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Gothic Pilgrimage, visiting the great French cathedrals.

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December 21, 2012

But, then …

I’m a fool for small gestures, private experiences, little personal moments that could easily be overlooked but which say everything.

But Christmas?  This year, I have lost the beat.  I have all I want and need nothing more.

Gifts for loved ones?

Storms have erased whole communities. Wars are tearing apart humanity. I picture hungry children and classrooms without books, and I want to be the person who changes that, if only for a few.

Yet, it’s the season.  I say I’m not in the mood and won’t be.

But, then there is …

Joyeux Noël

August 21, 2012

Foreign Affairs . . .

. . . ordinamenta et consuetudo maris?

“Before you dash off…” dash off?  A guest at Charles’ gentlemen supper was compelled to give me a lecture on the history and customs of toasting.  Here is what I recall.

“Though having a drink is today one of the most common forms of relaxation, once the act was literally fraught with peril.  In Anglo-Saxon England, when a person wanted to take a drink, he asked the person sitting next to him if he would “pledge” him.  The second person then held up his knife or sword and stood guard so that no one would attack the drinker while he was vulnerable.  More than just a polite ritual, this was a necessary service: the Danes had a bad habit of slitting Saxons’ throats while their heads were tilted back in the act of drinking.  In Germanic countries, around the same time, glass-bottomed mugs, which allowed the drinker to see danger coming, were invented.

But the history of rituals surrounding drinking does have a romantic side as well.  Whether in rhyme of prose, the most common form of toast has been to a woman.  The very word came about as a paean to a woman: In the late seventeenth century a piece of grilled bread was sometimes put into wine to give it substance.  One day, the story goes, in the English city of Bath, while a beautiful woman was taking the cure, one of her admirers took a glass full of her bathwater to drink to her health.  Another admirer, half-drunk, tried to jump in with the lady, saying, “Tho he lik’d not the Liquor, he would have the Toast.”  Ever since, toast has its present-day meaning (the word is used even in France, the dismay of the language purists).

Unlike Americans, for whom toasting has become an occasional and slapdash matter, most Europeans toast and clink glasses whenever possible.  The most casual toasting is done when friends meet at a bistro or a bar to share a glass of wine (toasting is never done with water anywhere in the world-it’s considered bad luck).
In France one says cin, cin, if informal, or salut whilst clinking.  A latecomer, upon being poured some wine, clinks his glass against those glasses sitting on the table and says salut or cin cin as a way of becoming a member of the group.  If the gathering is a bit more formal one would say sante, or a votre sante.

Habits are much the same in Italy.  Whether or not one clinks (in both France and Italy), it is considered ill-mannered not to look someone in the eye when toasting, even in the most casual setting.  The most casual toast in Italy is cin cin; this term may have originated there, in a ubiquitous advertisement for Cinzano.

German wine drinkers a very exacting.  The glasses are always lifted high, clinked against each other and the drinkers look each other in the eye and say prost, or prosit.  They may also say zum Wohle.  When drinking beer, however, Germans simply raise their glasses without clinking but perhaps with an offhand prost and a nod.  A great place to watch this in one of Munich’s enormous beer halls.

Germans have even incorporated toasting into a common ritual called Bruderschaft, which means "brotherhood" and signifies the time when two people begin to call each other by their first names. The two friends who perform this ritual link their arms, drink, and kiss each other on the cheek; forever afterward they are intimates.

The English do not share in this Continental conviviality. They, like Americans, are slightly self-conscious about vocal acknowledgment of pleasures to come and do not therefore make much of casual toasts. They don't often clink glasses, and unless they are eager young lovers they hardly ever look one another in the eye. An indifferent "cheers" is the most common beginning to a round of drinking, although you might also hear the odd "bottoms up."  The contingent of Sloane Rangers, however, cultivate a more European demeanor; they clink glasses, make a point of direct, unblinking eye contact, and say cin cin or some other foreign toast.

As uncomfortable as the English are about informal toasting, they are absolute world champions at giving formal toasts, the most prevalent of which is the Loyal Toast to the sovereign. This toast is incorporated into all formal dinners, most especially those with a ceremonial setting, such as guild hall or university dinners. The Loyal Toast dates from medieval days, when drinking to the health of the queen or king was an important statement of allegiance. Today it is a pro forma ritual and signals the point in the dinner after which it is permissible to smoke. It is always given-usually after the pudding course-by the person in charge of the dinner, who says, "Gentlemen, the Queen." Everyone raises his glass, drinks, and then lights up, preparing to listen to the endless speeches that follow.

The Germans are not far behind the English when it comes to formal toasting. At a formal, seated dinner, particularly a business dinner, toasting begins after the eating is finished, and often everyone present is obliged to participate. The president of the company might start things by standing up, raising his glass, and offering a sentence or two about the corporate merger, or whatever matter is being celebrated. Afterward, everyone else stands, one by one, and makes his own toast, which is, again, usually business related.

The farther north you go in Europe, the more formal the toasting habits. In Sweden the rules for toasting are followed to the letter: you raise your glass of wine (never beer or water) to chest level-where the third button on a soldier's uniform would be-look your companion in the eye, say skoal, drink, lower the glass to chest level, and nod your head. (The Swedish expression skoal comes from the ancient practice-adhered to until the eleventh century-of drinking from the skull of an enemy that has been killed.) The only optional part of this ritual is the clinking of glasses, and it is important to maintain eye contact throughout. In an informal setting, the Swedes like to sing drinking songs throughout the meal.

All over the world, when gourmet societies meet, formal toasts are an important part of the proceedings. At such gatherings, there is always a strict rule that when toasting with white wine or champagne, one must hold up the glass by the stem or the base, in order not to warm the wine during the time that the toast is being given. (True oenophiles almost always hold their glasses of champagne or white wine by the stem or base, toast or no toast.)
If a toast is being given in your honor in the United States, you are not allowed to lift your glass, but must graciously accept every one's good wishes without drinking. However, throughout Europe no such unfortunate restrictions exist, and the person being toasted is allowed to drink along with the group.

The elaborate quasi-poetic toast-whether from literature or from the heart-is found less and less around the world, but it still has currency in the more civilized circles of some countries. It had its heyday in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, until Prohibition virtually eliminated the widespread practice. Until then, every well-heeled man and woman memorized several toasts, each suitable for a different occasion.

There are many of us who feel that a dinner without a formal toast-as opposed to the impromptu and abbreviated variety-is like a book without a dedication. To enjoy the custom, however, one must be comfortable being the center of attention and not mind that after such a toast-or after a few extemporaneous words to honor a person or an occasion-there will be dead silence around the table. It's usually an awkward moment.”

An awkward moment followed.  I said thank you very much and I did not have the heart to tell the good gentleman that most of my toasting and hosting would be with gentlemen who are strict followers of the laws of the Qur'an.

Perhaps I better get acquainted with the social ritual of smoking a hookah?

July 5, 2012

Just passing...

A tourist from America paid a visit to a renowned Polish rabbi, Hofetz Chaim.
He was astonished to see the rabbi’s home was only a simple room filled with books, plus a table and bench.
“Rabbi,” asked the tourist, “where is your furniture?”
“Where is yours?” replied Hofetz Chaim.
“Mine?” asked the puzzled American. “But I’m only passing through.”
“So am I,” said the rabbi.

~Tales of the Hassidim.

July 2, 2012

This is Holland…

…a sales assistant tells me, as I scan bookshelves generously stocked with English as well as Dutch works. "We are not so religious. Yes, we have more mosques now - but we have also a lot of empty churches." And here's a great thing to do with such atmospheric yet dormant spaces. I'm in central Maastricht, standing in what must be one of the finest bookshops in the world. That's quite a claim. Yet who could fail to be thrilled by this extraordinary venture?

Completed in 2007 by Merkx + Girod Architecten, the Selexyz Dominicanen Bookstore is an incredible church conversion that was originally consecrated in 1294. Located between Maastricht’s two major squares (the Markt and the Vrijthof), the bookstore is run by a large Dutch chain in collaboration with the city council of Maastricht.

The location has not been used as a church for over 200 years. Before becoming a bookstore it served as bicycle storage, exam hall for students, a Christmas market and venue for various shows and events. While some may find this usage peculiar, there are actually a significant number of abandoned churches in the Netherlands, many of them hundreds of years old.

With land being a premium in the country, local governments have opted to convert and restore (just look at those ceilings!) rather than demolish these historic abandoned buildings.

The Dominican church in Maastricht strikes just the right note. Its architects deserve a blessing.

June 8, 2012

Yes, Ms. Edna, we’ll always have Paris

Of all the world’s great cities there is one that seems to provoke more passion, more devotion, and more romantic inspiration than all the others.  The city, of course, is Paris, the endlessly fascinating, always regenerating French capital.  From Man Ray to Gershwin, Paris has been particularly intriguing for twentieth-century American artists.  In his paean to the city, Hemingway wrote:

“If you rare lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then where ever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.”

I have always believed that the world is filled with countless fascinating places worth visiting.  Once.  But the remarkable thing about Europe and Paris in particular, is that the more you go, the more you want to stay.  Each stay yields its own rewards, its own discoveries, and its own justification for returning again.  Each stay is a renewal rather than a rerun, even if you always frequent the same venues. 

Just walk a block, turn a corner - in Paris there is always something interesting, something beautiful and new, something that has been there forever but has gone unnoticed until now. 

Nothing caused so much controversy in Paris as "the Pyramid".  It is either a work of genius or an abomination, depending on what opinion you hold of the object, Parisians will take the opposite view.  

Paris now is Paris as ever, as changing and constant as the weather, with new shops and restaurants, new people to watch and places to go. 

And I’ll always remember, no matter what happens, I’ll always have Paris.

May 26, 2012

For The Troops

On Memorial Day let us wander among the interred veterans of all the wars Of The Republic.

And then, let us remember Abraham Lincoln’s peroration of his magnificent Second Inaugural Address:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan-to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

After Lincoln's murder, the spirit of his remarks took hold in curious ways. On May 1, 1865, freed black slaves gathered to honor the Union prisoners who'd been buried in unmarked graves at the Charleston Race Course in South Carolina. Elsewhere, in the South, what was first known as Decoration Day became essential to the Lost Cause mythology that became so destructive to the descendants of those freedmen who'd honored the Union dead in Charleston. 

Supporting The Troops always has been a more complicated business than applauding at the ballpark.

May 4, 2012

The Art of self-presentation

Or packaging, for maximum exposure is hardly a new phenomenon. More than two thousand years after Augustus the possibilities for getting one’s picture shown in public have dominated the mainstream.

In today’s media society, television fare like Entourage, American Idol, Project Runway, Bethenny Getting Married?, and the always effortlessly cool Mad Men fill the airwaves, glorifying fame and all its accompanying excesses. Today, one needs to go no further for a bit of recognition and renown than to the Internets’ own über publicist, the infamous Facebook, a gathering of one hundred and fifty million plus strangers, who are ready to befriend, share and exchange the most banal of pleasantries and intimate of secrets, launching even the lowest of us to the digital Walk of Fame.

Never before have we consumed so much. Photo ops, press kits, fashion layouts, publicity tours, media interviews, behind-the-scenes stagings where highly customized presentations are carefully choreographed and rigidly controlled to create a favorable impression in anointing the next great celebrity wonder.

With literally hundreds of different media outlets competing for the attention of viewers, readers and listeners, a great deal of importance is attached to presenting oneself in the best possible light, no matter how distant the truth. Those who know how to present themselves, after all, get noticed, and a whole raft of consultants, posses, coaches, stylists and publicists make sure that their protégé and, by association, themselves, garner a spot at the celebrated top.

For a bit of fanciful fun and angling for fame and immortality, I have chosen as my avatar a man from the Middle Ages, a nobleman, bien sûr.  Although the printing press was introduced in 1440, shifting forever the power of the few to the many, it was the portrait paintings of that time that primarily memorialized and publicized the rich, the powerful and subsequently, the middle class.

Those looking for fame sought out the expert brush strokes of master artisans to transform the unknown and ordinary into a veritable superstar. One of the preeminent and official court painters of his day, the Medici appointed Angiolo Torri Bronzino (1503-1572) usually known as Il Bronzino, was celebrated as the master magician of the brush. His portrait figures—often read as static, elegant, and stylish exemplars of unemotional haughtiness and assurance—influenced the course of European court portraiture for a century.

Who better than Il Bronzino to wave his magic brush and usher in instant celebrity? In a Portrait of a Young Man, the viewer is accosted by the arresting and imperious gaze of an unidentified young Florentine. The overweening pomposity is perfectly captured in the all consuming self-important stare, not to the viewer, who is surely beneath the nobleman’s station, but to that private place where only the truly anointed brood. He stands between an elaborately decorated table and chair within an architectural setting meant to suggest a Florentine palace. Naturally.  One simple painting by the esteemed Il Bronzino was enough to catapult the young Florentine into the exalted courts of his own exaggerated imagination.  The portrait and carefully staged presentation elevated the subject to the heights of his choosing. 

In my avatar I superimposed this image with that of Kermit, to lessen the impact of my own self-importance.  

March 24, 2012

Let them Eat Bread.


What will I miss most about France? Fresh baked bread!

During the 4,000 years it has been our staff of life bread has been taxed, surveyed, controlled, fought over, and finally reduced to an unappetizing, unwholesome, and depressing conformity.

This is not so in France-not yet, anyway-though a large percent of the bread eaten here is mass-produced today; the rest comes from small bakers. Since the famous baguette has a life of about five hours, it has to be made twice daily, even hourly. This best-known of French breads is far from being the only kind, however. There are dozens upon dozens of varieties, with shapes and tastes peculiar to each region-flat bread, round bread, twisted bread, bread in the shape of a hand or a hat.

At 8 rue du Cherche-Midi, centuries before Poilâne, there stood an abbey. It’s uncertain if the nuns baked bread—though the basement oven certainly seems ancient — we do know, however, that the 17th-century convent was destroyed in 1789 during the French Revolution. The bakery, which moved in soon after, continued unremarkably until Pierre Poilâne discovered the location in 1932.

I love their website

The long lines that form everyday suggest that one of the best bread in Paris is made by Poilâne, a baker whose heavy round loaves dusted with flour are served in some of the most discerning restaurants and homes. In the old days, dark bread was for the poor, white for the rich. Today the situation is reversed. Poilâne's rough brown bread is made of only these ingredients: coarse, stone-ground whole-wheat flour; water; sea salt; and levain, the leavening agent.

Little has changed since Pierre Poilâne, a young baker from Normandy, first began baking the dark country bread that has become a specialty, though today the operation has much expanded.

Bread has always been a barometer of the social and political fabric. It was a bread crisis, symbolized by Marie Antoinette's airy remark "qu'ils mangent de la brioche" that precipitated the French Revolution. It was a time when bakers were as unpopular as the nobility, for bread cost almost half a worker's wages.

During the German occupation in World War II, the French were forced to eat black or gray bread-traditionally peasant fare. After the war ended, white bread symbolized liberty. The other bakers were annoyed that Poilâne continued making dark bread. There was even talk of forbidding such bread! All he was doing was continuing a tradition. I admire him for his stubborn wisdom. One mustn't be trapped by tradition. On the other hand, we can't live intelligently, humanly, without an understanding of it.

For people accustomed to white bread, Poilâne's heavy loaves may at first prove rough on the jaws. It is hearty bread not for the dainty feeder. Two slabs buttered for breakfast fuels me until supper. Though some favor it with robust meals like roast lamb or rabbit stew, I insists it is adaptable, even to the most delicate preparations of sole and veal and it goes with all cheeses. Among my favorite are big miche, raisin bread, nut bread, brioche, seedless rye, and their superb apple tart.

The walls at the shop are hung thick with paintings honoring his famous round loaves. The collection was started after the war when Poilâne accepted a canvas in exchange for bread from a hungry painter. Word of his generosity spread.

Their most bizarre commission came, inevitably, from Salvador Dali, who asked for a set of bedroom furniture, life-size, including a four-poster bed. Dali explained that "in our apocalyptic age it might prove to be a good food investment in case of disaster." When Poilâne remained skeptical, he added, "It's the only way I have of knowing if I have mice in my house.”

Qu'ils manger du pain!

March 1, 2012

My Paris Notebook

“The most beautiful church in Paris, after Notre Dame” was started in 1532 and consecrated, with a piece or two still missing, more than a century later.  During those hundred years, taste had changed even more radically than in our own century.  

The original plans for Église de Saint-Eustache were like a final look at the religious architecture of the Middle Ages.  By the time the building was ready to be decorated, the taste of a new age prevailed.  The result was a patchwork that a still later age would find lamentable.  The 1828 edition of a guide to Paris (Le Veritable Conducteur Parisien) deplored “the poor taste of the architect” and “the confused mixture of Latin and Greek.”

Viollet-le-Duc hated the Renaissance, which explains his loathing of the interior of Saint-Eustache; however, he was not the only person to see it as “badly conceived, badly built, a confused mass of debris borrowed from all sides…a kind of Gothic skeleton covered in Ramon rags stitched together like a harlequin suit.”

By the time Saint-Eustache was completed, in 1642, there was absolutely no one living who could describe what had been there before.  

In fact a chapel, dedicated to Sainte-Agnès, a Roman martyr, had stood there for 300 years before it was demolished to make way for a more modern, more imposing church. Conceivably, people in the neighborhood were disturbed to watch it being torn down.  They had been christened and married there; their parents had been taken from the chapel to their burial ground.  Alas, the wiping out of a 300-year-old chapel almost 500 years ago does not arouse our nostalgia.  

It does not enter our minds to say that if it still existed Paris would be more attractive or easier to live in.  Three hundred years today, seem dwindled, short.  The loss of a building 150 years old, closer in time, is the work of vandals.  

Saint-Eustache now looks not like an architectural patchwork but like a harmonious and splendid reproach to anything built within yards of it.  


(The late André Marchal playing the glorious church organ.)

As for the chapel, we can try to imagine what it must have looked like, and we can be sure that it was there, for three shrunken centuries.  The danger is when a whole generation of Parisians, for want of knowing, will answer “What was there before?” with “Nothing.”

February 3, 2012

Chantilly-heaven on earth, if you are horsing around.

Within the town of Chantilly, twenty-five miles north of Paris, the chateau of Chantilly sits on a tiny rock island surrounded by luminous oblongs of water and bosky belts of tall pines. The star attraction, you might think. Anywhere else, it would be. Not in Chantilly, where the chateau museum, its resplendent grounds, and its marvelous collection of old masters are becoming something of a sideshow to the estate’s abiding grande passion for the horse.

Over the centuries, that passion has taken many forms, beginning with the return from court to Chantilly, his country seat, of Louis-Henri de Bourbon, seventh prince de Condé and cousin to Louis XV. Condé presided the construction of an edifice as palatial and elegant as the chateau itself-the Great Stables-which today houses the Living Museum of the Horse. The horse museum and Chantilly's famed racecourse, in front, together constitute the hub of an equine universe of unparalleled size and splendor. Some of the world's finest horses are kept in the town. Early every morning many canter along the sand alleys of the Chantilly woods. The Thoroughbreds prepare under the eyes of Europe's most celebrated trainers for such prestigious races as the Prix du Jockey Club and Prix de Diane' stakes, run here every June. Between them the two races are worth a king’s ransom in prize money.

This passion for horses and all that relates to them did not come by accident to Chantilly.  The story begins with Condé's retirement from his post as prime minister to Louis XV. Upon first returning to Chantilly, he was content simply to enjoy the exquisite eighteenth-century estate he had inherited.  He took his pleasure seriously and organized them with care.

The most polished society was invited to Chantilly to gossip, dine, dance, or love. They hunted, gambled, and staged operas. Festivities were improvised in the castle's splendid reception rooms and in the sumptuous park: on the grand canal, under the alleys of chestnut trees, or by the little water mill. Le Notre, the designer of the gardens at Versailles and St. Germain-en-Laye, created the park.

At Chantilly, a pleasing balance was maintained between nature and manmade order. There were geometric parterres and English lawns; stone temples and half-timbered cottages. A canal was dug and water from it marshaled into dancing fountains and waterfalls. The park was stocked with wild ducks, swans, peacocks, carp. Against this carefully manicured natural backdrop sported the wittiest of men and the prettiest, liveliest women in society, engaged in a round of picnics they called "fetes champetres."

Life was more fun in Chantilly than at Versailles. There were fewer civil servants, fewer parasites, and, above all, fewer responsibilities. In such an environ ment, Louis-Henri de Bourbon realized that "toujours des plaisirs n'est pas du plaisir." He sought the unpredictable through contact with horses. They introduced the elemental and the unruly into his over civilized world. When the prince did not hunt for a day, the court would say, "Today he does nothing." The speed, the blood, the screams, gave the day its color; but for him the heroic spell of the hunt came from the horse: "All time is lost," he said, "that is not spent on a horse."

And so, drawn on by this fascination, Louis-Henri de Bourbon decided to build the Great Stables. The prince, a believer in metempsychosis-the transmigration of souls-was convinced that he would return to Chantilly as a horse. Since his future quarters would have to be worthy of him in his next incarnation, he built these extravagant and majestic stables, which he insisted should be visible from his bedroom at the chateau.

Contemporaries were baffled by the project. In 1754, the prince de Ligne called this temple to the horse "ridiculously beautiful, a building superior to the palaces of many kings."  But Conde had never been happier, for every morning as he rose from his bed he could observe the comings and goings of all his horses. He could watch them galloping on the lush green that is now the racecourse; he could see the forest where they would hunt; and he could study them as they trained in the manege under the splendid pediments.

Designed and built between 1719 and 1740 by the architect Jean Aubert, the Great Stables today look exactly as they did on the day of their completion, standing some four hundred yards from the chateau. Condé installed his 500 hounds in the beautiful kennels. He put all of his carriages, sedan chairs, and berlins in the coach houses and devoted the rest of the edifice to his 250 horses, housed in their luxurious stalls and exercised in an out-door and two indoor rings. There were apartments for kennel men, pointer men, whippers-in, grooms, women, and children; about 150 people in all.

As the prince had spent his life, so, in 1740, he finished it-with his horses. One story goes that having already lost an eye in a riding accident, Condé caught pneumonia while riding in the forest; as death approached, he sought warmth and comfort among his horses in their stalls.

During the next two centuries, the stables were used as barracks and as a private riding club. Finally, in 1884 the duke of Aumale gave the entire estate of Chantilly-chateau, stables, parks, and all-to the Institut de France, an elite private organization. Being an avid collector, he continued to stock it with gifts until his death, in 1897, when the chateau was opened to the public. It proved to be a splendid museum, offering a rich and diverse collection of sculptures, drawings, illuminated manuscripts, rare books, jewelry, and paintings.

The stables, meanwhile, received little attention. Only in 1982 did they begin to recover some of their original grandeur, when Yves Bienaime, who had made a name for himself as the youngest riding master in France, arrived in Chantilly. He was smitten by what he saw. Indeed, his passion for the stables seems comparable only to Condé's own. Taking advantage of his position at the top of the French horse world, Bienaime brought his own and others' expertise and influence to an extraordinary undertaking-the transformation of Condé's Great Stables into the magnificent Museum of the Horse.

What was a long, neglected shell of a building is now a vibrant, echoing space full of the sounds and smells of horses. As the visitor passes through the huge sculpted wooden doors, he is transported by Condé's vision, implemented by Aubert the architect and resuscitated centuries later by Bienaime. Who can fail to feel the passion that went into building the 610-foot-long naves, with their cathedral ceilings, the central rotunda, topped by the 92 foot-high dome, and the continuing arches stretching endlessly beyond?  The devotion is evident throughout. No detail is too small; no greater care could be lavished on the spectacles performed under the great dome, in the open-air rings.  The museum is instructive, yet it bristles with life. 

The twentieth-century tribute-James Bond's large horse in the film A View to a Kill-looks like bronze but is polyester. The educational tour includes audiovisual displays, anatomical lessons, X rays of fractures, and analyses of foodstuffs.

To bring the museum into being, Bienaime sold his house and his three riding schools and, with the help of his wife, his eldest daughter, and nine workers, realized his dream-and Condé's. Funding the entire operation himself, he began at the beginning: sealing leaks, scraping away old plaster, applying fresh paint, working from the ground up. His success can be measured by strict museum standards: the number of visitors has increased every year since the opening, in 1982.

Once upon a time Chantilly was a swamp, a rocky island surrounded by a forest filled with wild animals. The    Condés changed all that, and after centuries their genius abides in the place and in the person of Yves Bienaime, Louis-Henri's true-albeit non equine-reincarnation.

January 24, 2012

Bless you, Dr. Johnson.

Jog'ger: One who moves heavily and dully. -Dr. Johnson's English Dictionary

Samuel Johnson was one of the great prose stylists of the English language. The last spoken words of the seventy-five-year-old author and lexicographer, addressed to a young girl who came to visit him during his final moments, were "God bless you, my dear."

His magisterial English Dictionary appeared in 1755, and for almost a century afterwards, young people who wanted to look up a word would turn to Johnson and they still can. Johnson's definitions are so quirky that, although long since superseded, they're much treasured, and the Dictionary is still available.

While many ironists today would not argue with his definition of a jogger, anybody found running in Johnson's day would have been thought mad or bad or both. The meaning Johnson intended was that of the line, by the English poet John Dryden, "They, with their fellow joggers of the plough."

There is another Johnsonian definition that is perhaps as resonant now as it was in 1755, or indeed at the time of the Boston Tea Party-that of excise, which Johnson took from the Puritan poet Andrew Marvell: "Excise,/With hundred rows of teeth, the shark exceeds." Johnson's definition?  "A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid."

Were it not for the fact that there are so many unemployed these days, wage slaves everywhere might go along with Johnson's job: 1) "A low, mean lucrative busy affair"; 2) "Petty, piddling work, a piece of chance work." He defined his own job sardonically as that of "Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge," although later in life he said of the Dictionary that "I knew very well what I was undertaking, and very well how to do it, and have done it very well."

In the course of over two-hundred years it would be surprising, of course, if some words had not been lost. Grum ("surly") has gone the way of gry ("anything of little value") and gulch, which today suggests Western movies but in Johnson's time meant "a little glutton."

Johnson himself had to stomach a lot of belly laughs from the critics of his contribution to English when George III came to the throne and in 1762 offered him a princely pension of £300 a year. In the Dictionary (and in his most idiosyncratic form), Johnson had defined pension thus:

"In England, it is generally understood to mean pay given to a State hireling for treason to his country." But Johnson the lexicographer was also a royalist and a realist: he pocketed the doubloons and, for once dropping his professional disdain of foreign words, announced himself “pénètre with His Majesty's goodness."