Sunday, April 22, 2018


I'm on a silent retreat this week at a sacred space where there is weak cell phone connectivity and no internet.  In other words, a millennial's version of Hell. 

For an old monk such as myself, I'm enjoying the thought of no weblog, telephone, social media, or random screamers for a few days.  Living deliberately through prayer, quiet, and the daily office can be wonderfully balancing and restorative.

We will return on Friday with a new profile.

In the meantime, here are some quotations from Thomas Merton about the spirituality of silence.

Seems to Me Penn State Has More Pressing Things to Address

Penn State's 98-Year-Old Outing Club Is No Longer Allowed to Go Outside

Worth Reading

The Ugly Coded Critique of Chick-Fil-A's Christianity
The fast-food chain's "infiltration" of New York City ignores the truth about religion in America. It also reveals an ugly narrow-mindedness.

Actually, the Episcopal Church in Connecticut Just Tried Something Like This

New South African church celebrates drinking alcohol

Saturday, April 21, 2018

This is a Fine Program

An innovative program combines reading the Great Books with character-building and community.

Privilege = Mental Disturbance

Yale to expand mental health services to meet rising student need

I'm rather glad to be a hillbilly pauper as my status protects my sanity.

One Will Never Go Broke Predicting the End of the World


Today's Crime Against Nature: Salad Served in Waffle Cones

It is really too much to expect the food to be served on a plate?

A Pungent Observation

I'm a little surprised by this, but I realized this morning that I actually miss the 1980's.

It appears I'm not the only one: Why Are You An Eighties Fan?

Most of this nostalgia is by those whose childhood was in that decade, but I was in my twenties and thirties, unmarried save for the final year, and lived either in the bohemian section of Cleveland or NYC.  I played in New Wave bands, even at CBGB, edited a poetry quarterly, had my summers off, enjoyed a rich variety of acquaintances, had three careers, earned two graduate degrees, and knew the sheer, simple joy of being a young man during the Pax Americana.

I'm going to stop now as I'm getting depressed.

Some Comments Are Best Left in the Faculty Lounge

Professor Has College Scrambling to Keep Donors

As I hear more and more often these days, "Get woke, go broke."

I Would Have Preferred Sometime Before Tax Day, But Whatevs

April 23 is the latest prediction for The Rapture

"Male Victims Left Behind By #MeToo Parade"

Pop campaigns, especially those endorsed by grasping politicians looking for a hook for their next solicitation letter and enabled by a social media hashtag, always bear closer examination.
For some male victims of sexual assault and abuse, #MeToo can feel more like #WhatAboutMe?

They admire the women speaking out about traumatic experiences as assault and harassment victims, while wondering whether men with similar scars will ever receive a comparable level of public empathy and understanding.
If you thought the #MeToo movement was about removing a grubby power dynamic from the workplace, nah.  It appears to be simply another exercise, familiar to anyone who has been on a university campus in the last decade or so, of "smashing the patriarchy", that fond chimera that keeps a privileged class convinced that they own the highest role in our neo-Marxist society: The Victim.

As has been quoted before in The Coracle, Eric Hoffer noted, "'Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket'.”

Friday, April 20, 2018

William Francis Gibbs and Sylvia Beach

I had occasion before the snow gathered this winter to take a casual, meditative walk through Princeton Cemetery in New Jersey.  [Do I question your hobbies?]    It is ancient, as one would expect for a resting place in a town that is old enough to be named for Prince William of Orange, was the site of an important battle of the American Revolution, and hosts one of the oldest universities in the United States.  On display are the worn headstones of Americans both prominent and obscure.

While one may certainly find those well-known in American history, such as Aaron Burr and his family, the noted American Puritan, Jonathan Edwards, and President Grover Cleveland, there are also those whose names resonate quietly in our cultural memory; a name once heard in a forgotten context that seems to carry with it some positive regard, but with an elusive specificity.  Their graves are not well-visited, the families scattered, and their gravestones of interest mostly to lichens.  On my stroll that day there were two such names, rendered on stones chiseled in the mid-20th century, of  people who shaped portions of our world from what we read to how we voyage.

"Now, let's make her fast."

William Francis Gibbs was blessed with two qualities.  First, as his father had been a glorified con-man, Gibbs had learned the art of persuasion and, second, he was bloody-minded.  In the first instance, he was able to overcome his hasty and abrupt manner with people in order to find projects for himself, and in the second he remained focused on what had been his goal since childhood.  His is a classic story of the American Century.

Gibbs was born in Philadelphia in 1886 to a family that, despite the outward trappings of wealth and foundation, were kept financially afloat through his father's gift for questionable investments and speculations, generally with other people's money.  Still, Gibbs was intelligent and accomplished enough to be accepted into Harvard College and later Columbia where he studied law.  Although he practiced law for a couple of years, his real calling was in hydro-design.

Usually, novices begin new ventures simply and modestly, gradually learning their trade and incrementally working towards larger and more complicated projects.  Gibbs and his brother, being their father's sons, began their new business with bluster, braggadocio, and expansive promises.  The year before the United States' entry into World War I, the brothers managed to convince both J.P. Morgan and the U.S. Navy to support their plan to build 1000 foot ocean liners.  While the war interrupted those plans, it did enable Gibbs to fall under the tutelage of Admiral David W. Taylor, the era's leading naval designer.

Over the next two decades, aided immeasurably by endearing himself to the Roosevelt family and, though marriage, the New York establishment, Gibbs improved his designs, displaying a knack for innovation and original thinking.  When war once again entangled the United States in multiple obligations to national defense and allied supply, Gibbs designed the ships that would answer the various demands of America's involvement.

The landing craft used with such effectiveness on D-Day and other amphibious landings were designed by Gibbs, as were the Liberty Ships that supplied the Allies in all three theaters of war.  In particular, his design for a destroyer, utilizing the latest in engine technology, granted the United States victory in the Battle of the Atlantic and sea supremacy in the rest of the world.  Over two-thirds of the ships deployed by the United States in World War II were designed by Gibbs' company.

One might think all of that would be a rather satisfying achievement, but Gibbs had always held, since the days of his childhood when he would post pictures of ships in his bedroom, the desire to build the best ocean liner ever conceived.  Now, with a solid reputation and substantial wherewithal, he began that quest.

Ocean travel, as the world gradually rebuilt and reformed itself when peace descended, was changing dramatically as the war had boosted the utility of air travel.  While one could, at some expense, travel across the Atlantic quickly in a plane, trans-oceanic travel remained popular as one could expect some luxury and grace in the voyage.  It was just slow.

For the contemporary equivalent of $750 million, the S.S United States, the keel of which was laid in 1951, was the largest, fastest ship known at that time.  It was designed to be virtually fire-proof, unsinkable, and capable of carrying nearly 2000 passengers.  No wood was used in its construction, as even the deck and bar furniture was made primarily from the new, light-weight metal, aluminum.

The United States on her maiden voyage
In her very first voyage, the United States broke the speed record for an eastbound crossing from New York to Southampton; a few days later she broke the record for the westbound crossing.  Whereas most liners of the era required five days to travel, Gibbs' ship took only 3 and 1/2, boosting the number of trips possible and earning the company that owned her a lucrative, and loyal, passenger base.

Save for a few times when inconvenienced by ill-health, on the days when the United States pulled into harbor [as nimbly as a Chris Craft, according to one of her pilots], Gibbs could be found sitting dockside in the back of his chauffeur-driven Cadillac, watching his creation pull into port, like a fond lover returning from a European tour.

Gibbs waiting for her return
Gibbs would die at the age of 81 in 1967.  His crowning achievement would continue to serve passengers into the 1990's, even into the age of larger, faster, less luxurious craft.  She, too, would come to her end, however.  Today, the S.S. United States sits rotting away in the Philadelphia shipyard.  While various charities and other organizations have attempted to restore her, all of the plans have come to naught.  The latest plan is to sink her to create an artificial reef.  While a pity, it is apt as she was, and is, a product of her age and, without Gibbs to serve as her champion, it seems rather natural that her time will also come to an end.

The end of something that was once grand

"Fitting people with books is about as difficult as fitting them with shoes"

It is both enviable and awkward to serve as a clergyman to the affluent.  Enviable, in that one generally has a comfortable sinecure and access to some of the finer experiences enjoyed by that stratum of our society, and awkward as, no matter how accepting they may be, one is still not a true member of their company.  That, you see, takes money, and money is something that clergy rarely have.

It was a world that Sylvia Beach knew well, born as she was in 1887 to a Presbyterian minister who served churches in the tony section of Baltimore, Paris, and eventually the wealthiest church in his denomination in the United States, First Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey.  In each, Beach met the capitalists and artists who created the foundation of what would become The American Century.  This interaction made her aware of the tastes, language, preferences, and pursuits of the elites and the educated, but without anything more than the cursory membership granted to a pastor's daughter.

Her experiences while living in Paris were broader than those of Princeton, as Paris meant freedom and experimentation, both personal and artistic, and it was to Paris that Beach would return once she could, at first as a Red Cross worker during the waning days of World War I, and later as a student of French literature.  Gradually, she would be drawn into the exciting and enervating world of the literary salon and meet she who would be her life-long companion, Adrienne Monnier, the owner of a used book store.

As continental writers would gather at Monnier's shop and read from their works, entertain the patrons, and lift a few francs from the register as a "loan", Beach was introduced to the sublime writers, such as the prolific Andre Gide, and the mildly ridiculous, such as Rene Daumal, the author of A Night of Serious Drinking.  Inspired by the free-flow of ideas and perspectives, and recognizing that the burgeoning American, Canadian, and British population in Paris carried a remarkable amount of discretionary income, Beach used her mother's small savings to begin an annex to Monnier's shop, a place where books written in English would be found.  Thus was born the virtual lighthouse of The Lost Generation: Shakespeare and Company.

Beach's business plan was to provide a store that was both a book shop and a lending library; it was deceptively simple and immediately successful.  Virtually all of the English-speaking writers in Paris in the 1920's were patrons of Shakespeare and Company, with many becoming supporters and confidants of Beach.  It was her custom to offer generous lending privileges to struggling artists, along with an occasional meal or monetary assistance.

With the largess made possible through the shop's success, Beach extended her support in an extraordinary manner when she offered to publish a novel so modern and controversial that its author could not find any conventional outlet.  In 1922, Shakespeare and Company published James Joyce's Ulysses, often recognized as one of the great literary works of the 20th century.  While the publication made the small shop world-famous, it also nearly broke Beach as Joyce signed with a more conventional publisher just when the novel was about to make enough money for her to recoup her considerable investment.

[An aside:  It was grubby, selfish, and un-kind of Joyce.  It is to Beach's credit, and her Christian up-bringing, that she did not pitch Joyce's collected works into the Paris gutter and threaten his only good eye.]

Beach with the great crook novelist, James Joyce, at her bookstore

Beach's loyal customers kept her financially viable, however, both after the Ulysses debacle and during the next decade's economic depression.  Nothing, though, could protect Shakespeare and Company from the Nazi occupation during World War II.  Not only was the shop closed in perpetuity, but Beach was sent to an internment camp for several months until her release was negotiated by an American art dealer in exchange for several paintings given as gifts to Hermann Goering.

[Another aside:  Although done symbolically, in a gloriously quixotic moment, and while ostensibly working as a journalist embedded with an American battalion, Ernest Hemingway cajoled a collection of American soldiers to help him "liberate" Shakespeare and Company from the Germans.  He did so out his respect for Beach and her early support, and so that he could write her a florid letter detailing the adventure and assuring her that the Nazis had been driven out of that hallowed location.  He also thought there might still be a particularly good bottle of brandy hidden among the shelves.]

Beach and Hemingway in happier days in front of the store

Beach remained in Paris for the remainder of her life, although Shakespeare and Company would never again open.  However, the writers whom she supported would become fixtures in high school and university curricula during the rest of the century and the next, and they would win literary awards as heady as the Nobel Prize.  Unlike the ungracious and common Joyce, they always recognized that they would have achieved little without Beach and made sure that she was financially supported and appropriately celebrated.

After the better part of a lifetime together, the ill and troubled Monnier would commit suicide in 1955.  While Beach would take over Monnier's bookstore, in a nice twist of fate, it would be her brave publication of Ulysses that would seal her status in Western literature and grant her a reputation of greater worth than any of its potential profits.  Her memoir of those days, Shakespeare and Company [1959], is still in print, and a fine biography and history, Sylvia Beach and The Lost Generation [1985], is an appropriate appreciation of her selfless role in one of literature's most fertile periods.

Beach would die in Paris in 1962 and be buried in that New Jersey cemetery, the burial plot the final perquisite of her father's tenure at First Presbyterian.  Her letters and other papers were bequeathed to the library at Princeton University.

Contemporary visitors to Paris can find a bookstore named Shakespeare and Company on the Rue de la Bucherie managed by Sylvia Beach Whitman.  While not a blood relation to her namesake, in her recreation of the ambiance of the original she is certainly spiritual kin to Beach and all of those writers and readers who would study those dusty cramped shelves in the Rue de l'Odean, looking for just the right book that would help them reinvent English prose.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Today's Unfortunate Anniversary

Battle of Culloden, 1746

Charles Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, probably would have been a more inspiring figure if English, rather than French, had been his primary language.  Also, my old infantry instructor would have described the deployment pictured above as "Non-operational; in other words, fouchez".

Time to Reconsider That Trip to London

In London yesterday: 

Woman stabbed to death in Brixton. 

Man stabbed to death in Colindale. 

18-year-old stabbed in Haringey, in critical condition. 

Man found with stab wounds in Southgate. 

So, an anti-knife campaign on social media that featured British celebrities and politicians giving a "thumbs down to knives" didn't quite do it, eh?

Maybe Cancun, instead?


Yeah, nah.

That Sad State of Literature [and the Rest of Public Thinking]

The Stifling Uniformity of Literary Theory

Here's simple chart outlining how to look at the world:

Monday, April 16, 2018

Mark Twain on Jane Austen

"I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

Produce Tedium, Have the Government Force People to Pay You for It = Writer's Heaven

I'm puzzled as to why she doesn't stay there.

Also, there's this, which indicates that everything isn't aquavit and kippers:
In Icelandic politics, it seems corruption has become the norm, and the people are becoming numb to it all. Those in charge just keep on hiring their family members and friends for important positions, allowing the corruption to continue and giving the nation an endless array of things to complain about.
Hey, but the prime minister has a literature degree!

Marxism taught that if the government can control the writers and artists, usually with handouts and flattery, they can control public opinion and regard.  This is a lesson not lost on even non-Marxist rulers.

And Now, Our Sports Report

A wickedly fast fastball isn’t the anomaly it once was. A decade ago, Major League pitchers threw a grand total of just 196 triple-digit fastballs in a single season. Last year, 40 pitchers collectively threw 1,017.

But while baseball’s hallmark pitch has increased in popularity, it hasn’t increased in velocity.

Archaeological News? More Like Mortelogical.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's remains rediscovered in wine cellar: Exact location of the poet’s coffin had been forgotten until recent excavation uncovered the vault

Looks Like CBS' Editors Took the Weekend Off

Usually, it's just the so-called "cub reporters" on duty and, if they don't bother to look up from their phones, this is what happens.