Grits and Tamales

Life in the Deep South, by Gabriel Aguilera

TV Watching in the Wake of a Hard Day

Sicario wasn’t a very good movie at all but did hit the spot at the end of a long yesterday. It delivered a couple of mesmerizing action scenes, some excellent aerial shots of Southwest Texas, a scrap or two of inspired acting here and there, and good-looking Emily Blunt throughout.

That film helped my wind down. In late afternoon I taught a long faculty workshop so I was tired mentally, which is common. I shared a whiskey with my colleagues before heading home. One of the things that I’ve discovered about myself in recent years is that I am an introvert. Long exposure to groups of people, be this in seminar, lecture, parties, etc. drains me of lifeblood. Often I cannot even get into the frame of mind to work out, sleep, or do anything productive. I prefer any of these but I think I discovered yesterday that entertaining film or TV, ideally something that is not too profound or taxing, helps me to unwind. I got a good a good night sleep last night, too.

The other thing that I watched before nodding off was original Star Trek. I caught the “Balance of Terror,” (digitally remastered) and it was really cool and visually stunning. I had not taken in an old Star Trek in many years and I was delighted in particular with the writing. It’s going to be fun watching these, all dolled up now, from the beginning.


On “Duty,” by Robert Gates (forgot to post a couple of years ago)

I badly want this Gates book to end. You loved the troops, got it. You hate politics, got it. You’re a fantastic leader of big complex organizations and, ironically, a tremendous political and bureaucratic fighter, got it. You’re old, like fatty foods and booze, and are breaking down physically, got it. You’re forgiving towards people you like and will make excuses for them (i.e. you’re human), got it.

That said, it is full of sharp insights, good if tendentious critiques of the decision-making process and strategy, and a useful look at the Afghan policymaking decision-making process where Biden, who according to him, was wrong on everything (but, let it be said, Biden was right on this).

Verona in Petrarch’s Time

“Verona, in Petrarch’s time, might have been classed among the major powers of Italy. Proud of her antiquity and her Roman theater (where one may still, of a summer evening, hear opera under the stars), enriched by the trade that came from over the Alps and down the Adige, Verona rose under the Scala family to a height where she threatened the commercial supremacy of Venice.”

The Fragmentation of Italy Favored the Renaissance.

The snippets that follow are from Will Durant’s, The Renaissance. (Simon and Schuster, 1953, pages 44-48).


We have followed Petrarch and Boccaccio through Italy. But politically there was no Italy; there were only city-states, fragments free to consume themselves in hate and war…Partisans of the popes and partisans of the emperors not only divided Italy, they split almost every city into Guelf and Ghibellline; and even when the strife subsided the old labels were used by new rivalries, and the lava of hate flowed into all the avenues of life…The timid weakness of individuals, the insecurity of groups, and the delusion of superiority generated perpetual fear, suspicion, dislike, and contempt of the different, the alien, and the strange.

Out of these impediments to unity rose the Italian city-state. Men thought in terms of their city, and only a few philosophers like Machiavelli, or a poet like Petrarch, could think of Italy as a whole; even in the sixteenth century Cellini would refer to Florentines as “men of our nation,”and to Florence as “my fatherland.” Petrarch, freed by foreign residence from a merely local patriotism, mourned the petty wars and divisions of his native country…

The fragmentation of Italy favored the Renaissance. Large states promote order and power rather than liberty or art…Local independence weakened the capacity of Italy to defend herself against foreign invasion, but it generated a noble rivalry of the cities and princes in cultural patronage, in the zeal to excel in architecture, sculpture, painting, education, scholarship, poetry…

We need not exaggerate, to appreciate, the degree in which Petrarchan and Boccaccio prepared the Renaissance. Both were still mortgaged to medieval ideas…Petrarch properly and prophetically described himself as standing between two eras…he loved the classics with the troubled conscience at the close of the Age of Faith as Jerome had loved them at its opening…Nevertheless, he was more faithful to the classics than to Laura; he sought and cherished ancient manuscripts, and inspired others to do the same…he formed his manner and style on Virgil and Cicero; and he thought more of the fame of his name than of the immortality of his soul. His poems fostered a century of artificial sonneteering in Italy, but they helped to mold the sonnets of Shakespeare…

But again it would be an error to overrated the contributions of antiquity to this Italian apogee. It was a fulfillment rather than a revolution…Medieval men and women, despite an otherworldly minority, had kept, unabashed, the natural human relish for the simple and sensual pleasures of life. The men who conceived, built, and carved the cathedrals had their own sense of beauty, and a sublimity of thought and form never surpassed.

…And a revolution in art had begun when Giotto abandoned the mystic rigor of Byzantine mosaics to study men and women in the actual flow and natural grace of their lives.

In Italy all roads were leading to the Renaissance.




The Solitary Guest From Alabama

From: A WORD OUT OF THE SEA. By Walt Whitman

Once, Paumanok, when the snows had melted, and the fifth-month grass was growing, up this sea-shore, in some briars, two guests from Alabama—two together, and their nest, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown; and every day the he-bird, to and fro, near at hand, and every day the she-bird, crouched on her nest, silent, with bright eyes; and every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them, cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

Shine! shine! shine! Pour down your warmth, great Sun! While we bask—we two together. Two together! Winds blow South, or winds blow North, day come white or night come black, home, or rivers and mountains from home, singing all time, minding no time, If we two but keep together.

Till of a sudden, maybe killed, unknown to her mate, one forenoon the she-bird crouched not on the nest, or returned that afternoon, nor the next, nor ever appeared again. And thenceforward, all summer, in the sound of the sea, and at night, under the full of the moon, in calmer weather, over the hoarse surging of the sea, or flitting from briar to briar by day, I saw, I heard at intervals, the remaining one, the he-bird, the solitary guest from Alabama.

Yes, when the stars glistened. All night long, on the prong of a moss-scalloped stake, down, almost amid the slapping waves, sat the lone singer, wonderful, causing tears. He called on his mate; he poured forth the meanings which I, of all men, know. Yes, my brother, I know; the rest might not—but I have treasured every note; for once, and more than once, dimly, down to the beach gliding, silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the shadows, recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds and sights after their sorts, the white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing, I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair, listened long and long. Listened, to keep, to sing—now translating the notes, following you, my brother.


Senior Scholars and Their Review Essays

There is a special place in heaven for those senior scholars who produce those indispensable review essays that provide guidance for our own detailed reading and examination or, more often the case, allow us to take a brief tour of an intellectual battlefield that we must often teach but we will never have time to explore in great depth.

Some of my favorites, in no special order, are by Scocpol(1), Doyle(2), Dominguez(3), Betts(4), and Gourevitch(5). There are many more, of course, but I thought I should all take a minute to give thanks for some of my favorites.

This morning, I reread “Conflict or Cooperation? Three Visions Revisited,” by Richard Betts (Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2010, 186-194). I was stunned once again at how good an essay this is, not only in its excellent and balanced summary, critique, and synthesis of books by Fukuyama (Conflict or Cooperation), Huntington (Clash of Civilizations), and Mearsheimer (Tragedy of Great Power Politics) but also with the durability of the author’s perspective.

From the vantage point of 2010, Betts concluded: “The problem is that Davos-style liberalism and militant neoconservatism have both been more influential than the three more profound and sober visions of a Fukuyama, Huntington, and Mearsheimer.”

True as this was, it is far less true today and my fond hope is that President Obama will get the credit he deserves for being a profoundly sober leader whose prudential realism, anchored in a measured Kantian liberal internationalism, has revealed neoconservatism for the reckless enterprise that it was when the country became unhinged after September 11.

The question I have is whether President Clinton will be as prudent and restrained? I’m afraid that she’ll be too eager “to do something” and will be talked into dipping her toes into quagmires by the generals and admirals that she has worked so assiduously to woo since joining the Senate. My hope is that all that wooing was just good politics and networking.

(1) Skocpol, “A Critical Review of Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.” Check it out here.

(2) Doyle, Doyle. 1983. Kant, liberal legacies, and foreign affairs. Philosophy and public affairs 12 (summer and fall): 205-35, 323-53.

(3) Dominguez, “Samuel Huntington and the Latin American State” can be had here.

(4) “Conflict or Cooperation? Three Visions Revisited,” by Richard Betts (Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2010, 186-194).

(5) Peter Gourevitch, “The Second Image Reversed.”








A Friend Asks a Question

Are your inquiries more external? (A) X is happening, how do I feel about that?

(B) Or internal, like why do I do Y?


I had never asked myself this question. My instant reaction was that I am a (B) sort. After a few minutes I thought, no, I think I am an (A) guy.

Now I’m not so sure. We all lean one way or another I suppose, but I think that (B) matters a lot more to me. I do dwell a great deal on the why I do what I do quite a lot. I sincerely hope that I am no Hamlet.

In conversation, I noted too how sitting down with my pen and paper journal helps me to work through things that get deeply under my skin, stuff that can plague one over time. This discovery is relatively recent. Working the thing out in ink, the underlying “why” I’m upset, is good therapy. This process then let’s me put the episode into the basement.

From the preface to Leaves of Grass, 1868

“During the summer of 1867 I had the opportunity (which I had often wished for) of expressing in print my estimate and admiration of the works of the American poet Walt Whitman. Like a stone dropped into a pond, an article of that sort may spread out its concentric circles of consequences.”


“Whitman is a poet who bears and needs to be read as a whole, and then the torrent of his power carry the disfigurements along with it, and away.”


“With all his singularities, Whitman is a master of words and sounds: he has them at his command–made for, and instinct with, his purpose–messengers of unsurpassable sympathy and intelligence between himself and his readers.”


“[If] anything can cast, in the eyes of posterity, an added halo of brightness around the unsullied personal qualities and the great doings of Lincoln, it will assuredly be the written monument reared to him by Whitman.”

An observation of Whitman, from a Mr. Conway: “I saw stretched upon his back, and gazing up straight at the terrible sun, the man I was seeking. With his grey clothing, his blue-grey shirt, his iron-grey hair, his swart sunburnt face and bare neck, he lay upon the brown-and-white grass–for the sun had burnt away its greenness–and was so like the earth upon which he rested that he seemed almost enough a part of it for one to pass by without recognition…he confided to me that this was one of his favorite places and attitudes for composing ‘poems.’…The books he seemed to know an love best were the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare: these he owned, and probably had in his pockets while we were talking…He confessed to having no talent for industry, and that his forte was ‘loafing and writing poems:’ he was poor, but had discovered that he could on the whole, live magnificently on bread and water…


“Walt Whitman occupies at the present moment a unique position on the globe, and one which, even in past time, can have been occupied by only an infinitesimally small number of men. He is the one man who entertains and professes respecting himself the grave conviction that he is the actual and prospective founder of a new poetic literature, and a great one–a literature proportional to the material vastness and the unmeasured destinies of America: he believes that the Columbus of the continent or the Washington of the States was not more truly than himself in the future of a founder and up builder of this America. Surely a sublime conviction, and expressed more than once in magnificent words–none more so than the lines beginning “Come, I will make this continent indissoluble.”(from Love of Comrades).


“I believe that Whitman is one of the huge, as yet mainly unrecognized, forces of our time; privileged to evoke, in a country hitherto still asking for its poet, a fresh athletic, and American poetry, and predestined to be traced up to by generation after generation of believing and ardent–let us hope not servile–disciples.

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Shelley, who knew what he was talking about when poetry was the subject, has said it, and with a profundity of truth Whitman seems in peculiar degree marked out for “legislation” of the kind referred to. His voice will one day be potential or magisterial wherever the English language is spoken–that is to say, in the four corners of the earth; and in his own American hemisphere, the uttermost avatars of democracy will confess him more their announcer than their inspirer.” -W.M. Rossetti

Nobel Prize for Dylan

Here is a 1964 essay worth checking out.

This leaped out and struck me:

“A wanderer, Dylan is often on the road in search of more experience. “You can find out a lot about a small town by hanging around its poolroom,” he says. Like Miss Baez, he prefers to keep most of his time for himself. He works only occasionally, and during the rest of the year he travels or briefly stays in a house owned by his manager, Albert Grossman, in Bearsville, New York—a small town adjacent to Woodstock and about a hundred miles north of New York City. There Dylan writes songs, works on poetry, plays, and novels, rides his motorcycle, and talks with his friends. From time to time, he comes to New York to record for Columbia Records.”

Also, this:

“[W]ords made my nerves quiver like piano wires. They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture. It’s not that you could sort out every moment carefully, because you can’t. There are too many missing terms and too much dual existence…. There’s no guarantee that any of his lines… happened, were said, or even imagined…. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future.” -Bob Dylan on Robert Johnson.

Confetti in the Sunlight: General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Final Charge

Witness here a piece of Foote’s fitting account of the end of General Albert Sidney Johnston, a fine general who was esteemed by his comrades.  At the outset of the war, before Lee emerged god-like to him, Jefferson Davis thought him to be the South’s finest General.

The scene depicted is the lead up to his deadly charge amid a peach orchard in full bloom. Here a fine fighting general went to his grave on a cool spring day, guns blazing through blossoms that produced grizzly slaughter and confetti. It is romance and realism.

From Foote’s Civil War V1, p. 339.


At the end of the battle line, on the far flank of the Hornets Nest, there was a ten-acre peach orchard in full bloom. Hurlbut had a heavy line of infantry posted among the trees, supported by guns whose smoke lazed and swirled up through the branches sheathed in pink, and a bright rain of petals fell fluttering like confetti in the sunlight as bullets clipped the blossoms overhead. Arriving just after one of Breckinbridge’s brigades had recoiled from a charge against the orchard, Johnston saw that the officers were having trouble getting the troops in line to go forward again. “Men! They are stubborn; we must use the bayonet,” he told them. To emphasize the meaning he rode among them and touched the points of their bayonets with the tin cup. “These must do the work,” he said. When the line had formed, the soldiers were still hesitant to reenter the smoky uproar. So Johnston did what he had been doing all that morning, all along the line of battle. Riding front center, he stood up in his stirrups, removed his hat, and called back over his shoulder: “I will lead you!” As he touched his spurs to the flanks of his horse, the men surged forward, charging with him into the sheet of flame which blazed to meet them there among the blossoms letting fall their bright pink rain.

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