Congratulations to Art Spiegelman!
7 February 2011
Celebrating Black History Month: Good Reads and Workshops
17 February 2011

Essay by John V Fleming

281 1 7560000 10692000 359410 259 261 257 276 262 279 1 0“““““““““““ 5 1 1 285 282 1 False 0 0 0 0 -1 304800 243 True 128 77 255 3175 3175 70 True True True True True 278 134217728 8 Empty 16711680 52479 26367 13421772 16737792 13382502 16777215 Rouge-gorge bleu 22858575 22852950 (`@““““` 266 263 5 110183775 110178150

A-CM

As we begin to gear up, slowly, to return for a while to Paris, my mind struggles to keep free of the comparative mode—the slovenly invitation to declare that this or that aspect of material culture, social practice, or national character is better or worse at home or abroad.  I don’t know whether all comparisons are odious, but they do tend to be, well, comparative, and that’s often bad enough.  On February 23 I’ll be talking at the American Library about my recent book, The Anti-Communist Manifestos, which deals with some literary materials of the Cold War and its intellectual backgrounds.  As one of the fashionable comparisons of the moment searches for parallels between the current global economic situation and the Great Depression of the 1930s, I am often asked whether I think the literary works I write about in that book have a particular “resonance” for today.  My answer has to be Yes, and then again, No.

In the run-up-up to the Quincentenary of 1992, when I fell into the interesting job of acting as curator for an large exhibition at the Library of Congress, I had occasion to study with care the logbook of Christopher Columbus along with many other first-hand testimonies of early European contact in the Americas.  Columbus was a strange man, but a brilliant navigator in an age in which sound navigation depended upon close, accurate observation of natural phenomena, beginning with the astral bodies, but including subtle gradations of wind velocity, the changing hues of water and of cloud formations, and a knowledge of the nature and habits of sea-birds, among other things.

Under these circumstances I was struck that this sharp-eyed observer, once arrived at or upon American shores, seemed reduced to two descriptive categories.  Everything he sees is either “like what we have in Castile” or “not like what we have in Castile”.  It may be philosophically unassailable that all people in the world are either Joe Smith or somebody else, but the observation is somehow spiritually undernourished.

There is also the sens unique comparison.  I went to a small liberal arts college in Tennessee that in my time claimed to be “the Harvard of the South”.  Somewhat later, when I came to have occasional dealings with Harvard, I was struck by the fact that no one there referred to the institution as “the Sewanee of the North”. Twenty years ago there was an expensive dress shop here in my central Jersey town—whose proprietor I shall call “Monique”—with a classy, understated sign in its window: “Monique’s: Princeton and Paris”.  While I hardly claim to have seen every shop window in the French capital, I have yet to find the one that advertises itself as “Paris and Princeton”.  I am looking forward to returning to Paris as uncomparatively as possible.

281 1 7560000 10692000 359410 259 261 257 276 262 279 1 0“““““““““““ 5 1 1 285 282 1 False 0 0 0 0 -1 304800 243 True 128 77 255 3175 3175 70 True True True True True 278 134217728 8 Empty 16711680 52479 26367 13421772 16737792 13382502 16777215 Rouge-gorge bleu 22858575 22852950 (`@““““` 266 263 5 110183775 110178150

John V. Fleming is the Louis W. Fairchild, ’24, Professor of Literature emeritus at Princeton University.  He posts a weekly essay at http://gladlylernegladlyteche.blogspot.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *