Jul 232018
 

On this date in 1929 the Fascist government in Italy banned the use of foreign words in Italian. I am going to use this post to talk about the specific driving force behind the Italian ban, and then turn my attention – briefly – to similar movements in other countries. Before I start on particulars I want to make my position clear. Attempts at “purifying” languages (generally for political purposes), are misguided, pointless, and ultimately doomed to failure. Orwell had it right when he invented Newspeak for the citizens of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. . . . The process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thought-crime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. . . . Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?

Here is the essence of the issue. Some people in power attempt to control the words that people use, because they think that by controlling words they can control thinking. Fortunately, anthropologists have shown otherwise, (although for some time theories have knocked around suggesting that language does control thinking, such as the hypotheses promulgated by Benjamin Lee Whorf http://www.bookofdaystales.com/benjamin-lee-whorf/ ). Read the post to get the skinny on why Whorf’s hypotheses do not hold water. You cannot control thinking by controlling language, and, furthermore, attempts to control language are futile. Languages change – end of story.

I am a low-level officer in the language police, it is true. I am not interested in controlling people’s thoughts via language, but I am a stickler for accurate use of language.  Using language to obscure one’s meaning is a crime in my book – commonly indulged in by politicians. Sometimes language crimes are relatively unimportant. Thinking that “media” and “data” are singular is a mistake, but not one on which meaning suffers greatly. I cringe when a pundit says  “the media is to blame” or the like, but the world does not stop spinning. What if you say, “I have 1 books in my bag”? Now I am confused. How many do you have: one or more than one? Your statement is unclear because you have confused singular and plural. I could go on with this line, but I’ll spare you. Precision in language matters (to me).

Mussolini wanted to eliminate “foreign” words from Italian for a number of reasons. First, we must consider what he meant by “foreign words.” He did not simply mean English, German, French, or Chinese words, he meant words that came from dialects other than standard Italian. By Mussolini’s standards the seemingly ultra-Italian (informal) greeting “ciao” was a foreign word. It comes from Venetian dialect, from the expression s-ciào vostro or s-ciào su (literally, “your slave”), with the indirect connotation of “at your service,” but over time losing all sense of servility. Change over time, or not, Mussolini wanted it gone because it was a “foreign” word. Mussolini wanted only pure, standard Italian spoken in Italy. Herein lies a huge problem. A great many languages spoken in the Italian peninsula for hundreds of years were descendants of Vulgar Latin. They were not dialects of a standard; they were just different. One of these languages, a variety of Tuscan, was the most common literary language, and so became the basis for standard Italian when the nation unified in the late 19th century.

A major part of the process of building a nation out of disparate bits is forging a language that will be a standard for all citizens. Mussolini felt that the continued existence of a number of dialects that were spoken alongside standard Italian was a hindrance to national unity, and, so, wanted them expunged. Anthropologists could have told him that creating a standard language is not too difficult, but having it take hold universally within a nation takes time, and is never fully successful. Nowadays, young people in Italy learn correct standard Italian in school, but local dialects persist in older generations, and so do other languages. Sicilian is related to standard Italian, but is sufficiently different as to be classified as a distinct language. It is still widely spoken on Sicily and in southern parts of Calabria and Apulia. It was precisely this situation that Mussolini wanted to eliminate. His thinking was that if you speak a regional language or dialect you are more committed to your region than to a unified Italy. Whether that is true or not is debatable.

Numerous nations have expended considerable effort to expunge their national languages of foreign loan words with mixed results. Hitler wanted to use the word Fernsprecher for “telephone” but Telefon eventually prevailed. French authorities did manage to get « l’ordinateur » to stick over « le computer » but have had less success with « le weekend » and the like. In Chinese a computer is 电脑, literally “electric brain,” conforming to the dislike of loan words by the Chinese government. They have accepted qiǎokèlì (巧克力) for chocolate, however, as well as a host of others.

Trying to “purify” a language (most especially English) is a lost cause from the outset, because languages are under the constant influence of languages spoken by other people near and far. English is hopeless because it was a meld of (at least) Saxon, Norman French and Old Norse even before it evolved into modern English, and continues to evolve under the influence of other languages. The name for the sauce we now call “ketchup” has been through multiple spellings and meanings, but is thought to have entered English from Malay, but came to SE Asia through Chinese. Should we make “ketchup” an illegal word because it has roots in Chinese? What about “algebra” (Arabic),  “mosquito” (Spanish), or “drama” (Greek)? What we should not lose sight of is the fact that languages are mutable, evolving things that adapt to the world around them. So are cuisines.

If Mussolini had tried to purge Italian cooking of foreign influences, there would be nothing left. So many pasta and pizza sauces (not to mention Italian salads) contain tomatoes, but tomatoes originated in Mesoamerica. Try creating a “pure” Italian cuisine without tomatoes, eggplants, beans, or peppers. I’ll accept that Italy had pasta before Marco Polo’s trip to China, but the wheat it was made from in ancient times was originally developed in the Middle East. All national cuisines are mongrels (and nations are a modern invention). This is because nations are mongrels. Being a mongrel is not a bad thing, however. Ardent nationalists want to tell you otherwise, but they are wrong. In biology there is the phenomenon of hybrid vigor, the enhanced strength engendered in a strain when varieties are deliberately mixed. So too with cultures. If cultures are made up of multiple strains they are stronger than those that attempt to reduce themselves to a single idealized strain. There is a “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” principle of evolution at work here as well.

There is another, deeper, principle at heart to add to the complexity. Cultures (and cuisines) are not based on things but on ideas. Cultures take stuff (tangible and intangible) from all manner of places and bend it to their key, underlying concepts. Democracy, for example, looks different in Britain, US, Russia, and Argentina. The same is true with cuisines. I can give ingredients to cooks in multiple cultures and, with no guidelines from me, ask them to make a dish. Let’s take two of my favorites: chicken and leeks. Off the bat I might make cock-a-leekie soup because that’s where my cultural history leads me. But I could make chicken and leek pie, chicken and leek pâté, stir fried chicken with leeks, roast chicken and roast leeks . . . etc. etc. A great deal of the decision making depends on what the cook thinks of as normative methods of cooking. What else the cook adds will also depend on cultural norms. A Chinese cook would probably use soy sauce with the chicken and leeks, a French cook might use thyme, an Italian, oregano. Cultures, languages, and cuisines are all fusions.

That said, I am not a big fan of deliberate fusion dishes. You won’t find me chowing down on a Hawaiian pizza with a topping of pineapple and ham any time soon. Nor am I crazy about Asian spring rolls with avocado. I will confess to having made mango and lychee crumble on more than one occasion, as I am not averse to chameleon cooking (see TAB). I can’t help it; I am more of a mongrel than most.

Your cooking task for today is to take a set of ingredients that I give you and make of them what you would. You can tell me your ideas in the comments section. You can add whatever you want, but you cannot eliminate anything: my blog, my rules. At minimum you can use whatever variety of the ingredient you want, in whatever quantities you want.

Ingredient list:

Eggs

Cheese

Onions

Mushrooms

Potatoes

Your turn. I know what I would do, but I will not tell you unless I get comments.

Oct 162017
 

Today is the birthday (1758) of Noah Webster Jr., whose name is synonymous with “dictionary” in the United States, and who was a significant force both in primary education and in the development of what is now called American English. Many of the spellings now current in the US came from Webster’s crusade to simplify the complexities of British orthography, and also to distance the US from British habits.

Webster was born in the Western Division of Hartford (which became West Hartford, Connecticut), to an established family. His father Noah Sr. (1722–1813) was a descendant of Connecticut Governor John Webster; his mother Mercy (Steele) Webster (1727–1794) was a descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony. His father was primarily a farmer, though he was also deacon of the local Congregational church, captain of the town’s militia, and a founder of a local book society (a precursor to the public library). After US independence, he was appointed a justice of the peace.

Webster’s father never attended college, but he was intellectually curious and prized education. Webster’s mother spent long hours teaching her children spelling, mathematics, and music. At age 6, Webster began attending a dilapidated one-room primary school built by West Hartford’s Ecclesiastical Society. Years later, he described the teachers as the “dregs of humanity” and complained that the instruction was mainly in religion. Webster’s experiences there motivated him to improve the educational experience of future generations.

At age 14, his church pastor began tutoring him in Latin and Greek to prepare him for entering Yale College. Webster enrolled at Yale just before his 16th birthday, studying during his senior year with Ezra Stiles, Yale’s president. His 4 years at Yale overlapped the American Revolutionary War, and Webster served in the Connecticut Militia. His father had mortgaged the farm to send Webster to Yale, but he was now on his own and had nothing more to do with his family.

Webster lacked career plans after graduating from Yale in 1778, later writing that a liberal arts education “disqualifies a man for business.” He taught school briefly in Glastonbury, but the working conditions were harsh and the pay low. He quit to study law. While studying law under future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, Webster also taught full-time in Hartford—which was grueling, and ultimately impossible to continue. He stopped studying law for a year and lapsed into a depression. But eventually he found another practicing attorney to tutor him. He completed his studies and passed the bar examination in 1781. He could not find work as a lawyer, but after receiving a master’s degree from Yale by giving an oral dissertation to the Yale graduating class, he opened a small private school in western Connecticut that was a success. Nevertheless, he soon closed it and left town, probably because of a failed romance.

Turning to literary work as a way to overcome his losses and channel his ambitions, he began writing a series of well-received articles for a prominent New England newspaper justifying and praising the Revolution and arguing that the separation from Britain had to be permanent. He then founded a private school catering to wealthy parents in Goshen, New York and, by 1785, he had written his Speller, a grammar book and a reader for elementary schools. Proceeds from continuing sales of the popular “Blue-Backed Speller” enabled Webster to spend many years working on his dictionary.

Webster saw his Speller and Dictionary as providing an intellectual foundation for American nationalism. As a teacher, he had come to dislike American elementary schools. They could be overcrowded, with up to 70 children of all ages crammed into one-room schoolhouses. They had poor, underpaid staff, no desks, and unsatisfactory textbooks that came from England. Webster thought that US students should learn from US books, so he began writing the three-volume compendium A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. The work consisted of a Speller (published in 1783), a Grammar (published in 1784), and a Reader (published in 1785). His goal was to provide a uniquely “American” approach to training children. His most important improvement, he claimed, was to rescue “our native tongue” from “the clamour of pedantry” that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation. He complained that the English language had been corrupted by the British aristocracy, which set its own standard for proper spelling and pronunciation. Webster rejected the notion that the study of Greek and Latin must precede the study of English grammar. The appropriate standard for the American language, argued Webster, was “the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions.” This meant that the people-at-large must control the language; popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language.

The Speller was arranged so that it was easy to teach to students, and it progressed by age. From his own experiences as a teacher, Webster thought that the Speller should be simple and give an orderly presentation of words and the rules of spelling and pronunciation. He believed that students learned most readily when he broke a complex problem into its component parts and had each pupil master one part before moving to the next. It has been argued that Webster anticipated some of the insights currently associated with Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, although his inspiration on the matter came from Rousseau. Webster argued that children pass through distinctive learning phases in which they master increasingly complex or abstract tasks. Therefore, teachers must not try to teach a 3 year old how to read, but start at age 5. He organized his Speller accordingly, beginning with the alphabet and moving systematically through the different sounds of vowels and consonants, then syllables, then simple words, then more complex words, then sentences.

The Speller was originally titled The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language. Over the course of 385 editions in his lifetime, the title was changed in 1786 to The American Spelling Book, and again in 1829 to The Elementary Spelling Book. Most people called it the “Blue-Backed Speller” because of its blue cover and, for the next 100 years, Webster’s book taught children how to read, spell, and pronounce words. It was the most popular American book of its time; by 1837, it had sold 15 million copies, and 60 million by 1890—reaching the majority of young students in the nation’s first century. Its royalty of a half-cent per copy was enough to sustain Webster in his other projects. It also helped create the popular contests known as spelling bees.

Webster’s Speller was entirely secular by design, undoubtedly based on his dissatisfaction with his own schooling. There was no mention of God, the Bible, or sacred events. “Let sacred things be appropriated for sacred purposes,” he wrote. He was intensely religious, especially later in life, but sacred and secular were different realms for him.

Webster’s educational agenda concerned as much the creation of a unified American national culture that would stave off the decline of republican virtues and solidarity, as instilling good grammar and spelling. Following theorists such as Maupertuis, Michaelis, and Herder, Webster believed that a nation’s linguistic forms, and the thoughts correlated with them, shaped individuals’ behavior. Thus, the etymological clarification and reform of American English promised to improve citizens’ manners and thereby preserve republican purity and social stability. Lofty ideals !!

In 1806, Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. In 1807 Webster began compiling an expanded and fully comprehensive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language. It took 26 years to complete. Webster hoped to standardize US speech, since citizens in different parts of the country used different dialects and languages. Consequently they spelled, pronounced, and used English words differently.

Webster completed his dictionary during a year abroad in January 1825 in a boarding house in Cambridge in England. The book contained 70,000 words, of which 12,000 had never appeared in a published dictionary before. As a spelling reformer, Webster preferred spellings that matched pronunciation. The spellings that now are characteristic of American English did not originate with Webster, but he made them standard and his dictionary became the general arbiter in the US. For example, the middle of something could be the “center” or “centre” in English; Webster made the former his preferred spelling because it emphasized pronunciation over etymology (which he considered pedantically British). He was able to make headway by replacing /-our/ with /-or/ (e.g. “color” over “colour”) and eliminating some double consonants (e.g. “traveled” for “travelled”); but he found little success with more radical changes (e.g. “tung” for “tongue”); and no luck with getting rid of silent letters whatsoever.   He once complained:

There iz no alternativ. Every possible reezon that could ever be offered for altering the spelling of wurds, stil exists in full force; and if a gradual reform should not be made in our language, it wil proov that we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors.

Though it now has an honored place in the history of American English, Webster’s first dictionary sold only 2,500 copies. He was forced to mortgage his home to develop a second edition, and his life from then on was plagued with debt. The work was so poorly received at first because Webster, as was his wont in everyday life, managed to annoy everyone. Culturally conservative Jeffersonian Federalists (whom he allied with much of the time) denounced the work as radical—too inclusive in its lexicon and even bordering on vulgar, while his old foes, the Republicans, attacked the man, labeling him mad for such an undertaking. Even before he published the dictionary they called him “a pusillanimous, half-begotten, self-dubbed patriot,” “an incurable lunatic,” and “a deceitful newsmonger … Pedagogue and Quack.” But even Federalist rivals called him “a toad in the service of sans-cullottism,” “a prostitute wretch,” “a great fool, and a barefaced liar,” “a spiteful viper,” and “a maniacal pedant.” He certainly knew how to get up people’s noses.

On the other side of the coin, Emily Dickinson saw the 1844 Webster’s as essential reading. She once commented that the “Lexicon” was her “only companion” for years. As it happens, Webster was one of the founders of Amherst college along with Dickinson’s grandfather, and she went to college with Webster’s granddaughter.  Webster’s dictionaries helped redefine US national identity in an era of extreme cultural flexibility. Webster himself saw the dictionaries as a nationalizing device to separate the US from Britain, calling his project a “federal language” endeavor, with competing forces towards regularity on the one hand and innovation on the other.

American Cookery The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables etc (1796) by Amelia Simmons is a good source for a recipe for today’s anniversary because it was the first cookbook published in the US that deals with specifically American cooking, and because it was published in Hartford, Connecticut, Webster’s home town. Webster kept a daily diary but he does not mention food much. However, he does give this entry:

1784, September 29. Rode to West Division with Mrs. Fish to buy peaches. Returned and had dinner at Mr. Pratt’s. We ate Sea-Turtle.

I don’t know how the turtle was cooked, nor do I want to cook one myself, but here’s a recipe from Simmons.

To Dress a Turtle.

Fill a boiler or kettle, with a quantity of water sufficient to scald the callapach and Callapee, the fins, &c. and about 9 o’clock hang up your Turtle by the hind fins, cut of the head and save the blood, take a sharp pointed knife and separate the callapach from the callapee, or the back from the belly part, down to the shoulders, so as to come at the entrails which take out, and clean them, as you would those of any other animal, and throw them into a tub of clean water, taking great care not to break the gall, but to cut it off from the liver and throw it away, then separate each distinctly and put the guts into another vessel, open them with a small pen-knife end to end, wash them clean, and draw them through a woolen cloth, in warm water, to clear away the slime and then put them in clean cold water till they are used with the other part of the entrails, which must be cut up small to be mixed in the baking dishes with the meat; this done, separate the back and belly pieces, entirely cutting away the fore fins by the upper joint, which scald; peal off the loose skin and cut them into small pieces, laying them by themselves, either in another vessel, or on the table, ready to be seasoned; then cut off the meat from the belly part, and clean the back from the lungs, kidneys, &c. and that meat cut into pieces as small as a walnut, laying it likewise by itself; after this you are to scald the back, and belly pieces, pulling off the shell from the back, and the yellow skin from the belly, when all will be white and clean, and with the kitchen cleaver cut those up likewise into pieces about the bigness or breadth of a card; put those pieces into clean cold water, wash them and place them in a heap on the table, so that each part may lay by itself; the meat being thus prepared and laid separate for seasoning; mix two third parts of salt or rather more, and one third part of cyanne pepper, black pepper, and a nutmeg, and mace pounded fine, and mixt all together; the quantity, to be proportioned to the size of the Turtle, so that in each dish there may be about three spoonfuls of seasoning to every twelve pound of meat; your meat being thus seasoned, get some sweet herbs, such as thyme, savory, &c. let them be dryed an rub’d fine, and having provided some deep dishes to bake it in, which should be of the common brown ware, put in the coarsest part of the meat, put a quarter pound of butter at the bottom of each dish, and then put some of each of the several parcels of meat, so that the dishes may be all alike and have equal portions of the different parts of the Turtle, and between each laying of meat strew a little of the mixture of sweet herbs, fill your dishes within an inch an half, or two inches of the top; boil the blood of the Turtle, and put into it, then lay on forcemeat balls made of veal, highly seasoned with the same seasoning as the Turtle; put in each dish a gill of Madeira Wine, and as much water as it will conveniently hold, then break over it five or six eggs to keep the meat from scorching at the top, and over that shake a handful of shread parsley, to make it look green, when done put your dishes into an oven made hot enough to bake bread, and in an hour and half, or two hours (according to the size of the dishes) it will be sufficiently done.

Jul 252016
 

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Today is Día Nacional de Galicia (“National Day of Galicia”), a public holiday in the autonomous region of Spain. It is also called informally Día da Patria Galega (“Day of the Galician Homeland”), or simply Día de Galicia (“Galicia Day”). The celebration can be traced back to 1919, when the group Irmandades da Fala (a Galicianist organization) met in the Galician capital, Santiago de Compostela. It was then decided to celebrate the National Day on 25 July the following year. The date was chosen as it is the feast day of Saint James, — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-james-the-greater/ — patron saint of both Galicia and the Galician capital city.

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Galicia Day was celebrated openly until the Franco dictatorship (1939-1977), when any display of non-Spanish nationalism was prohibited. During that time the National Day was still celebrated by Galician emigrant communities abroad. In Galicia, the Galicianists gathered under the pretext of offering a Mass for Galician poetess and literary icon Rosalia de Castro, and Franco was fine with that. Curiously enough, the Franco regime institutionalized the religious celebration of Saint James as the patron saint of Spain even though his veneration is focused on Galicia.

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From 1968 onwards Galicianists attempted to celebrate the day in Santiago de Compostela, even though they were still under Franco’s dictatorship. The Partido Socialista de Galicia (“Galician Socialist Party”) and the Unión do Povo Galego (“Galician People’s Union”) called for public political demonstrations every 25 July. These demonstrations would invariably result in clashes with the Spanish police. Even during the first years of democracy, after 1977, any demonstration organized by the Asemblea Nacional-Popular Galega and the BN-PG (later transformed into the Galician Nationalist Bloc) was still forbidden. It was only during the mid-1980s that the National Day started to be celebrated again as it had been before Franco. However, the events from the late 1960s onwards had transformed the National Day into an event with political ramifications. The day is now an official public holiday celebrated with solemnity by the Galician government, but also with a number of festivities that take place from the night of the 24th until the early hours of the morning of the 26th.

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Galicia is located in the North-West of the Iberian Peninsula. It was first inhabited by humans during the Middle Paleolithic period, and it takes its name from the Gallaeci, the Celtic people living north of the Douro River during the last millennium BCE. Hence Galicia is part of what is known as the “Celtic fringe” — Western European coastal regions (such as Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland)  that are the remnants of a larger European Gallic area that was conquered and assimilated by Romans. Galicia was incorporated into the Roman Empire at the end of the Cantabrian Wars in 19 BCE, and was made a Roman province in the 3rd century CE. Thereafter Galicia has been a part of a succession of empires and kingdoms with a few limited periods of autonomy. Eventually Galicia passed the Statute of Autonomy in 1936 but this was frustrated by Franco’s autocratic government. After democracy was restored, the legislature passed the Statute of Autonomy of 1981, which is still in force, providing Galicia with self-government.

Two languages are official and widely used today in Galicia: native Galician, a Romance language closely related to Portuguese, with which it shares Galician-Portuguese medieval literature, and official Spanish, usually known locally as Castellano (Castilian). 56% of the Galician population speak Galician as their first language, while 43% speak more in Castilian.

Galician cuisine is heavily dominated by seafood, even inland. Polbo á feira is an octopus dish that is favored in Galicia, and you are as likely to find it in the mountains as along the coast. I could give you a seafood recipe, therefore, and there are dozens of them. But I am always reminded of Galicia by its eponymous soup: caldo galego. “Caldo” is Galician/Castilian for “broth” and “galego” means “Galician” (spelled “gallego” in Castilian, and pronounced differently). Often it is simply called “caldo” in Galicia. You’re not going to make a good replica at home, because the soup does not contain anything special. It’s only distinctive when you have it in Galicia made from local ingredients – essence of terroir. At heart it’s a soup made of white beans cooked with ham or pork, with the addition of potatoes, greens, and chorizo, and spiced with paprika. With that knowledge (and a photo), if you are an experienced cook you have all you need to know to make the soup. Every Galician cook has variations of course, and I doubt that any of them follows a recipe, any more than I would. Quantities are not important as long as there is a fair balance.

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Here’s your ingredient list, but bear in mind that you can vary everything:

2 cups dried white beans
1 lb ham knuckle, ham bone, ham hock, or pork bones
salt and pepper
2 tsp Spanish paprika
1 lb potatoes, peeled and diced (not too small)
1 bunch turnip greens, rinsed and coarsely chopped
2 spanish chorizos (6.5 oz total), cut into pieces

First step is the usual for dried beans. Soak the beans overnight in cold water. Next day, drain the beans, put them in a heavy stock pot with the ham or pork, cover with water or light stock, and simmer until the beans are tender (1 to 2 hours).

Remove the ham or pork bones, strip off the meat and return it to the soup, discard the bones.

Add the remaining ingredients to the pot and continue simmering until the potatoes are cooked to your liking.

Serve in deep bowls with crusty bread.

Jun 132014
 

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Today is the birthday (1865) of William Butler Yeats, Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. He was not only a pillar of both the Irish and British literary establishments, in his later years he served as an Irish Senator for two terms. Yeats was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival and, along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, and others, founded the Abbey Theatre, where he served as its chief during its early years. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as the first Irishman so honored for what the Nobel Committee described as “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.” Yeats is generally considered one of the few writers who completed many of their greatest works after being awarded the Nobel Prize; such works include The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1929). Yeats was a very good friend of American expatriate poet and Bollingen Prize laureate Ezra Pound. He also wrote the introduction for Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali.

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Yeats was born in Dublin and educated there and in London; he spent his childhood holidays in County Sligo. He studied poetry in his youth and from an early age was fascinated by both Irish legends and the occult. Those topics feature in the first phase of his work, which lasted roughly until the turn of the 20th century. His earliest volume of verse was published in 1889, and its slow-paced and lyrical poems display Yeats’s debts to Edmund Spenser, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. From 1900, Yeats’s poetry grew more physical and realistic. He largely renounced the transcendental beliefs of his youth, though he remained preoccupied with physical and spiritual masks, as well as with cyclical theories of life.

Rather than give you a long exposition on Yeats’s life and ideas, which could take up volumes, I will focus on two aspects of his life and work. First, his relationship with Maud Gonne, which gives us insight into his passions and personality, and second, one of his most famous poems, “The Second Coming” which reflects his lifelong interest in the mystical and in alternatives to common Christian visions of history.

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In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, then a 23-year-old English heiress and ardent Irish Nationalist. Gonne was eighteen months younger than Yeats and later claimed she met the poet as a “paint-stained art student.” Gonne had admired “The Isle of Statues” and sought out his acquaintance. Yeats became obsessed with her, and she had a significant and lasting effect on his poetry and his life thereafter.

In later years he admitted, “it seems to me that she [Gonne] brought into my life those days—for as yet I saw only what lay upon the surface—the middle of the tint, a sound as of a Burmese gong, an over-powering tumult that had yet many pleasant secondary notes.” Yeats’s love initially remained unrequited, in part due to his reluctance to participate in her ardent nationalist activism. Yeats was an Irish nationalist himself, but his beliefs and activities were more muted.

In 1891, he visited Gonne in Ireland and proposed marriage, but she rejected him. He later admitted that from that point “the troubling of my life began.” Yeats proposed to Gonne three more times: in 1899, 1900 and 1901. She refused each proposal, and in 1903, to his horror, married the Irish nationalist Major John MacBride. Subsequently there was a strong element of jealousy and wounded pride in his letters and poetry.

The marriage, as forecast by both their sets of friends and relations, was an early disaster. This pleased Yeats because Gonne began to visit him in London. After the birth of her son, Seán MacBride, in 1904, she and MacBride agreed to end the marriage, although they were unable to agree on the child’s welfare. Despite the use of intermediaries, a divorce case ensued in Paris in 1905. Maud made a series of allegations against her husband with Yeats as her main ‘second’ (her word), though he did not attend court or travel to France. A divorce was not granted as the only accusation that held up in court was that MacBride had been drunk once during the marriage. A separation was granted with Maud having custody of the baby and John having visiting rights.

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Yeats’s friendship with Gonne persisted, and, in Paris, in 1908, they finally consummated their relationship. “The long years of fidelity rewarded at last” was how another of his lovers described the event. Yeats was less sentimental and later remarked that “the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.” The relationship did not develop into a new phase after their night together, and soon afterwards Gonne wrote to Yeats indicating that despite the physical consummation, they could not continue as they had been: “I have prayed so hard to have all earthly desire taken from my love for you and dearest, loving you as I do, I have prayed and I am praying still that the bodily desire for me may be taken from you too.” By January 1909, Gonne was sending Yeats letters praising the advantage given to artists who abstain from sex. Nearly twenty years later, Yeats recalled the night with Gonne in his poem “A Man Young and Old”:

   My arms are like the twisted thorn
   And yet there beauty lay;
   The first of all the tribe lay there
   And did such pleasure take;
   She who had brought great Hector down
   And put all Troy to wreck.

By 1916, Yeats was 51 years old and determined to marry and produce an heir. John MacBride had been executed by British forces for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising, and Yeats thought that his widow might remarry. His final proposal to Maud took place in mid-1916. Gonne’s history of revolutionary political activism, as well as a series of personal catastrophes in the previous few years of her life, including chloroform addiction and her troubled marriage to MacBride means it is likely that Yeats’s last offer was motivated more by a sense of duty than by a genuine desire to marry her. Yeats proposed in an indifferent manner, with conditions attached, and the consensus is that he both expected and hoped she would turn him down.

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That September, Yeats proposed to 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees (pictured next to Yeats on his right). She was universally known as George, Yeats met her through a mutual friend, Olivia Shakespear. Despite warnings from her friends—”George … you can’t. He must be dead”—Hyde-Lees accepted, and the two were married on 20 October. Their marriage was a success, in spite of the age difference, and in spite of Yeats’s feelings of remorse and regret during their honeymoon. The couple went on to have two children, Anne and Michael. Although in later years he had romantic relationships with other women and possibly affairs, George herself wrote to her husband “When you are dead, people will talk about your love affairs, but I shall say nothing, for I will remember how proud you were.”

During the first years of his marriage, he and George experimented with automatic writing, and George contacted a variety of spirits and guides they called “Instructors.” The spirits communicated a complex and esoteric system of characters and history, which the couple developed into an exposition of phases of history in terms of cones, gyres (spirals), and other physical metaphors. The spirits notified George that they were ready to communicate by filling the house with the scent of mint leaves. Yeats devoted much time to preparing this material for publication as A Vision (1925). In 1924, he wrote to his publisher T. Werner Laurie admitting: “I dare say I delude myself in thinking this book my book of books.” I dare say he was quite correct! As a vision of history the book is not worth reading. But as a pathway into Yeats’s poetic imagery it is invaluable.

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For our purposes now the most important image is that of history as a gyre – a conical spiral with a fixed starting point that spirals upward and outward for 2,000 years, fragments, and then starts again. This image is evident in the first lines of the poem “The Second Coming.”

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
   The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
   Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
   Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
   The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
   The best lack all conviction, while the worst
   Are full of passionate intensity.

   Surely some revelation is at hand;
   Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
   The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
   When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
   Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
   A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
   A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
   Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
   Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

   The darkness drops again but now I know
   That twenty centuries of stony sleep
   Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
   And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
   Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats wrote this in 1919 in the aftermath of the devastation of the First World War. “Things fall apart” about sums up the feeling of the time. I am not going to give you a whole analysis of the poem; you can do that for yourself. What I do want to point out, though, is that Yeats expresses a sentiment here that is shockingly current. “The centre cannot hold” expresses a key concept. The “centre” is the starting point of the gyre of history that acts as its anchor and foundation. But as things spiral upward and outward we lose track of the “centre” – we lose our purpose; we lose our way. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” We are lost and adrift in history. At this point, Yeats believes, “things fall apart,” chaos reigns, and so we start the gyre all over again. This supposedly happens every 2,000 years. So the present gyre began in Bethlehem with the birth of Jesus.

However, the world did not fall apart in 1919 even though it descended into another world war in 1939, and many people in the contemporary world believe that things continue to fall apart through endless wars, destruction of the environment, loss of basic values, and so forth. Yeats speaks to us as much now as to his own generation. Perhaps some time soon all will collapse and we will find a new idea to anchor us slouching towards Bethlehem.

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I have chosen Irish stew to honor Yeats. Irish stew is a traditional stew made from lamb, or mutton as well as potatoes, onions, and parsley. It may sometimes also include carrots or be made with goat. Oxford Companion to Food says:

Irish stew is a celebrated Irish dish, yet its composition is a matter of dispute. Purists maintain that the only acceptable and traditional ingredients are neck mutton chops or kid, potatoes, onions, and water. Others would add such items as carrots, turnips, and pearl barley; but the purists maintain that they spoil the true flavour of the dish. The ingredients are boiled and simmered slowly for up to two hours. Mutton was the dominant ingredient because the economic importance of sheep lay in their wool and milk produce and this ensured that only old or economically non-viable animals ended up in the cooking pot, where they needed hours of slow cooking. Irish stew is the product of a culinary tradition that relied almost exclusively on cooking over an open fire.

This should be enough for cooks to work with, but I can add some more details. When cooking in an iron pot suspended over a fire the ingredients were probably not browned first, but in the modern kitchen you can. Also I like to add carrots even though, strictly, they are not traditional. But I’ve never had the stew without carrots. I’ve also had Irish stew many times in Ireland with suet dumplings. Pearl barley, however, seems to me to be going too far because the barley fundamentally alters the flavor. If you can get mutton, so much the better. The essence of Irish stew is the savor of the meat. Here’s my generalized recipe.

Sauté 2 roughly diced onions in oil until translucent. Transfer to a large pot. Lightly brown in batches about 2 lbs of meaty lamb neck bones. Transfer to the pot and cover generously with light stock. Add chopped parsley, salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 to 3 hours until the meat is tender and falling from the bones. Cool and then refrigerate overnight. In the morning there will be a thin film of hardened fat on the top of the stock. Take this off (reserve it for frying), and return the pot to the stove over medium heat. The stock will be a jelly at first. As soon as it is liquid and slightly warm, remove all the lamb, strip the meat from the bones and return it to the stock. Discard the bones. Add about 1 ½ lbs of potatoes scrubbed well, roughly diced in big chunks, but not peeled. Add carrots prepared in the same manner if you wish. You may also add another ½ onion chopped and some additional parsley and pepper to boost the flavors lost in the long simmering. Simmer uncovered until the potatoes (and carrots) are thoroughly cooked through. Serve in deep bowls with crusty bread and butter.

Serves 4

Sep 082013
 

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Today is the birthday (1841) of Antonín Leopold Dvořák, Czech musician and composer. In some senses it might be more historically accurate to call him a Bohemian composer since he was born and lived in Bohemia, which later became part of Czechoslovakia, and is now the core of the Czech republic.  But maybe, too, this is a quibble.  His first language was Czech, and I doubt that he made a distinction between being Czech and being Bohemian. The first is an ethnic designation, the second, political.  I’ll get into this nationalist stuff in a bit.  It’s important. Rather than give a sketch of his whole life and work, I am going to focus on two themes: his boyhood and youth, and his status as a nationalist composer. The rest you can discover for yourself.

Dvo?ák was born in Nelahozeves, near Prague, which was then in Bohemia, a state in the greater Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary. His father František was an innkeeper and butcher, who also played zither professionally. His mother, Anna, was the daughter of Josef Zden?k, the bailiff of Prince Lobkowitz. From infancy Dvo?ák heard traditional music played by his father and by bands his father hired to play on Saturday nights for dances at the inn. It’s likely that his father’s repertoire was ethnically quite diverse because he learnt to play zither as a young man while traveling through Hungary.

His first music teacher was the church music director, who was also the one and only teacher of the elementary school there. This man, Josef Spic (or Spitz) was a typical example of the Czech “kantor,” a public school teacher and musician. Spic was also a competent composer in the style of Mozart and some of his works survive, although they were never performed.  He taught Dvo?ák to play the violin and to sing, and from age 8 he sang in the local church choir.

It is well known that Dvořák had a great passion for trains and train timetables, and would sometimes go to stations just to see the trains arrive and depart.  It’s possible that this fascination developed when he was a young boy when the rail line and station at Nelahozeves were being built, a huge event for the whole town. There is a tunnel through the cliff just to the south of the town, and the workers who built it were from Italy. They were experienced in building tunnels through the Alps and so were contracted to build this one. There is a report that after work they liked to gather around the Dvořák butcher shop and sing their traditional Italian songs, which the young boy would have heard.

Dvořák’s father was pleased with his son’s interest in music and so at the age of 13 he sent him to Zlonice to live with his uncle Antonín Zdenek in order to get better training and to learn German, which was important for advancement in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Dvořák took organ, piano, and violin lessons from his German language teacher Anton Liehmann. Liehmann also taught him music theory and introduced him to the composers of the time. Apparently Dvořák had great respect for his teacher even though he had a violent temper.

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Dvořák took further organ and music theory lessons with Franz Hanke in the town of Ceská Kamenice, but they were cut short because money was tight at home and he had to return to help his father. Claims that he apprenticed as a butcher at this time are untrue, but he did help with the business. At the age of 16, the family business was earning enough that Dvořák’s father’s consented to him becoming a professional musician provided he could build a career as an organist. So he went to Prague to study at the city’s Organ School. During most of his studies he worked as a musician to support himself.

In 1858, he joined Karel Komzák’s orchestra, with whom he performed in Prague’s restaurants and at balls. The high professional level of the ensemble attracted the attention of Jan Nepomuk Maýr, who engaged the whole orchestra in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra. Dvořák played viola. In July 1863, Dvořák played in a program devoted to the German composer Richard Wagner, who conducted the orchestra.  In 1864, Dvořák agreed to share the rent of an apartment located in Prague’s Žižkov district with five other people, including violinist Mořic Anger and Karel Cech, who later became a singer. The constant need to supplement his income pushed him to give piano lessons. It was through these piano lessons that he met his wife. He originally fell in love with his pupil and colleague from the Provisional Theater, Josefína Cermáková, a rising actress. However, she never returned his love and ended up marrying into the nobility. In 1873 Dvořák married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna Cermáková. They had nine children together, three of whom died in infancy. By all accounts it was a happy marriage despite its seemingly odd beginnings.

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Dvořák was also composing while performing and giving piano lessons. He produced his String Quintet in A Minor in 1861 and the 1st String Quartet in1862. In the early 1860s, he also made his first symphonic attempts, some of which he self-critically burned. For ten years he composed incessantly with almost no notice or public performances. His first publicly performed composition was the song Vzpomínání (October 1871, musical evenings of L. Procházka). Then in 1873 his cantata, Hymnus, brought him to public attention. The point I want you to take from this is that Dvořák struggled in obscurity and poverty for more than 13 years to achieve recognition, and during that period he was intensely self critical. The fame he garnered subsequently was founded on the proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears” – something I greatly admire.

In the following decades Dvořák went from success to success with an increasingly international following.  He was seen, in large measure, as a nationalist composer because of his frequent use of Bohemian and Moravian traditional dance and song melodies in his compositions.  As such he was part of a large and growing group of European composers thought of as embodying the ethos of their respective ethnic origins. The reason for this movement lies within the nationalist politics of 19th century Europe.  After the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna (1815) carved Europe into a series of states whose purpose was to create a balance of power that would prevent further wars by making it impossible for one nation to gain outright military supremacy.  I suppose the aim was laudable, but the methods were questionable, and ultimately it was a dismal failure.  To create large power blocs, hundreds of ethnic groups were folded into larger entities such as Austria-Hungary.  Almost immediately these groups sought autonomy, and the history of 19th century Europe is, by and large, the history of the struggle for these groups to break away from outside governance.  In 1848, when Dvořák was 7, almost all of Europe erupted in ethnic revolution, and these tensions continued all of his life.  His music was received as a contribution to the establishment of Czech/Bohemian national identity.

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There is no question that the notion of creating a national “voice” was dear to Dvořák’s heart, but it was not confined to Bohemia: his interests were global.  From 1892 to 1895, Dvo?ák was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, at a then staggering $15,000 annual salary. The Conservatory had been founded by a wealthy and philanthropic socialite, Jeannette Thurber; it was located at 126–128 East 17th Street (the building has since been demolished if you had plans to go looking).

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One of Dvořák’s goals in the United States was to discover “American Music” and engage in it, much as he had used Czech idioms within his music. Shortly after his arrival in the U.S. in 1892, he wrote a series of newspaper articles reflecting on the state of “American” music. He supported the concept that African-American and Native American music should be used as a foundation for the growth of “American” music. It was in New York that Dvořák met Harry Burleigh, his pupil at the time and one of the earliest African-American composers. Burleigh introduced Dvořák to traditional spirituals. He wrote, “Dvorak used to get tired during the day and I would sing to him after supper … I gave him what I knew of Negro songs—no one called them spirituals then—and he wrote some of my tunes (my people’s music) into the New World Symphony.”

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In the winter and spring of 1893 Dvořák was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write Symphony No.9, “From the New World,” which was premiered under the baton of Anton Seidl and was wildly successful from the beginning.  It is undoubtedly his most popularly known work. Its Largo has been used in a variety of contexts from songs to movie scores.  I don’t really want to generate a debate as to whether the New World is genuinely “American” music.  Music historians, with nothing better to do, argue even now over whether it is more “American” or more “Bohemian.” Such debates bore me.  What does engage my interest is the fact that for the second half of the 19th century serious music was taken as a legitimate vehicle for social and political unification. A great many national anthems were born in this crucible and have the power to stir people’s souls profoundly. In the interests of fair disclosure I will say that I have little time for nationalism or patriotism. They seem to breed war and not much else.  The question I ask (without any simple answer) as an anthropologist, is “why music?” What is it about music in particular, and highly sophisticated music at that, which makes a Czech’s soul swell with pride? It is immensely powerful.

Dvořák died from a stroke on May 1, 1904, following five weeks of illness, at the age of 62, leaving many unfinished works. His funeral service was held on May 5, attended by tens of thousands.  His death notices covered the entire front pages of Czech newspapers. His ashes were interred in the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague, beneath a bust by Czech sculptor Ladislav Šaloun.

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To celebrate Dvořák’s life I have chosen a recipe for kulajda, a traditional Bohemian soup of cream, mushrooms, egg, dill and potatoes. The combination of dill and mushrooms is superb. Dill for me is the savor of the Slavs.

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Kulajda

Ingredients:

8 cups vegetable or other light stock
1 lb (500 g) potatoes, peeled and diced
5 cups of mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
¾ cup all-purpose flour
3 eggs, hard boiled, sliced
1 cup fresh dill, finely chopped
3 tbsps white vinegar
1 tbsp caraway seed
salt
knob of butter

Instructions:

Bring the stock to a boil and add the potatoes. Reduce to a simmer and cook for ten minutes, then add the mushrooms, caraway seeds, and salt to taste.

Whisk together the milk and cream with the flour.  Be especially careful to ensure there are no lumps.  Pour this mixture into the soup in a steady stream while stirring vigorously. When it has all been incorporated, simmer for an additional 5 minutes.

Add the chopped dill, stir and remove from the heat. Add the vinegar by the tablespoon while stirring.

Place the soup in a tureen a place a small cube of butter on top and slices of hard-boiled egg,

Serve with dark rye bread.

Yield:  6 – 8 portions