path where the makers of opéras-comiques toil and spin” as “the music of a lunatic” (Berlioz 474).  The Second Empire struck Berlioz as an age of insipidity, without seriousness, launched on a course, like Faust in La Damnation, towards the abyss.  An editorial cartoon from the time of Les Troyens à Carthage strikingly corroborates Berlioz’s estimate.  A cartoonist of the day, “Charivari,” depicted Greek soldiers with their hands covering their ears running away from a masonry wall behind which is seated an orchestra above which rears a banner reading, “Partition des Troyens,” or “The score of Les Troyens.  The caption says: “Comme quoi les Grecs auraient certainement levé le siège devant Troie si les Troyens avaient eu la partition de M. Berlioz en temps utile.”19  (“If only the Trojans had armed themselves with Mr. Berlioz’s score, they would certainly have repelled the Greek attack.”)

     Productions of Les Troyens happened sporadically in the last third of the Nineteenth Century, mostly in Germany , and the first two thirds of the Twentieth Century, mostly in Great Britain .  The first recording—of Les Troyens à Carthage only—came about in 1952 under the direction of Hermann Scherchen.  Famously, Colin Davis led performances at Covent Garden in 1969, recording the work without cuts for Philips a year later.  James Levine headed an important mounting at the Metropolitan Opera in 1983, with Jessie Norman taking the roles both of Cassandra and Dido.  The Covent Garden and Met performances having dispelled the aura of a logistically impossible work, Les Troyens has since appeared less infrequently.  As the bicentenary of the composer’s birth approached productions fairly proliferated, with at least six in 2003 alone.  A kind of performing tradition had settled in, going back to the original Théatre-Lyrique design, with its monumental scenic decor, faux-antique costumes, and massive stage action—even though the prescribed massiveness was limited by the original venue.  In the period that calls itself “postmodern,” all that had to go, of course.

     The two recent undertakings documented on DVD —the Cambreling and Wernicke interpretation for the Salzburg Festival and Gardiner’s Théatre de Chatelet interpretation—stand in contrast to the televised account of the Levine Troyens of 1983, also issued on DVD .  Gardiner’s Chatelet Troyens generally escapes the limitations of its postmodern afflatus and stands as a great performance, the equivalent of Davis ’s Covent Garden sally of 1969, against which others must be measured.  Cambreling’s Troyens is another matter, musically acceptable, but scenically inadequate—even a betrayal of Berlioz.  It is best to begin with Cambreling.

     Why the politically correct critics attacked Cambreling and Wernicke is hard to say, since it would be difficult to imagine a more politically correct, hence less faithful, staging of this colossus of sung theater.  Berlioz admired Gluck and traits that one might associate with Gluck do inform Les Troyens; nevertheless, Les Troyens is not Alceste or Iphigénie en Tauride.  Static blocking, almost entirely dependent on the music for divulgence of character and motivation, when applied so consistently, fits badly with Berlioz’s dramatic vision.  Things happen in Les Troyens: exits and entrances not only of individuals but also of crowds and armies.  As the curtain goes up on Act I, the whole of Troy rushes from the city gates to the beach to celebrate the apparent departure of the Greeks.  At the end of the same act, the crowd drags the great wooden horse into the heart of the city, sealing the Trojan doom.  Act III begins as Berlioz wrote it with a grand and extended ballet, which Wernicke omits.  Wernicke’s reduction of the scene to minimalist abstraction tells the audience everything about postmodern esthetics but next to nothing about Berlioz’s Shakespearean theory of epic drama.  For Wernicke—and it is clear from interviews that Cambreling agrees with his collaborator—all parties in Les Troyens, with the possible exception of Cassandra in Act I and II, are neurotic, vainglorious, and self-serving in motivation.  As though anticipating the baseless charge of fascism, Wernicke dresses the Trojan soldiery in black military uniforms deliberately reminiscent of Nazi secret police regalia; and he has them carry American M-16 rifles instead of period-appropriate swords and shields.  Under Cambreling’s musical direction, the singers often interpret their parts stridently rather than beautifully, Cassandra’s terrific closing aria from Act I being deprived by the gesture of much of its pathos.  Deborah Polaski, who sings both Cassandra in Part I and Dido in Part II, has a suitable voice for the role, but the directorial conception prevents her from acting with it as she might.

     Berlioz conceives of Carthage under Dido as a utopian project, with the people and their queen united to build up a new city free from the corruption of Tyre , whence Dido has fled after the murder of her husband by the usurper Pygmalion.  As Berlioz writes his drama, the advent of the desperate Trojans on Tunisian shores and Dido’s betrayal in love by Aeneas disrupt the experiment in civic idealism.  This is that “disparity between the real and the ideal” that Mellers remarks.  Wernicke, for no reason related to Berlioz’s text, has decided that the Carthaginians, far from being noble and idealistic, are effete and cynical.  He directs them to comport themselves superciliously and nastily; he dresses them in black gowns and black business suits, adorning the women with elbow-length aquamarine gloves and built-up atop-the-head coiffures, making them resemble risibly the fearsome housewives in Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoons.  Everyone sips champagne cocktails in long-stemmed glasses and reclines on Tyrian purple cushions with gold fringe.  They all give the impression that the proceedings have left them in a shared state of terminal ennui.  Cambreling speaks rightly when he says of Les Troyens,Ce n’est pas une pièce très optimiste” but rather one that emphasizes “la ruine, la fin d’un monde.”20  The destruction of Carthaginian happiness can only strike the audience as tragic, however, when Dido and her people possess admirable qualities.  Tragedy lies in Dido’s very openness to love.  The hymnal procession that opens Act III , on the refrain “Gloire à Didon,” emphasizes the caritas that animates the Tyrian colony.  But for Cambreling and Wernicke, this procession becomes a parody of the modern—intolerably bourgeois—business meeting.

     In their estimation of Aeneas, Cambreling and Wernicke come closer perhaps to Berlioz’s intention than in other matters, for while Aeneas is the hero of Part I, he is effectively if not nominally the villain of Part II.  If the image were not present, which it is because the production has been issued as a DVD , one might find good things to say about the musical aspect of Cambreling’s interpretation.  Critics have accused him of lacking fire, but the criticism rings false.  Opera being spectacle, however, and DVD being a visual medium, the production labors the music with the tendentious scene.

     Gardiner’s Chatelet Troyens operates at a higher level intellectually, artistically, and musically than does its Salzburg counterpart, although some “subversive” gestures from the postmodern playbook have found their way annoyingly into the mixture.  Thus the Chatelet production takes the scenic design some distance towards postmodern abstraction, yet not nearly so far as Cambreling and Wernicke.  The settings are recognizable.  We even see Troy aflame in a brief transition from Act I to Act II.  The Trojan soldiery wears what look like World War One British Army uniforms while the invading Greeks come clad in U.S. Army camouflage fatigues and carry, not M-16s, but Soviet-era AK -47s, which they point savagely at the Trojan women at the conclusion of Act II.  The North African sequence of Part II uses brilliant colors, retains the exotic ballet of Act IV, and emphasizes (rightly) the plan of Dido and the Carthaginians to establish a philosophical polity.  The audience sees, for example, models of the not-yet-completed acropolis of the city and of the projected harbor being consulted by engineers and surveyors.  Heavily stylized, the scenery nevertheless exhibits some linkage to the tradition, insofar as there is one, going back to the 1863 premiere.  Some simple touches generate a wondrous effect, as when, during the Hymn to the Trojan Gods (“Dieux Protecteurs”) in Act I Gardiner puts a real sistrum, the antique instrument that Berlioz prescribed, onstage; or as when, at the end of Act V, Dido prepares for her suicidal death by unfurling a long magenta scarf down the monumental white steps that she has ascended, vividly symbolizing the fatal emotional wound that Aeneas has dealt her in the name of Fate, the Roman race-to-be, and Empire.  The conversation-song of the Trojan sailors at the beginning of Act V, which Cambreling omits, reminds us that Berlioz thought of Les Troyens as Virgil seen through the dramaturgy of Shakespeare.

     Musically, too, the Chatelet production repeatedly astonishes.  Gardiner opts for two stunning divas, Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra in Part I and Susan Graham as Dido in Part II.  The elements come together for a powerful climax at the end of Act I, when Cassandra sings her desperate heart out in prophesying the impending disaster in whose prediction the Trojan people refuse to believe; her nervous melody takes its place in counterpoint with the delirious joy of the Trojan March, the single unifying melodic motif of the two parts of the opera taken together.


Arrêtez! arrêtez! Oui, la flamme, la hache!
Fouillez le flanc du monstrueux cheval!
Laocoon!... les Grecs!... il cache
Un piège infernal...
Ma voix se perd!... plus d’espérance!
Vous êtes sans pitié, grands dieux,
Pour ce peuple en démence!
Ô digne emploi de la toute-puissance,
Le conduire à l’abîme en lui fermant les yeux!

(Elle écoute les derniers sons de la marche triomphale qu’on distingue encore et qui s’éteignent tout d’un coup.)

Ils entrent, c’en est fait, le destin tient sa proie!
Sœur d’Hector, va mourir sous les débris de Troie!

(Elle sort.)


     During this scene, Berlioz instructs a small adjunct orchestra of brass players to accompany the people onstage.  Gardiner deploys his musicians accordingly and in a scholarly coup realizes an opportunity to put on display the specialized Sax instruments demanded by the particular composer in the score.  Another terrific moment comes at the conclusion of the first North African act, when, on news that an enemy of Carthage advances with his armies on Dido’s city, the just-arrived Aeneas pledges his Trojans to fight alongside the Tyrian defenders.  Tenor Gregory Kunde works hard to redeem Aeneas in Part II of the opera, bringing his considerable thespian talent to bear on making the character’s perfidy seem the result of his confusion between the tug of love and the tug of duty.  Aeneas chooses duty, but Berlioz chooses love and sides with Dido, as he did when he was twelve years old.  Gardiner understands this, whereas Cambreling and Wernicke manifestly do not—or understand it but cynically refuse to represent it.  Gardiner brings his usual dedication to historically informed musical practice and period instrumentation to Les Troyens.  One hardly notices it because the audible result so thoroughly convinces a listener of the interpretation’s rightness.  Gardiner honorably serves Berlioz’s idea of the grand and the noble.

     Berlioz added the last chapters of the Memoirs once the Théatre-Lyrique Troyens of 1863 had run its truncated course.  “My career is over…  I compose no more music, conduct no more concerts, no longer write prose or verse” (482).  In pouring his lifeblood into Les Troyens, Berlioz says, “I did not take Latium ” (486).  He saw himself a failure.  The prose gives the full sense of Berlioz late in life, as Cooper calls him, a broken man.  He had outlived two wives and would outlive his son.  Friends were dying.  He was dying.  He recalls how after Les Troyens debuted, strangers “often stopped [me] in the street… who wished to shake hands with me and thank me for having composed [my opera]” (489).  He wonders, leaving the question open, whether such spontaneous expressions of appreciation by ordinary lovers of opera did not constitute sufficient compensation for the caustic hostility of the critics, “by whose hatred one can only feel honored, for it is the disdain of the whore for the honest woman” (489).  Thus does Berlioz the old man, eaten by stomach cancer misdiagnosed, meditate on the world.  Bitterness never represented the sum and total of his life.  Germany received him.  At the ducal courts he found the positive response of highly trained musicians and sensitive audiences for which he had longed.  Before the cult of Wagner in Germany came the cult of Berlioz—but no, never a “cult,” but rather a keen sense of something both new and beautiful.  The penultimate paragraph of the Memoirs epitomizes Berlioz’s hard-earned wisdom:  “Love or music—which power can uplift man to the sublimest heights?  It is a large question; yet it seems to me that one should answer it in this way: Love cannot give an idea of music; music can give an idea of love.  But why separate them?  They are the two wings of the soul” (515).

     It is not a case, then, of “New Berlioz” or “Old Berlioz.”  It is a case always and everywhere of the perennial or even of the Platonic Berlioz.  One believes finally, stepping to his side and opposing on his behalf all those who railed against him in his life, that he took Latium after all.  


Joseph Turner (Dido Building Carthage) was also inspired by his reading of Virgil's Aeneid.


Works Cited


Jacques Barzun.  Berlioz and His Century—An Introduction to the Age of Romanticism.  Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Hector Berlioz.  Memoirs of Hector Berlioz.  Translated and edited by David Cairns.  London : Gollancz, 1969.

Peter Bloom.  The Life of Berlioz.  Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1998.

The Viscount of Chateaubriand, translated by C. I. White.  The Genius of Christianity.  Baltimore , MD : John Murphy Company, 1856.

Martin Cooper.  French Music from the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré.  New York : Oxford University press, 1961.

A. E. F. Dickinson.  The Music of Berlioz.  New York : St. Martin ’s Press, 1972. 

Bernard Gavoty and others.  Hector Berlioz: Genie et Réalité.  Paris : Librairie Hachette, 1973.

Ian Kemp, editor.  Les Troyens.  Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Norman Lebrecht.  The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power.  New York : Citadel Press, 1995.

Hugh MacDonald.  Berlioz: Orchestral Music.  Seattle : University of Washington Press, 1969.

Wilfrid Mellers.  The Sonata Principle.  (Man and his Music, Part Three.)  New York : Schocken, 1969.

Nicolas Slonimsky.  Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers since Beethoven’s Time.  Seattle : University of Washington Press, 1975.

Richard Wagner, translated by R. Jacobs and G. Skelton.  Wagner Writes from Paris : Stories, Essays, and Articles by the Young Composer.  New York : John Day , 1973.


Thomas Bertonneau, Secretary of The Center for Literate Values, is also a long-time contributor to Praesidium.  He currently teaches in the English Department at SUNY-Oswego.  A student of popular as well as classical culture, Dr. Bertonneau recently authored (with Kim Paffenroth) The Gospel According to Sci-Fi (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006).

1 Berlioz and His Century, 10.

2 Translated by R. Jacobs and G. Skelton.

3 The translation is David Cairns’.

4 Andante website interview with J. Tolansky.

5 Mr. Tepper’s Berlioz website.

6 Ibid.

7, David Cairns interviews Sir Colin Davis.

8 Interview with J. Tolanksy.

9 Booklet to the EMI CD of Symphonie fantastique, 1989.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Booklet to the Philips CD of Symphonie fantastique.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 BBC News online, Sunday, 16 February 2003 .

17 Ibid.

18 Paul Gottfried, The Strange Death of Marxism, 86.

19 Berlioz: Génie et Réalité, 225.

20 Interview with Pierre-René Serna, the Hector Berlioz website.



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Orality and Literacy Revisited: Beleaguered Allies Against the Technical Onslaught of the Visual


John R. Harris



     It is not unusual for the readers of Praesidium to swap stories about the horrid grammatical gaffes and boners committed by young writers under their professional care.  Occasionally such grim tales of linguistic mayhem find their way into these very pages.  Thomas Bertonneau reviewed several patterns of abuse five years ago and came to the conclusion that “we live in the aftermath of a cultural calamity—the disappearance of mass literacy, as lamented by [Susan] Ozick.”1  To be sure, instructors have long traded yarns about discipulary incompetence in the lounge over a cup of strong java.  One of my all-time favorites was the Spanish teacher’s whose ingenuous pupil, confusing the amicable hola! of the plaza with the exultant olé! of the bull ring, wanted to know why matadors sidle up to their horned adversary and say “hi”.  That exchange, if memory serves, took place when Jimmy Carter was president.

     Professor Bertonneau concurs with many of us who have served hard time in the nation’s classrooms, however, that something new is afoot.  A misinterpreted sound is one thing.  I could tell a few stories about myself as a student on that score (such as my supposing, throughout most of an undergraduate course on Indian history, that the abbreviation for “United Provinces”, “U. P.”, was some ancient Hindi place name anglicized as “Upee”).  Of quite a different order, surely, is the error which involves no faulty processing of aural data, but rather a perplexity over how to put familiar sounds into conventional writing.  During the spring semester of 2007, while teaching three classes of Freshman Composition (closed at 22 students each), I was able to compile the following list of remarkable misspellings more or less common among approximately 10-25% of my sample (depending on the specific blunder):

   “American’s” as the plural of “American”

   “amongst” for “among”

    “can not” for “cannot”

    “deep-seeded” for “deep-seated”

    “everyday” for “every day”

   “four-fathers” for “forefathers”

   “oftentimes” for “often”

    “pet stool” or “petty stool” for “pedestal”

    singular and plural indistinguishable in words like “realist” and “idealist”

    “wonder” for “wander”

     Now, to be fair, some of these students in certain cases are just saying “hi” to the bull.  The middle and final “d” and “t” are not well distinguished throughout much of the United States .  Especially in the West, one always hears “seated” pronounced homophonously with “seeded”, and the metaphor of the deeply planted seed makes at least as much sense as that of the deeply cushioned (or short-legged?) chair.  I have also seen (though not this semester) the expression “taken for granted” rendered “taken for granite”.  In Black English of the South, a final “d” usually emerges as a “t” (even Condoleeza Rice does it: the same thing happens, by the way, in Gaelic), while the palatalization of a “t” after an “n” is, once again, especially common in the West.  As before, also, the invented metaphor makes sense—is, indeed, far more palpable than the original version.

     Professor Bertonneau would probably point out that the shift in such cases from more abstract metaphors (a seating to a seeding, a concession to a stone) is in itself symptomatic of an unsteady literacy: the world of invisible generalizations has clearly lost ground to the world of immediate perceptions—Walter Ong’s sensorium.2  I believe this distinction to be entirely valid and, in the case of my students, very probably justified.  One could say the same thing of “four-fathers” and “pet stool”.  That is, the student struggles to spell a word which he or she has occasionally heard pronounced, and ends up creating some extravagant but colorful image from immediate, familiar circumstances.  Yet here, I would argue, more has happened than a turning away from the mind to the senses.  For the student-writer remains, after all, in the mind—the image which cues the misspelling is a flight of fancy, based on no already circulated picture.  The creating mind has failed to review its product and to recognize that the proposed image is simply too cramped, too subjectively spun, to have achieved the broad coinage necessary to account for the word.  A new line of defense has been glibly trampled, a kind of communal awareness (if not basic sanity) which Ong’s oral-traditional tribesmen would have possessed in abundance.  In moving from seeds and stones to the fathers four and pets who poise on stools, we have advanced from the plausible to the patently absurd.  “Pet stool” irritates me in a way that “deep-seeded” does not.  Why would any reasonable adult, faced either with having to ask a teacher how to spell “pedestal” (since his or her existing knowledge would not suffice to make browsing the dictionary profitable) or with simply selecting another phrase, not opt for the mere verb “worship”?  Can students really be so… as they would say, clueless?

     Of course, the answer is “yes”.  The contemporary student does not flinch to type out concoctions like “pet stool”, because he or she lacks that degree of familiarity with formal, printed English which might send up a warning signal.  Our students can read, but choose not to.  Virtually all of the sources from which they draw their knowledge of the language are electronic: television, movies, radio (as represented by “downloads” on their “iPods”), the Internet, cell phones, “text messaging”, even books on disc which often allow keyword searches and are saturated in visual aids.  We will return to the emphasis of the visual shortly.  For now, I stress that we are witnessing the effective demise of book-reading.  The word “pedestal” would be infinitely more likely to appear on a printed page than in a cell-phone conversation.  In most electronic media, neither the proper spelling of words nor the fully conventional, non-dramatic context of their usage would come clear.  In fact, a person who had seen “pedestal” in print even once could surely be expected to erase all notion of cuddly animals in collars, though most likely not retaining an exact copy of the orthographic fingerprint.  Similarly, any thoughtful person whose eyes had passed a single time over the word “forefather” might be supposed to remember that it does not imply a numerical reference.  I conclude, then, that my students must only have heard these words.  In the case of “pedestal”, I would think it entirely possible that several of them could later see the word in print and not even connect it to the one their imaginations had outlandishly fabricated.  Perhaps they would mentally insert a blank and pass on to the next word.

       As for the confusion of “wonder” with “wander” or the deletion of the pluralizing “s” from words like “realist”, all that has just been observed applies a fortiori.  I will stipulate on my students’ behalf that the word-pairs at issue are homophones in the Deep South—but this should not be of great relevance, for they are also quite common.  Most students will avoid spelling the word “knot” as n-o-t or the word “sea” as s-e-e.  Distinguishing “wonder” from “wander” or adding an “s” to “realist” should not be much more difficult; yet, apparently, it poses a mighty stumbling block for my classes.  I can think of no possible explanation for such ineptitude with words employed universally, I should guess, at least once a week other than that they are used only in speech—never read on a page.

     At this point, I must adduce in evidence a couple of incidents the like of which I have never experienced as a teacher, and which establish, to my mind, incontrovertibly that many students today have about the same level of familiarity with a book as I have with an iPod.  I wanted my students to be exposed to several works which did not appear in their Norton reader, so I dutifully prepared a packet of photocopies for distribution on the first day of class.  Many of the works were excerpted.  Naturally, I included the title page of every book from which I borrowed: in the case of excerpts, I followed this immediately with the assigned material.  Straightforward enough, one would think—yet some of my students insisted otherwise.  About a dozen of my 60 or so claimed that I had condemned them to a fruitless hour of searching from end to end of the packet for the author du jour named in the syllabus—that they could find this name only on a rather bare page with the book’s title.  My assumption that they would recognize the next page, beginning with “Chapter Two”, as belonging to the book the way a file belongs to a website was sadly mistaken.  I encountered a similarly sobering response when we came to the pages copied from the Loeb Classical Library’s edition of Boethius.  The Loeb texts (published by Harvard UP) always match the Greek or Latin original with English translation, page for page.  By convention, the English invariably appears on the right—i.e., on odd-numbered pages.  Now, I know better than to copy anything “foreign-looking” with an assignment.  Two decades ago, students might have been excited to find a strange script like ancient Greek gracing the margins of their text: today some of them are apt to grow highly indignant.  (A comment on an evaluation once fumed, “Why is he stupid enough to think that we can read Greek?”)  So the problem in Spring 2007 was not that certain members of my classes were hurt or confused by my perplexing them with alphas and omegas—no; it was that all pages in the assignment were odd-numbered.  Approximately the same percentage as before—indeed, very nearly the same group of individuals—claimed that they had been unable to complete their reading because they had not been given even-numbered pages.  It did not occur to them to transport the sense of a phrase interrupted at the bottom of one page to another page and see if the result proved coherent.

     These students know that English is read from left to right (they do not know, I daresay, that a language can possibly be read in any other direction).  They know that one opens a book’s cover from left to right if one wishes to find the first page.  A significant minority of them, however, is unfamiliar with the convention of placing a title page immediately inside the cover or of dividing the contents into chapters.  If the arrangement of pages is at all idiosyncratic (I also squeezed four pages of Boethius to one of my photocopy by moving left-to-right, then bottom-left-to-bottom right), they are taxed to ferret out the flow of meaning.  The instant panic they register when faced with the mildest oddity of this nature reminds me of my own when I have to navigate a large website in search of just the right “easy access” form.  They are becoming—some of them—as distant from our once-common Western literate inheritance as I am from the latest electronic toys and games.    

     In an upside-down manner, this alienation from the written explains the prominence in student compositions of archaisms like “amongst” and “oftentimes”.  I can say honestly that I have never in my life heard a student use either of these long-outdated words in private conversation or in class discussion.  How do they blunder their way into essays?  Precisely by dint of their otherness: they are “literary gingerbread”, like the “Ye Olde Candy Shoppe” folderol that one sees occasionally at the shopping mall—unconscious caricatures of a defunct body of manners and customs.  To be sure, the gap between literary and spoken language has seldom withered to such negligible proportions as one finds in modern American usage, a fact which is abundantly advertised in student writing, as well.  Colloquialisms like “okay” and “no way”—and even scurrilous slang on the order of “crap” and “suck”—proliferate in ostensibly formal papers.  Yet the student is also aware of making a sacrifice to an unknown god, and he dutifully throws upon the altar from time to time a morsel which he thinks will surely find favor.  “Amongst” certainly sounds formal, doesn’t it?  Nobody ever uses it in common parlance: ergo, it must be prim and proper.  Though a smattering of exposure to good writing for the last century would have left the student in no doubt that such words are in fact too antiquated to pass muster, such exposure is just what his preparation lacks.  For the same reason, by the way, the solecism “between he and I” proves to be almost incurable.  The correct “between him and me” sounds altogether too much like what an ordinary person might say in a real conversation, so the other form must be the right one.  Inversion of the familiar makes the god smile.

     Naturally, the root cause of dividing “cannot” into “can not” and of forging “every day” (as an adjective/noun pair) into  “everyday” is also deficient exposure to printed texts.  How often does the word “cannot” crop up in the typical book—perhaps every other page, at a modest estimate?  How few books must a student have read by the ripe age of eighteen not to be aware of this convention?  Fewer than ten?  Fewer than two?  The case of “everyday” is at least vexed by the logic of grammar—a logic apparently too intricate even for the proofreaders of major publishing houses.3  It requires that one be able to distinguish between a noun and an adjective.  In these times, that’s expecting rather a lot.

     And what shall we say of “American’s” as a plural of “American”?  Readers may be skeptical when I assert that this kind of error was among the most common I noted: I would guess that fully a quarter of all my freshmen designated a normal English plural form at least once in the semester by placing an apostrophe before the “s”.  Is this more “gingerbread”—more salting of the text with mysterious extravagance to appease the inscrutable spirit of grammar?  But apostrophes do exist, and are still used—quite frequently before the “s”, as it happens.  To muddy the waters further, that canny reader who would guess that students often drop the apostrophe before the possessive “s” would be entirely correct.  Indeed, such lapses tend to occur in the very papers which have misused the apostrophe in forming the plural.  My own assessment is that we see here the same phenomenon of alienation from books.  How could anyone possibly have read half a dozen books in his or her life and not know how to form standard English plurals?  At the same time, no student could possibly graduate from high school—even today’s high school—without having had the existence of apostrophes pounded into his or her callow skull.  The student is aware, then, that some situation or other where you add an “s” calls for an apostrophe.  The formation of plurals seems to fill the bill.

     Here I wish to turn an important corner.  The last couple of paragraphs—involving misused apostrophes and the wrongful splitting or merging of words—do not address cases which proper speech might have ameliorated.  You cannot hear how “cannot” is spelled.  For the most part, however, everything I have offered by way of testifying to the contemporary student’s alienation from books also bears witness to an impoverished oral/aural environment.   Absurd misspellings like “pet stool” would be opposed from two directions in a community of competent speakers.  First, the word would be more correctly elocuted—at least the student could approximate it to the point of making a visit to the dictionary fruitful.  Secondly, an environment of living, breathing, verbally fluent people would greet a monstrosity like “pet stool” with laughing disbelief. What did you say?  A stool for a pet—is that what you think the word means?”  The youthful transgressor would be mortified, yes—but such mortification is a healthy part of growing up.  In the long run, it teaches common sense.  It makes one reluctant to float publicly the first silly association that leaps to mind; one must review the hypothesis, rather, and ask, “Is it reasonable that other people might really have intended such an image?”

     The student’s community, alas, has little connection to the vibrant, functional tribes which Ong and others contrast with literate culture.  We are not either oral or literate: our children prove that we may turn out to be neither.  Thanks to electronic speech—the conduit through which most of our young hear the English language modeled—not only has interest in books been siphoned away, but the truly participatory give-and-take of verbal exchange is nullified.  This is the real tragedy, and not simply that professional jabberers on TV and radio use bad English.  Some of them do not.  My students, to tell the truth, probably first encountered the word “pedestal” in the lines of some talk-radio Cicero or perorating TV attorney—they certainly didn’t make its acquaintance on their cell phones or in chit-chat with roommates or classmates!  The cell phone, indeed, is the closest of all these gadgets and gismos to an active exchange a quattro occhi: one may even bring up the image of one’s interlocutor on a small screen, as I understand.  Yet at the same time as one blabbers away into one’s palm, one shows complete indifference—rude indifference—to all proximate living bodies forced to overhear a private conversation.  These unwilling participants are forbidden by one of our few remaining social taboos to break in and observe, “The phrase is deep-seated”—let alone object, “You shouldn’t have another date with someone who acts like that.”  Virtually every level of enrichment which comes of spoken interaction is compromised.  My own suspicion is that even the reluctant bystanders in cell-phone society carry away a reprehensible lesson: that they should tune other people out and bury their chin in their collar.

     The great orator or the brilliant conversationalist well knows, on the contrary, that he or she must cultivate the active awareness of people within hearing distance—that the bounds of common sense are demarcated by jabbing elbows and shaking heads.  This virtuoso would notice if a brow furrowed or an auditor started to titter.  If his southern drawl were too deep, he would be exposed to the ridicule of being questioned, “Do you like your final year of schooling, or do you lack it?”  For an aspiring political candidate to proclaim in general company, “He was just wondering about as if he was lost,” or, “It’s just a bunch of communist,” would be to invite instant and not very flattering judgments.  Even the rank and file prefer to be represented by Counselor Dan O’Conell rather than by Patch Noreen of Black Rock.


     José Ortega y Gasset reflects in the “preliminary note” of The Revolt of the Masses upon vulgar Latin’s degeneration.  The parallel which this epochal decline poses to our own culture’s case is not perfect, but more apt, perhaps, than most such gestures at Rome’s collapse.  For in ancient Rome we find the curious phenomenon of a society apparently losing its oral eloquence after centuries of growing slowly more literate, and very likely because of that growth: the condition of the West, and especially of the United States, in rough facsimile.  Plautus and Terence left us a fairly reliable record of how people must have chattered in the streets, and it shows us that Romans of the republic observed such grammatical minutiae as proper noun inflections and strict conditions for employing the subjunctive mood, even though they contracted words liberally and entertained each other with lively slang.  That demotic speech in the Christian era had become a comparative broth without seasoning is revealed most simply by the emergence of modern Europe’s progenitors in places like Gaul, Spain, and Italy itself—dialects from which perhaps 90% of the classical inflections had disappeared.  Of course, those who most abundantly used the degenerative forms would have possessed little or no literacy themselves.  Reading and writing do not “dumb down” their practitioners: the chain of events has more than two links.  Probably the proliferation of literacy, rather, led to a general neglect of memorizing inherited rules and forms, since these were now “extroverted” in the form of literary texts.  Ong reminds us that Plato’s Socrates had protested in the Phaedrus that “writing destroys memory.  Those who use writing will become forgetful, relying on an external resource for what they lack in internal resources.”4  Even those who did not use writing—the very class of person, obviously, most dependent for all forms of cultural instruction upon the more privileged—would suffer as traditions were set down on paper rather than passed along orally: perhaps they most of all.  So the literate Roman proceeded to become, in a sense, too educated—too insulated from his broader community by the more private habits of the literate life.  The bread, without its leavening, baked flat.

     This is my brief summary of an extremely complicated historical transformation.  Ortega y Gasset offers not even so much of a causality as I have: he is more interested in its aftermath.

Among the un-Hellenized portion of the Roman people, the language that thrived was that styled as “vulgar Latin”, the matrix of our romance tongues.  This variety of Latin remains largely in the shadows and, for the most part, can be approached only through reconstruction.  Yet what we do know more than suffices to create a shock about two of the language’s qualities.  One is the incredible simplification of its grammatical mechanism in comparison with classical Latin.  The rich complexity preserved in the language of the upper classes became supplanted by a plebeian speech, its mechanism quite plain and yet, at the same time and for the same reason, heavily mechanical, like a solid material.  Grammatical forms were clumsy and overdone, full of the abortive and the roundabout like a child’s parlance.  In fact, it was a childish or “baby” language that did not permit fine reasoning or lyrical flights to flourish.  It was a language without light or temperature, without expressiveness or fervor of spirit—a sad language that advanced by blind probing….

     The second humbling quality of vulgar Latin is precisely its homogeneity.  Linguists, who are perhaps (after aviators) the brand of person least disposed to take fright at anything, appear not to be staggered before the fact that the same tongue was being spoken in countries as disparate as Carthage and Gaul, Tingitania and Dalmacia, Spain and Rumania.  I, on the other hand, who am so timid that I tremble when I see a breeze rustle in the reeds, cannot repress a profound mental terror before this condition.  It strikes me as simply atrocious.  The truth is that I try to represent to myself how things must have been within this phenomenon which appears to us from without as homogeneity: I have managed to uncover the living reality of which this fact is the silent footprint.  Let us grant, of course, that there were Africanisms, Hispanisms, Gallicisms.  Yet to bring this much to light is to be left with the observation that the language’s trunk was common, identical—in spite of the distances involved, the rarity of commerce, the difficulty of communication, and the absence of any literature to forge connections.  How could the Celtiberian and the Belgian, the resident of Hipona and that of Lutetia, the Mauretanian and the Dacian, come to such an accord except by virtue of a general leveling of outlook, reducing their existence to its foundation and nullifying their lives?5

     Of course, one is tempted in the wake of scholars like Ong, Eric Havelock, and Albert Lord to recast Ortega y Gasset’s contrast of “baby” Latin with the Latin of the educated as a highly literate man’s embedded prejudice against the oral.  I think that would be a mistake.  The Gauls and the Dacians already possessed their own ancestral tongues when the Romans arrived: the contrast Ortega y Gasset gropes after must not, therefore, be that between a tribal atavism and an individual-based progressivism.  No doubt, the literate onlooker does indeed tend to find the tribesman’s formulas and rituals oppressive when contemplating them from the outside.  The suffocation of ideas occurring here, however, is happening at least in part because literate, sophisticated Rome had severed native cultures from their traditions and grafted in their place a sameness at once too narrow to be literate and too shallow to be traditional.  These lands had been “colonized”, to use one of today’s hot-button political terms.  The imported and transplanted Latin language both limited their horizons and bent all roads to a single city beyond the horizon.

     One might say that the victims of such a cultural regimen tend to turn stupid: this is, indeed, precisely what Ortega y Gasset writes just before the section cited above (“los hombres se han vuelto estúpidos”).  Colonization is stupefying.  The oral-traditional mind knows how to think quite well, though it admittedly thinks circuitously by association and with frequent reference to the tangible rather than, like the literate mind, with linear logic serving abstract principle.  In a significant sense, these people—the homogenized, the colonized—do not think well at any level or by any measure.

     It is my thesis here that we are the colony of our technology in much the same way as if a foreign power had forced all our communications into a grammar and diction largely new to us and not handled well.  We still have minds—some of us have exceptional minds; but how are even the brightest of us to think with such a poor vocabulary at our disposal and a mere wreckage of rules governing intricate logical relationships?  Marshall McLuhan celebrated the effects of television upon our psyche (in his youthful days, at any rate) as a liberation from literate habits of thought to something more vibrantly primitive: of him, more later.  Professor Bertonneau, frankly, is closer to my own view in regarding this shift as impoverishment—“leveling” (achatamiento), in Ortega y Gasset’s very apt word.  He sees the decline of our students’ expressive skills as a mere relapse into orality, wherein I would part company with him; yet elements of the case he builds are quite compelling:

     Student “orality” betrays itself in a number of guises: a childish prose, full of technical defects, depending heavily on the transcription of oral formulas based on the first and second persons, as though what one writes were merely a graphic version of what one says; a reliance on paratactic utterances pointing to a concomitant unfamiliarity with hypotactic procedures; a nearly perfect lack of analysis, either grammatical or logical; only the dimmest notion of causality; a lack of even the narrowest repertory of allusions and references, such as to an historical chronology or to a scientific or belletristic knowledge; a crude rhetoric of ego-assertion and resentment; a subjectivity that exploits a ready-made vocabulary of simplistic relativism, often expressing itself in a sweepingly judgmental condemnation of judgments; and a penchant for emotional posturing and what might be called affective argument (except that it is not really argument).  Contemporary student writing is, as Ong might put it, close to the human lifeworld, agonistic, egotistical, aggregative, and formulaic.6

     To be sure, some of the tendencies I noted in my students seem perfect illustrations of the oral mindset.  For instance, many have the greatest difficulty phrasing any kind of subordinate proposition—they cannot handle logic, as Bertonneau asserts.  A phrase like “in which” will be tossed in the direction of a hypotactic link, producing some cousin of the following freak: “A central government, in which we all must elect and respect its decisions, is necessary for a country’s survival.”  A more plain-spun, and probably more frequent, example is the “that if” style of butchery: “He’s somebody that, if you make him mad, heads are sure to roll.”  The pleonasm in “that… him” smacks of the guileless oral afterthought—the scrambling around in mid-sentence to locate one’s intent precisely.  Ancient Greek scholars sometimes speak of the “lilies of the valley” construction, where “how they grow” comes trundling up from behind like a caboose without brakes to pose an alternative object for “consider”.  The Greek Gospels team with such examples: “I know thee, who thou art,” and so on.  In the Hellenic tradition, pre-Socratic literature abounds in proleptic creations like, “I saw him, how he ran.”

     The contemporary student’s general ineptitude with prepositions is probably also best understood as a retreat from established convention—of which he or she knows virtually nothing—to that overt, tangible world of the oral mentality.  For instance, criticism of a person or idea may now emerge more graphically as toward or around that person or idea.  Prepositions in Latin were either followed by the accusative or the ablative case, depending on whether their objects had originally been viewed as receiving action or, for the ablative, transmitting it or simply being its indifferent locus; so we know that at some early stage in the language’s development, prepositions were usually conceived of as designating external, observable relationships in space.  In Homer’s Greek, this is even more obvious—for prepositions remain free-floating adverbs in the two great epics of Greece, and they may even be repeated in the prefix of a verb.  One can imagine the bard’s hands gesturing, just as a student may gesture when reading aloud a line such as, “Their sympathy toward her was more because of animosity from the community.”

     What earnest composition instructor has not plucked out a few hairs over commas used to mimic oral emphasis?  “I refused to go, and, I told him the reason why.”  As much as these young people love to fiddle with fonts, they can only be slighting the “italic” function in favor of the comma because their voice pauses after “and” in speaking the sentence.  My particular bête noir in this category is the use of “so” as an intensifier—i.e., synonymously with “very” or “quite” (“Capital punishment is so unfair!”).  I have given up trying to impress upon my captive audiences that this tiny word must be followed closely by a result close.  In the spoken language, however, such abuse of the word has a long history.  Furthermore, in other cultures with an active oral component, similar words are similarly abused.  I think of how the Scots sometimes intensify adjectives with, of all things, “that”: “I was that surprised, so I was!”

     Most readers will not be surprised at all, however, to hear that “so” is now intensifying entire clauses in student parlance: “I was so ‘this can’t be happening’!”  What rough beast is slouching into mainstream English behind this monstrosity?  With apologies to Dr. Bertonneau, it doesn’t resemble any creature from orally transmitted myth or saga.  In fact, when I first began to notice the usage, it was always very plainly humorous—almost ostentatiously located in certain television advertisements, as if to say, “See how attuned to teens we are?  See how outrageously we have twisted the language?”  No doubt, adolescents mercifully far from my hearing had been intensifying their clauses long before TV marketers grabbed the trend by the coattails; but even today—this very day—as I overhear students jabbering behind laptops and into cell phones, I fancy that I detect an ambition to be somewhat “cute” in concocting the most unwieldy, unlikely phrase possible to follow the racked and wretched “so”.  Nothing remotely analogous from any oral tradition occurs to me.  I believe, rather, that the clause following the “so” is felt and delivered as a dramatic line, with the intensifier’s functioning as opening and closing quotation marks—or, better yet, as a screen.  I believe that young people more and more view themselves from the outside as players or actors being perceived in a certain part, a certain mode.  For that matter, the “so” phenomenon just described is of exactly the same order, in my opinion, as the yet more widely observed “like” phenomenon: “I’m like, ‘This can’t be happening,’ and he’s like, ‘Don’t blow it all now,’ and I’m like, ‘What’ll I do if they ask, like, where my mother lives?’”  How on earth is one to understand this push-button evocation of another register with the “like” key except as—once again—a series of quotation marks, of lines delivered out of an impromptu drama?

     Let me be clear.  Oral communities, I concede, are shame- rather than guilt-driven.  That is, they do indeed have a very strong sense of reputation—they are intensely preoccupied by what the neighbors may think.  Yet the “act”, if such it be, that they put on for others and themselves is very narrowly indexed to precedent, and to very ancient precedent, in most cases.  The behavior they accept and strive to imitate has satisfied a test of time before the review of several generations.  We know that abominations like human sacrifice can occasionally pass such muster, so the review is not morally flawless.  I say only that it exists.  Our young people, on the other hand, increasingly have the mentality of actors in search of a script.  Their lines might express just about any view at all: like true thespians, they throw themselves with equal dedication into the part of hero or of villain.  They possess the “being watched” mentality of pre-literate tribesmen without being bound by the tribe’s anchoring taboos.  And perhaps most consequentially of all, they have, instead of the tribe’s rich legacy of proverbs and fables, a superabundance of gestures—not Homeric accompaniments to a verse sung emphatically, but gestures panicking in a verbal near-void.

     For it strikes me that one of the critical characteristics of the “framing” or “screening” use of “so” and “like” is that it elicits a kind of miming.  The hands flap, the eyes roll, the head tilts… the verbal message’s sender, as he or she grows ever less verbal, supplements lost meaning with visual display.  In the last decade or so, the wearing of rings and tattoos has come to be described as “self-expression”.  Students will tease and torture their hair into the most unlikely positions in order to “make a statement”, often adding two or three highly artificial colors by way of exclamation point.  Clothes threaten to fall away from forbidden regions—and clearly not (one often realizes upon getting to know the person in question) as a sign of eagerness to have sex.  The visual display, rather, is an announcement that one is a sender—that one has something to say, probably something quite urgent which the miserable adolescent couldn’t begin to put into words.

     Tribes, to be sure, have their paints, feathers, and tattoos.  Yet to think of a Mohawk warrior’s hair as the cultural equivalent of a student’s selectively sheared mop is indeed rather too blunt.  The true tribesman’s adornments have profound meaning for him of a highly referential sort.  They declare his place in an immense line stretching back among ancestors, time out of mind.  The student’s baubles and plumage, despite identifying him or her sometimes with a certain set about campus, have a very delicate currency.  Much of their message’s mood is subjunctive—“if you know this and if you know that”; a broad publication of the nose-ring’s or tattoo’s social connotations would neutralize their delightful aura of secrecy.  Hence the message’s Gnostic terms must constantly be renewed.  The Mohawk, on the other hand, fully expects everyone in his territory to understand the meaning of his feathers.  He might well consider himself mortally insulted if he found out otherwise.

     So the real meaning of the student’s visual displays, whatever specific allusions they may carry, is in the direction of the unique.  Our young people hungrily crave individualism, even in their cliques and gangs.  I believe that this craving has mushroomed precisely as—and precisely because—their linguistic skills have dwindled to the point of confining them within Ortega y Gasset’s suffocating sameness.  Because they cannot speak their way out of the anonymity to which they have been reduced, they seek to act, gesture, and flash their way out.  The irony—and it is a very bitter irony, for it seals these young lives within a closed labyrinth—is that visual images are far less capable of poignant, particularized expression than well-made sentences.  One picture is not worth a thousand words; or if it is so, this can only be because the picture is displayed in a community where people talk constantly, fluidly, and intelligently.  A large-eyed child brooding on a doorstep could mean any one of a thousand things—but only to people who talk, read, and write about innocence, sin, despair, alienation, growing up, and the meaning of life generally.  To the neighborhood drug-dealer, the child is just a potential customer or a potential witness: nothing more.


     It seems to me that the intellectual content of student essays—that facet of them which genuinely concerns Dr. Bertonneau, me, and any other responsible teacher far more than grammar and orthography—is best understood in the light of this excessively visual mindset, and not as an expression of “oral thinking”.  Exactly what, I would ask, is oral thinking?  Is it synonymous with fuzzy thinking?    It certainly prefers the specific to the general, and the general to the abstract; but is abstract thinking always less blurred by detail, more categorically valid?  Does a politician hundreds of miles behind the front line assess a war’s risks better because he sees no mangled bodies being carried away?  Is the pre-literate tribesman more egotistical?  In some sense, no doubt.  But isn’t it the literate, with his enhanced grasp of the self/other distinction, who is alone capable of true self-absorption?  Achilles’ “selfishness” consists of being painfully aware of his diminished status within the community.  He grows more self-aware as he ponders his situation in the privacy of his tent—an unintended meditative retreat which very nearly leaves him ready to accept worldly obscurity in return for a long life of internal rewards before Patroclus’s death draws him impulsively back into battle.  Was Achilles, then, behaving more “orally” when he sprang up and denounced Agamemon, more “literately” when he informed the king’s delegation that mere life outweighs wealth and fame, and then “orally” once again when he charged off to avenge his friend?  But he certainly hadn’t been learning to read in his tent!

     The useful and much-needed work which Milman Parry did in comparing Homer to Slavic performing bards founded a new scholarly field, and the ensuing labors of Lord, Ong, and others have greatly heightened our awareness of literacy’s full meaning.  Yet this scholarly trend has also implied the existence of a dynamic strain between the spoken and the written which I now believe to have been often overstated.  The truth is that the oral and the literate, in the normal course of events, support one another as much as they undermine one another.  Achilles needed time, not literacy, to think more clearly; but one of the new habits which literacy has typically forced upon thought is a more reflective consumption of time.  Ong’s ground-breaking book leaves the impression that literacy somehow refined the visual dimension of thought: its later chapters document gradual changes in the first printed books.  A progression is observable, for instance, in how brief words were soon no longer hyphenated and how the most important words in titles were soon awarded the largest characters.  Ong claims that such alterations appeared in tandem with the tendency to read silently rather than aloud.7  I find this association of ideas tenuous.  Why strain after so involved an explanation when one may simply say that, as printers advanced in their craft, they reflected more on how to reinforce the text’s logical transitions with visual cues?  The later printer had given the matter more consideration because he was later—he had benefited, like Achilles, from an extended period of reflection.  Whether he and his loyal readership were now keeping their lips sealed as they gobbled up printed pages is surely quite irrelevant.

     In fact, ancient authors wrote abundantly about the proper way to lay out an oration: literacy had evidently sharpened their sense of how to speak more coherently, more reasonably.  Yet they were speakers, as well: Aristotle and Quintilian were teachers, Cicero and Tacitus lawyers and statesmen.  Because they spoke, they were aware of argumentation as a means of influencing sensible people.  Indeed, although Achilles does not learn to write in his tent, he delivers to Agamemnon’s embassy a much longer and more persuasive exposition of his view than he had managed in the heat of the epic’s opening book.  Yes, the division of both Homeric tales into books was the work of Alexandrian librarians; but the divisions generally make sense, and we can hardly imagine that the same librarians added dozens or hundreds of lines to raise the seams dramatically.  Literacy tends to draw out the logic latent in any concatenation of words; but the words, in their original form, are not pre- or anti-logical.

     To find the contemporary student, then, unable to avoid tendentious, cliché-ridden palaver and surface-level self-contradiction in a 500-word essay is less a sign that he is devolving from an Aristotle into an Achilles than that he is an offended Achilles rather than a meditative one.  Knee-jerk judgments determined entirely by emotion are characteristic, not of the oral tribesman, but of the roused oral tribesman (and, to a lesser extent, of the roused literate man of the world).  The question, then, is not so much why our students don’t read more or write better, but why they seem to be so aroused all the time—so whimsical, so petulant, so sullen, so frivolous, so governed by superficial emotion.  Consider some of the irreconcilable responses expressed in my classes by the same student as he or she hashed through questions of culture and value:


   The subject of one series of essays was whether a government should be expected at all times to abide by the same moral principles as the citizens under its control.  (Viz., if it is wrong and legally punishable to break a contract, should it not also be wrong for national leaders to make covert deals in conflict with public policy?)  A thunderous majority—perhaps 90%--of all my students insisted that government should enjoy discretionary powers never granted to private individuals (this is, after all, the first generation to have passed its entire adolescence in our post-9/11 phase).  Many expressed such tolerance as a holy obligation: the language was especially striking in that I teach in the heart of the Bible Belt, and I should indeed conjecture that at least 60-70% of my students were reared in the framework of Protestant fundamentalism.  “If you can’t trust your government, who[m] can you trust?” wrote one young woman; and another opined similarly, “People must have faith in their government.”  Though the immediate object of this abject devotion would traditionally, for most of these young people, be God, the other “g” word had been penciled in without hesitation.  The contradiction in making such obeisance to a worldly human power should perhaps be even more doctrinal than logical in their case—for the same two writers, and many others like them, would in a later essay rate devotion to God as their highest value.


   The Bible Belt is also home to much rugged individualism and “don’t tread on me” libertarianism (a fact which some would find paradoxical in itself).  I should guess that, once again, approximately 90% of my students would agree that the government dishes out too many welfare checks, has too large a budget, and advances a social agenda too actively.  Yet in the context of the essay about ceding government the power to ignore commonly accepted moral principles, such apologetics as the following were abundant: “The government was put into place to do for the people what the people can not [sic] do for themselves.”  Note that this curiously un-Madisonian formulation vaguely implies that governments fall out of the sky like Rome’s Twelve Tables—another suggestion that, if not the incarnation of God himself, they are at least God’s right hand.  My independent young people also manifested, in a great many cases, a fervent conviction that “ignorance is bliss” (to invoke what one called a “wise old saying”).  “The public does not need to know the truth as long as their [the government’s] deception profits them [sic],” wrote one student (displaying the almost universal tendency to refer to abstract collective nouns as “they”—probably another of Professor Bertonneau’s indicators that this generation has to concretize the abstract in oral fashion).  Another student explained the position with a Machiavellian twist: “Sometimes it seems that if the government held back some information about their [sic] more risky and complicated actions then it would eliminate some of the complaints and protest [sic] from citizens who do not understand the full extent situations.”  Of course, the identity of the singular and plural forms of “protest” belongs to the “-ist” category of “ill-heard, ergo ill-spelled” blunder.  But the point of greatest interest here is that the writer has coolly stated the rationale of public deception from the government’s perspective.  We did, in fact, read excerpts from The Prince in preparing for the essay.  Need I remark that outrage at Machiavelli’s thesis was on the paltry order of one student per class?


   In a closely related matter, we wrote upon the subject of torture—specifically, whether or not it might be justified in certain moments of extreme crisis.  Again, students were almost nonplussed at my posing such a “no-brainer”.  The consensus was that thumbscrews should be standard issue for every federal agent.  I must add that about half of my sample grasped and accepted the concerns I tried to stress about the practical fallibility of torture (people often lie under duress) and the practical complexity of establishing guilt (terrorists frequently seek to take credit for whatever bomb or kidnapping is in the news).  One writer was in such an emotional lather over the issue that she could not restrain herself within the bounds of, say, a suitcase bomb threatening Manhattan: she wanted the gate thrown wide-open.   “The families of murderers should be tortured if they know where they are and won’t say, for then they are just as bad as them [sic].”  I could not shake this person from her extravagant thesis by observing that the law, in fact, does not require close family members to testify against each other, and that natural law is generally understood as approving a parent’s defense of his or her offspring to the bitter end under any circumstances.  Yet this same young woman vocally shared her joy in her own toddler on many occasions—and, I might add, once triumphantly informed a general group of bystanders that her fiancé had beaten the rap for possession of illegal drugs and weapons on a technicality.  Perhaps this level of self-contradiction was sui generis: that it occurred at all in a college classroom was nonetheless shocking to me.


   I offer two final passages which are also unique, yet which, I fear, typify the kind of incoherence apt to undermine contemporary student writing.  The subject was again torture.  A particular student thought to plead its case by offering a very odd pedigree: “This concept [torture to extract vital information] is due to the way Christ was crucified on the cross for the good of the people, which explains why the people that believe in torture believe it is morally right in any circumstance.”  The reader must accept my assurance that this writer considered himself a devout believer—the comment was most definitely not intended as an ironic indictment of Christian hypocrisy.  I cannot explain exactly what was meant by the remark’s second half, but the gist appears to be that those who embrace Christ’s example endorse torture in principle since God incarnate glorified its practice!  The second passage is only slightly less deranged, and continues to bother me to this moment because its author was such an exceptionally warm and jovial person.  At issue here is the question, not of torture per se, but of the “trade-off” between a desperate deed and the anticipated profit to be achieved through it.  “The terrorists weren’t thinking about all the innocents when they attacked the World Trade Center that killed nearly 3,000 people.  So why should America consider any of their innocent people?  I think that if America has access to nuclear missiles, then we should use some.”  Of course, this comment fails even to address the “trade-off” issue, for it urges reprisal rather than preemption.  The student, then, has neither answered the question under discussion nor, more broadly and disturbingly, recognized the distinction between a state-sponsored aggression and a terrorist cell’s machinations.  Perhaps she felt that the Palestinians dancing in the streets after the World Trade Towers fell deserved punishment for their display—though I doubt that she could have identified just which nation she wanted bombed.


     Fuzzy thinking?  Incontestably.  Literate thinking, informed by careful perusal of relevant texts and quiet, protracted reflection over quill and parchment?  Not even close.  Yet ought we therefore to call such muddled, impulsive archery at the moon the oral style by default?  I don’t see why.  One particularly salient aspect of my students’ clumsiness and uncertainty with the issues was their poor verbal performance during class discussions.  Those few who could reason well in fluid speech wrote superior papers; those from whose papers I gleaned the examples offered above either had nothing to say in class or rambled on with maddening discontinuity (a single case: the student who wanted to torture the mothers of fugitive murderers).  In short, poor argumentation is the natural accomplice, not of a tendency to chattiness, but of muteness.  We can all readily cite examples, to be sure, of excellent writers whose voice we never heard throughout their semester-length presence in our lives.  I was such a one myself as a youth: perhaps many of us professional educators were—perhaps this is why we find the writing/speaking opposition so credible.  I do not contend, however, that silence is hostile to intelligent composition.  On the contrary, I contend that the genuine loss for words—not shyness before a crowd, but a verbal vacuity which can no more animate pen than tongue—has sabotaged productive thinking in our time.  The quiet student incubating brilliant ideas gazes from the back of the room with bursting eyes: the clown who doesn’t want his car searched without a warrant but is ready to give carte blanche to official eavesdropping fidgets, sighs, flips open the laptop, and text-messages.  If you have taught, you know how to tell one from the other.

     Text-messaging… we’re back to the cell phone.  No new technology better illustrates the degenerate state of our language in the terms used by Ortega y Gasset of vulgar Latin.  The owner of this modern marvel both speaks and writes—but in what mutilated phrases, in what inane and impersonal clichés!  Various studies have apparently concluded that significant numbers of cell-phone users are in fact talking to themselves when their prattle intrudes upon our peace.  The cell phone, then—especially among young people, where the measure of phony phoning can far exceed one-half—is yet another stage prop.  It announces to the world that one is popular, important, sought-after.  It turns out in such cases really to have nothing to do either with speech or with writing.  Like the nose-ring and the tattoo, its primary mode of expression is visual.  It exists to be seen.


     I might credit Marshall McLuhan (another member of that distinguished Toronto University cohort including Eric Havelock and Harold Innis) with recognizing that television’s emphasis of the visual would alter Western consciousness.  Certainly the insight expressed in the comments below is both profound and inarguable:

If technology is introduced either from within or from without a culture, and if it gives new stress or ascendancy to one or another of our senses, the ratio among all of our senses is altered.  We no longer feel the same, nor do our eyes and ears and other senses remain the same.  The interplay among our senses is perpetual save in conditions of anesthesia.  But any sense when stepped up to high intensity can act as an anesthetic for other senses.8

Nevertheless, I must question to what degree McLuhan understood that literacy occupied the invidious end of the contrast rather than radio; and, in any case, his description—shortly preceding the above citation—of the renaissance to be expected as mankind was sensually drawn back into the immediate world comes across nowadays as poignantly, even tragically naïve.  We are assured that “our electric technology has consequences for our most ordinary perceptions and habits of action which are quickly recreating in us the mental processes of the most primitive men.”9  If this sounds like a warning, it isn’t.  On the contrary, McLuhan romantically foresees a mind-opening return to orality as electronic media bring Western culture full circle from the radically unstable “literate man... a split man, a schizophrenic”.10

     The medium most certainly proved to be the message, though—and the late twentieth century’s dominant media most certainly turned out to emphasize the visual.  What we must now soberly accept (on the assumption, of course, that knowing the truth may yet help us) is that sight, far more than hearing, antagonizes literate thought.  As McLuhan observed with great genius, the way we think is deeply influenced by the media of communication favored at our point in history.  What Ong would call the “psychodynamics” of sight are radically different from those involved in hearing.  The following distinctions are among the most obvious:


   Vision enjoys a seamless continuity: there is always something to see as long as the eyes are open.  The same is not true of hearing.  Though we forget it sometimes in our highly artificial world’s cacophonous racket, such a thing as silence does exist.  From time to time, one can hear nothing at all.  The blinking of the eyes, while reflexive and steady, is not perceived as a lacuna in the same way as a 3 a.m. silence.  The correct analogy would be between blinking and stopping up the ears; but even in this case, the blink would have to be unnaturally long (i.e., deliberately sustained)—and why, in the normal course of events, would anyone go about stopping up his ears at intervals?  Neither interruption belongs to ordinary experience.


   Because of their “blank” or neutral background of silence, sounds are discrete.  They have number and duration.  Visual images, in contrast, may be conceived of as a single image, or else divided arbitrarily to the perceiver’s taste.  Is a horizon just a horizon, or should rooftops be distinguished from the sky?  Should chimneys and eaves be separated from roofs?  Is the sky more blue in one quadrant than another?  The answers to such questions do not impose themselves with the same objectivity as they would if one asked, “Did the glass shatter before the dog barked?  Was there a woman’s scream as well as a bark?”  They say Eskimos have several different words for “snow”, each of which introduces a minor distinction.  Has any culture ever lumped into one word for “storm sounds” the rattle of raindrops and the roar of thunder?


   Sound involves the dimension of time more than sight in consequence of its being, in reality, a series of discrete sounds.  Sight is far less linked to time: its sequences are often as patently arbitrary as the choice to survey a scene from left to right instead of right to left.  Even when objects are seen to move, they often acquire a kind of peaceful fixity if perceived without sound (e.g., a distant train’s progress across a plain) or if the attendant sounds reinforce a visual repetition (e.g., waves rolling onto the shore or a field of wheat rippling in the breeze).  One can actually lose track of time in such settings.  A single discrete sound, however, may bring one sharply out of one’s reverie: a shout, an explosion, etc.  A sight may do this, too: a running figure, a falling object, a sudden change of lighting.  Yet when sights change, one examines the external world in order to read the meaning of the change; when sounds change, one tends to turn within for explanations.  (E.g., the running figure is finally seen to be pursuing a dog, whereas an abrupt screech of tires is imagined—in the absence of visual data—to be a car avoiding a collision.) Noises, then, create an internal awareness of time in a way that sights do not.  Paradoxically, the repetitive noise of seashore waves or of rippling wheat is sound’s closest approach to the mesmeric “timeless” effect precisely because the succession proves to be “false”: i.e., it introduces no distinctly new visual event or inner suspicion of new causes at work.


   Because of their firm implication in time, the recollection of sounds is far more complicated than that of sights.  Sounds have an order, and the true recollection of them often depends upon restoring that order: the laughter at a party must almost necessarily be merged with the hum of voices and the clink of glasses when recalled.  Such memories have a certain cadence, a certain pattern of preceding sounds and overlapping sounds.  A particular image, however, can be summoned to mind both in isolation from its surroundings and with considerable vagueness in its component parts.  One can somewhat remember a face or a house without visualizing very many details.  Further thought may flesh out the memory: for a sound, the experience either returns largely intact at once, or not at all with any degree of effort.  Of course, the art of sounds—music—requires a specific amount of time in which to represent itself and gives little pleasure in fragmentary or out-of-sequence form.  A painting requires no certain amount of time to be perceived, and one may find joy in its memory without being able to recall significant parts of it. 


     Now let us sit in Professor McLuhan’s chair and speculate about a culture which privileges visual over aural communication.  How would the seer’s worldview tend to differ from the hearer’s?  Homo spectans would be more inclined to accept perceived divisions in things as subjectively imposed rather than objectively grounded.  He would be more apt to attribute disagreements to differing “points of view”.  He would be less sensitive to the passage of time, less convinced that choices produce consequences, less nervous about the “ripple” effects of a given event; or, to express the equation in his favor, he would be more intent upon the present, more confident that the social whole would absorb superficial oddities in its members’ conduct, more willing to take a bold step himself without brooding over its direction.  He would want his days, hours, and minutes filled with amusement and pageantry: silence and stillness would strike him as intensely uninteresting.  Lest we imagine that he would sit rapt before the wash of rollers on the seashore, recall that this experience owes its hypnotism as much to sound as to sight (the same scene might well hold a diminished degree of fascination for a deaf person).  Precisely because visual time has a special elasticity, a forgivingness, those who dwell in it don’t care to see time stand still.  Homo audiens—the introvert, the reader—is he who would be most soothed and enthralled by hypnotic prospects of repetition, for his heightened awareness of time, cause, and personal responsibility would make a temporary lifting of that burden delightful.  Homo spectans needs to be swimming in the waves, rolling in the wheat.   He would be on the go, mingling hungrily with his environment.  His sense of self amid all this florid activity, almost certainly, would lag far behind that of the listener; for a man can hear his own voice at any time, but he cannot truly see himself even in a mirror—and he can form complete words and sentences in his mind, yet only grasp at metamorphic visual recollections as Menelaus did at the ever-changing Proteus.

     That many of our young people belong to this new human species should scarcely need further demonstration for anyone who has moved daily among them.  They struggle in their judgments to reify parts of the world and to apply abstract distinctions.  Things blur together.  A sense of outrage at the police for arresting one’s friend readily morphs into a willingness to have federal agents reading all our e-mail.  Capital punishment is barbarous, but torturing a terrorist is a nice little bit of payback, with or without divulged secrets.  No one but a racist could possibly approve the enforcing of our national borders, but we ought to “nuke” those people who wear “head rags”.  The same young people cannot seem to have assignments read before class or to submit papers on time: they cannot even manage to drop a class which they have never attended before the publicly announced and clarioned deadline.  Social commentators contradictorily assert of them that they are highly cliquish and fiercely individualistic—and the contradiction is true.  They are forever fusing with their surroundings, doing as Romans do when in Rome, primping themselves to look “cool” or “fly”… yet, in their own minds, these efforts are as much a declaration of independence as a recitation of the fraternity’s sacred oath.  For they do not really know where the group ends and they begin: their mimicry of behaviors and repetition of clichés constantly leaves them frustrated, since they had thought at some critical point that the group was their elusive self.

     That the habits of “seeing man” are notably less compatible with literacy than those of “listening man” should also need little demonstration.  The writer refines the speaker, providing a preview of his arguments, slowing down their construction, shoring up deficient logical connections, highlighting the major issues, balancing the time spent on each stage of the case, and minimizing ad hominem attacks that undermine the guiding principle’s authority.  Writers ponder rather than respond to spontaneous cues: they grope after a transcending good rather than work a particular crowd.  To this extent, they are indeed unlike speakers.  Yet the relationship has historically been more symbiotic than adversarial.  The speaker reminds the writer that prose should be vivid, that cadenced phrasing should accompany balanced argument, that a sharp example drawn from familiar circumstances need not strain against universal truth—that, in fact, human beings are universally awash in the particular.  While the writer may better succeed at grasping and defining the confraternity which mystically binds us through and above our circumstances, the speaker shakes more hands.  Speaking is that public projection of philosophizing which neutralizes the profound moralist’s tendency to misanthropy.  Is it any wonder that Confucius, Socrates, and Epictetus (not to mention Jesus) let someone else do their scribbling?

     If the oral and the literate are complementary opposites, the visual is the Mr. Hyde incredibly, perversely sired by Dr. Jekyll’s brilliance.  The irony is starkly material: the electronic technology which has saturated us in images could not possibly exist without that jewel in literacy’s crown, science.  Literacy (greatly helped by the printing press) allowed investigators to record observations in vast number and with precision, then to circulate them among the curious.  The collaboration of an international community of scholars pledged to dissecting the physical environment with utter objectivity gained momentum.  External reality could soon be manipulated as no ancient philosopher would ever have dreamed possible.  The creation of highly artificial habitats where the flow of vital necessities was perfectly monitored and measured, the conquest of terrifying diseases and of seemingly irresistible degenerative processes, the removal of human bodies from the front lines of wars (and the unintended transformation of civilian centers into targets)… everything changed in a few short centuries.  If these radical changes could be viewed as moving along a certain spiritual vector rather than simply turning existence inside-out, the steady breeze inclining all of them where it listeth was remove.  Distance: the physical sprawl of settlements, the remote operation of war engines, insulation from biological contagion, isolation from thronging masses, liberation from subjective prejudice… the clinician’s white lab coat, the new subdivision’s automatic security gates, the PC-user’s “firewalls” and “virus shields”, the busman-on-holiday’s remote-control stick.

     I suppose it is natural enough to misread this vector as paralleling that of increasing literacy.  The reader has always retreated to a secret inner place since the day when he learned how to keep his lips still: the writer has done so since the day when he ceased being a glorified copyist.  Literate introversion is also a kind of remove.  Yet it is an oral remove—a withdrawal from gushing words to a place where they trickle more leisurely, more inventively.  The scientist has long suffered cruel stereotyping as a verbally challenged automaton—a robot with an ego.  The caricature is not entirely undeserved.  Scientists, alas, are wedded to images.  They are not free to write fantasies, utopias, or fugues: every word they pen must describe perceptible phenomena—visible phenomena; for even seismic tremors and black pulsars in far galaxies are represented visually by needles bouncing along tapes.  Words are an inconvenient middle stage to scientific truth.  The ultimate triumph rests always in perfectly describing perceived reality (pure science), or in altering that reality in perfectly predictable fashion. (applied science).  Of course, the middle stage is indispensable: the scientist must be able to explain or describe, which requires words.  His “skill set” is consequently very rare, and probably—like Dr. Jekyll’s—somewhat schizophrenic (as McLuhan blandly alleged of all literates); for, while the orator’s logic moves from the seen to the unseen, the scientist’s must always take a third step back to the seen.  The inner life is never his destination.

     It is very likely needless—maybe even needlessly provocative—for me to take so much space in extending the pedigree of modern counter-literacy (for the post-literate is aggressively counter-literate) all the way back to the scientific revolution.  All I am compelled to show here is how our youth came to have their mental energies shanghaied by the visual.  The connection, as I have said, should be almost self-evident: first movies, then television, then exponential multiplication of televised fare and TV sets per household, then the VCR , then video arcades, then the Internet, then video games on DVD , now cell phones with cameras.  Except for the motion picture, all of these eye-catching amusements have blossomed during my lifetime, most of them within the past twenty years.  I do not understand how any reasonable person could still doubt that the consciousness of our young people is being drawn outward in an alarming manner.  Silence and solitude are fearful prospects to most of them.  The word “boring” has been ever on the tip of student tongues now for at least three decades, and is perhaps less so now than ten years ago because so many students bring electronic diversions to class with them.  Something must be “happening” all the time in their seamless, extroverted, visual approach to life.  I have already assessed the cell phone as a visual signifier—a stage prop; but on those occasions when a real call actually goes through, it is also—naturally—providing instant diversion.  Indeed, the aural experience of our young people has generally assumed the same fluid, available-on-demand character as is implicit in the visual world.  Many of them are rigged with headphones when not chattering on a cell phone, and more than a few students tell me that they never compose papers on the computer without piping in music from its speakers.  Such “music” is unlikely to be Gershwin, let alone Ravel or Brahms.  The most popular genres truly have very little musical quality at all.  Rap and hip-hop are ostentatiously monotonous: the latter may feature a few faintly melodious bars played over and over in the background.  Why the relentless repetition?  I suspect the “waves along the shoreline” effect.  Sound is least indexed to linear temporal change—i.e., most like sight—in these circumstances.  The score isn’t really going anywhere: time isn’t really advancing.  Voices and instruments do not pause: instants of silence do not punctuate.  Everything is here and now.  Don’t forage through your memory, and don’t feel your way into an imagined future.  Just open your eyes.

     The scientific mentality strikes me as worth mentioning in this context only because it provides such a clear explanation, not just for how our electronic amusements were born, but also—and even more helpfully—for why they were born.  Progressive remove from the vital circumstances of one’s environment is hard to bear.  It is nothing less than solitary confinement.  The literate author retreated within himself to find humanity’s soul: the literate scientist retreated from specific empirical cases to find universal laws for those cases.  The empty inner space of his reflections (empty, that is, of interfering empirical stimuli) supplied the neutral zone, the sterilized incubator, in which he could best make the transition from the particular to the general level of what he had seen.  Such formidable minds are not excused from a horror of the void; the technicians who developed radio, then television, computers, and the rest, were serious men and women addressing the chasm in the human psyche, not giddy adolescents.  Yet they were not philosophers, either.  If few of them were suffering through a teenager’s identity crisis, they nevertheless—as a group—did not know who they were.  Even Einstein (who passed much of his youth as an exile from scientific respectability) grossly overestimated human nature in predicting the future of nuclear power.

     So the human condition, as an acute pathology, was treated with the “plug-in drug” (to borrow Mary Wynne’s felicitous phrase).  The scientific worldview, one may say without much fear of contradiction, embraces the artificial.  Progress is always possible, and its mechanism lies not in better understanding the necessary limits of our mortal existence, but in exploiting nature’s laws to create unnatural solutions.  That human alienation and emptiness should be addressed by creating alternate realities—visual realities—which anesthetize the soul to its pain would be fully in keeping with the scientific program.  It would never occur to the committed scientist that the very techniques which allowed him to cure physical ailments would conspire to produce an anguishing psychological malaise, much less that the cure for this malaise du siècle would sabotage the future of science.

     Yet so it has come to pass.  The children and grandchildren of scientific innovators are so effectively turned outward into the visible environment that the mediation of words now sits beyond their reach.  The present generation is arguably less scientific than Homer’s: deprive them of their inheritance of gadgetry, and they would be less capable of inventing the saw or the pulley than Odysseus.  Ortega y Gasset insisted on the point.  “The common man,” he writes, “upon encountering this technical and socially fine-crafted world, believes that Nature has produced it, and never spares a thought for the benign efforts of excellent individuals implicated in its creation.  Even less would he acknowledge the idea that all of these conveniences flow in serial fashion from certain hard-won human virtues, the least failure of which would rapidly bring down the whole magnificent construction.”11  Our students can read, but not very well: information is as close at hand as Wikipedia, and vibrant entertainment as easy as inserting a plastic disc.  They occasionally pass math courses, yet think more like marketers than mathematicians: a spreadsheet of generalized responses interests them infinitely more than the study’s definition of a discrete unit.  When forced to enunciate a value judgment, they patch together some such circular folderol as, “You have to be happy with your self [sic] and be confident to get anywhere in this world”—as if happiness and confidence instrumentally preceded “getting somewhere”, which in turn would pay off the previous bluff by generating real wealth and pride.  They neither write enough nor speak enough; by comparison, they watch far too much.  One series of studies lately discovered that the student’s imaginative awareness of his visible appearance affects how well he thinks in the most quantifiable manner we know of: the IQ test.  Students who took half the test, exited for a break, and then returned wearing a baseball cap performed distinctly less well on the second half.  If the cap were rotated to the side or the back, performance was yet worse, by a considerable margin.12

     Toward the end of her enchanting Se Il Sole Muore (If the Sun Dies), the late Oriana Fallaci describes an unforgettable scene with the pioneer astronauts who “adopted” her as a sister (probably because her ingenuous interviewing succeeded in unlocking the humanity beneath their military/technician exterior).  The group is sitting around a motel pool near Cape Kennedy.  Pete Conrad solicits suggestions from his mates about how to begin a speech which he must soon present in Philadelphia.  The response is a general turning of backs, until Frank Borman inexplicably rises with the utmost gravity and begins to deliver Marc Antony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar.  After two dozen lines, Borman volleys the recitation to Theodore Freeman (destined to die in twenty-four hours),  who instantly adds the next few lines before the baton is passed to Dick Gordon, then Tom Stafford… and thus through the whole leisurely assembly until Shakespeare’s last line is honored.  One must wonder how many doctoral candidates in Elizabethan literature today could recite six lines from the same speech with an hour’s warning to rack their brains.

     Yet Fallaci’s book is nothing so much as a nervous meditation on the American faith in progress.  In an important sense, the Moon loomed large to us in mid-century—to astronomers, engineers, and pilots no less than to film-producers and poets—because we all had some Shakespeare by heart.  We applied logical analysis, but also intellectual curiosity and spiritual hunger, to what we saw about us.  As far as I know, no public figure has spoken of any new missions to the Moon for years.  Our electorate would rather spend tax dollars on sports arenas, and our private sector would rather dig deeper into the gold mine of electronic entertainment.  It isn’t that we have gone our separate ways as a culture: we have all traveled the same road, instead—away from Shakespeare, away from the past, away from silence and solitude, and into “a general leveling of outlook”.  On our present course—which is precisely no course at all, a renunciation of all possible culture by seeking to dwell in an eternal present—our grandchildren will be reduced to the state of a Cro-Magnon on a savanna.  They will see the sunlight, see a friend, make a hand signal, see the friend’s bandaged arm, pat the friend’s shoulder… what other expressions of sentiment, what deeper levels of analysis, will be possible in a being that only sees?  If the Moon should rise before this pair of friends and one of them should point at it, will either of them be able to vociferate the vaguest of longings?  Will the sound resemble a man’s thinking more than a dog’s baying?

1 See p. 22 of Thomas F. Bertonneau, “Thinking Is Hard: How a Damaged Literacy Hinders Students From Coming to Grips With Ideas,” Praesidium 2.3 (Summer 2003): 5-22.

2 Cf. Ong’s classification of the oral mentality as “situational rather than abstract” in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Routledge, 1982), 49-57.

3 I frequently console my classes with the howling gaffe in the very title of a book published in 1993 by Eerdmans: Whatever [sic] Happened to Evangelical Theology?  We can hardly expect our disciples to clear hurdles which we ourselves leave overturned.

4 Op. cit., 79.

5 My translation from La Rebelión de las Masas (Madrid: Allianza Editorial, 1990), 30-31.

6 Op. cit., 8.  Bertonneau adds in a note appended to this passage that he is not unsympathetic with students as they pace their inexpressive prison: he recognizes them, rather, as the victims of an incompetent or insouciant education system which has allowed this unwholesome condition to worsen for decades.

7 Op. cit., 119-121.

8 H. Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1967), 25

9 Ibid., 30.

10 Ibid., 22.

11 Op. cit., 85.  My translation.

12 See Michael Ackley, April 2, 2007 , World Net Daily (, “IQ Study Caps Off Theory”.  The editorialist warns that his work has satiric ambitions, but the raw facts of this case appear to be reported without embellishment.

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Ends of the West

Marxism, Multiculturalism, and Free Speech.

By Frank Ellis.

Council for Social and Economic Studies, 2006. 107 pp. Paper.

Reviewed by Mark Wegierski


     Frank Ellis is a former Lecturer in Russian at Leeds University who himself became embroiled in a “political correctness” scandal of the type which he discusses in this book.  When Frank Ellis’ off-campus statements in opposition to unrestricted Third World immigration into Britain became widely circulated at his university, he was placed in an untenable situation and was ultimately forced to negotiate an early retirement settlement.

     Ironically, the study of modern languages is an area where strict merit might be easier to determine than in most of the humanities.  Indeed, it may be a discipline where certain “objective criteria” are more possible than in some other areas of the humanities—either a person knows the given language at a very high level, or he doesn’t.  Also, it is relatively easier to evaluate knowledge of a given language without the possibility of accusations of bias. Frank Ellis has without question a strong facility in the Russian language, and has read widely in Russian and Soviet literature.  Thus it should have been easier for him to defend his scholarly credentials.

     During the time of the scandal, many students of different races had said that Dr. Ellis had always been very helpful and courteous to them.  This is important to note, because it is presumed today that someone who, for example, argues in printed writings that there are differences in aggregate levels of black and white intelligence must invariably be a bigot, and treats black people with disdain or outright contempt.

     It behooves us to remember, in a distinction which Frank Ellis doubtless upholds, that politeness is not political correctness.  Indeed, it could be argued that people can usually be more naturally polite to each other, only if they are secure in their respective identities.  Yet the whole emphasis of “political correctness” and its multifarious measures like “Anti-Racist Education” would seem to be—as Frank Ellis argues –an attempt to render nearly all of traditional Western civilization as utterly hideous to “decent” human sensibilities.  There is the refusal to consider the idea that one can probably be more naturally polite to people without having to hew to the multifarious dogmas of political correctness.

     The Canadian traditionalist philosopher, George Parkin Grant, had argued that only “by loving our own” can we come to any appreciation of a more universal good.  Thus, the only real basis for a more properly ethical behavior towards the so-called Other can only be in an initial love of one’s own.  Obviously, that love can be eventually refined and reflected upon, but it must begin with a core of determination and passion.

     Frank Ellis advances two main ideas in this book.  The first is that “political correctness”, as it exists today, can trace its ultimate origins to Lenin and Mao.  The second main thought is that “freedom of speech” is truly the central concept of Western civilization.  What Frank Ellis sees as the attenuation of freedom of speech today will be disastrous for the West, he believes.

     Frank Ellis is without a doubt in opposition to the various current-day strictures of “political correctness”.  Looking back in history, he finds that Lenin and Mao (and the systems they created) can be seen as prefiguring an obsessive focus on the “correctness” of one’s ideological attitudes. He cites numerous documents from Lenin and Soviet Communism, and Mao and Chinese Communism,  that obsess over such notions of “correctness”.

     Frank Ellis is without doubt also in opposition to what he calls the Left. Thus, he sees a thread of continuity between the ugly, totalitarian Left of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism and what he sees as the ugly, totalitarian Left of “political correctness” and multiculturalism.

     In the reviewer’s opinion, this attempt to establish Lenin as the father of political correctness, may be a bit overdone.

     Lenin and Mao and the systems they created are seen by Ellis as unquestionably hideous, evil, and repulsive.  While there certainly are people in the West who defend Lenin and Mao today, one can relatively easily point to tangible evil on the part of Lenin and Mao (e.g., their apparatus of coercive repression, producing millions of deaths) that most persons would accept as evil.  There has also been the attempt by some Western Marxists to contrast the good Lenin vs. the bad Stalin.  One also hears arguments that while Lenin and Mao may have committed considerable evil, their intentions were good, and that they were struggling against hideous established orders.

     Where many people would immediately part company with Frank Ellis is in his attempt to associate the worst aspects of the Soviet and Chinese Communist Left with the current-day Left in the West, and especially with multiculturalism.  Some would say that this type of move parallels the attempts by some on the Left today to associate the right-wing in Western societies today with Hitler and Nazism.

     In the reviewer’s opinion, Frank Ellis may see the current-day Western Left as a bit too monstrous and outwardly totalitarian.  This may prevent him from seeing just what the attractive aspects of left-wing thought to some people may be, and what some of the real motors of the widespread popularity of the current-day Western Left may be.

     When Frank Ellis asserts that white people form the overwhelming majority of the population in the United Kingdom today, it is difficult to see how that huge majority can be so totally browbeaten by the comparatively small percentage of visible minorities (this is a term of official usage in Canada ).

     In the reviewer’s opinion, it is more important to come to an understanding of the dynamics of increasing self-deprecation among white people than to dwell excessively on the dynamics of anti-Western and anti-white feelings among the minorities who are, to a large extent, just following their self-interest.

     The guilt-ridden white liberal is a bit of a broad stereotype, and it is important to understand how many quite “normal” (as they would style themselves) people can come to embrace something akin to those views.

     The reviewer thinks that one of the most important points to be made is that the current-day Western Left emphatically believes itself to be about “liberation”—not about prohibitions on free speech and free expression.  One of the early 1960s groups called itself “The Free Speech Movement”, and one of the slogans of Paris ’68 was, “It is forbidden to forbid.”

     In the reviewer’s opinion, the main motor of the spectacular success of the Western Left since the 1960s has been the apparent promise of sexual nirvana for everyone, something which certainly included young, straight white males in the 1960s and 1970s, although that focus of sexual libertinism has become somewhat muted in the last few decades.  Indeed, it could be argued that for considerable numbers of straight white males today, the chief aspect of sexual freedom is only the simulacrum of widely available “porn”, strip-joints, and escort services—as opposed to substantive relationships with women that grow increasingly strained as radical feminism becomes ever more prominent in society.

     It could be argued that the almost direct sexual appeal of the Western Left since the 1960s has motored forward its spectacular political successes.  It often takes a considerable amount of prior social conditioning to resist that siren’s call of sexual pleasure.  It takes considerable sagacity to realize that the promises of sexual nirvana for everyone could be disastrous for society in the long run.  Now, to some extent, the sexual revolution has turned against straight white males, so some of these persons may be looking to some forms of more traditional identity.

     The triumph of the sexual revolutions has also been accompanied by the triumph of a consumerist, consumptionist society, driven by mass-media.  The fact is that the vastly increasing economic living standards of Western societies since the 1960s are often credited to the current-day system.  Some social critics have suggested that the current-day system is in fact a “managerial-therapeutic regime”, which has its own capitalist, wealth-producing Right—and therapeutic Left—neither of which authentically represents the real traditions of either the Left or the Right.

     Do most people in Western countries today necessarily pay that much attention to the strictures of “political correctness”?  In most cases, there seem to be some simple obvious rules to follow, some of which could be construed as mere politeness, rather than necessarily “political correctness”.  Most people probably think the system is quite wonderful because they credit it with giving them highly pleasurable and prosperous lives without having to hew to what are today seen as the ridiculous strictures of traditional religion.

     The situation in the academic setting is, of course, considerably different, as far as the saliency of “political correctness”, but most persons in the general population probably think that “the excesses” and “weirdness” in the universities (especially in the humanities and social sciences) are irrelevant to the continuation of the current-day Western engine of economic growth and technological progress and prowess.  It could be argued that the number of people who deeply concern themselves with what is going on in the humanities and social sciences departments of universities is relatively small.

     Most people identify the current-day system with the provision of pleasure and prosperity, and do not see it as some kind of monstrous conspiracy to dispossess the white majority.  Insofar as the current-day system continues to be economically successful, it is not likely to encounter massive resistance from the majority population.

     However, mass, dissimilar immigration into Western societies may be introducing certain stresses which even a highly buoyant economy will not be able to address—or which may indeed weaken the current-day Western engine of economic growth and technological progress. Insofar as the current-day Western economies truly move in the direction of economic decline, one can probably easily imagine that various massive anti-immigration and so-called nativist movements will almost certainly arise.  By economic decline here, one would mean a considerable contraction of the economy over a number of years in a row.

     People today rarely consider that the typical Western economy has been growing an average of about three percent per year for decades.  Considering that the growing economy implies increasing consumption of finite natural resources, extrapolating the consequences of ever-continuing economic growth on a finite planet can be frightening.

     Another idea is that the eventual social consequences of a philosophy of extreme sexual pleasure—especially as expressed through various manifestations of an increasingly debased pop-culture—will tend to have an increasingly disruptive effect on Western societies.  Today, it can be seen that a “birth-dearth” is enveloping many Western societies, including those that have traditionally been considered as highly prolific ( Spain , Italy ).  Mass, dissimilar immigration will exacerbate the consequences of a “birth-dearth”.  It is also possible that the societal consequences of a philosophy of sexual liberation will in the end be so catastrophic—that there will occur a return to more traditional mores out of a sense of pure revulsion.  It is possible that society will become so decayed that parents will find it difficult to impart to their children just the sense of good—as opposed to a good such as that represented in traditional Christianity.  Ironically, it may become increasingly difficult to maintain notions of any kind of behavioral restraint—even those of “political correctness”—in a society increasingly driven by vulgar nihilism.

     To the extent that some sectors on the Left are aware—sometimes acutely—of what could be called the crisis of late modernity, the most obvious and easily discernible element of nominally left-wing philosophy that addresses this crisis is environmentalism and ecology.  In his book, Frank Ellis does not discuss environmentalist and ecological thinking as a major aspect of what is considered “the Left” today.  Yet it is frequently environmentalism/ecology that allows many typical Western left-wingers  to make a sort of alchemical transformation of their outlook from obvious self-deprecation, and an attitude concerned only with the pleasure and prosperity of the moment, to an outlook that claims to be taking the most conservationist, most long-term outlook on human existence on this planet.

     Observing the massive surge in environmentalist/ecological trends, especially in 2007, should prompt some traditionalist conservatives to recall that there are obvious ecological elements in genuinely traditionalist thought, such as that most notably represented by J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, and E. F. Shumacher.  It’s clear that environmentalism/ecology is now the most obviously, popularly attractive element of what is considered “the Left” today.

     The reviewer feels that Ellis did not take enough of an accounting of the possibly more attractive elements of left-wing thinking today, hence his critique sets up a bit of a “straw-man”—focussing on the very worst aspects of both Marxism-Leninism and Maoism—and then projecting these very worst aspects onto the current-day Western Left.

     The criticism given may be so overdrawn and overwrought that it tends to induce incredulity at times.  Even if one has considerable sympathy for the gist of Frank Ellis’ arguments, it is important to properly distinguish between the substantially different apparatus of conditioning and control in “soft totalitarian” vs. “hard totalitarian” systems.  While it is possible to argue that “soft totalitarianism” is even more insidious in some ways than “hard totalitarianism”—because it is far less obvious to its subjects—it stretches credulity to think that current-day Western societies are but a step away from re-instituting the Gulag.

     Frank Ellis’ arguments could strongly benefit by looking at Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World rather than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a close approximation of current-day Western societies (or rather perhaps the direction in which they are tending).  By the parallels to Brave New World, the reviewer does not mainly wish to refer to the genetically based caste-system, but rather to the abolition of God, family, and history that is one of the central aspects of that dystopia.  It is not too often remarked that the dystopian society depicted in Brave New World is driven by a “Freudian Left” understanding of human psychology.  Aldous Huxley shows us that the hypothesized society is centered on the virtually unrestricted fulfillment of human sexual passions that begins almost in infancy.  A very careful reading of the book reveals horrors upon horrors that may be a bit obscured in a superficial read-through.

                Obviously, the widely-known dystopia to which Frank Ellis’ writings are closest in spirit is Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints, which depicts the apocalyptic consequences of mass Third World immigration into the West.  Nevertheless, Aldous Huxley’s work should also be instructive.

     Like Jean Raspail, Frank Ellis sees himself as a dedicated defender of the best of Western civilization against multifarious threats.  In the reviewer’s opinion, the book would have been stronger had it introduced certain qualifications in its unrelenting critique of the Western Left.  Nevertheless, Ellis does identify the obvious sickness of soul in at least part of the current-day Western Left, which Jean Raspail had identified in his book, and continues to refer to in his recently published pieces.

     It could be argued that among the current dangers encroaching upon the West is the possibility of a situation where the long-running, civilized, more reasoned debate between the more authentic representatives of the Left and the Right in the West will no longer be possible.  Some have indeed argued that the current clash of civilizations might actually end in a disastrous defeat for the West, especially in some Western European countries.  Others have argued that the “soft-totalitarian” dynamic in the Western Left will itself result in various apocalyptic-dystopic outcomes.

     Whatever happens, the upholding of genuine freedom of speech—especially for those expressing currently unpopular views—will without a doubt be one of the most important elements of endeavoring to prevent being enveloped by the very worst future outcomes.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian journalist based in Toronto.  He has frequently contributed essays and book reviews about pop-culture and politics to Praesidium, most recently in this year's Spring edition (see v. 7.2, pp. 35-43).

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Painting Dick Tracy into Heaven

(after Philip Morsberger’s paintings in the Morris Museum of Art)  

Lt. Col. Michael H. Lythgoe (USAF, Rtd.) delivered a talk on the connections between painting and poetry this past June 8  at the Morris Museum in Augusta , Georgia . In submitting the poem below, he helpfully noted, “I am talking about the  poets who have painted and painters who seem drawn to poetry.  I am also reading some original poems written in response to paintings in the Morris Museum collection. One of the painters, Philip Morsberger, has a show called ‘A Passion for Painting’ hanging until 17 June.  I had a chance to hear him in conversation last week with a friend and English art critic, Christopher Lloyd, who knew Morsberger years ago when he was teaching at the Ruskin School at Oxford.  LLoyd is the author of a book on Morsberger’s art titled as the show.  LLoyd writes: ‘One writer has referred to Morsberger’s pictures as prayers on canvas.’  Morsberger was quoted as saying his paintings are... ‘all about death and resurrection’.  Even his abstracts show figures mysteriously moving from darkness to light.”


His father flew to heaven in a hat.

Painters are seers, so we hear prayers

As gazers, following the floating hat.


He paints figures in a rush, outlined, flat.

Impatient muralist—monk—at work making prayers.

His father comes from heaven as a hat.


Benedictines wear cassocks black as bats;

Artist’s apprehension is reason for prayer—

Light from dark; red airplane—an acrobat.


Christ’s Ascension in Bonnard’s blues—from flat

Canvas where colors are pushed, shaped into prayers.

The Holy Ghost wears Dick Tracy’s hat.


A fish symbol from catacombs?  Is that

A gold fish from Matisse?  Paintings are prayers,

Van Gogh’s echoes; goggles find habitat—


Light—returning to funny papers, that

Joyful boy from Baltimore , at prayer;

He sees Golgotha in El Greco; at

The foot of the Cross, a clown; blessed be the hat.


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Still Life


Fiona MacAlister  


     Only for the last generation or so of human history had the drunken sensation come available of watching reality as though you were watching a staged show.  Only two or three generations earlier had the sensation been known of watching screened images as if they were reality—and that must have been epochal enough, even earth-shattering.  But now humanity had entered a phase of anti-matter, of black-hole full-reverse.  Of inside-out meltdown.  The earth was no longer being shattered, but rewound into a little box, a tight little spool.  You were not transporting the most exotic or feverish experiences ever witnessed to your hearthside: you were reducing the most sublime, electric perceptions a human being could ever register—of a sort that most people would never register, and that most who had would never live through—to some mildly interesting footage on the evening news.  

      Take that wall cloud: it was definitely a wall cloud.  Phillip had seen its like before on television documentaries.  Blue-black or charcoal gray… the daylight filtering eerily between the cloud-line’s horizon-long belly and the suburb’s real horizon, pricked by timid chimneys and telephone poles, was just enough to give the smoky billows different hues here and there… yeah, that was a wall cloud, all right.  And when a tail started to drill its way, probing and hesitant but always advancing, into the crack of pale sunset separating heaven and earth, Phillip knew its motions before it made them.  He had always been kind of a weather-buff—might have majored in meteorology if he were any good at math—and the next few moments looked pretty much like what he remembered from a dozen, two dozen, three dozen hand-cam videos of evolving tornados aired on Nova and The Science Channel.

     This impression deeply troubled him—more than the funnel itself.  No, that wasn’t it: what bothered him was the very possibility that he couldn’t receive impressions of the funnel itself—that he was perhaps being insulated from a once-in-a-lifetime encounter by a high-tech upbringing.  And the encounter might prove fatal.  Here he sat, before the second-story picture window of a bourgeois castle in a very up-scale subdivision, not even running for the basement with the rest of them (except for the stunning woman in the next chair)… and he could not so much as decide if the great empty calm inside him were a magnificent indifference to life—to death itself—or, instead, a stupid fouling of sensory lines.  Did he know what he was seeing, and just didn’t care… or did he not know what he was seeing, or not know that he was seeing it “live”—not live from the reporter, but live beside the camera which might end up parting his skull?  How much was his strange “courage” worth?  As stupidity, it wouldn’t be worth anything.  And then he thought, as the black tail continued to grow and weave and grow, of bystanders interviewed after a mall or campus killing spree (“I heard the shots, but… I thought someone was making a movie.  It was all like something on TV.”)

     Yet if this exhilarating courage were just… stupidity….  Phillip felt the familiar twinge of conscience, though his wondrous contempt for life was too thick to be penetrated by the sinuous, pitchy drill two or three miles away (now apparently nearing power-line level).  Jan had sent him off to retrieve Sonya (yes, Sonya—that was the name… sonorous and Russian, it fit her perfectly) as he had lounged over his wine glass while warning sirens wailed and thirty or forty guests had dashed screaming for the basement.  Sonya was his responsibility.  To set his own life at naught was one thing: it was undoubtedly what Father Mike and the rest of this crowd would have styled a sin, but it was also—perhaps (if he truly understood the reality of what was happening)—an indication that he possessed a bit of manhood, after all.  To allow this extraordinary young woman (not too young—probably a year or two older than he, maybe more) to risk her life, however, was to pay for his high-risk self-respect with an incredibly vain indifference to others.  Would Sonya be the collateral damage of his heroic ecstasy?  Could he afford to stick his head in the lion’s mouth this way when another head was deeper in the monstrous jaws than his?

     He had been stealing peeks at her long before, even as the satanic tail had begun to drop and wag.  Aware that his study went absolutely ignored, he fixed upon her.  He could not really detect the vacant azure of her pupils which posed such a breathtaking contrast with her raven-dark, flowing hair.  (The very first sight of the contrast had indeed blocked his windpipe, as if a star had appeared at noon :  how could black brooding interbreed with blue daydreaming?)  What struck him now was the perfection of her jaw, her chin—a happy, unpressured partnership, this, of a perfect line and a perfect curve—which allowed her complex lips to write their mystery in an ample frame.  They were so red, those lips, against her pale cheeks (or did her pale cheeks enhance their dark blood?), so full and yet so free of the least quiver.  The bottom one protruded (strength of character? determination? thoughtfulness?), while the top one opened its broad, slowly curving wings from the nostrils instead of rapidly dipping into the corners (a hint of the Semitic… irony?  sensuality?).  Her nose, faintly aquiline, also suggested the Eastern Mediterranean not the Urals or the Baltic.  He had seen more beautiful women, he supposed: he had never seen a more captivating one, he announced to himself with finality.

     Glancing back through the picture window (it was the twister now which merely merited quick peeks), he was startled to see the tail boring the ground (startled mostly, perhaps, because the face he had been reading had never signaled the decisive change with twitch or tremble).  Dirt and clumps of debris—clots that might have been pianos or motor cycles or washing machines from this distance—formed a messy bowl around the black lathe’s axle.

     Phillip spun back toward her chair: she had to have noticed such an abrupt movement.  He was going to ask, “Are you sure you don’t want to go down…”—but the jaw, if anything, had relaxed.  The lips seemed almost about to part, and the lashes over her eyes had bloomed sufficiently to leave the right pupil’s azure distinctly visible.  A kind of longing had crept into all her features.

     So he settled back, puzzled and resigned.  They watched the show together, silently, both of them holding a wine glass (he realized at some point) though neither of them quite so cavalier as to take a sip.  After all, people might be dying.  Even though they might die in another minute or two, if the wicked tail decided to plow a furrow up their block, they had at least chosen their fate, or were at least willing to take what fate dished out.  But the spinning, widening bowl might hold people who wanted their lives back… children, even.  Some of the dark clots might be, not dogs or cats or laundry or lawn chairs, but small bodies.

     “Please God, there are no children,” he whispered spontaneously.

     A subtly corporal noise (one of those muffled effects of some bubble in the plumbing) reached him through the silence—for the sirens had stopped, their wires probably snapped, and the atmospheric whirlpool itself had not yet cast a ripple on their shore.  He peeked across his shoulder again just in time to see her throat working.  The determined jaw had tightened: the lower lip had been muscularly disciplined to thrust rather than blossom.  

     God, how he wished he could have that whisper back!  The lost child… what was it Jan had been murmuring (in a much louder whisper) to Councilman Flaherty’s trophy-wife in the kitchen while they sliced more hors-d’oeuvres (mistaking him for a piece of furniture, of course)?  Something about a child with leukemia… “And when she didn’t make it, Roger fell to pieces.  I know it’s wrong to judge, but what kind of man would walk out at a time like that?  And now she’s all alone, she’s lost everything….”

     A light flickered across her aquiline nose, her bloodless cheeks.  Phillip looked back out the window.  No thunder followed.  And then it happened again: another power line.  The drill was making its own lightning up and down the neighborhood.  He could see loosed cables whipping through the air like rubber bands that had snapped on some child’s toy.  A child… to lose your child.  He who had never even had a wife, who had never even slept with a woman… he understood, though, what it must mean to lose your child.  How he had looked forward to having children as a teenager, a good Catholic boy—children were all part of his virtuous dreams about the perfect woman.  (He had often noticed that an aversion to children indeed made a woman unattractive to him—a major cause of the prostitute’s repugnance.)  And then to be released into… into the whirlwind.  In a way, everything had been taken from him, too.  He thought about that as a muted crack reached them belatedly through the double-thick picture-window, a telephone pole having been upended before their eyes a couple of seconds earlier.  Himself as a widower, as a man whose children had died….  Now the plate glass registered a dusting of particles that had traveled a mile or two almost as quickly, it seemed, as the crackle: a swarm of invisible insects appeared to be pelting the pane.  Karen should have been his wife, and Lena might have been… but no, he had always just been kidding himself.  They had wanted more action, and he was good for nothing but the seminary.  But maybe even that was a self-indulgent illusion.  The luxuriant foliage of a neighboring tree—just beyond Jan’s stockade fence—exploded into frantic back-and-forth motion, as if applauding his instant of enlightenment.  Why ascribe the lowest motives to Karen?  Maybe she just wanted a man who knew where he was going in life?  Who could blame her?  Some of the leaves—and even small branches rich with leaves—spiraled over the fence and came right at them.  Their smacks upon the glass were like little slaps in the face.

     Phillip leapt up and strode toward the window, discarding his wine glass somewhere or other.  If he could do nothing else with his miserable existence, maybe he could come between her and a limb or a garden tool.

     “It’s incredible,” he may have said, or maybe only mused as a car skimmed along the street on its roof smoother than a kid on a slip-and-slide.  The street was not theirs, but he could see a full two or three blocks of it just up the mild slope.  The vehicle flipped and was lost to sight behind a house, less than a mile away.  Perhaps not even half a mile.

     “It’s really incredible,” he said out loud, very quietly.

     There was no more wall cloud now—only the great black pillar, spinning like heaven inside-out, upside-down: like water draining out of a tub seen from far below, from the moldy, unclean places beneath the house… like water draining without a drain, or observed through a transparent drain.  Dirty, smutty water from heaven… or the effluvium of hell in an inside-out mockery of heaven.  Foul, perverse, twisted… and so very, very high up.  The bowl of dust and splinters and glass shards and socks and gas cans and rose bushes and sandboxes was so high and dense now that the funnel had no earth-bound foot, but was only visible beyond the squalid, festive haze, Like Kilimanjaro or Everest beyond immense foothills of steamy ice.  Something long, lean, and gnarled—a mini-funnel—a tree trunk, maybe—changed hands in the square-dance and outsized the real funnel in a split second before his vision could delineate it.  He was dead, for sure.

     He had stood beside a firing artillery piece once as a child during a Fourth of July celebration.  The impact was more like that noise than any other he knew—less noise than dry ignition of all the senses.  Yet even as his knees were still wobbling, something between his ears was busy digging a different sound out of the sensory rubble.  A scream—a squeal, a purely reflexive vocal wince.  So she had a voice, after all.  And the first conscious thought Phillip held up for examination, still facing the spider-webbed but somehow intact window, was that maybe, for just an instant, she had feared for him.  Or was it that he would have died without a flinch… or wasn’t it really the same thought?  That he could stare death in the eye, and that a desirable woman could be moved by it.  That he might possess… nobility.  Nobility…

   Just like that, the filthy bowl of chaos had moved on.  They heard a strange rattle outside, probably from where the cars had been massed up and down the curb; but it reassuringly trailed off, an aural set of footprints indicating the twister’s departure.

     A heavy rain began to lash, then abated, then resumed.  The squalls came in rapid succession, turning the shattered though unfallen glass into an impenetrable silver sheet at their height.  During moments of lull, troughs between these airborne waves, he noticed that the stockade fence was gone, though the neighboring tree still stood (if far less luxuriantly bushed out).  A swing-set rested on its side—a pair of toppled A’s—just beyond the tree: an oddity which struck him as doubly odd only when he recollected that there had been no swing-set, upright or otherwise, in the neighboring back yard just minutes earlier.

     He looked back at her for the first time since standing up.  Her throat was working again, but her complicated, lurid lips remained sealed in some kind of struggle; and both azure eyes now bored straight past him with alarming vacancy.  They were like the missing stockade fence: something was supposed to be there beneath her lovely broad brow… and instead, empty sky.

     Phillip kept trying to shape a first word.  If he could get out the first one, the rest would follow.  He could say, “It’s over now,” or, “Looks like we made it,” or… but at last he simply lowered his gaze and started to amble about the room.  He was surprised to find his hands shoved into his pockets, as if he had rounded the chairs and found that huge tree trunk—the instrument of his near-annihilation—sprawled dripping on the carpet.

     There was complete silence after the last squall sizzled over the windows.  Outside thickly lay the silence of a cemetery… and inside, the silence of terrorized refugees hiding from the police.  Of course, they could not know in the basement that the storm had passed.

     A kettle of hot water had been simmering away in the kitchen.  Steam was still wreathing sluggishly from the spout, though the burner lights were out, the refrigerator was not humming, and the hands of the rooster-clock above the range were as still as tombstones.  He knew where Jan kept the tea bags.

     “I’m making us a cup of tea,” he tossed over his shoulder, reassured by his soft voice’s composure.  “A nice cup of tea,” he murmured to himself, nonsensically.

     She seemed not to have moved, five minutes later; she seemed as frozen as the kitchen clock’s hands.  He thought vaguely, without real expectation of success, over some jocular comment which would point out the comparison (“Did your power go off, too?”) as he deposited his makeshift tray on a coffee table.  He thought, with equal despondency, about small talk (“What an end for a fundraiser, huh?  Trying to build a shelter for battered women, and half the neighborhood goes down just out the window.  Good thing it was just before rush hour, huh?  Good thing people weren’t home…”).  Then he thought, without any intent whatever of speaking, about those who would have been home.  Almost ready to hand her a cup—his fingers had just closed on the saucer—he felt something travel from his hair roots into his spine, finding its way thence into the pit of his stomach.

     “I should be outside,” he said—to no one, to himself.  “There may be someone trapped.”

     It was like his whole life, that half an hour of wandering up and down slick gray pavements under a slate-gray sky.  No jacket, no rope or toolbox, no flashlight, no cell phone… no specific destination in mind, a million haunting images of maimed children which bore no apparent resemblance to anything he could see or hear… unprepared, over-excited, ill-focused.  Inept.  Incompetent. But full of good intentions.  Should he approach a house whose bedroom wall had caved in and knock on the door?  Should he clamber to the gaping chasm and peek in?  Should he scream, “Is everybody okay in there?” and take silence for an affirmative?  He could soon hear the sirens of distant emergency vehicles.  What would he say when they arrived?  “Do you live here?”  “No, I… but I’m not a looter, I’m just trying to help.”  “But how do you come to be here?”  “I… the diocese is raising money, and I… over there.  Mrs. Marconi’s.  They all went to the basement, but I…”  “Are you National Guard?”  “No.”  “A doctor?”  “No.”  “A priest?”  “No.  Definitely not a priest.  Definitely never anything like that again.”  “Then what are you doing out here?  Can I see some i. d.?”

     The best he could do was comfort a wet, trembling dog as he saw strobe lights descend upon an adjoining block.  No children pinned beneath roof beams, no hysterical mothers shouting, “My baby’s somewhere in there!”  Just a terrified, very wet spaniel.  And he couldn’t even figure out what to do with that.  If he walked back to Jan’s with it, some child might be up all night wailing, “Where’s Toto?”  But when he set the creature down and shooed it away gently (which he did three times), it followed him with abject devotion, and its huge black eyes were irresistible.  Birds of a feather….

     Dusk had settled heavily by the time he got back to Jan’s.  A few cars passed him while he walked along the resplendent asphalt, their tires sprinkling his pants as he veered into the gutter and as their headlights, in the same reflex, veered testily away.  To think that he had left the most… the most fascinating woman he had ever met, and one who quite possibly needed his comfort at some level, to go cuddle this damp mutt….

     Somebody from this neighborhood—some Good Samaritan solid citizen—would be sure to appear in the evening news’s feature story, dismissing his heroism with stammers before the camera after having rescued three housewives, five toddlers, and a baby from precarious wreckage.  And he would have done no more than what Phillip was fully willing and able to do, and would probably have done it in the house with the caved-in bedroom wall.  The difference between him and Phillip, in other words, would be that he had known how to make an entrance.  That simple.

     Jan’s house was black at the windows, like all the surrounding residences, but flashlights traveled up and down her driveway as if escorting Halloween trick-or-treaters.  Car doors continued to slam: it was apparent that most of the vehicles had not, after all, been whisked through the pinball machine.  Phillip could distinguish the stockade fence’s intact length—a rigid boardwalk—on the lawn, for the low clouds curiously lightened the dusk by reflecting the city shimmer from undamaged districts.  He could even make out several of the departing guests.  There was a laugh or two, oddly resonant with plaintive, quailing farewells (for fear and relief still worked the group in equal measures: Phillip calculated that the guests had probably crept from the basement just five or ten minutes earlier).  And, naturally, all of the voices were female.  Other than Father Mike and the ancient Colonel Manwaring, he had been the only man at the “affair”.  It hadn’t been the sort of gathering that real men, busily paying bills or aggressively enjoying a day off, would attend.

     As the crowd thinned, he in fact picked out Father Mike’s nasal baritone more and more frequently.  Of course, the priest would be among the last to leave—and with a heavy sigh, Phillip suddenly realized that his blind hope of finding her still here had collided with the certainly of meeting the Father if he hung around.  It wasn’t worth the gamble.  A stupid pipe-dream against a lead-pipe cinch—the usual exchange-rate in his adventures.  Why set himself up for this?  And as he ran his eyes over the silver-black bulges almost close enough overhead to jump up and touch, he was astounded at how distant a memory the tornado had become.

     “Phillip, is that you?”

     Too late.  The beam of a flashlight ran up his pants and shirt as if frisking him, then stopped insolently in his face.  He was immensely irritated that the priest left it there, surely sensing some kind of advantage.

     “Phillip, where the hell have you been?  What’s that you’ve got in your arms?  Look, I need to have the notes before I can get out of here.”

     He yearned with all his heart and soul to growl, “Get that damn thing out of my face!”  What he said was, “You had them.  I gave them to you after the steering committee met.”

     “But you’re supposed to be managing the publicity, remember?”

    But you wanted to see them, Father.

     “Is that a dog?  What are you doing with a dog?  Well, just tell me where you left them… or do you know?”

     “They were probably left in the study.”

     “Well, I’ll see if I can find them.  I have a flashlight.  We’ve got to have the minutes, Phillip.  There’s a certain way things have to be done, whatever world you choose to live in.  You can’t just be wandering off in a crisis and…”

     “And picking up stray dogs.”

     “What?  Well, come along and help me find them, will you?”

     Phillip lowered the spaniel gingerly onto the grass.  “You keep them, Father.  This isn’t my kind of work.”


     “I said I need to go.”

     “Well, call me later.  Call me tonight.”

     The beacon held him caught in its cone just long enough for Jan to train her guns on him.

     “Oh, Phillip!  I’ve been looking everywhere for you!  My God, wasn’t it horrible?  I’ve got to get the insurance adjuster out here.  There’s a tree in the yard that wasn’t even ours, and the top of the chimney landed on Mrs. Pendleton’s car… dear God!  Dear God… but we’re all safe and sound, that’s what counts.  It’s a miracle.  It’s just a miracle, you know.”

     Shorn of its theological blooms, he had heard the same thing in the seminary.  Good luck was a miracle, bad luck was a special test of strength.  If a mother had lost her infant two blocks over, God was strengthening her soul.

     “Phillip, will you please take Sonya home?  Mrs. Pendleton brought her—they live almost on the same street… and besides, Sonya—don’t repeat this, of course—but she’s on some kind of anti-depressant and isn’t supposed to drive.  And now Peggy’s car… I may have to take her home myself, unless I can find Teresa.  I guess I could take Sonya home, for that matter…”

     “I’ll take her.  I’ll be happy to take her.”

     “That’s a great help, dear.  Because I wouldn’t take Peggy until later—not until Paul gets home.  And I wouldn’t ask you to take her and Sonya both, you know, because your car… does it have a back seat?”

     On their way across town, Phillip ventured no further conversation after asking, “Did you drink that cup of tea?” and glimpsing her vacant stare in the white stripe shed by a streetlamp.  She was not entirely mute, but she supplemented the instructions Jan had given him with no more than, “Turn here,” and, a moment later, “On the left… next to the corner.”  He had tried to understand from the first, and he continued to try (often with a liberal dose of self-mortification).  She had lost her child and her marriage… she was on medication… she had just witnessed a deadly tornado… she wasn’t ready to get friendly with a man again… when she was ready, she would find a man who didn’t spend his afternoons scribbling notes at women’s “events” and his life puzzling over how to make an entrance.  He didn’t blame her.

     Of course, there could be no question of his going inside.  Among other things, he had grown painfully aware of the spaniel’s ghost emanating from his shirt as he slowly dried out.  He hadn’t even told her about the dog—he hadn’t even tendered a burlesque version of his rescue mission which would be at once amusing, true, and susceptible to interpretation as the humility of the brave.  He was just a 27-year-old guy without visible means of support (less than ever now that he had apparently decided to throw away the charitable post of “publicity director”) and with very visible canine hair all over his collar.

     Yet when she turned to him under the porch light after unlocking her door, her azure gaze did not seem quite so vacant.  “Thank you,” she said.  “Thanks for everything.”

     Everything… so she had noticed!  Dog hairs and all, he steadied himself.

     “I… I wish I could see you again sometime.  I can’t think of anything I’d like better.”

     She didn’t smile, but neither did she retract her vista of blue skies from him.  Rather, her eyes faintly intensified and darkened, as if she were reading instructions that weren’t quite clear.

     “Let me write down my number for you.”

     As he neared his apartment, Phillip noticed that the Hadley Street Bridge was lit back up, as well as the neighborhood beyond it.  Things had returned to normal.  Chaos had dropped out of the sky like a warhead that had bounced off a munitions truck… but people were already hopping over the gashes left by the explosion.  He, too.  A woman who had not said two dozen words to him, and who quite possibly had been doped up almost beyond functional awareness… a woman with a “history” whose trauma he couldn’t really pretend to understand… a woman as full of obscure needs as that quavering spaniel.  Damaged goods, a bottomless pool, a loose cannon, a ticking time-bomb—a little mountain of clichés for things to stay away from.  And he was already rehearsing grand speeches to her in his mind, baring and bandaging her deep wounds, letting her cry away into his shoulder, offering her new life, proposing a new future… in his wild imagination, he was behaving like an adolescent all over again.  What good was experience—even a stare-down with a tornado?  A silly fool, he decided, is a silly fool until you knock the life out of him.


Fiona MacAlister teaches college writing and devotes herself to rearing her children.  Several of her short stories appeared previously in Praesidium 2.3 (Summer 2002).  She resides in the Denver area.

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