Giving Evil a Toe-hold

CSO

My parents were middle-aged when I was born, and interestingly, their parents were middle-aged when they were born, too—although the middle of life came a little earlier in those days than it does now. In fact, all of my relatives were old. (Most children think all their relatives are old, but in my case, I have the dates—many of them beginning with an 18—to confirm my impression.) While this meant that I didn’t have any grandparents alive to spoil me when I was growing up—which I regretted—the situation also had its positive aspects. My friends’ parents looked at the manners, music, fashion, and morality of the Younger (i.e., my) Generation and saw the decline of Western Civilization. Mine saw—more of the same things they’d seen before. Short skirts? My mother had worn them in the twenties. Long hair on men? My dad had long hair in the thirties. Rock ‘n’ roll? In her youth, my mother had ditched choir practice to sneak off to a concert of what was known as “race music”; a euphemism for jazz before white men started playing it.

Mom got caught because she fell down a flight of stairs as she was leaving the performance, and her mother (who was the first married woman in the neighborhood to bob her hair, by the way) told her it was God’s judgment on her for lying. But my grandmother didn’t object to the music itself. Her three brothers were all musicians, and they liked all kinds of music. In fact, her youngest brother, who played the oboe with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, even liked that awful Stravinsky fellow, whose “Rite of Spring”, when the orchestra played it, caused half the audience to walk out in disgust. When Uncle Oboist heard about the concert he thought he saw a kindred soul in my mother, and for a time, they became quite close.

My mother never traveled much herself, but her uncle opened her eyes to the world beyond the Chicago suburbs. The orchestra went to Europe, of course; and European symphony orchestras came to America, too. Musicians are a tight group, and my mother’s uncle knew hundreds of them—especially the ones from Germany, since the conductor of the Chicago Symphony at the time was Frederick Stock, who was originally from Germany himself.

In the nineteen-thirties, long before she heard it anywhere else, her uncle told my mother that there was going to be another war in Europe, probably very soon. His German musician friends had told him that the new leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler, wanted war; and the mood in Germany was such that what he wanted, he would probably get.

Some of the musicians actually supported Hitler; but many more (at least, many more of the ones who shared their thoughts with Uncle Oboist) were simply resigned to putting up with him for a while. They thought Hitler himself was a very bad man, with pernicious ideas; and that he was supported by the worst kind of people. But the Bolsheviks, they assured my mother’s uncle, were the real threat; and the Nazis were taking a hard line against the Bolsheviks. They said that once the Nazis had taken care of the Communist menace, the “better sort” of people in Germany would in turn “take care” of Hitler.

Of course, there was that distasteful National Socialist anti-semitism thing; but there had always been anti-semitism in Germany. When the Bolsheviks were gone, Uncle Oboist’s friends said, National Socialism would blow over, and things would get back to normal. Even some of the Jewish musicians agreed with this. They thought that it might be worth putting up with Hitler for awhile, too—but just until he’d cleaned out the Bolshevik nest, of course.

Some of the other Jewish musicians weren’t so sure. The first thing they asked when they saw my uncle was whether the Chicago Symphony had any open positions, and how they could get an audition. I don’t know if the orchestra acquired any new players this way, but they certainly could have.

My great-uncle wasn’t so sure, either. He told my mother that he didn’t think one evil could be used to cure another evil. Once a weed has taken root in a garden, he said, getting rid of it usually involves the death of every growing thing around it, including the rose you’d rather nurture, and keep.

As we all know, Uncle Oboist was absolutely right about this. In support of what many people thought was a noble goal—thwarting communism—evil was given a place to grow in Germany; and millions of roses had to be sacrificed to root it out.

—And if anybody thinks they see any modern-day parallels with this story… Well, so do I.

Writing Is Harder than Reading (Just Ask Charlemagne)

charlemagne-and-magna_carta

At Runnymede in 1215, King John of England did NOT sign Magna Carta.  He couldn’t.  He didn’t know how to write.  (He affixed his seal to the document instead.)

The great Charlemagne couldn’t write either.  In his later, post-conquering-most-of-Europe-and-making-Christian-conversions-by-slaughter years, Charlemagne took an active interest in all branches of learning. But after his death, his former mathematics teacher, Einhard, reported that though Charlemagne even kept a tablet under his pillow to practice writing when he couldn’t sleep at night, he never mastered the skill.  Since Einhard doesn’t say that Charlemagne never mastered reading either, I think we can assume that Charlemagne could read—and that, given the size of King John’s personal library, that King John could probably read, too.

I’ve been reading up on the subject, and it turns out that to contemporaries of the two kings, for them to be able to read but not write wouldn’t have appeared at all unusual.

Until quite modern times, it turns out, reading and writing weren’t studied concurrently. Reading came first, and most students left the schoolroom before they advanced beyond that.  Those who continued their education learned first to write numbers, not the alphabet.  To be able to keep simple accounts on paper (or, earlier, parchment) was much more useful than to be able to write words, since there was always a handy clerk or something around who could take dictation.

Only a student who persevered for years learned to write at all; and no one but a scholar was expected to do more than to copy someone else’s words.  (Books of paradigms for letters, and even simple sermons, were widely sold.)  A person was called “literate” who could sign his or her own name*; and to be able to produce an original work was a mark of an uncommon level of educational attainment.

Since I learned to read and write simultaneously (and in my mind, they’ve always appeared inseparable), this seems very strange to me.  After some thought, I’ve decided it’s analogous with the way that most people can reproduce—with voice or a musical instrument—a tune that they hear; some have learned to read other people’s notes; but only a relative few can actually compose original music.

In fact, now that I’ve written that down, I really like the music analogy.  For one thing, as far as I know it’s mine, which prejudices me in its favor; and for another thing, it makes me feel like Mozart.  –Okay, not the Mozart of the “Requiem”, more like in his “Twinkle, Twinkle” days; but Mozart nonetheless.

It also makes me feel better about the fact that the other day I caught myself making an egregious error in simple subject-verb agreement in something that I wrote.  In the past, a mistake like that would have embarrassed me very much.  This time I just said to myself, “Not everyone is born a Mozart!” and let it go.

 


*Check out this 1867 report from Britain on literacy among the poor, in which “able to read” and “can produce a simple signature” are separately noted; or this 1902 bulletin from the Department of Labor which has columns labelled “Able to read and write,” “Able to read,” and “Illiterate.”