Troubles of Biographers: L is for Letdown Lindbergh

Problem: What if the subject starts out amazing and ends up...not so much? 

Michelangelo is easy. He started out sort of obscure, rose to greatness (acknowledged in his time period) by age 27 with David, capped it (one would think) with the Sistine Chapel and then went on being great until he died in his 80s after having redesigned the constantly redesigned St. Peter's--his was the only design to stay the course. St. Peter's dome is his vision. 

Piece of cake to write about Michelangelo! 

Charles Lindbergh is harder. 

As an exciting subject, he doesn't disappoint, from his famous plane ride to Paris to his kidnapped son to his distasteful isolationist phase to his secret love affairs that have since been conclusively proven with DNA tests...he's like his own soap opera!

In truth, I chose Lindbergh more for a recent book on him than for the man himself. I never cared much whether he said hateful and stupid things in the 40s or, like so many political figures who say hateful and stupid things, tried to retrieve his image by focusing on environmentalism (American environmentalism is a religion that promises instant salvation so long as one states the creed). 

But the problem for the biographer interested me. 

Fleming, Candace. The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh. Schwartz, 2020.  

I discovered that Candace Fleming did too good a job with Charles Lindbergh. The book rather reminded me of true-life movies I've seen where the directors, almost unintentionally, used so many correct historical details to create a story, they ended up undermining their own objectives. 

I rather expected Fleming to at least like Lindbergh. I'm not sure she does. It is likely that "rise and fall" does not refer to character but to social perception--Lindbergh's rise and fall in American society. 

Still, I expected the biography to portray a somewhat likable individual who fell from grace when he got into politics. 

The fact is, I'm not sure Charles Lindbergh was ever all that likable. I felt like I was reading a biography that should be called, Shockingly Naive Man With Unbelievably Stupid Political Beliefs and Lack of Moral Sense Who Did One Amazing Feat and Was the Victim of a Terrible Tragedy

The most unnerving aspect of Lindbergh was how much he resembled the Twitter version of politics--capable of enormous self-deception; susceptible to staged appearances; deeply enthralled by the idea that a bad group/ideology is trying to control/destroy everything; contemptuous of messy democracy; bolstered by empty and high-flown rhetoric, including the rhetoric that comes out of academe. 

His wife should have known better--and possibly eventually did. In the 1940s, she wrote a book in favor of isolationism that Fleming describes as "splintered and warped...grotesque...logic" (265). Fleming is characterizing Betty Morrow's shocked reaction to her own daughter's bizarre attempt, made by other intellectuals of the time, to excuse the kind of behavior found in totalitarian cultures. A similar argument can be found in Charlotte Gilman's With Herland in Ourland regarding World War I. According to these intellectuals, wars were terrible but at least would get rid of the "inefficiency" of current society and leave the noble, correct-thinking people standing. 

Reactions to Lindbergh, however, illustrate the important point that the "fads" of a time period are not monolithically represented throughout that time period. Plenty of people at the time saw Lindbergh for what he was: "a somber cretin....merely a schoolboy hero but also a schoolboy," stated one trenchant observer (256). His mother-in-law was quietly unimpressed. The military basically ignored Lindbergh's erroneous "observations" of Nazi air power. And Roosevelt, who had his own failings yet was not stupid, maneuvered Lindbergh into giving up his rank as colonel in the U.S. Army. When Lindbergh wanted to fight against the Japanese, the War Department refused to reinstate him: "You can't have an officer leading men who thinks we're licked before we start. And that's that" (279).

Lindbergh did eventually help out as a civilian--and here is perhaps the fundamental sadness of the man's life. He wasn't meant to be a hero in the "world stage" sense. He was more Tom Wolfe's right stuff than guy-people-should-actually-listen-to (however much he believed people should listen to him). A tiny king of the hill. He was legitimately not only intensely courageous in his high altitude flight tests but perceptive and helpful when it came to helping other pilots get the most out of their planes. He pushed the envelope. 

If he had flown in rockets rather than planes, he would have been given the same ticker-tape parade, then pushed back into doing missions, not making grand speeches. 

But of course, Lindbergh brought the grand speechifying on himself.

Lindbergh's other kids
Lindbergh was a man who presented himself as scientific and completely bought into this self-characterization (until he decided to save himself by adopting a kind of mystical quasi-religious belief system without, Fleming points out, ever taking any responsibility for his past behavior). The truth was, he never had the heart or soul or wide-worldview or humor of, say, an Asimov or Feynman. He never was as scientific as he convinced himself he was. He was never all that.

Would he have turned out differently if the world hadn't made him a celebrity? 

I'm not sure he would have--he was constitutionally full of himself. But at least he would have had a smaller audience.

Picture Books: Q is for Quattlebaum, Qiu, and Quentin Blake

For Q, I took all the last name Qs I could find plus Quentin Blake. 

Mary Quattlebaum is a writer. I read Aunt Ceecee, Aunt Belle, and Mama's Surprise illustrated by Michael Chesworth. 

Joseph J.M. Qiu has illustrated books about people: Who was Blackbeard? Who is Elton John? Who was Lewis Carroll?

Quentin Blake is an author and illustrator. 

Mary Quattlebaum's picture book has much the same quality as Oakley's books. The story of a surprise party, told from the point of view of a young girl, relies on readers being equally amused by the story as by the images. I was amused enough that I requested one of her fairy tale books that I may return to in A-Z List #7. 

Technically, Joseph J.M. Qiu's books are easy readers rather than picture books. The illustrations--while not my favorite--are appropriate to the text. In addition, I'm a big advocate that if one is going to explore a topic, one should start with picture books and easy readers! Right now, I'm reading several children's books about Mars!

Quentin Blake is a true master. Like Edward Gorey, his (often) pen and ink illustrations are instantly recognizable and quite evocative. They are not as scary as Gorey's but they have much of the same vibrancy.

Blake has illustrated his own books, others' books, picture books, chapter books, and at least two art books! He is a Sir. And he's still alive! 

Blake has a fresh, lively style that never fails to make me chuckle. I love "K" is for Kittens from Quentin Blake's ABC. The truth is, kittens are incredibly destructive! Whenever I've adopted a new one, it has chewed and scratched through anything I left on the floor in seconds. 

The book is also notable because Blake did not settle for Xylophone or X-Ray for "X." Instead, "X is the ending for jack-in-the-boX."

I first encountered Quentin Blake in--and still mostly remember him from--Cricket Magazine, hence the image below.

The Power of the Visual

In a prior post, I refer to television shows that use scenarios as an excuse to explore "human interest" problems. The Rookie with Nathan Fillion oddly falls into this category. It isn't that the police job is entirely irrelevant, but the entire purpose of the police job is how it creates different scenarios that impact the individual characters. 

In comparison, when Jamie in Blue Bloods encounters different scenarios as a police officer on the streets, the episode focuses on how he solves the scenarios as a police officer.

Obviously, I prefer Blue Bloods' approach, no matter how much I like Nathan Fillion. 

However, there is a variation on "scenarios to create human interest" that greatly amuses me: 

"Scenarios to create interesting visuals." 

Filmmakers are, by their nature, fascinated by visuals. And sometimes, the visual is simply too interesting to pass up. While watching The Crown, I often feel like historical events are chosen for an episode less for their relevancy at the time and more for the cool visual effects they may create. The Great Smog in Season 1, Episode 4, "Act of God," is one example (it was relevant to the era; was it all that relevant to the royal family?).

During the Season 3 episode that covers the miners' strikes and blackouts, I started giggling.Whatever the filmmakers' and scriptwriters' politics, the story provided GREAT opportunities to fill every setting with candlelight. The episode ends with a fantastic scene where level-headed, utterly non-hysterical Anne faces down the heads of the family surrounded by candles with a gleaming tabletop behind her.

How much fun and what a challenge for the camera!

Children's Books: P is for Personality and Animals

Beatrix Potter is obviously in a class of her own. 

What is so remarkable about her books is how much they moved away from the sermonizing of so much nineteenth-century children's literature. When Lemony Snicket begins The Series of Unfortunate Events by declaring that this book will not have happy endings and cared-for children who learn important lessons about life, he is referencing nineteenth-century literature for children favored by sermon-happy parents.

I suspect that Potter's small picture books were so incredibly popular then for the same reason they continue to wow us now: small (perfect for a child's hands), uncomplicated with clear, evocative pictures that show-don't-tell a story.

And her animals behave like animals, even when finely dressed. The Tailor of Gloucester, with its Disney helpful mice who finish the tailor's work when he is ill, are pursued by a fairly unrepentant cat. The cat eventually also helps the tailor but he never stops trying to pursue the mice, and why should he? He's a cat! In addition, the work completed by the mice is noticeable for the nearly impossible fine stitching. 

These tales are true classics as Family Ties can attest when Alex begs his "mommy" to reread The Tale of Peter Rabbit.  

Bill Peet created classic animal tales as well. 

I like Bill Peet's picture books for the same reason I admire Potter. I've never much enjoyed stories in which animals dress up to be human and behave like them. What's the point? At the risk of being stoned, I confess, I never cared for the Redwall series. If animals are going to live in houses and wear clothes and carry swords, why not just make them humans? 

With Bill Peet, the animals may talk and interact with humans but they are still animals. So in Eli, the lion is saved from hunters by vultures pretending to eat him--because that's what happens to old, dead lions and that's what vultures do.

Troubles of Biographers: K is for Haloed Helen Keller

In the episode "Big Shots" from Last Man Standing, Eve and Mandy have an argument. Believing that Kyle let her win a contest to be "nice," Eve demands a rematch. 

Eve: Where is he? 

Mandy: Hmm. I don't know. Probably somewhere losing a seeing contest to Helen Keller. Or a hearing contest to Helen Keller. She was also deaf. 

Eve: And like you, she was also dumb. 

Mandy: Dad! Eve's being mean to Helen Keller!

It's the ultimate criticism! Do not criticize Helen Keller! Which leads to the problem...

Problem: How does one write a biography of a saint? 

Interestingly enough, the sainthood of Helen Keller started immediately. Deaf-blind individuals, especially women such as Laura Bridgman, were perceived by Victorians in much the same way as victims of consumption, which disease was not nearly as ethereal an experience as portrayed in Victorian Pre-Raphaelite art. 

That is, Victorians, from Darwin to Dickens, were obsessed with death and potential contact with the "other side." The deaf-blind seemed to bridge that gap. 

From the point of view of the 21st century, the pedestal-placing of people like Helen Keller comes off as irritating and condescending, and not just to us. Neither Helen nor Laura were wilting flowers. They were tough, opinionated young women whose fierce desire to communicate, even to invent methods of communication, prove (yet again) Stephen Pinker's points about language: We come into the world wired to tackle any type of language. 

Seeing the deaf-blind as individuals to be extolled and helped is far, far, far better than exposing them on hillsides and throwing them into rivers, practices that were common up till the modern era. Nevertheless, I began the below biography with some trepidation. Naturally, Keller was a normal, flawed human being. How far would the biographer need to go to make this clear? Would the biographer make it clear? 

Biography: Herrmann, Dorothy. Helen Keller. Knopf, 1998. 

I needn't have worried. Herrmann's biography is not the biography of a saint made human. It is the biography of a human coping with being made into a saint. 

Rather like Burroughs with Tarzan, Helen Keller--and Anne Sullivan beside her--dealt with her legacy from the beginning. The case of "The Frost King" is a case in point. Eleven-year-old Helen was accused of presenting a published story as her own, a story that had been signed to her word by word. 

As many people can report, it was not unusual for a clever child to repeat verbatim a story read to her as if it was her own. In Helen Keller's case especially, all language that Anne Sullivan fed her, especially in those first years (from seven to ten) became her language. I surmise that Helen also had no other cues, as a seeing/hearing child would, to distinguish "that book I was read" from "that story Teacher told to me," not even the changing quality of the voice. On the other hand, Helen was as perceptive as any child regarding people's attitudes or tones, so I will reiterate: it is totally normal for a child to remember a story as coming from an omniscient source. (See Frasier clip below.)

So Helen Keller "plagiarized." Intelligent people, such as Alexander Bell, and people who knew kids shrugged their shoulders. The original author herself was impressed by Helen's retentive memory. But the "users" and "managers"--much like media vultures today--including Anagnos of the Perkins Institute--used the opportunity to criticize Anne Sullivan and even, to an extent, Helen. Anagnos's motivation here seems bizarre: Why wouldn't he want Helen Keller to be what she was: a normal, intelligent young woman who had been restored to a potentially fulfilling life through methods Anne Sullivan learned at Perkins and refined on her own? 

The answer: like many people in her life, Anagnos was more interested in Helen Keller being a perfect, ladylike, saintly example that would reflect glory on him. (Law & Order explores this relationship of benefactor and worshiping beneficiary in the Season 3 episode "Benevolence.")

It is probably for the best that Anagnos became disaffected. Anne Sullivan, who nevertheless had her own agenda with Helen Keller, had one major bonus to everyone else in Helen's life: she honestly saw her charge as a complete child with all the flaws of a child. She once stated, "I shall have cause for gratification if I succeed in convincing you that Helen Keller is neither a 'phenomenal child,' 'an intellectual prodigy,' nor an 'extraordinary genius' but simply a very bright and lovely child" (97).

She bullied Helen, raged at her, demanded much of her, got moody around her, challenged her, and protected her as she would an actual child, not a saint to be unveiled and presented to the world.

It is impossible to tell the story of Helen Keller without discussing Anne Sullivan. Helen was attempting to communicate before Sullivan came along and she was quite energetic and demanding of others. I'm not sure I believe that without Sullivan, Keller would never had progressed to some degree of "normal" interactions. She was not Anne Sullivan's intellectual equal (and after Anne's death, she missed the same quality of interaction with her other guardians), but she had impressive energy and curiosity. She enjoyed horseback riding (as did Anne). She also enjoyed physical activities far more than Anne, such as dancing and fast cars. She liked meeting people. She got a kick out of Hollywood and being on the stage (to earn money, she and Anne Sullivan performed lecture-style vaudeville acts). She remained active and remarkably healthy for most of her life and willingly took multiple trips around the world. 

Helen Keller also had strong socialist beliefs, including the same remarkably dumb awe of the Soviet Union that one discovers in intellectual greats such as a George Bernard Shaw and the Cambridge spies. (Anne Sullivan did not share her opinions but honestly translated them for other people anyway.) Helen was remarkably egalitarian but did not easily relate to individuals. She spoke quite frankly about sex, even to men, which usually backfired (unfairly) onto Anne Sullivan. She once nearly eloped. 

Readers can know all this now. In her own time, Helen Keller was carefully preserved on her pedestal by family members and many of her helpers. Anne Sullivan was an exception, in part because Anne's outspokenness landed both her and Helen in plenty of hot-water. More importantly, Anne never forgot that Helen was a person, an individual, a "normal" girl. When, at the end of Anne's life, her friends bemoaned that Helen would never be able to go on without her, Anne responded, "Then my life has been wasted" (257). As Herrmann points out in the next chapter, "Far from creating a dependent, helpless woman, [Anne Sullivan] had made a strong, resilient one, who was more than capable of dealing with life's inevitable traumas and losses" (265). 

Herrmann does a solid job dealing with Helen's helpers from Anne Sullivan's death when Helen Keller was 56 to Helen's own death at age 88. Herrmann very gently suggests that Helen may not have cared greatly for either Polly Thomson, who was not anywhere close to Anne Sullivan's intellectual equal and was far more possessive, or for Nell Braddy Henney. Herrmann is quite faithful in providing a narrative of events. My own assessment is that Polly bothered Helen less than Nell. Polly may have been possessive and increasingly odd but she remained one idiosyncratic person coping with another idiosyncratic person. Nell clearly saw herself as heir to Anne Sullivan (as Nell understood the role) and some kind of preserver of Helen Keller the Icon. Helen was a thing to be analyzed and cared for, not enjoyed as an individual. One must protect the poor, disadvantaged lady.

Herrmann, again quite kindly but inexorably, points out, "Nell was one of Helen's keepers, as much her jailer as Annie [and others]...A prim, elitist, Nell spent her life in constant dread that someone would say or do something to sully Helen's virtuous public image" (326). 

Helen Keller made her mind known. Nell was dismissed. It is no mistake that Helen's final years were spent with jolly, kindly women who didn't necessarily have the intellectual attainments of her other "keepers" but had, it seems, the same no-holds-barred take on living life to its fullest as both Anne and Helen (see Evelyn Seide with Helen above). 

Herrmann ends her book by pointing out all the advances in teaching and technology that enable deaf-blind people today to live completely independent and communicative lives as full members of society, a lifestyle that Helen Keller would have relished. 

The remarkable story of Helen Keller is that she survived sainthood to enjoy life anyway. 

So what does the "dad" or Mike Baxter from Last Man Standing think about Helen Keller? How would he resolve the daughters' argument (that Helen Keller probably would have laughed about)? He quotes one of her most famous statements: 

"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."


Agatha Christie Collection: Evil Under the Sun

Technically, Evil Under the Sun, starring Peter Ustinov, isn't part of the Agatha Christie Collection, which consists of television movies. 

However, Evil Under the Sun does star Peter Ustinov, who has such a fun time being Poirot, it is easy to forgive him for not being Albert Finney (or David Suchet). 

Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile were both attempts to capitalize on the success of Murder on the Orient Express. Murder on the Orient Express is arguably not a great mystery but it worked as a movie--with all its celebrity cameos--because the celebrity cameos were used to highlight the importance of the characters. So the coarse American diva/matriarch/actress played by Lauren Bacall becomes more important and recognizable because she is played by Lauren Bacall. Ingrid Bergman wins an Academy Award for a ten-minute performance as a guilt-ridden nursery maid. It's rather like watching a series of skits.

Unfortunately, the other studio movies, rather like the second Ocean's Eleven movie, become so focused on insider jokes (Look at us clever celebrities playing parts in a mystery in which we make barbed comments to each other!) the movies are more irritating than clever. 

I compared Evil Under the Sun with Ustinov to Evil Under the Sun with Suchet.  

Evil Under the Sun is one of Christie's mysteries that relies on absolutely perfect timing, which I always find rather unbelievable. 

It also relies on a remarkable insight on Christie's part: that the so-called femme fatale might be considerably more naive about men than other people--especially other women--realize. She flirts and plays the seductress, but she is actually quite vulnerable. The men who claim to be under her spell manage to walk away with large amounts of her money. 

The "evil" on the island is revealed as the true face of the supposedly innocent, misused couple. Imagine if the couple in Indecent Proposal actually turned out to be sociopaths who kill Robert Redford's character for his money. (Way more interesting idea!)

It's classic Christie: appearances are deceptive, and people tend to believe in the roles they perceive. 

In Ustinov's production, Arlena--the femme fatale and victim--is played by Diana Rigg, who simply doesn't come across as vulnerable. Jane Birkin as the supposed fragile wounded wife does an impressive transformation at the end to tough, beautiful broad, the second half of the sociopathic couple. And Nicholas Clay is so unnerving as a murderer that his identity as the murderer seems sort of obvious. 

But it's mostly a nothing film. 

The most notable aspect of Suchet's film is that it has gorgeous music, a mournful tune on top of the usual Poirot theme song. 

It also offers the pleasure of a full Poirot cast, from Japp to Miss Lemon to Hugh Fraser as the affable Hasting. 

In terms of the mystery, the past of the villains is more deftly used. However, Arlena--who in the book comes across as femme fatale--comes across instead as vapidly flirtatious. 

In other words, like with many Poirot films the emphasis is placed on Poirot's comprehension of human nature rather than the oddities of human character as they greet and mislead the reader. The book Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, is entirely dependent on the nurse's highly individual, commonsense, and artless voice while the Poirot movie is all about Poirot. (This may be a necessary change from book to movie.)

Suchet's version of Evil Under the Sun does deliver characters rather than Celebrities Doing a Mystery. So that's one major plus. And Suchet as Poirot delivers the most important line, "I saw her first, last, and all of the time as a victim. Eternal and predestined...a target."

The Poirot episode "Triangle at Rhodes" does a better job than either movie at capturing the psychology behind Christie's novel, namely the fundamental insecurity and uncertainty of the murdered femme fatale (see image above).

Troubles of Biographers: J is for Julius II and Jolly Fiction Versus Judicious Prose

Problem: Can a fictional book do a better job capturing an entire personality than a non-fiction biography?  

I generally avoid fiction when I am reading biographies since what I am looking for from a biography is some degree of analysis.

However, the truth is, fiction can sometimes achieve what non-fiction can't--that is, it can stray into the gray areas, the complications, the ambiguities and show us readers a person "in the round." I thought comparing fiction to biography was worth the attempt.

Fiction Book: Stone, Irving. The Agony and the Ecstasy. New American Library, 1961.

Subject: Julius II.

I decided to spare myself the agony and ecstasy of fully exploring Michelangelo. In truth, I may at some point. The book is quite impressive. I found myself reading alongside my keyboard as I googled work after work of Michelangelo and began to understand why he was unrivaled in his own time and unsurpassed in many mediums even today. 

I stuck with Julius II to give myself a chance of finishing this post before, say, 2024.

The first book I tried, Julius II: The Warrior Pope by Christine Shaw had potential since it made interesting points about primary material. However, I gave up in the first chapter. If you have ever read Dante's Inferno and felt overwhelmed by all the political references/satirizations, that's how I felt. I couldn't for the life of me figure out what Cardinal Giulano della Rovere, also referred to as Vincula, was doing in and with the Papal States. Americans think their politics are complicated--yeah, right. Just check out politics in Italy during the Renaissance.

"The cardinal with lots of names went someplace and did something," I decided, which didn't strike me as a the best way for me to come to an understanding of a person.

I suspect that Christine Shaw's book, which came from Bates College, was written for people who have a clue who all the families and rivals and politics and religious problems were at that time. In this case, however, fiction wins. By presenting all events from Michelangelo's perspective, Stone made it easy for me to follow the problems in Florence and the rest of Italy. I got a lot of the names confused but the narrator does a fine job keeping the action focused where it should: Michelangelo's desire to sculpt and to sculpt out of his belief in God and his belief in his own powers. This isn't a pious throwaway. Michelangelo was exercising the pure, distilled, artistic need for expression that seems to inhabit the greats.

However, again, my goal was to learn about Julius II.

Biography: Norwich, John Julius. Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy. Random House, 2011, pp. 245-288.

Julius II was preceded by Rodrigo Borgia, Alexander VI, who, Norwich writes, "was witty, charming, and excellent company...What he lacked was the slightest glimmering of religious feeling" (264). However, Norwich deals quite responsibly with the Borgias, refuting many of the rumors that "find [their] way into serious histories" (273). He gives generous treatment to Lucretia Borgia, treatment which is echoed in Jennifer Wright's fantastic book It Ended Badly. He doesn't ignore that the Borgias likely assassinated a far amount of people, but hey, at least they did so intelligently! Due to the Borgias, Rome--such as it was--also survived.

Pius III came next and lasted 26 days. And then Julius II arrived. He is described thus by a contemporary:

No one has any influence over him...it is almost impossible to describe how strong and violent and difficult he is to manage...everything about him is on a magnified scale....He inspires fear rather than hatred, for there is nothing in him that is small or meanly selfish. (276)

He was the first pope in 500 years to lead his own troops into battle. "His world," writes Norwich, "was exclusively temporal...[and his goal] to establish the Papacy firmly as a temporal power...This involved, inevitably, a great deal of fighting" (277).

I should mention that I quite enjoyed Norwich's dry wit. I also greatly appreciated that when discussing Julius II's recovery from another battle with the French, he writes, "Now there suddenly occurred one of those extraordinary changes of political fortune which render Italian history as confusing to the reader as it is infuriating to the writer" (285). Thank you!

To continue, Julius II was "mercurial, vindictive, a poor organizer, and a deplorable judge of character...Eaten up by worldly ambition, he was utterly unscrupulous in the pursuit of his own ends" (283). For instance, he encouraged the French to attack Venice, then turned on the French (with Venetian help) when it suited his purpose. He allowed a corrupt Cardinal to control finances in Bologna because the man was a friend.

Norwich ends the chapter about Julius II by referring to his legacy in the arts. Not only did he "bully" Michelangelo into painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he commissioned the building of St. Peter's, he was a patron of Raphael, and he supported the digging up and preservation of ancient statues.

The details of the relationship between the two men was not my focus--I got that information from Stone's book. What mattered to me was, Did Stone depict Julius II with any degree of accuracy?

Michelangelo's St. Proclus--Stone claims
that Michelangelo, who wanted even his
angels to look like people, fashioned Proclus's
face on his own. Proclus does resemble
older portraits of the great sculptor.

Julius II appears in The Agony and the Ecstasy at the end of the chapter, "The Giant." He occupies the entirety of the chapter, "The Pope." (The movie based on Stone's book focuses almost exclusively on these chapters.) 

Throughout the book, Stone is more than honest about the peccadilloes and corruptness and power-hunger and great humanism of the Renaissance religious figures. He also relies almost entirely on "show don't tell" so I came to loathe Savonarola entirely for my own sake, not because Stone told me too. 

So how does Stone portray Julius II?  

Stone's Julius II is better than Rex Harrison's--but even Stone's version seems a bit lacking. The fact is, Julius II is a difficult protagonist--or even likeable antagonist--to write and act successfully. He's, let's face it, a kind of Trump character: big and loud and obnoxious yet unexpectedly kind to those he likes and willing to be pushed back against by those who speak his language.

Rex Harrison, from the movie, comes across as a peeved English headmaster trying to tame, oh, Eliza Doolittle. Stone's Julius seems closer to the mark but even there, Stone's desire to make Julius II a second mentor to Michelangelo doesn't ring true. While blithely accepting that some people think Michelangelo and Julius II had an intimate relationship, Norwich states bluntly, "On the whole, the idea seems improbable" (288). 

It certainly is. A man who wants to shore up his power base versus a perfectionist who values his artistic rights over everything--this is more like Gilbert and Sullivan (with death threats) than lovers or even a father figure and son. These are two wholly dissimilar personalities who yet need each other and do have a point of contact in their enormous self-belief as well as their inherent realism. (Michelangelo appears to have been less tortured idealistic genius and more realistic craftsman genius who needed money to do what he wanted and acted tortured when he didn't get it.) 


In both book and movie, I would have thrown in a lot more yelling and scene-chewing (see video below). Men like this can survive a raging row in real life as well as on the screen. Charlton Heston delivers. Stone (the novelist) and Rex Harrison (the actor): not so much. Pope and artist together don't astonish and bewilder, as they should. 

At a much later date, I will deal with the contention that Michelangelo was "arrogant." Stone portrays him as consumed by his art and constitutionally--rather than deliberately--indifferent to anything else. But I'm not currently in a position to argue a position except to repeat, as stated above, that it does take nerves or gumption or audacity or feckless indifference to go up against a Renaissance pope. 

So does fiction solve what non-fiction cannot? I'm afraid the answer is, I think it depends on the writer, the actor, and the director. 

Magic Should Be Funny

Love Boat produces several episodes with hypnotists and magicians. In one episode, the brother of the hired magician substitutes. His brother abandoned the gig and his lovely assistant to run off to Vegas with someone else. 

Naturally, the brother falls for the assistant. Although she is initially disappointed, she discovers--rather touchingly--that the brother is a great magician himself! (She admires proficiency.) 

And the substitute brother is funny. He refers to his "not so simple" dove. After he performs the classic cut-lady-in-two act, he pretends to walk off, leaving Julie in two boxes. He is amusing and self-effacing and rather delightful. 

All magic should be like this. Penn & Teller come to mind. I quite like magic tricks and I never try to figure them out but these days, the number of mystery-magician plots (and the fact that I was a magician's assistant when a teenager) means that few tricks hold any mystery for me.

Humor and/or delight are the two solutions. 

One of my favorite humorous scenes occurs in CSI, Season 3 in the episode "Abra Cadaver". The Gothic-type magician realizes his persona is pushing the detectives too far; they are getting irritated. "It's just magic," he proclaims. "I'm from Orange County, dude." 

Delight occurs in the Numb3rs episode "Magic Show" (Teller guest stars). Charlie is rather dismissive of magic shows. Amita drags him to a shop and shows him the beauty of being afloat amid flowers. The camera doesn't disguise the wires. That's not the point. The point is to say, "Ahhh, now that's worth the show."


Picture Books: O is for Outstanding Oakley

My absolute favorite picture books of all time are Graham Oakley's Church Mouse books. 

The Church Mouse books relate the adventures of Arthur, a church mouse, who is friends with Sampson, the church cat, yet Arthur wants more mice friends. So he invites mice families in the town to come stay in the church. Alongside Sampson and the schoolmaster mouse, who is eventually named Humphrey, they form an ongoing community. 

The series is very, very British. 

For one, the text rely on the images and vice versa. For instance, when Arthur gets his great idea to fetch other mice to live in the church, the text tells us, "[Arthur got his idea] when he was reading." The image shows us that he was reading...

Exodus! 

Well, of course.

The details are perfect--the sleeping man in church!
There are also intensely British jokes. Like something out of Monty-Python, the narrator tells us that the mice performed tasks in the church for cheese, and "[a] vote was taken on what kinds of cheese the parson would buy." 

The results: Cheddar, Cheshire, Wensleydale, Caerphilly, "something with holes in it," walnut whirls, and "one for Afghanistan goat's milk cheese. That was ignored because it was only the schoolmaster trying to be clever." 

The schoolmaster (Humphrey) is also a very British character: the sarcastic smart-aleck who annoys people but is often right. He is kind of full of himself and argues against straightforward solutions, such as when Arthur and Sampson go to confront a burglar, but he figures out how to rouse the townspeople before anyone else. 

The pictures as well as the stories are utterly hilarious. 

If I ever collect the books (there are 12 total), I would likely aim for the older editions with the full cover illustrations than the more recent editions. 

Recent

Classic cover!

Troubles of Biographers: I is for Iconic Isis

Problem: Is it possible to write a biography of a mythical figure?

The attendant problem is, How much should history rely on myth?

In an Ancient Rome course I took years ago (I ended up using many of the notes from the course in my first Donna Howard book), the class read Livy's The History of Rome and then debated this precise issue. 

Livy is obviously attempting to write history, a story about ancestors and where the state/nation came from. He isn't trying to write fable or poetry. Yet he relies on the Romulus and Remus myth, which no current history of Ancient Rome includes except to say, Hey, there was this myth...

Was Livy aware of what he was doing? I think so. He seems a pretty savvy guy as he parcels out his "facts." He uses phrases like "the story goes" and "they say that." Yet at the same time, he isn't exactly apologetic. If anything, he seems rather resigned: "My opinion, however, is that the origin of so great a city and an empire next in power to that of the gods was due to the fates."

The modern view of history writing states that history is about interpreting primary evidence. You can't interview the wolf who mothered the twins? Well, that's kind of a problem. 

On the other hand, the gray areas of history have always existed. And they have always interested me the most. When I was younger, I even shied away from Ancient Egyptian history because I mistakenly believed it to be "complete." 

The first major historical research I did on my own (not for school) was of the "real" King Arthur or, rather, the possibly Romano-British chieftain (Artos) who may have fought off encroaching Saxons when the Romans abandoned England. Artos is referenced possibly once in a text by a nutty monk contemporary to the period. 

Not terribly conclusive, yet the clanking armor version was far less enthralling than the shadowy, never-entirely-provable version. The parts of history where myth becomes a resource continue to fascinate me.  

Some historians oppose this approach, of course. Other historians try the nearly impossible task of teasing "facts" from stories. In the end, unfortunately, lore is still not enough. Other documents and material artifacts become necessary.

Consequently, any biography of a goddess will, by default, become the biography of a belief. But can it give us a clue to the goddess's personality as understood by believers? 

I picked Isis the goddess (not the terrorist group). It was terrifically difficult to find books on Isis that weren't (1) about the terrorist group; (2) story books; (3) quasi-religious books about the supposed good old days when female goddesses ruled. Here are my choices:

Witt, R.E. Isis in The Ancient World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.

Hollis, Susan Tower. Five Egyptian Goddesses. Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.   

Overview: Isis had tremendous significance in the ancient Mediterranean world. Nearly all goddesses got connected to her while belief in Isis--which lasted beyond Cleopatra's era--washed over into the reverence shown Mary, Lady Madonna. 

She does not token utopian matriarchal beginnings. In fact, the unique and rather marvelous thing about Isis is that she and Osiris were nearly always paired. They were worshiped separately, even in Ancient Egypt, and Osirian beliefs, initially populist in nature, got interwoven into top-down hierarchical beliefs, yet brother/sister-husband/wife were continually referred to as a pair and eventually a triad of husband/wife/son. 

On the other hand, Isis persisted longer than Osiris. He lingered but as an Egyptian deity while the Romans and others took Isis on wholeheartedly. Rather like a Catholic saint, specifically the mother of Jesus, she became the ultimate compassionate intercessor, the mother figure to which any confessor can go. She was both pure and sexy, agricultural and cosmopolitan.

Regarding the books about her:

R.E. Witt's book is considered a seminal text, being the most complete scholarly book about Isis. Hollis references it in her chapter on Isis and Nephthys. Witt's book is also a good example of how love for a subject can occasionally override good sense. Witt argues, correctly, that Isis became an international goddess in the Graeco-Roman world, easily subsuming--as noted above--other goddesses' identities and functions within herself. Isis was surprisingly more flexible than most cultures' gods and goddesses, even those within Egypt. 

However, Witt's exaltation of Isis's celebrity status borders on the worshipful, not of the deity but of the thesis. I reached a point where I couldn't help but think, Uh, I think other things were going on in the Greco-Roman world OTHER than the worship of Isis. At one point, for instance, Witt attempts to argue that Apostle Paul was using Isiac beliefs in his letters. After two paragraphs, the argument becomes ridiculous. It is not that Paul wouldn't have been familiar with Egyptian beliefs (they were prevalent in the Ancient World). It is that Paul grew up in a cosmopolitan city and was a trained Pharisee. He would have been familiar with Egyptian beliefs, Babylonian beliefs, possibly Buddhist beliefs, not to mention Jewish and Palestinian lore and beliefs stretching back centuries. 

Witt is making the same mistake as Breasted. Because a line can be traced between my thesis and the extant evidence, that means that such a line existed. 

Well--maybe...but...post hoc ergo propter hoc.

One thing that Witt does impressively right is show how religious observance hasn't changed much since, oh, the beginning of time. Although, again, Witt attempts to tie all human behavior back to Isis, scholarly thoroughness thankfully triumphs over obsession. My reaction was, Huh, human beings revel in certain artistic modes of expression regarding belief. Hymns. Festivals. Priests and priestesses. Sacrifices. Art. Recitations. Rituals. 

C.S. Lewis once argued that human beings need new stuff coupled with the known. We are curious, so we want "new," but we are human and easily tired (and kind of dumb), so we need repetition. Traditions, holidays, festivities, and religious observances supply a perfect combination of new alongside repetition. 

When the author stops worshiping at the altar of the thesis, Witt makes a similar point: "It is well-known that in the higher religions, as for instance Christianity, the central figure undergoes kaleidoscopic transformations according to the standpoint of the individual behavior" (112). 

The most impressive aspect of Witt's book is the thorough research. The human interest in religion--and how that interest is expressed--is clarified by detailed notes that span the worship of Isis in Egypt to the worship of Isis in Pompeii. 

Hollis's book makes the fascinating argument that Isis and her sister goddess Nephyths as a pair are survivals from pre-Pyramid mortuary rites in Egypt (possibly the oldest mortuary rites that have survivable texts) in which the two goddesses represent rites performed for the dead. 

Hollis argues that Isis and Nephthys originally had equal weight, Isis only rising to the fore in the later eras. I found Hollis's argument interesting but not entirely plausible. Although Nephthys obviously did exist as a separate goddess and may even have been more directly involved in death rituals, the texts that Hollis quotes present Nephthys as a kind of echo to Isis. It is hard not to get all Jungian and see her as the "dark side" of another face. 

I have no idea whether ancient Egyptians were that figurative or were more literal. 

(And neither does anyone else, really.) 

In sum, it is possible to detail the "character" of a mythic being--but it might help if that mythic being is rarely currently worshiped, so there are few believers around who will get personally offended.

Assumptions & Theories about History: The Dawn of Conscience & Current Theorists

As preparation for discussing Isis (the goddess), I read The Dawn of Conscience by James Breasted. 

The book was written in 1935 (I actually learned about it from Agatha Christie's autobiography) and is one of those older books that I quite like to read simply for the clear language. The style falls into the same category as that used by writers like Durant and Gibbons. Erudite without being unreadable.

However, the book rests on a premise with which I disagree and for the same reason that I disagree with much critical theory. That is, although many current critical theorists would be offended by Breasted calling people of the past "primitive" and "barbaric," their theories still rest on the same supposition: ideas evolve based on the impact of leaders and environment. "Advancement" (technology/civil institutions) comes first, then the idea.

That is, Breasted is arguing that the Egyptians started out by worshiping in one way (with pyramids) and then "advanced" to worshiping a different way. He makes the correct--and fascinating--point that the pyramids were ancient to the ancient Egyptians. (He also makes the large mistake of arguing that the pyramids must have been built at the cost of human life; in fact, humans of the past were quite capable at building huge monuments out of cooperation.) 

Many critical theorists would get upset at the use of the term "advanced," but they would agree: the Ancient Egyptians were moving or progressing or changing in one particular direction in their beliefs

Breasted and the theorists fail to understand one crucial point:

There is a difference between culture/technology changing or advancing and beliefs changing or advancing. 

That is, what historians learn when they research the past is how beliefs/circumstances were communicated in particular settings. 

That certain ideas appear in pyramid texts only indicates that the pyramid texts were used to convey certain ideas. It does not indicate that those were the only ideas in existence at the time or that other ideas weren't floating about.

"We are contemplating a sense of emergence of moral responsibility as it was gradually assuming an increasing mandatory power over human conduct," Breasted proclaims. I love the language, but his idea is, frankly, kind of silly. It's what Stephen Pinker attempts to address in his books about language: the falsehood that people don't think or imagine something until a word comes along for it (that is, until someone gives them permission to think/imagine). 

That's simply not how language and brains and humans work.

Breasted gets closer, later, to the relationship between art and moral thought when he states, "The power of personality...[was] now beginning to find expression...in the art of the time" (my emphasis).

In fact, Breasted, by necessity, continually contradicts himself. At one point, he contends that Osirian beliefs "evolved" to replace or to mingle with Sun-God beliefs, but how exactly does Breasted think beliefs "evolve"? He then argues that Osirian beliefs were popular--okay, so couldn't Osirian beliefs be forerunners to the Sun-God beliefs? After all, the Sun-God beliefs were held by an intellectual minority (who happened to pay for the pyramids and employed people who could write).

At another point, Breasted claims that the "story of the Misanthrope" (an early version of the story of Job, which is recognized as a kind of folk-story) indicates "the long development of self-consciousness, the slow process which culminated in the emergence of the individual as a moral force, an individual aware of conscience." Sounds great (I mean, it really does sound great!) but Breasted has already acknowledged that the tale was copied from an "older original." Like Beowulf (and the Book of Job itself) it may originally have been an oral tale or play that indicates a full awareness of conscience at some earlier date. 

When Breasted states ponderously, "[F]or the first time in history men were awakened to a deep sense of the moral unworthiness of society," I love the language but I start giggling. Seriously? I'm sure there were hunters and gatherers who snarked to each other about the moral unworthiness of their current leader or how bad things had gotten since someone invented new tools. "I remember back in the day...."

Because a bunch of people all decide to write about something in a particular decade does not mean that the something was never written about/discussed before. 

To me, a self-proclaimed geek, the real question is, How much influence does technology have in spreading ideas? 

Imagine if one went online and (1) went to mostly political sites; (2) read the comments. One would deduce that the human race was miserable and divisive and kind of lacking in moral sense. 

And yet there are plenty of people off the Internet who go about their business and believe in kindliness and try to make sense of day-to-day life and use commonsense morality to judge situations  and teach the same approach to their kids. 

Erasmus: forerunner to Luther
I think there is some merit to arguing that certain ideas/theories/stories/views find more support at certain times than others. A lot of Protestant ideas were floating around Christendom before Martin Luther appeared on the scene. On the other hand, he did draw out those people and thoughts. And the printing press was available to circulate what they were all saying to each other.

But those ideas/theories/stories/views already existed, ready to be communicated. Just because certain groups only discuss certain topics doesn't mean the other topics have disappeared. Just because a bunch of stone texts (in part paid for by bureaucrats) emphasize service to the state over individual moral self-awareness doesn't mean individuals of the same time period didn't indulge in moral self-awareness. 

The only reason to give the "streamlined" version of top-down history credence is because it is easier to track. Tracking everyday, ordinary people's beliefs and actions is incredibly difficult and much of it is lost to assumptions by theorists. Rodney Stark points out that when universities did religious surveys many years ago, the survey creators removed all questions about supernatural influences because "people don't believe that way anymore." The survey takers then reported, Americans don't believe in the supernatural anymore!

His group put the questions back in. Guess what, Americans believe in angels and dreams and visions and talking to God!

Breasted's "great man" approach to history comes under a lot of fire in contemporary culture. But it isn't all that different from the supposedly edgy critical theories that float about now. Both approaches insist that time works like an arrow: a bunch of (carefully selected) evidence proves that a (good or bad) single mindset has given way to another (good or bad) single mindset. At least Breasted is less obnoxious about his assumptions than current theorists. One gets the impression that he is operating within a relatively new field, not trying to bully others into submission. Consequently, Breasted is easier to take.