War for the Walnuts, 2

Did I mention that it's walnut season? Well, yes -- but that was early September, when a haul like this took a week to accumulate. These came down last night. I have had my bending and stretching exercise for today, thank you very much.

If you want to bring over your drying screens, and a tumbler to remove the rinds, and a pressure washer, feel free to spend many hours producing $20 or so worth of walnuts. Failing that, one word -- one whisper -- about "nature's bounty," and you're dead meat.

Joseph Campbell, 4

We also worked on Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, Eliot's Four Quartets, Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," and on the transformation in Hamlet's character during his sea journey -- where after all his talk, for the first time he acts "or [before] I could make a prologue to my brains."

During the 1970 SLC summer session in Florence I'd met some of the staff at St. Michael's, the American school which then housed the session. The following spring they offered me a teaching position. Although my course credits were a mess after three majors at two schools, Campbell -- who thought the move a good idea -- persuaded SLC that I'd gone well past the requirements for a BA in comp.lit. After I returned to the US, we got together in NYC several times a year until he and Jean moved to Hawaii in 1982, and on his flying visits to the city from then until his death.

Of all I learned from him, what has stayed with me most strongly is the conviction that stories -- narratives, mythoi -- and their enactment in ritual convey a diachronic understanding that can't be expressed synchronously -- i.e. as a lesson, a principle, a take-away, a bottom line. This is very different from the Golden Bough perspective prevailing early in his career, that myth and ritual existed to do what we subsequently learned to "do better" with philosophy, science, psychology, and so forth. No: they also do something that the latter can't do, because stories take place in time, over time, through time.

Something is always lost in translation from "this happened, and then that happened, and here's how it turned out" to "this is how the world is." Joe Campbell insisted that we put it back.

Joseph Campbell, 3

Because Campbell kept the scholarly apparatus in his books to a minimum, and because he wrote with encyclopedic scope for a broad audience, there are two mistaken ideas in wide circulation:

- Among some scholars, that he was a dilettante who didn't do his homework

- Among some readers, that he was our era's Enlightened One, dispensing wisdom from his own guru-tude

To the first: Joe knew very well what rigorous scholarship was, and was eminently capable of it as occasion required. He knew "the literature" on his beloved German philosophers backwards and forwards. Everything I know of Zimmer and Coomaraswamy, two of his mentors, suggests that neither was the type to suffer lightweights gladly. That said -- did he often rely on secondary sources, and generalize fearlessly to the edge of recklessness? Yes, of course... as has everyone who has ever tried to cover that much ground. If his critics find that ambition hubristic, fine -- but let's not pretend that some imaginary, more scrupulous soul could have had an ideal expertise on a range like that.

To the second: Yes, he was personally charismatic -- but what he wanted more than anything was to send people to the stories themselves. His own re-tellings and analyses were  intended as appetizers. He wanted to motivate people to dive into the Grail romances or Thomas Mann or the Vedas -- not to read him or listen to him, say "Ah, I get it," and stop there. Hence the well-known story about a student who scanned the notorious reading list for his survey course, and said, "I don't see how we can possibly cover all this in one year." Campbell replied, "Oh, no -- I expect you to spend the rest of your life on it." He wasn't being cute: he meant exactly that.

In hindsight, I know that when I went to study with him I was looking for a guru. (Hey, it was 1969 -- cut me some slack.) The first thing he did for me, and the best, was to knock that smartly out of my head.

 'No bamboo sticks -- ever!' promised the ads in Psychology Today... (Vineland

Thanks, Ron

I'd been looking for leads to information on the economics of commercial aviation as it started up around 1920, and had put in a call to Ron Davies, senior curator for air transport at the National Air & Space Museum, So when did he call back, synchronicity fans? Yesterday, as the conference session at the Hirshhorn was ending... from his office just across 7th St. Did I say "leads"..? This was drinking from a firehose. What Davies doesn't know first-hand from years as an economist and market analyst for airlines, he knows through scholarship, and is happy to share. A contact like this is pure gold for a writer.

In addition to early aviation, we talked about SSTs and why they haven't found a market beyond the Concorde's unprofitable toehold. The technical challenges are significant, but small compared to the economic challenges. That does not bode well for the decades-old notion that the best way to orbit is a winged, hypersonic first stage that flies back for re-use. If the aggregate demand of the world's air forces and airlines hasn't justified many big supersonic aircraft over the last few decades, chances are slim (read: none) that the much smaller demand for access to space will justify something much more demanding.

Road trip

Off to Washington early tomorrow for a conference on the social impact of spaceflight. I've interviewed some of the presenters already, and hope to catch up with them and set up interviews with others.

Lyndon Johnson, responding to Sputnik 2 in late 1957: "Control of space means control of the world. From space the masters of infinity would have the power to control earth's weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the levels of the sea, to divert the Gulf Stream and change temperate climates to frigid. That is the ultimate position: the position of total control over earth that lies somewhere in space."

So... uhh... how has that been working out?

Joseph Campbell, 2

In 1969-70 I took Campbell's year-long survey course, and in 1970-71 -- after attending the SLC summer session in Florence -- a one-semester seminar. Overlapping with that were three semesters of a one-on-one, Oxbridge-style tutorial: we'd meet once a week for two hours or so in the small stone building that was his office, and in between I'd read and write feverishly.

I'd been taken by his argument in Creative Mythology that something radically new emerged in late medieval literature: not just the complex of chivalry, quest adventures, idealization of women and romantic love, but the stirrings of a modern sense of individual character. I'd also enjoyed Boiardo's and Ariosto's epics of Orlando. I knew that many of their characters and incidents traced back 200-400 years to medieval French chansons de geste about Charlemagne's wars with the Saracens several centuries before that: cycles of poems about Roland, Aymeri de Narbonne, and Guillaume d'Orange. So I arrived with a half-formed idea about studying the process that had turned the stiff, two-dimensional paladins (and narrative methods) of the French sources into the rounded, often boisterously comic versions of the high Italian Renaissance.

I broached it to Campbell, and he started jotting down a list of recommended readings, saying as he wrote: "If your French is in good shape, and you took some Latin in high school, it shouldn't take you long to get comfortable in Old French...' Ulp, I didn't say, I'd been thinking more along the lines of translations, or at least modern French prose versions. Turned out many of those were lame. Turned out I had had no clue of what medieval epic poetry felt like in the mouth and the mind. Turned out to my surprise I could, in fact, do what he took it for granted I would do.

And so it went.

Joseph Campbell, 1

Campbell's name has popped up in four or five independent connections recently. When synchronicity comes knocking:

As far back as memory goes, I was drawn to mythology and literature tied to it: children's Big Book of Greek/Norse/Etc., Mary Renault's Theseus novels, DeCamp and Pratt's Howard Shea fantasies, Tolkien of course. The pot began bubbling much faster in 1968-69, when I had two great teachers at Princeton (Robert Hollander on Dante, Thomas Roche on Spenser and Ariosto) and was teaching an elective on literature and mythology at Dalton in NYC. I'd read The Hero With a Thousand Faces and the first three volumes of The Masks of God, and I can remember walking out of the university bookstore with Creative Mythology in my hand and a grin on my face.

Within a month or so, I knew that (1) I wanted to study with Campbell, (2) he was approaching retirement after 35 years at Sarah Lawrence College, (3) SLC offered (indeed, prided itself on) personalized programs, and (4) it was closer to NYC if I wanted to continue at Dalton -- which I did. I made an appointment with Campbell in April 1969, talked my way into a lot of independent study, and arranged a transfer for that fall as a day student.

I've rarely worked harder or more passionately than I did over the next two years...

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It never did run smooth

Plans for Altering the River

Those who favor our plan for altering the river
raise your hand. Thank you for your vote.
Last week, you'll recall, I spoke about how water
never complains. How it runs where you tell it,
seemingly at home, flooding grain or pinched
by geometric banks like those in this graphic
depiction of our plan. We ask for power:
a river boils or falls to turn our turbines.
The river approves our plans to alter the river.
Due to a shipwreck downstream, I'm sad to report
our project is not on schedule. The boat
was carrying cement for our concrete rip rap
balustrade that will force the river to run
east of the factory site through the state-owned
grove of cedar. Then, the uncooperative
carpenters union went on strike. When we get
that settled, and the concrete, given good weather
we can go ahead with our plans to alter the river.
We have the injunction. We silenced the opposition.
The workers are back. The materials arrived
and everything's humming. I thank you
for this award, this handsome plaque I'll keep
forever above my mantle, and I'll read
the inscription often aloud to remind me
how with your courageous backing I fought
our battle and won. I'll always remember
this banquet this day we started to alter the river.

Flowers on the bank? A park on Forgotten Island?
Return of cedar and salmon? Who are these men?
These Johnnys-come-lately with plans to alter the river?
What's this wild festival in May
celebrating the runoff, display floats on fire
at night and a forest dance under the stars?
Children sing through my locked door, “Old stranger,
we're going to alter, to alter, alter the river.”
Just when the water was settled and at home.

- Richard Hugo