Sunday, September 27, 2009

Julie & Julia

Julia Child is a cultural icon from a bygone era. She almost single-handedly brought French cooking to the American kitchen, and her cookbooks have remained popular ever since. The complicated French cooking techniques she explained in plain English in Mastering the Art of French Cooking were humanized by the high-pitched voice and slightly bumbling manner she exhibited in her television program, endearing her to several generations of aspiring cooks, and also to many who never proceeded beyond vinaigrette, onion soup, and haricot verte, with an occasional foray, perhaps, into the daunting realm of pot au feu or coq au vin. Child died in 2004, and her brief autobiography, My Life in France, appeared two yeras later.

By that time Julie & Julia, the memoir of a young woman who sustained a daily blog for a year as she worked her way through Child’s magnum opus, had become a best-seller. Author and screenwriter Nora Ephron has woven the two stories together into a cross-generational film of great charm and surprising emotional impact. The scene shifts back and forth from Paris in the sixties, where Child was living with her husband (an exhibits officer with the State Department) and trying to learn how to cook at the tender age of 50, to Queens in the aftermath of the Twin Towers disaster, where Julie Powell is trying to bring some order into her life as she approaches 30 by blogging ... about Julia Child's cookbook.

Meryl Streep, in the role of the giddy yet indefatigable Child, is a joy to watch. She whoops it up to the point of absurdity while her husband (in a fine performance by Stanley Tucci) tries affectionately to keep the lid on. Just when Streep's irrepressible cheeriness is beginning to grate, the scene shifts to the young Julie Powell and her husband in their walk-up apartment. As Julie, Amy Adams once again exhibits a girl-next-door freshness, with just enough weight to keep us interested.

Though the food itself is never far from center-stage, Julie and Julia is also rich in décor, especially of the Parisian variety, and of minor characters who make a strong impression. Aspects of the publishing world, the McCarthy witch-hunts, the instant fame made possible by the internet, and other cultural phenomena add interest, though the emotions associated with bringing meaning to life, one way or another, provide the passacaglia. In the end, Julie and Julia is less about food than about hero-worship. It's a low-key tale with an unusual plot, it's all very civilized and nearly everything in it works.

It makes you want to go home and cook up some Gigot ou Épaule de Pré-Salé Braisé—or at least open a bottle of Bordeaux Superior and add another entry to your blog.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sea Caves

No one could say that Lake Superior isn’t grand. But if you camp on the south shore next to the beach in the hamlet of Herbster, Wisconsin, on a calm night, you can see the lights twinkling on the opposite shore, and it gives that remarkable expanse of open water a more homey feel.

We camped in Herbster for two nights recently; the lake was as calm as it ever gets, the sun was bright, and the berries on the mountain ash were as red as could be. The Canada geese arrived early in the morning, squawking as they descended to land out on the lake. The crows in the spruce tree just outside the tent had already been making a racket for quite a while. Before the clouds had dispersed we canoed out into the Bark Bay Slough, a lovely, quiet, environment of spruce, tamarack, bog laurel and floating muskeg that’s protected from the lake by a long spit of sand. We ran into two sandhill cranes in a back bay and watched four otters playing in the shallows for quite a while.

In the afternoon we took advantage of the unusually calm weather to head out onto the big lake from Meyers Beach to see the sea caves. The lake was rippling with little wavelets, and the sunlight, shining through them, created golden rippling bars of light running at angles to the little ridges on the sandy bottom twenty feet below us. From time to time we’d pass above patches where the elevation of the lake bottom changed abruptly, exposing clusters of pumpkin-sized boulders.

But all of that was mere prelude to the green-aqua water and the golden-red cliffs and caves a mile down the shore—far more beautiful than any photograph could convey. The brilliance of the lake itself, which seemed to have a shiny skin, added to the dazzling effect. Just being out on the big lake in a canoe is exhilarating—it keeps you on your toes, even in the calmest weather—and the sight of passing kayakers, with an island or two off in the distance, completed the picture. Canyon de Chelly meets Cancun, with a touch of the Arctic thrown in for good measure.

The caves go on for miles, and you can paddle into some of them, even in a canoe. The waves that wash into them make a mysterious gurgling sound as they meet up with enclosed spaces deep within the rock—the geological equivalent of wind rustling in the trees, I guess.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Early September

The most beautiful month? Still a little robust, but mellow. Our trip to the State Fair (capitalized, like a deity) was brief, due to an eye injury Hilary is recovering from. But things are so familiar that even a glance reminds us of the beauty and allure of the various buildings and exhibits.

The critic in the Tribune described the art show as inferior, sentimental. This struck me as a little far-fetched and dismissive, considering how many works are on view there every year. But having seen the show, I would tend to agree that relatively few of the pieces on display had much of an impact. There was a very fine black-and-white photo of a cliff-top monestary in Meteora, Greece. A nice lithograph of the exterior of a bus in North Africa somewhere. But all too many staged "theme" photographs with crows (for example) and close-up portraits of frustrated or pensive or determined or jadded young women. I did not see a single interesting functional pot. Among the three-dimensional pieces I recall an attractive necklace made out of used coffee-filters that had been rolled up into long narrow cones and strung on a piece of string. But the piece that sticks with me most is a wooden case of the kind printers used to keep their various pieces of type in—and still do, if there are any cold-type printers left. But this case happened to be filled with tiny ceramic figures of alligators. Why? I don’t know. But it looked pretty cool.

And speaking of cool, it was a cool morning, and the light and color at the north end of the fairgrounds was superb. We sat for a while eating a mocha-on-a-stick as we watched an elderly couple dance to a polka band at the Farmer’s Union booth. The same Peruvian musicians were trying to make music on their primitive flutes at the Caribbean restaurant near the chicken barn. Noise and people everywhere. But with limited time and no agenda, the sheer color of the scene made itself felt more strongly than ever.

In the last few days I finished five books and sent them off to the printer. (I didn’t write them; I only edited and designed and produced them.) Now I’m packing for a week-long vacation in the woods. Looking at long-sleeved shirts a little differently than I did a few weeks ago. Wondering which books will appeal to me a week from now. Maybe Death in a Truffle Wood. Or From Hegel to Nietzsche: the Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Thought. Or The Forest of Childhood: Poems from Sweden.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Scholarship and Community

Those of us who retain from our dimly remembered student days on campus, a lingering affection for scholarship of the arcane and humanistic variety—and really, who doesn’t?—are certain to derive immense pleasure from the essays contained in Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern World, by Anthony Grafton.

Grafton is a professor of history at Princeton. He is also an editor of the prestigious Journal of the History Ideas. His areas of special interest lie in the Renaissance and Reformation, but his prose style and range of cultural references bespeak a universal education and a social maturity light-years beyond the narrow focus and picayune technical concerns of the stereotypical “academic.” Whatever the subject may happen to be, Grafton draws us into its intricacies deftly, with nary a hint of insider rhetoric or dumbing-down.

A number of the essays originally appeared in mainstream magazines such as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and in scholarly journals such as The American Scholar and The Journal of the History of Ideas. And it may be questioned whether, considered as a group, they really advance a well-rounded picture of the subject highlighted in the title—the scholarly “community.” I think they do. That picture has none of the appealing narrative thrust of a “history of ideas” of the type that we find in the Yale Intellectual History of the West series, for example. But we ought to be suspicious of such “causal” narrative histories anyway, in which A leads to B, or at the very least, intimates it; in the realm of scholarship and ideas, A seldom leads to B. Rather, J looks back at kindred spirit C, and creates a new vision that will inspire X—two hundred years on.

What Grafton has given us instead is the genuine flavor of first-rate scholarship, in a series of essays that range from thoroughly obscure investigations such as “A Contemplative Scholar: Trithemius Conjures the Past,” to worldly and very up-to-date pieces such as “The Public Intellectual and the Private Sphere: Arendt and Eichmann at the Dinner Table,” and a lengthy essay on the impact of the internet on scholarship, books, and popular culture, “Codex in Crisis: The Book Dematerializes.”

Many of the essays carry the sheer delight that scholars have always felt in learning new things, painstakingly separating wheat from chaff, hammering down a point conclusively, and etc. And there are observations—not only facts we didn’t know, but judgments of value we lack the background to make ourselves—on every page. I was surprised to learn, for example, that Philo of Alexandria, one of the preeminent Jewish philosopher of ancient times, often considered a critical link between Plato and the apostle John, could not read Hebrew.

Grafton’s worldliness becomes especially rewarding in the more contemporary essays. The piece on Hannah Arendt, for example, does not offer a straightforward analysis of her work. Rather, it focuses on the appearance of a series of famous articles she wrote for the New Yorker on the Eichmann trail circa 1963. Grafton has an unusual perspective on these events, because his father was commissioned by Look magazine to interview Arendt and write a lengthy piece about it. The article was never published because Arendt refused to cooperate, but Grafton found his father’s extensive notes in a family file, which include a written interview with Arendt that she did reply to. These materials lead on to several intriguing insights, not only about Jews and Germans in Nazi Germany, but also about the sate of American journalism two decades later:

In other words, the editors of Look did far more than commission an article. They actively investigated the issues that they planned to cover, read and thought about them—and did so with a rigor and an attention to detail not found in most of the published responses to Arendt's book. Their professionalism and precision inspire respect and suggest that the Arendt affair marked something more than the beginning of a new age of recycled charges and countercharges. It was also the end of an older age--one in which national, as well as highbrow, media saw it as their task to inform the public at large, as well as they could, about major new ideas and debates, to make their readers an informed and critical community. [276]

Grafton’s essay about the internet is similarly wide-ranging, and includes a thumbnail history, not of libraries per se, but of the ways books have been categorized across the centuries. Thousands of articles have been written by now about the internet and its impact on every conceivable aspect of society, but very few, I suspect, have drawn comparisons between the Google search engines and the methods employed by Eusebius to catalogue and cross-reference early Christian texts in 300 AD.

Yet Grafton’s essays also highlight, without intending to, the limitations of the scholarly approach to the past. In his essay on Leon Battista Alberti’s theories of aesthetics, for example, he attempts to broaden the analysis of Alberti’s use of the terms “historia” and “istoria” by consulting those of Alberti’s writings that are not specifically about art. Yet the question remains unanswered, Why should we care about Alberti’s use of these terms in the first place? The field of reference needs to be wider still to convince us that Alberti’s aesthetic theories harbor insights into the nature of art that might still interest us today.

A similar but more significant omission will be found in the essay “The History of Ideas: Precept and Practice, 1950-2000 and Beyond.” Here Grafton charts the sudden rise of the “history of ideas” as a university discipline during the middle years of the twentieth century, “like a new sign in the zodiac,” as he describes it, and its subsequent eclipse as an even more dazzling realm of study, “social history,” appeared on the scene, with its many and varied ethnic and gender-based realms of specialization. It is a great delight to follow Grafton’s thumbnail sketch of these shifting realms of focus and perspective, with trenchant asides on all the historicist and hermeneutical rifts and backwaters. We could profitably spend a decade, perhaps, following up on all the footnotes, while saving a hundred thousand dollars in tuition fees along the way. The great names in the field pass before us, from the dim and distant Burckhardt and Meinecke to Lovejoy and Darnton, and on to Pierre Bourdieu, Peter Burke, and Carlo Ginzberg.

But in the end, well-rounded and erudite though it is, Grafton’s essay is a study of intellectual fashion, rather than a study of genuine thought. The question remains unanswered (and in fact, unasked) which of these various approaches to the past are actually valid—which of them bring us close to the truth; and which, in the end, (though it would be tactless to say as much to one’s colleagues among the scholarly community) are not worth much.