New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Books

No Substitute for Experience

“Are you a politician, Roscoe?”
“I refuse to answer on grounds that it might degrade or incriminate me.”
~ From
Roscoe, by William Kennedy

In Roscoe, William Kennedy continues working the vein prospected by two minor classics, William Riordan’s Plunkett of Tammany Hall and Edwin O’Brien’s The Last Hurrah. The seventh Kennedy novel set in the author’s hometown of Albany, New York, is elegantly crafted, often uproariously funny, and betrays both a profound understanding of human frailty born of original sin and the sure knowledge that man born of woman is doomed to sorrow.

His characters, of course, enjoy themselves as best they can, usually at each other’s expense. Thus, one of Roscoe‘s numerous memorable minor characters, Mac, one of the cops who assassinated Legs Diamond when the racketeer failed to understand that the Albany County Democratic organization was far more powerful than the mob, reflects on the stabbing murder of an informer: “Robbed and stabbed, and he dies naked, broke, full of holes, and covered with blood. I like it.” Later, just before a fixed cockfight between birds owned by two brothers and party bosses, Patsy and Bindy McCall, Bindy introduces Roscoe to his cock.

“This is the Swiggler,” says Bindy. “You ever been swiggled?”

“Not by a chicken,” answers Roscoe.

“Blame Roscoe,” the novel’s closing sentence, is not an evasion of responsibility but an admission of artistry. Kennedy closes the book with his author’s note, expressing his gratitude to numerous persons, living and dead, whose stories and knowledge helped him to form his work. Kennedy may have begun with facts. His novel is full of historical figures, from FDR and Al Smith to Herbert H. Lehman to John McCooey and John Curry, the one-time Democratic bosses of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Of course, these are all invented characters, just like the other invented characters.

Yet having been born and raised within ten miles of the city of Albany, I know that many of his other invented characters are closely modeled on once-living persons. A knowing Albanian might read a William Kennedy novel merely to pick out the old pols, pimps, and hangers-on. This would be vulgar and more than a bit of a mistake. I admit indulging in it anyway. In reflecting on Kennedy’s fictional political boss, Patsy McCall, I think of the great Dan O’Connell, who ruled Albany’s Democratic party and thus Albany for over half a century. He had a certain knack for massaging election results. A story Mario Cuomo once told had Dan marooned on a desert island with another fellow, and only one coconut between them. They voted on who should eat it, and Dan won by 110 to 1.

Happily for the rest of us who may not know the “Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels,” the book stands on its own. It has been five years since his last novel: Kennedy has used his time well. He is among the handful of important contemporary novelists trained in the old school of journalism: the discipline of publishing facts with an economy of words to a daily deadline. And it is honorable praise to note that even his lesser books are exquisitely finished and all have integrity, for they are the work of an honest man.

Roscoe is a novel set in the summer and fall of 1945, in which Roscoe Conway, lawyer, orator, and Democratic political operative, attempts to escape from the life he has made. This summary does not hint at the amazing tangle of subplots, from fixing elections to child custody suits, suicides, payoffs, assaults, brothel raids, cockfighting, murder, sibling rivalry, and gambling rings. Yet, the narrative is not confusing. Kennedy’s art captures the essence of life—just one damned thing after another, with nothing ever finally resolved but merely overcome for the moment.

In reflecting on the novel, I flipped back to his author’s note. I found it poignant for personal reasons. One of his sources was the first politician to give me an interview, when I was writing for the Shaker High School Bison in 1971. Erastus Corning 2d (he preferred the Arabic to the Roman numeral) was elected mayor of Albany eleven times before his death in May 1983. No American mayor has served longer.  As Kennedy notes in his offbeat history of the city, O Albany!, Corning held power “longer than Trujillo, Franco, Peron, Batista, Somoza, Napoleon, Hitler, Mao, Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Henry VIII, Ferdinand and Isabella, Ethelred II, and…Augustus Caesar.” Even at sixteen, I found the urbane man across the table from me both a great gentleman and one of the toughest guys I would ever meet. Thirty years have passed, and I am still right—on both counts.

Corning’s unusual first name (after forty years in office, some believed his real first name was “Mayor”) is a Latinized version of the Greek erastos, meaning beloved. He was brilliant (Yale ’32, Phi Beta Kappa, with a dual major in history and English literature), precocious (Assemblyman at twenty-six, State Senator at twenty-seven, Mayor at thirty-two), and hardworking (he routinely worked a sixty-hour week). He inherited wealth and made more through his political connections (his insurance agency, Albany Associates, wrote ninety percent of Albany County’s insurance, meaning some $1.5 million in annual premiums; as he was a city official, not a county official, the law found no conflict of interest).

At the height of his power, his authority over the city and the county of Albany was absolute. A local newscaster once told him on camera, “…you hold such power that if you told the Common Council to meet in pink lingerie, they would.” Corning replied, “I think you go too far. Blue lingerie, perhaps. But pink is too much.”

Kennedy has written elsewhere that Corning was uninterested in the truth. I disagree: Corning’s capacity for deceit was merely another weapon in his intellectual arsenal. Like Talleyrand (who would have found him a kindred spirit), Corning believed language existed to conceal truth.

Most people who rely on lies to get through the day eventually lose touch with truth. Corning never did. After all, you do not have to believe your own lies. When lucidity was required, his gifts for written and oral expression made him utterly, often brilliantly, clear. The same gifts let him obscure, obfuscate, and evade. At the height of his power, he played the press and the people like grand pianos.

Even Kennedy was not exempt, apparently. The story goes that some forty years ago, as a working reporter for the Albany Times-Union, during a mayoral press conference, Kennedy told Corning that a recent visitor had said the abandoned buildings in Albany made it look like a ghost town or a demolition project, and how did he respond? The Mayor replied that a well-known television commentator had come to Albany and seen all the construction and said it was one of the most vital, growing cities in the Northeast. After the press conference, Kennedy asked the Mayor, “Who was the well-known television commentator?” And the Mayor asked, “Who was the recent visitor?”

I can still imagine the Mayor’s sparkling joy as he declaimed his most famous epigram, “Honesty is no substitute for experience.” How could any intelligent man with a sense of humor resist a politician so brazen, so magnificently audacious, so in command of his wit that when asked his favorite color he replied, “Plaid.”

Corning, who was elected Mayor in 1941, did not seek a draft deferment and served as a combat infantryman in Europe. In Roscoe, Kennedy creates a character, Alexander Fitzgibbon, whose personal and political careers are nearly identical with Corning’s. The resemblances are purely intentional. So are the resemblances between numerous persons and characters. Dan O’Connell seized power over the Democratic party and then over the city and the county of Albany with the help of his brothers between 1919 and 1921. So had Patsy McCall, the crude, violent, corrupt party boss in Kennedy’s novel, who has been “in politics since he was old enough to deface Republican ballots.” But to suggest that Kennedy has merely copied the facts and changed the names is wrongheaded. In fact, Fitzgibbon and McCall, despite Kennedy’s artistry, are simply not as tough or as coarse as their models. It would be difficult for them to be. No one would believe it.

At its heart, the novel lives in a corrupt world. Thus, Kennedy quotes Roscoe’s dead father, Felix Conway, a disgraced ex-mayor, in a passage, “Felix Declares His Principles to Roscoe”:

“Never buy anything that you can rent forever.”

Also:

“Give your friends jobs, but at a price and make new friends every day.”

And:

“People say voting the dead is immoral, but what the hell, if they were alive they’d all be Democrats. Just because they’re dead don’t mean they’re Republicans.”

Finally, Kennedy’s pols, though drawn with affection, are never twinkling benignities out of a Frank Capra movie. This is as it should be: machine politicians liked to think of themselves as means of rough justice, bringing coal and food to the poor. They never considered that the reforms they opposed might have obviated the handouts. Albany’s machine bosses were tough, ruthless men for whom democracy was always spelled with a capital D and politics merely another way of making a living.

Stendhal used the word crystallization to define the process by which the creative mind transforms mere fact to fiction. The analogy was drawn from certain German salt mines, where one might leave behind a tree branch and on returning some years later, find it encrusted with salt crystals. So Kennedy’s memories of a small American city have been transformed by time and imagination into enduring art.

March 5, 2015   No Comments

Education by Degrees

Bears’ Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning, Ten Speed Press, PO Box 7123, Berkeley, CA 94707, $29.95, www.tenspeed.com

I first heard of John Bear in 1990, when a man from Michigan named Bob Adams told me about the Ethiopian ear-pickers. In 1966, Southern Methodist University gave Bob Hope an honorary doctorate after the entertainer gave it a substantial donation. Up at Michigan State University, John Bear was earning his doctorate the hard way. Bear resented this. He knew that President Fillmore refused all honorary doctorates, even from Oxford. Bear then founded the Millard Fillmore Institute to honor the 13th president’s memory. The Institute awarded doctorates with ornately engraved diplomas on genuine imitation parchment that read, “By virtue of powers which we have invented…” granting “the honorary and meretricious” doctorate “magna cum grano salis”—with a big grain of salt.

Six years later, while studying in London, he tried the same thing on a larger scale. He and some friends created the London Institute for Applied Research and ran advertisements in American publications: “Phony honorary doctorates for sale, $25.” Several hundred were sold, presumably keeping the promoters in whiskey and cigars. As Bear wrote, half the world’s academic establishment thought L.I.A.R. was a great gag. The other half felt it threatened life as we knew it. After wearing out the joke, Bear traded the remaining diplomas to a Dutchman for 100 pounds of metal crosses and Ethiopian ear-pickers. (The Dutchman is still selling them—for $100 a piece.)

With this kind of experience, Bear first published Bear’s Guide, his profoundly serious and wildly funny guide to alternative higher education, more than a quarter-century ago. The latest edition, the 14th, crossed my desk last week. This is probably the best available practical guide to obtaining legitimate college degrees without full-time attendance in a conventional college setting, whether through correspondence, independent study, college credit through examination or life-experience learning, or the Internet. As Bear notes, in 1970, if one wanted to earn a degree without sitting in a classroom for three or four years and wanted to remain in North America, one had two choices: the Universities of London and of South Africa. Today, one has more than 1000 options.

I loved my completely traditional undergraduate experience, down to the last mug of beer. But that was a quarter-century ago, when one could pay a year’s tuition with the money one earned over the summer as a dishwasher. That isn’t the case anymore.

Also, American college education is more about obtaining a credential than inheriting the intellectual legacy of the West. I regret this; so, I sense, does Bear. This is part of a phenomenon that might be called “credentialism.” One might define it as a false objectivity in personnel decisions by substituting credentials—particularly academic diplomas—for the analysis of character, intelligence, and ability or even the intelligent exercise of judgment in hiring, firing, and promoting.

Bear argues that an academic degree is more useful to one’s career than practical knowledge. Whether this is good for society is immaterial. He illustrates this point with an anecdote about a telephone call from the man in charge of sawing off tree limbs for a Midwestern city. The city government had decreed that all agency heads must have baccalaureates. The head sawyer didn’t have one. If he didn’t earn a degree within two years, he would lose the job he had competently performed for two decades. The reality of his competence was immaterial to someone else’s need for false objectivity.

We in New York are not immune from this. The city government now requires applicants for the police examinations to have sixty college credits. Yet no one who has attended college would argue that accumulating credits raises barriers to brutality or provides a sure test of intelligence, industry, courage, and character.

To Bear, traditional education awards degrees for time served and credit earned, pursuant to a medieval formula combining generalized and specialized education in a classroom on a campus. The kind of nontraditional education emphasized by his book awards degrees on the basis of “competencies” and “performance skills,” using “methodologies” that cultivate self-direction and independence through planned independent study, generally off campus.

Granted, nontraditional routes are now radically less expensive. One can obtain a bachelor’s degree from New York’s Excelsior College (formerly Regents College) or New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State College without stepping into a classroom. For example, Excelsior awards degrees to persons who have accumulated sufficient credits through various means, including noncollege learning experience such as corporate training programs, military training and professional licenses; equivalency examintions such as the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES), the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE); its own nationally recognized examination program; and even educational portfolios evaluated through its partnerships with other institutions, such as Ohio University.

However, in a world that cheapens the humanities to a mere credential and refuses to evaluate intelligence, experience, and common sense, it’s a short step to advancing one’s career through exaggeration and even downright deceit. Remember that a diploma is merely a document evidencing the holder’s completion of a particular course of study.

Even the once-sacred transcript, the official record of the work one has done to earn a degree, is no longer written in stone. Creative use has been made of color copiers and laser printers to alter records; college computer systems have been hacked into–in some instances for fun and in others in order to alter records for profit.

Actually, it would seem that finagling has always been part of the American doctoral tradition. Bear reports that the first American doctorate came about in the following way.

In the beginning, only someone with a doctorate could bestow one on another person. At the end of the 17th century, however, Harvard’s faculty had no instructors with doctorates. Its president, Increase Mather, belonged to a religious sect that was anathema to the Church of England and hence legally ineligible to receive a doctoral degree from any English university. Harvard’s faculty, which then consisted of two people, solved this problem by unanimously agreeing to award Mather an honorary doctorate. Mather, in turn, conferred doctorates upon his instructors. And they began doctoring their students.

Yale awarded America’s first professional doctorate when Daniel Turner, a British physician, gave Yale some fifty medical textbooks. Yale awarded him an M.D. in absentia. (Turner never set foot in America). Some, according to Bear, suggested that the M.D. must stand for multum donavit (“he gave a lot”).

As one might expect, Bear also discusses  the anomaly of the honorary degree. In a country whose government is forbidden from granting titles of nobility, higher education fills the gap with honorary doctorates, which are simply titles bestowed for various reasons upon various individuals. Bear suggests an analogy to an army granting the honorary rank of general to a civilian who may then use it in everyday life.

Of course there are doctorates and there are doctorates. My alma mater grants honorary doctorates to a few distinguished men and women every year. Among them, invariably, is the chief executive of some corporation whose foundation has made a substantial contribution to the college’s endowment. The Rev. Kirby Hensley’s renowned Universal Life Church, which awards an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree to anyone who ponies up $30 (it used to be only $5), merely takes this to its logical extreme.

My favorite chapters in Bear’s book discuss phony degrees and diploma mills, some of which operate wildly beyond the law. In 1978, one diploma mill proprietor was arrested as Mike Wallace was interviewing him for 60 Minutes. Usually unaccredited, usually operating in one of the handful of states that barely regulate private higher education (currently Hawaii seems the happy hunting ground of the degree mill), such institutions flourish because people want to avoid the work involved in getting a real degree. After 60 Minutes aired its program, the network received thousands of telephone calls and letters from people who wanted the addresses and telephone numbers of the diploma mills exposed by the program.

And who can blame them? In some states, a doctorate from a one-room Bible school is sufficient to set up practice as a marriage counselor and psychotherapist. At least one major figure in the New York City Parking Violations Bureau scandals had been a marriage counselor on the strength of his advanced degrees from the College of St. Thomas in Montreal, Canada. This was a theological seminary sponsored by an Old Catholic church whose archbishop, a retired plumber (I met him once: his weakness for lace on his episcopal finery left me cold), operated the college from His Excellency’s apartment. Quebec did not regulate religious seminaries, and this allowed the archbishop to claim—accurately—that the degrees were lawful and valid. They were also worthless.

As Bear notes, in Hawaii and Louisiana the one-man church founded yesterday may sponsor a university today that will grant a doctorate in nuclear physics tomorrow. One Louisiana diploma mill successfully argued that as God created everything, all subjects were the study of God and therefore a religious degree. This may be theologically sound, but if I learned my physician held his M.D. from this school, I would get a referral.

As long as people value others more for whatever pieces of paper they can produce than for their qualities of mind and character, the diploma mill will flourish. But the intelligent careerist will use common sense and the guides of John Bear.

New York Press, September 24, 2002

February 13, 2009   Comments Off on Education by Degrees

The Young Lion of Wrath

(Pontius Pilate, by Ann Wroe. Random House, New York, 2000. 412 pg., $25.00)

The rushed decisions are the worst. Imagine being a politician: not an orator or a legislator, but an administrator, one who governs, daily responsible for implementing policies devised by others. Imagine constantly making decisions with incomplete understanding and insufficient knowledge and not enough time to fill either gap; living with the paranoia—after all, does not the word bear translation as “higher knowledge”—that nearly everyone around you has a hidden agenda and plays you for a sucker.

Make things darker, more personal, and more dangerous. Your spouse is your only confidant. Your colleagues, the men with whom you work, eat, drink, and relax, would abandon you at a finger snap. The people you govern mistrust you and sometimes hate you enthusiastically.

Worse still, you can draw strength only from the love you bear the institution you serve, from your sense of its tradition, greatness, and enduring glory. Yet the man who gave you the job is monstrous, as are most politicians: a tissue of lusts rising to perversion, insecurities shading to paranoia, and self-confidence curdled into megalomania. Your dinner guests gossip of his misconduct. You “listen in the awful, sinking knowledge” that this man has made you what you are, and sometimes his obscenity sickens you.

Ann Wroe, who edits the American section of The Economist, has written the most remarkable book I have read this year: a biography of a minor politician of the first century. Merely writing the book seems an insuperable challenge. There are nearly no records. Even his numerous public works (an aqueduct, military roads, and public buildings, all probably padding his pocket—bribes were an accepted prerogative of the job, called unguentaria, ointment money)—have vanished. All that remains is a single limestone block found amidst the ruins of Caesarea, bearing a fragmentary inscription with his name and office:

PONTIVS PILATVS
PRAEFECTVS IVDAEAE

Though one of the most famous men in world history, Pontius Pilate, fifth Prefect of Judaea, is a difficult subject. As Wroe found, even the evidence of his existence is fragmentary. Though his name has been uttered daily in prayer for nearly two thousand years, even this is a fragment: we do not know his first name, the praenomen, “the name his mother and wife and friends called him by.” None of his writings survived—not even a leaf of a decade’s daily reports to the Emperor. He must have made thousands of decisions during his decade in power. We remember only one.

Today, the contemporary documents of his existence might be transcribed onto three or four typed pages, double-spaced. Flavius Josephus, a Romanized Jew, mentions him not unfavorably in The Jewish War, written four decades after Pilate’s return to Rome. Philo of Alexandria knew Pilate. He savages him in a few pages of his voluminous works. But Philo hated all Romans and the portrait is two-dimensional. Tacitus mentions Pilate once in the Historia. Even that is a fragment: Tacitus’s chapters for the early thirties are missing and may have said much more. Last, the Dead Sea Scrolls call him “the Young Lion of Wrath.”

Starting with these materials, Wroe studied the Apocrypha (the religious works excluded from the official Bible, early victims of consensus reality) and Pilate’s hagiographies (the Ethiopians consider him a saint, as the means by which the prophecies were fulfilled and one of the first to believe in the Resurrection: “I believe that you have risen and have appeared to me, and you will not judge me…”). She read the surviving Roman literature from his lifetime or shortly before or after for a sense of how he would have seen the world; the “fairy tales, legends, travelogues, guidebooks, to follow where his ghost had walked around Europe”; and numerous lives of Christ to see how commentators have seen Pilate over the last two centuries. She viewed or read the modern works in which Pilate appears as a character, including Antonio Ciseri’s historicist masterpiece, Ecce Homo, which graces the cover.

The result is a beautiful, compelling study of the man who ordered the Crucifixion. Pontius Pilate was a professional soldier, probably not much older than thirty, the statutory minimum for a Roman governor. His temperament and character reflect a man not yet smoothed by experience, efficient but not mature, “enthusiastic, sarcastic, nervous, occasionally brutal.” The Gospels suggest he had a short fuse. All the sources unite on this: he was a man of action, not reflection.

He probably disliked the Jews because they despised him. Even the high priests and Pharisees who dragged Jesus to Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem refused to pass its doors, for Pilate and the Romans were unclean. Then there were the rebels, “mavericks, prophets, and impostors,” the usual cross between bandits, vandals, and freedom fighters. Roman policy favored their comprehensive elimination. His predecessor Gratus crucified hundreds; his successor Varus would crucify thousands. Yet, as his foes agreed, he kept the peace for ten years. The most important messianic disturbance of his rule was suppressed with only three crucifixions.

Wroe notes that his clan, the Pontii, was not Roman but Samnite: Italian tribesmen conquered by the Romans in the third century BC. His family was thus probably respectable, but second class: members of the knightly class, special administrators, and trouble-shooters, never rising to patrician rank.

His cognomen, Pilate, comes from pilatus, “one skilled with the javelin.” It meant more than this, of course: his father or he had excelled with a difficult weapon, showing traits of “decisiveness, strength, straightness of aim.” Yet, the evidence of his political life shows little of that.

Perhaps these traits were unnecessary. As Wroe observes, the Emperor Tiberius preferred unknown quantities in high office. It may have amused him. At best, Tiberius looked for decent behavior and good character. In a pinch, even decent behavior might be dropped: Tiberius appointed Pomponius Flaccus governor of Syria on the strength of a thirty-six hour orgy, endorsing his commission with “A good fellow at all hours, day or night!”

The Emperor was tall, robust, and handsome, slow spoken, with something of an affected drawl, shrewd, suspicious, and devious. He was an alcoholic with a taste for naked swimming-and-sex sessions with minors of both sexes. We are told that some, whom he called his “minnows,” gave him particular pleasure by swimming up to him underwater and taking him in their mouths.

The Emperor believed the revelation of his thought a calamity.  Dio Cassius wrote, “he put many to death for no other offense than having grasped what he meant.” He trusted no one, and of his twenty or so intimates over his seventy-seven years of life, all but two or three were put to death. In a killing mood, “which lasted for most of the time Pilate was governor of Judaea,” he executed people “on the least word of any informer, and informers were everywhere.” Perhaps this is why Pilate, as presented by John the Evangelist, flinches when the Jews suggest that if he spares Jesus, “You are no friend of Caesar’s.”

This mediocrity is the hinge of Western history. The Evangelists were fond of citing famous events to provide a temporal reference for their story. Thus, at the time of the birth of Jesus, Caesar Augustus commands a census be taken so all the world may be taxed. The head tax, literally per capita, could be audited only by taking a census. It was unpopular: Copronius, one of the first prefects, crucified Judas the Galilean, a tax protester. So one would remember, or remember hearing from one’s father, about the census and then paying the tax. Thus, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas the high priest, Herod the king, were not merely names, characters in a narrative, to the Christians who first read the Gospels, but men, as real in the memory of the First Century as FDR or JFK are in our own.

Pilate is more important than the others, as Wroe observes, “because he stands at the center of the Christian story and God’s plan of redemption. Without his climactic judgment of Jesus, the world would not have been saved. Without Christ’s death, pronounced by Pilate, there would have been no Resurrection, no founding Christian miracle.”

She describes the book in her introduction as a collage of biographical scenes, drawing on a diversity of traditions and writings. Perhaps it is the only way to sketch someone so unknowable. “We long for records, letters, diaries, the memories of friends,” Wroe writes.

As she notes, we cannot presume the Romans to be just like us, save for their clothes and haircuts. We would find them alien. Their sensual appreciation of blood is repellent; their admiration of suicide repugnant; as Wroe notes, Marcus Aurelius, among the noblest men who ever lived, considered putrescence a thing of beauty.

Yet, we know one thing that intrigued Pilate as it does us. At the trial of Jesus of Nazareth as presented by St. John the Evangelist, the defendant and judge endure a frustrating exchange. Pilate asks direct questions. When Jesus answers at all, he is responding on a different plane. The two men are simply not talking about the same things.

At last, Jesus states that he has come into the world to bear witness to the truth. Pilate replies with a question so strange that you know he said it: “What is truth?” or, in Greek, then still the working language of the eastern empire, “Ti estin aletheia?”

Wroe points out the subtle difference: Pilate is speaking of a narrow, particular truth: the truth of facts and testimony and evidence. But Jesus was speaking of “he aletheia”—absolute Truth. Wroe observes, “Jesus was referring to a truth that was overpoweringly different: as different, Polybius had once said, as when a galley rower, trained on skeleton ships on dry land, suddenly felt in the live ocean the pull of the oar and the craft’s response.”

And Pilate? Perhaps, as an Academician, he believed the way of wisdom was acknowledging the uncertainty of knowledge, and he felt the claim of Jesus was recklessly certain. Or perhaps, as Kazantzakis wrote, the Roman believed in nothing at all, “neither in gods nor in men, nor in Pontius Pilate.”

What is truth? The question is relevant to Pilate’s biography, too. In writing the life of a man nearly two thousand years dead, who disappears from the record after his recall from office, one is not transcribing a life. One seeks the truth, or at least, the truths, with a certain resolute desperation.

Yet Wroe gracefully presents the alternative theories of the essential moments in Pilate’s career and of his background (the Italians call him a Spaniard and the French and English a German) without stalling her narrative. Her prose is clear, supple, and quite beautiful. She captures the texture of power, particularly the confusion and exhaustion stemming from its exercise, with clarity and common sense. Anyone who has wielded limited authority has been there: to be tired, confronted by someone who wants something very badly, about which you care little save as it may affect your mission. To grant it is unjust. Yet if you give it to them, they will leave you alone.

She captures this so well. She brilliantly juxtaposes images spanning two millennia—the Dead Sea Scrolls, David Bowie, 19th century academic painters, modernist playwrights—with a dexterous ease that betrays intellectual power and integrity.  Pontius Pilate is impressive, concise, and fast moving, with eloquence that naturally flows from the grandeur of her material rather than a rhetorician’s self-conscious flourishes.

Ann Wroe has not written a book so much about Pilate as all our Pilates: how each generation projects on the tabula rasa that is this man our image of how he lived and saw the world. Yet somehow she gives us the sense of “a man actually walking on a marble floor in Caesarea,” a narrative pieced from a thousand fragments into the outline of a life.

New York Press, June 7, 2000

June 7, 2000   Comments Off on The Young Lion of Wrath