For your reading pleasure — or at any rate for your reading — I have an Impromptus column today, with issues fair and foul. It begins with something foul, in a sense: the pervasiveness of marijuana, at least in New York City. And not the old kind of pot, but a new and skunky kind. Other items include Magdalen College, Oxford, and Cracker Barrel (two very different institutions).
Some reader mail?
In a column last Monday, I confessed to being an old fogey, as witness the fact that I persist in using “B.C.” and “A.D.,” instead of “B.C.E.” and “C.E.” (Note the periods, too — further proof of fogeyness.) A reader writes, “Jay, I too am an old fogey, but I use ‘B.C.E.’ and ‘C.E.,’ and have since I was a child, because I am Jewish.” Fair enough.
In a column last month, I had an item on George F. Will, who, astonishingly, has turned 80. A reader writes, “A consolation of living in a society with so many flaws is that I get to read George Will’s thoughts on them.” A higher tribute to a writer, I can hardly imagine.
But then there is Gilbert Ryle. Do you know this story? Someone said to the British philosopher — who lived from 1900 to 1976 — “You never read novels, do you?” Ryle answered, “Yes, I do: I read all six of them every year.” (He meant the novels of Jane Austen.)
Before leaving, I would like to mention Robert Hollander, the great dantista — Dante scholar — who died earlier this year. An obit appeared in the New York Times last week. It began,
Robert Hollander was the sort of literature professor to recommend “years of rereading” to understand a great book. To study his own favorite masterpiece, Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy,” Professor Hollander held himself to a yet higher standard. He mastered seven centuries of line-by-line commentary about the poem.
Such a body of writing more closely resembles Talmudic exegesis than literary criticism. Devotion to it is devotion to an extreme form of traditionalism. Yet the commentaries became, for Professor Hollander, the engine of his most innovative work.
Flipping around the Internet, I learned that Dante Della Terza, too, had died earlier this year (at 96). He was the great Dante scholar at Harvard. I went to see him three years ago. I’m so glad I did. Here is how my piece began:
“When I was a student, long ago, I heard about the famous Dante Della Terza,” I say. He says, “Dante Della Terza is me!” Yes, indeed. . . .
Dante Della Terza is one of the great dantisti, one of the great Dante scholars, of our time. They share a name, as you can see. It happened “innocently,” says the professor, with a smile. “That is what my mother named me.” He has another connection to Dante through his last name. The poet’s rhyme scheme, remember, is terza rima.
Some obits in Italy used the picture I took that day — a picture I am putting at the top of this post. What a spirit, Dante Della Terza. Indimenticabile (unforgettable).