~ Pieter Bruegel and the Idea of Human Nature by Elizabeth Alice Honig ~

Is there such a thing as human nature? Are we, on the whole, good or bad? And how far can we trust one another, or trust ourselves? Are there powers, traits, and limits common to all, or does each of us write his own definition? Honig’s book is part of a “Renaissance Lives” series but it’s not a proper biography. Rather, she uses the paintings and prints of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (of whose life little is known anyway) to illustrate the answers to those questions offered by the Christian Humanism of Erasmus and his circle.

The answers aren’t very encouraging: individually and collectively we give ourselves over to folly and wrath, to cruelty and avarice, to pride and perversion; we are bent toward sin and inevitably indulge it. Like the Everyman of Bruegel’s 1558 print, “every man seeks himself” but “nobody knows himself.” That is the curse of our fallen, broken nature. In an era of “progress,” pessimism like that may sound novel or suspicious, but it’s not a judgment that belonged to the sixteenth-century alone; it was the judgment of the whole Christian era, and of the Stoics among others. But the past two hundred years or so have shuffled the moral deck. As Honig writes:

“Pride is a trait we tend to value and even foster today, and its opposites in the modern thesaurus are negatives: shame, self-doubt, humiliation, melancholy. But in the sixteenth century, pride’s opposites were among the most valued human and social goods. Within the canon of virtues and vices, pride’s inverse was faith, because pride was associated with a disdain for God… Other positive oppositions to pride include[d] humility, obedience, wisdom, contentment with one’s lot in life, and care for the common good.”

Sin was never the whole story, because this too belonged to human nature: the image of God within us as a pledge of participation in His divine life through the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ. Our delight in and longing for joy, love, and communion Erasmus (and Bruegel) understood to be a foretaste of that bliss. Whereas Bruegel’s more Boschian paintings depict the dark sides of our nature (Dulle GrietThe Fall of the Rebel AngelsThe Triumph of Death), others show us the light (Children’s GamesThe Wedding DanceThe Harvesters).

According to her bio, Elizabeth Alice Honig is a professor of art history at UC Berkeley. Her text is well illustrated and she makes a fair tour guide, explaining what’s necessary to know of the historical background and pointing out the hidden details of Bruegel’s frequently unsettling and impossibly intricate pictures. She is writing for a popular audience here, but – I think – with only mixed success. Unfortunately, the brain-muddling jargon of the lecture hall will not be entirely excluded.

For example, in discussing Bruegel’s depictions of lepers, with their “attendant informative signals of deformation,” she unhelpfully explains how “the impaired as spectacle [offers] itself to be read,” and furthermore that “in staging charity around the bodily misshapen, Bruegel poses questions about how non-normative physical bodies can tell us about themselves at moments of social pressure.” I used to find such language vaguely titillating when I was twenty-year-old college boy but at forty-eight I’m pretty sure if you can’t say something more simply than that, it’s not worth saying in the first place.

I don’t want to be too hard on Honig, however. If the bloated code language of academia is another form of peacock pride, well, it’s adopted almost unthinkingly in her profession, and as Erasmus would affirm and Bruegel illustrates again and again (in The Tower of BabelThe Fall of IcarusThe Conversion of Saul, and elsewhere) pride gets each of us one way or another.

Crows, Again

My crow friends and I have built on last year’s acquaintance. I visit them in the backyard every day now and have given them names: Magnon (think crow-magnon) the male, almost big enough to pass for a raven; Vel (as in vel-crow) his spouse; and Bar (yes, crow-bar) their nestling from last year. Crows generally mate for life and do not, like most birds, chase off their grown children at summer’s end; in fact, young crows may live with their parents for years and help to raise their siblings. Magnon and his family have made a new nest in one of my neighbors’ trees.

They only like me, I know, because I give them a handful of cat food each morning, but it’s nice to see how accepting they’ve become of my presence. They hop around on the pergola and the roof of the back porch when I step out, and will snap up the food I leave for them atop the firewood cabinet while I stand nearby to watch. Sometimes they follow me around the neighborhood, tree to tree, while I’m walking the dog. The other day I drove into the parking lot of a grocery store a few blocks away and one of them – it must have been Vel or Bar – swooped down onto the hood of the car to greet me. When I stepped out, she followed me eagerly on foot and cocked her head when I asked, “Do I know you?”

I can foresee some possible strains on our friendship, unfortunately. For my sake Magnon and his family have come to tolerate our outdoor cat, Smith, although he’d put himself in bad odor with most of the neighborhood crows a couple years ago by tormenting (but not actually harming) a grounded fledgling. Until recently Smith couldn’t go about in the open without crows shouting insults at him from the branches, but Magnon and his family only watch him warily. Will Smith behave himself, I wonder, when they bring a new fledgling or two to visit me one day soon?

The Yellow Flag

~ Eothen by Alexander William Kinglake ~

Kinglake’s Eothen (1844) is bookended by plague. It opens with a grim view from the Austrian-held side of the Sava river to Ottoman Belgrade on the other bank, where the yellow flag of contagion flies above the battlements. It ends in the epidemic hell of Cairo where every other person Kinglake meets will be dead in three days.

Between these two chapters Eothen unfolds with an authentic air of early nineteenth-century Romanticism. Through haunted Balkan woods and the crowded alleys of ancient eastern cities, through desert wastes and trackless mountains of red stone, Kinglake and his small band press on. He visits ruined temples and holy sites. He smokes from narghiles in the palaces of the mighty and dines in the tents of the Bedouin. He risks life and limb – his own and those of his hired companions – on more occasions than one.

Along the way he reinvents travel writing, or at least he’s commonly credited with doing so. Kinglake is determined not be your tour guide and Eothen is not a guidebook for would-be vacationers. He will not inform, uplift, or humor you. In his introduction he writes:

“I have endeavored to discard from [my book] all valuable matter derived from the works of others, and it appears to me that my efforts in this direction have been attended with great success; I believe that I may truly acknowledge that from all details of geographical discovery or antiquarian research, from all display of ‘sound learning and religious knowledge,’ from all historical and scientific illustrations, from all useful statistics, from all political disquisitions, and from all good moral reflections, the volume is thoroughly free.”

What he provides in place of these is the straightforward (occasionally “insolent”) record of his personal experience and impressions. His book is less an education than an entertainment. In this respect, although Eothen strongly influenced so much of the travel writing that followed it, it’s not really so much a reinvention of the travel book but a return to the sort of pre-Enlightenment travelogues of Marco Polo or Sir John Mandeville (assuming the latter was a real person).

The most memorable parts of the book, I think, include the chapter describing Kinglake’s visit to Lady Hester Stanhope in the mountains of Lebanon, where the elderly London society girl now lives a hermit’s life in a fortified monastery with a small army at her command, and with a strong belief in her own occult powers and divine nature.

In another favorite passage, Kinglake describes the psychological inversion he experienced stepping into the very landscape of myth near the site of Troy:

“You force yourself hardily into the material presence of a mountain or river whose name belongs to poetry and ancient religion, rather than to the external world; your feelings, wound up and kept ready for some sort of half-expected rapture, are chilled and borne for the time under all this load of real earth and water; but let these once pass out of sight, and then again the old fanciful notions are restored, and the mere realities which you have just been looking at are thrown back so far into distance that the very event of your intrusion upon such scenes begins to look dim and uncertain, as though it belonged to mythology.”

The chapters covering Cairo in a season of plague, however, feel especially timely just now, as we wrap up (hopefully) our own season of COVID. Kinglake’s story illustrates, at least, how much worse things can get in an epidemic. “The fear of the plague is its forerunner,” he writes, and though we’ve had, on balance, much less to fear than Kinglake himself and the residents of Cairo at the time, we see that fear may also be the last symptom to finally quit us. Then, as now, there were the fatalistic, the careless, and the paranoid. Kinglake describes the constant terror suffered by those convinced the plague may be spread by touch, before the germ theory of disease proved them right:

“To people entertaining such opinions as these respecting the fatal effect of contact, the narrow and crowded streets of Cairo were terrible as the easy slope that leads to Avernus. The roaring ocean and the beetling crags owe something of their sublimity to this – that if they be tempted they can take the warm life of a man. To the contagionist, filled as he is with the dread of final causes, having no faith in destiny, nor in the fixed will of God, and with none of the devil-may-care indifference which might stand him instead of creeds – to such one every rag that shivers in the breeze of a plague-stricken city has this sort of sublimity. If, by any terrible ordinance, he be forced to venture forth, he sees death dangling from every sleeve, and as he creeps forward, he poises his shuddering limbs between the imminent jacket that is stabbing at his right elbow, and the murderous pelisse that threatens to mow him clean down as it sweeps along his left.”

Go ahead: remove your mask, if you dare. Take a deep breath. Don’t be afraid. Masked or unmasked, you never know what you’ll meet on the road ahead. “Death,” writes Kinglake, is “the last and greatest of all the ‘fine sights’ that there be.”


A swimmer is literally out of his element. Human beings were not meant to live underwater. Nor were we meant to live on the water, and perhaps that’s why I get a feeling when paddling my canoe that’s not unlike the feeling I get when swimming. It’s as if I were living, briefly, in a different kind of world, as if I were a different kind of creature. Shoving off from shore onto the frictionless surface of the lake, carried forward by my own momentum, is like diving into a pool. In a moment of breathless transition so fine it’s almost undetectable, all the rules change.

Last weekend my teenage daughter and I had an all-day canoe adventure on Sauvie Island, northwest of Portland, near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Shaped like a paisley, Sauvie is some 20,000 acres big. Sailors from George Vancouver’s expedition first reconnoitered the island in 1792. Lewis and Clark camped here in 1805. In the 1830s the Hudson’s Bay Company, from its base upriver at Fort Vancouver, founded a dairy farm on the island. Sauvie these days is a hushed rural paradise, though it’s briefly overrun each fall when families from the city visit the island’s farms to pick pumpkins for their Halloween jack-o-lanterns.

The best part of Sauvie Island – the northern half – is a wildlife refuge and largely uninhabited, a maze of lakes and waterways and wetlands accessible only by dirt road, foot trail, and boat. That’s where we like to paddle. Our canoe, which is almost too big to carry atop the car, is a green, seventeen-foot Old Town which we christened the Finley, in honor of Oregon naturalist and early wildlife photographer William L. Finley. It weighs about 75 pounds, and you have to work pretty hard taking it off the car and carrying it from the road to the hand-launch, especially when there are just two of you.

My daughter and I put in at the northern end of Steelman Lake about nine in the morning. With only a fisherman or two on the near shore, and the water entirely to ourselves, we paddled past abandoned hunters’ blinds and round a peninsula and across a body of water called West Arm, and from there into a passage called The Narrows that ends at a levee of boulders beyond which lies massive Sturgeon Lake. We made a tricky portage, carrying the canoe up the steep bank and through the woods (past a few cows and their calves) to circumvent the levee and put in again on the west side of Sturgeon.

From amid a number of islands and peninsulas extending into the center of Sturgeon Lake the Gilbert River gathers water to feed northward into the Columbia. On one of these islands (in a lake, on an island, in a river) we pulled up for a lunch of bread, cheese, salami, and chocolate, plus tea with milk and sugar, boiled on my little backpacker stove. Then we paddled up the winding Gilbert River echoing with birdsong and out a gap into the broad eastern lobe of Sturgeon Lake, the farthest point of our expedition. With fish jumping all around us and postcard views of decapitated Mt St Helens and glacier-cloaked Mt Adams, we chased a pair of bald eagles from one dead, half-submerged tree to another.

We brought no books with us that day, though I was tempted. But “there is a time for all things under heaven,” as we read in Ecclesiastes, and this was a time for booklessness. Besides, any books we brought might have got wet. But sometimes when I’m out in the canoe and I begin to daydream about living on the water forever, or at least taking a weeklong paddling trip, I think of Robert Louis Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage. It was his first book, I think, the record of a canoe trip he and his friend Walter Simpson took through the interlocking canals and waterways of France and Belgium in 1876.

An Inland Voyage has an adolescent quality to it; it’s not Stevenson’s best. But there are a few passages that make suitable contemplation for a day on the water. Stevenson reminds his readers – and especially, I think, his fellow paddlers – that “hurry is the resource of the faithless,” and that “life is not by necessity the kind of thing we make it” in our workaday world. We nod in agreement. Then, elsewhere, he says that “it is a great thing if you can persuade people that they are somehow or other partakers in a mystery. It makes them feel bigger.” But the truth is that no persuasion is necessary when you’re out in the middle of the lake and the water’s still and soft, and the pink and gold cotton-ball clouds of evening are reflected on its surface all around you. You do feel, at that moment, somehow bigger – and then smaller – and then bigger again.

Portrait of a Birch Tree

~ Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev ~

He’s wrong about most things but it’s hard not to like Bazarov. When I read a book I mark memorable passages; flipping through my copy of Turgenev’s novel, I find that almost everything I marked in Fathers and Sons is a quote from Bazarov, the young nihilist medical student who has been called “literature’s first Bolshevik.” Consider this passage, which I think offers a key to unlocking Turgenev’s intent for the character:

“I assure you, studying separate individuals is not worth the trouble. All people are like one another, in soul as in body; each of us has brain, spleen, heart, and lungs made alike; and the so-called moral qualities are the same in all; the slight variations are of no importance… People are like trees in a forest; no botanist would think of studying each individual birch tree.”

Today, if we want to use a fancy word, we call someone who acts as if nothing really matters a “nihilist.” Russian nihilism of the nineteenth century was more complicated but might be summarized as a philosophical rejection of all inherited forms, authorities, and traditions, and an embrace of scientific materialism. The Russian nihilists of the 1850s and ‘60s were intellectual descendants of Rousseau and the French Jacobins, and precursors of the Marxist revolutionaries who would turn the country upside-down two generations later.

Bazarov rejects all authority except that of his own (limited) experience, and of science. He hates sentimentality. The institutions and forms of society, including the institutions of marriage and the family, he abhors. Religion he considers, at best, irrelevant. On the eve of serfdom’s abolition in Russia, Bazarov rejects even the reformist liberalism of the older generation. Reform is insufficient; he insists the whole edifice be demolished so that a new society might be built up on philosophically correct lines, directed by people like himself.

Look around and you’ll see that some of these nihilists, known by other names, are still with us today.

But what happens when a man like Bazarov falls in love? That’s the heart of Turgenev’s book. He ignores his protagonist’s insistence that people are only worth considering in the aggregate. He selects Bazarov as an individual birch tree for the special study of his readers. We watch as Bazarov, quite against his will, is consumed by desire and adoration for a single woman and made a heretic to his own creed:

“I was thinking: here I lie under a haystack… The tiny space I occupy is so infinitely small in comparison with the rest of space, in which I am not, and which has nothing to do with me; and the period of time in which it is my lot to live is so infinitesimal beside the eternity in which I have not been, and shall not be. And in this atom, this mathematical point, the blood is circulating, the brain is working and wanting something… How disgusting! How silly!”

And how wonderfully human.

Jane Austen in Stumptown

“No More History!” That was the message spray painted last week on the walls of the Oregon Historical Society Museum in downtown Portland when its windows were smashed in again by our “mostly peaceful” protesters. They don’t really want to do away with history, of course. They need it (at least its bad points) to justify their existence; its erasure would mean their own.

I’m reminded of a passage from Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Admitting she reads too many novels, Catherine Morland wishes she could interest herself in history, but no. “I read it a little as a duty,” she says, “but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, the wars and pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all, it is very tiresome.”

I like to imagine Catherine in her bonnet and dress chanting Antifa slogans and tossing Molotov cocktails, but of course she’s too smart for that.

“Be nice, you’re in Oregon” is another message you’ll see on bumper stickers and shop windows around town. And it’s true that, for the most part, folks are pretty nice here. Just don’t ask to borrow of cup of flour when they’re busy toppling statues of George Washington or setting fire to the Police Union building.

Again, Austen helps. Out for a stroll with Catherine and his sister, Henry Tilney explains his dislike of the word:

“And this is a very nice day; and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word, indeed! It does for everything. Originally, perhaps, it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

Tilney’s notion of the word’s original meaning is a bit off, in fact. I pulled out my OED (Compact Edition, the one you need a magnifying glass to read) and was surprised to learn that in the 13th century it carried the sense of “foolish, stupid, or senseless.” So it turns out the black bloc anarchists trashing downtown Portland are just “being nice” after all.

Sitting in the Dark with Strangers

~ Around the World in the Cinemas of Paris by Theodore Dalrymple ~

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality, not even in the cinema,” writes Theodore Dalrymple. A quick survey of box office returns from Hollywood’s past twenty years (let’s call it The Superhero Era) might suggest that the less reality offered us in movies, the happier we are. I am as guilty in this respect as anyone. I’m pretty sure the first movie I ever saw was the original Star Wars. I remember coming out of the theater in a state of delirious exultation, and the rest of my childhood was punctuated by the breathlessly-awaited sequels.

Just before the pandemic Dalrymple found himself in Paris for an extended period while his French wife cared for her ailing mother. He thought he’d make the most of his spare time by seeing films from as many different countries as he reasonably could. This book is the result, and it’s a wonderful reminder of the pre-COVID “normal.” Each of its thirty-three chapters covers a different film – from places like Russia, Zambia, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Korea, Burma, Brazil, Paraguay, Romania, and others outside the standard Anglo-American movie ecosystem.

These are not exactly reviews. They are – as any regular reader of Theodore Dalrymple would expect – brief but eloquent essays on just about any topic the film in question suggests. He touches on (among other things) how undramatic landscapes make for better paintings than mountain vistas, how medical mortality rates are affected by the Christmas holidays, how good fortune may test our character more than ill fortune, and how subjects apparently “irrelevant” to children’s lives may be the most important part of their education.

There are wry bits of humor (“But let us avert our minds from these unpleasant thoughts and turn to something even worse”) and pithy observations worth marking with your pencil: “We are not so constituted as to fear risks strictly according to their statistical likelihood” … “A suicide bomber is sincere, which suggests that sincerity is not by itself a virtue” … “Heresy is not an automatic corrective to orthodoxy,” etc.

Inevitably, a number of passages touch on politics and, at least obliquely, on current affairs in our Age of Woke. We’re warned, for example, that, “for an intellectual, a world-view is worth more than the world” and that “to demand perfection from human institutions such that no abuse occurs within them is to demand that there should be no institutions.” Dalrymple also reminds us of the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism:

“While under authoritarian rule there are things you must not say, under totalitarian rule there are things that you must say. You must assent to, applaud and repeat things that you know to be false: and, from the point of view of the rulers, the more obviously at variance with the most evident reality and lived experience, the better, for the greater the disparity between what is known to be the case and what must be uttered, the more thoroughly is the probity and self-respect of individuals destroyed, and the greater their humiliation in the face of power.”

In all of this Dalrymple does not neglect, however, to describe the plots of the movies he watched, spoilers and all – which is all right since most of us will never see these films. This is a big part of the pleasure of Around the World in the Cinemas of Paris, because any movie worth watching must have a story worth telling. Before we hear his commentary, then, we sit with him in the theater, vicariously, and it’s nice to be there. After a year of pandemic-shuttered theaters, do you remember what it’s like? You buy your ticket, and maybe some popcorn. The seat creaks a little as you settle into it. You feel a dull curiosity about the strangers around you. Then the doors shut, the lights dim, and the magic begins again.

Counting Crows

Crows in snowy downtown Portland, 2017. Photo by Walker Berg.

Crows are in Portland and Seattle what pigeons are in New York and so many other cities: everywhere. I can’t look out the window of my home office for more than a minute without seeing one fly past. I can’t walk the dog without encountering several of them. On winter evenings thousands of crows famously congregate in the downtown treetops (see above), posing ominously and raining waste on unwary pedestrians. When the winter roost gathers together at dusk or disperses before sunrise, they paint the sky black.

Lucky for me, I like crows. The winter roost has broken up now and I begin to see mating pairs selecting twigs for nests. We had a pair of them last year that I befriended by placing handfuls of dried grubs or cat food on the roof of our outdoor firewood cabinet. They had a single fledgling and when he could fly they brought him to visit our backyard every day. If the regular hour had come and I hadn’t yet put out treats for them they would sit atop the pergola and stare at me imploringly through my office window.

I had a single visitor in the backyard this morning, a big healthy-looking crow (male, I think, though it’s hard to tell). He sat on the pergola awhile and then hopped down into the grass. He was even bold enough to walk onto the back porch to spy things out. He retreated to a neighbor’s rooftop when I stepped outside but immediately swept down again when I placed a handful of kibble on the firewood cabinet. Clearly, this is one of last year’s crows. But (crows being monogamous) where’s his wife? Or is this last year’s fledgling?