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Private Lives


So fond are mortal men
Fall’n into wrath divine,
As their own ruin on themselves to invite,
Insensate left, or to sense reprobate, 
And with blindness internal struck.

— Milton, “Samson Agonistes”

Private Life

It’s discouraging to think social media have practically eliminated the quaint notion of “private life”.

Hanging our laundered unmentionables on a line in the backyard merely exposes them to a handful of passersby taking a shortcut through the alley. Fine. But there are three things wrong with that observation: #1) our undies are old and shredded; even Miss Havisham wouldn’t have them; #2) they probably haven’t been laundered; and #3) the clothes lines stretch across the front yard, not the back, in such a way that anyone walking past is likely to be garroted. FaceBook and Twitter are hard to avoid. And they aren’t pretty.

Antonio Aspettati’s small but disconcerting work “Woman in a Park at Evening” brings inward-oriented private life sharply to mind this afternoon; it is

a small Impressionist, borderline Symbolist work in a palate of melancholic secondary colors against a manic blue sky. A lone woman muses in a scruffy park. Two stone pines—also known as umbrella or parasol pines, a tree characteristic of the Mediterranean—divide the composition into what is a nearly-proportioned Golden Section. All is ennui.

What brought her to this pensive place where thoughts were unlikely to be disturbed? I know a few people inclined to similar strategies. And a good thing, too, because there aren’t many places left for such inward-directed conscience.

Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt

Lynn Meskell’s 2002 study of private life in ancient Egypt is currently on the night stand; not a “page turner” but I never expected it to be. The Introduction—like the opening pages of practically every book I encounter—reveals what I don’t know in the outline what I might. Good thing, too, because I’m disinclined to face late 20th century French social theory; her digestion is more than sufficient, thank you. Among Meskell’s points, however, is one that had long since crossed my mind: be wary of projecting your values and social expectations onto past generations; they don’t deserve it and wouldn’t understand anyway.

My principal difficulty these days valiant but futile attempts to project these on the present. I am after all, an aged man who was raised by an even more aged woman, such that my world view has no traction with my own generation—ask member of the ACHS Class of 1963 how successfully I meshed with them—and claim to be situated somewhere among the Edwardians. So whatever you think of our Agincourt enterprise, be kind if you detect a pervasive set of antiquated values; they’re mine.

It has been far easier, for example, to create characters like Hal Holt, because he is both a reflection of a former department chair (invoked several times in these pages), whose religiosity did not exist as far as any of us know, and only indirectly of my own which slant toward the ancient Egyptian [viz. Jan Assmann’s Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt; do you detect a theme here?]. In a similar way other characters are stand-ins for the family I might have had—but didn’t. Martha Corwin Curtiss Tennant may be the mother I misplaced, and her son Anson is the person I’d like to have become.

On the flip side, Mary Ellen “Rooster” Lehr and Edmund FitzGerald Flynn are each reprehensible models simultaneously written into and out of the story, as they have been from the list of my real-life acquaintances; removing them was an act of mental healthfulness. It is one thing to forget regrettable people; quite another to bump them off. So if Agincourt lacks a virtue, it is the binary nature of her denizens: they are thoroughly familiar and compatible with their creator, or they are antithetical and anathema.

My dad was an early but reticent character in the emerging narrative, remembered differently by others, because our relationship was distant at best; a dance around the ring, sizing the other up. and anticipating the first parry. Our exchanges were few and faint and fragile. Like our actual physical encounters—similarly few, and for that rarity distinctly recollected four decades after his passing.

<more to come as the spirit moves>

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