A History of Hadrian’s Wall, Einstein’s Xenophobia, and the Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar


Why did the Romans build Hadrian’s Wall? Nigel Spivey reviews Adrian Goldsworthy’s new book on the structure: “It is a principle of Adrian Goldsworthy’s succinct and eminently sensible new account of Hadrian’s Wall that the project was essentially ‘intended to assist the Roman army in performing the tasks assigned to it in northern Britain.’ One immediate rejoinder to that premise is that Roman legionaries had strange ideas about making life easier for themselves, if they undertook this amount of muscular spadework—but never mind. To rationalize the effort remains a challenge. Goldsworthy patiently explains how the system worked, once it was in place, enabling the Romans to control such human traffic as there was in these limestone and basalt uplands. But—as we know—big walls tend to be built on big ideas. The ideology of this wall calls for further speculative exploration.”

The strange case of the missing Joyce scholar: “Some 16 years ago, The Boston Globe published an article about a jobless man who haunted Marsh Plaza, at the center of Boston University. The picture showed a curious figure in a long overcoat, hunched beneath a black fedora near the central sculpture. He spent his days talking with pigeons to whom he had given names: Checkers and Wingtip and Speckles. The article could have been just another human-interest story about our society’s failing commitment to mental health, except that the man crouched in conversation with the birds was John Kidd, once celebrated as the greatest James Joyce scholar alive.”

A history of engineering: “Machines shape human history. But they get little attention, in part because few writers understand them. Winchester, a veteran craftsman of readable non-fiction, has written a flawed book about a crucial subject: the birth, rise and possible end of precision technology.”

Einstein’s xenophobia: “Private journals kept by the scientist and humanitarian icon show prejudiced attitudes towards the people he met while travelling in Asia.”

Revisiting the work of the Benedictine beatnik, Sylvester Houédard: “In the 1960s, Dom Sylvester Houédard, a Benedictine monk who lived most of his adult life at Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire, England, would sneak off on weekends to London, where he participated in the emerging concrete poetry scene. This backstory is certainly alluring and unusual, and upon learning it at his current show at Lisson Gallery, one scours the works for signs of religious piousness. Though they are littered with references to god and prayer (‘prayersticks’ (1969); ‘the jesus christ light and power company inc.’ (1971); ‘RED God’ (1967), to list a few), Houédard’s texts drip with humor more so than traditional religious devotion.”

Essay of the Day:

In The Hopkins Review, David Mason recalls his friendship with Patrick Leigh Fermor:

“Patrick Leigh Fermor, the writer and war hero who died in 2011 at age 96, was a figure from another world. He never lived among hypnotizing computer screens, ‘smart’ phones, and other distractions, nor did he commute to an ordinary job or dwell in a suburb with children and pets. He never took a university degree yet was fluent in six languages, a veritable polymath, his brain stuffed with colorful arcana, including reams of poetry and decades of song. Though he was not a wealthy man, he lived a relatively unfettered life on his own terms—a rarity among people I have known. He was a walker, a swimmer, a bon vivant, and though he could be distracted by almost any social occasion, he also knew what Wordsworth called ‘the bliss of solitude,’ not to mention long bouts of depression. I first met him in 1980, and saw him last in September 2010, less than a year before he died, and as much as he remained interested in goings-on around him he seemed less and less a man of our time, more a great character out of the past. Most trappings of our technological lives were invisible to him. I never saw him anywhere near a television set and he had only recently taught himself one-fingered typing as he labored to complete the third volume of his masterpiece.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Alesund

Poem: Elizabeth Knapp, “After the Flood”

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