May 11, 2011

the university, a bud forever green

This is the beginning of Section II of William Carlos Williams' long poem Paterson (1946), which is a kind of portrait of the author's home city in New Jersey.

Robert Lowell confidently says that the "bud forever green / tight-curled, upon the pavement, perfect / in juice and substance but divorced, divorced / from its fellows" is the university, scholarship, or science, divorced from the city and its democratic life. I cannot vouch for that allegorical reading (bud=university), but the poem is surely about some kind of "divorce" between abstract thought and human needs. We know how things are going--badly enough to howl--but not why. Intelligence does not shape the flow; we watch coldly from afar.

These are challenging words for us who enjoy being inside that tight-curled bud.

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April 18, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop, At the Fishhouses

The Poetry Foundation provides the text of Bishop's masterpiece "At the Fishhouses" (1948) along with a recording of the author reading it (not necessarily as well as it could be read).

She introduces the color silver early and returns to it often. In fact:

But nothing in the poem is actually silver. That is just an appearance, a misleading feature of the surface of things. For instance, "the silver of the benches ... is of an apparent translucence ..." The wheelbarrows look beautifully silver because of the "small iridescent flies crawling on them."

The opposite of false silver is the profound and true depth of the sea. "Cold dark deep and absolutely clear" is the comma-free phrase that Bishop strikingly repeats. The temptation in the poem is to plunge through silvery appearances to the real "element bearable to no mortal," the ocean water that would kill by freezing or drowning. It is a temptation that Bishop suggests early and then repeatedly defers or avoids. Immediately after first invoking the "cold dark deep," she digresses:

Singing Baptist hymns to a seal is amusing. Even if you don't happen to find it funny (as I do), I think you will agree that it has the form of a joke, meant to deflect the question of how to relate to the "clear gray icy water" that would ache your bones and burn your hand if you entered it. Buried in the joke is the serious idea of "total immersion." Plunging into the ocean at Nova Scotia would be like facing the ultimate truth that we try to defer. Of that water, Bishop writes,

If silvery surfaces and deadly depths are two crucial ideas in the poem, a third is the human observer. The poem begins with apparently objective and scientifically precise description. But then the narrator comes in:

The narrator, like all mortal beings, inhabits a world of change. All the things she observes have developed and will cease, like the wheelbarrows that have come to be "plastered / with creamy iridescent coats of mail" or the cod that will disappear from overfishing. The last line of the poem says explicitly that "our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown." You cannot truly experience the freezing depths without dying in them: a metaphor for the unbearableness of truth. The poem is about flinching.

Bishop's mentor Marianne Moore had written "A Graveyard" about a similar view of the ocean. In that poem, an unnamed man stands in the way of the sea, annoyingly blocking the view. But Moore tries to forgive him because it is natural to want to immerse oneself:

In Bishop's poem, the ocean seems to come from a living source, even a human one:

I would normally resist a biographical interpretation, but Bishop inserts herself in the poem ("he was a friend of my grandfather") and reminds us that human knowledge is temporal and personal. So it is relevant that Elizabeth Bishop had to move to her grandparents' home in Nova Scotia at age five, after her father had died and her mother was institutionalized with mental illness. In this poem, the frigid, salty water flows from breasts that should feed a daughter warm, sweet, sustaining milk. The metaphor (stated in a line of iambic pentameter) is agonizingly lonely. But Bishop's seal friend, her grandfather's dwindling connections, her love of surfaces--"beautiful herring scales"--, her subtle homage to Marianne Moore, and the writing of the poem itself show how we can digress and postpone what we know that we know.

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March 21, 2011

Robert Lowell at the Indian Killer’s Grave

King Philip's War was a struggle between the New England Puritan settlers and Native Americans. Fought in 1675-6, it caused the deaths of about 800 colonists and 3,000 Native Americans and a catastrophe for the Native peoples of New England. King Philip (Metacomet, in his own language) was shot to death, his wife and child sold as slaves in Bermuda, his head displayed on a pike for decades.

Traditionally, King Philip's War was described as a dangerous attack on the colonists, not a genocidal campaign by them against the Wampanoags. Robert Lowell (1917-77) early grasped his region’s original sin. His direct ancestor John Winslow had been a rich Boston merchant during King Philip’s War; another relative had been Josiah Winslow, the governor who led Massachusetts in that war. Out of his struggles with his own ancestry, the Catholic-leaning, pacifist Lowell made poems of permanent value.

In 1946, he published "At the Indian Killer’s Grave" in his collection entitled Lord Weary’s Castle. The setting is King's Chapel Burying Ground in Boston, where John Winslow was buried with his wife Mary. I recently visited the Burying Ground with a copy of Lowell's poem in hand and found that he had described the setting precisely and had incorporated relatively obscure historical information. My annotations follow, interspersed with the entire text in italics. The whole poem is reprinted together here.

King's Chapel and Burial Ground

Title: "At the Indian Killer's Grave"

The singular noun is interesting, since there are many graves in the Burial Ground that could be connected to King Philip's War. Perhaps the grave of Joseph Tapping or of John Winslow is the specific reference (see below), or perhaps, as Frank Bidart writes in his notes to the Selected Poems, "The Indian Killer ... is essentially generic, a collective figure ...."


Quoted from Hawthorne's story "The Gray Champion," which concerns the colonists' resistance to James II (the king of King's Chapel) and mentions their slaughter of Native Americans briefly and ironically. The story concludes: "still may the Gray Champion come, for he is the type of New England's hereditary spirit; and his shadowy march, on the eve of danger, must ever be the pledge, that New England's sons will vindicate their ancestry." (Vindicating his ancestors is pretty much the opposite of what Lowell accomplishes in this poem.)

These are regular iambic pentameter lines, as are most (but not quite all) of the lines of the poem. Most of the poem rhymes, but in a complex and irregular scheme. (Note friends/bends/ends, well/compel, root/foot, etc.) The very first line has no rhyme.

"Behind King's Chapel": The small plot of ancient stones is hemmed by some of the city's tallest and most modern commercial buildings. America's first subway line runs very close below, the quaint cover of its ventilation shaft interrupting the graves. Crowds of tourists file down the narrow lanes.

The Burying Ground is historically separate from King's Chapel. The former was a cemetery for Puritans, strenuous critics of the official Anglican Church. Because no settler would sell to King James II land on which to build an Anglican church in New England, James seized some of the Burying Ground to build the chapel, presumably disrupting many Puritan tombs. The present structure of the chapel is a sober neoclassical building, erected in 1754, that overshadows the cemetery. The modern congregation is Unitarian, the Anglicans having been chased away as Tories in the Revolution. Lowell uses the phrase "King's Chapel" to locate the poem and does not mention the Burying Ground itself. The buried Puritans would be angry that their resting place is so described. Lowell's own theology would be closer to James' than to the Puritans'.

"What the earth has kept whole …" Does this refer to bodies in the burial ground, ones that have not been broken up by centuries of building? Maybe not, because the subject of the sentence is singular: it "extends / Its dark enigma to Jehoshaphat." One possible reading: there is a crime, a mysterious sin, that is hidden from the time when the corpses were buried until the Day of Judgment.

"Jerking noose" alludes to the mass hanging of the Wampanoag Indians in King Philip's war, part of the crime that is the dark enigma. This also suggests a concrete image: something in the earth is partly broken by a rope which, like time itself, shakes things to pieces.

Jehoshaphat: this could refer to the King of the Israelites. He might be associated with the Puritans because he struggled against idolatry and defeated a large army of Moabites (comparable to Wampanoags) when the Lord made them quarrel amongst themselves. But more likely Lowell means not the king but the Valley of Jehoshaphat, where the Resurrection and Judgment Day is expected: thus, a vast graveyard. Cf. "In the great ash-pit of Jehoshaphat," a phrase from Lowell's "The Quaker Graveyard of Nantucket."

"Or will King Philip plait ...": The word "or" suggests two possibilities. Either the enigma remains hidden until Judgment Day or King Philip braids the hair on the scalp of the "just man" in the valley of Jehosophat. The phrase "just man" could be ironic and refer to the kind of men whom the real Philip scalped: Puritans. "Plaiting" seems gentle and cosmetic, although perhaps King Philip celebrates the ultimate demise of the men who killed him and his people. Although they won the war, they all died in the end.

"Friends!": Who could that be? We the readers? Imaginary companions visiting the Burying Ground with Lowell? A congregation addressed by a preacher? King Philip's friends (for he clearly speaks later in the poem)?

"Blacker than these black stones ..." The headstones are gray now, as they must have been when first cut. In Lowell's time, pollution had blackened them (see the "off-scourings" mentioned in line 2.6). The air was polluted by the heavy industry that his ancestors brought to New England after 1790 and that supported all the office buildings around King's Chapel.

"... the subway bends ...". It does bend--the Green Line of the Boston "T"--and as it moves it makes extraordinary creaking and whining sounds immediately below the cemetery, as if the dead were rising. The construction of the "T," like the building of King's Chapel, disturbed the sober Puritans in their graves and jumbled their bones together promiscuously.

"About the dirty elm roots and the well": The "well" is actually the cover of the subway airshaft, a remarkable structure that I would call quaint, but I can see how it might look diabolical.

"For the unchristened infants in the waste": In 1833, a charnel house (a vault for bones) was constructed under the Burying Ground to hold dead orphans. Once again, the dead Puritans must have been shifted. They would not be upset by the idea of unchristened burials. They considered baptism unnecessary for salvation and conducted no baptisms in the New World until about 1628. For the Catholic Lowell, unchristened babies would evoke Limbo.

Of the great garden rotten to its root: The garden may be the cemetery, where the bones are like roots. "Great" is surprising and worth some consideration, because I would have described the Burying Ground as small and quaint. Perhaps the cemetery is metonymy for something truly "great," such as Boston or America.

I think we are now looking at this particular gravestone, that of Joseph Tapping, who died at 23 in 1678 and therefore seems likely to have fought in King Philip's War (although I have found nothing about him):

This headstone is a spooky momento mori, complete with Time and Death (the skeleton) fighting to snuff out the candle of a life. I don't see Grace-with-wings: she may be drawn from a different headstone or invented by Lowell. (If the skull with wings is Grace, that is heavy irony.)

"Death, the engraver": Literally, death is engraved, not the engraver. The engraver is believed to be the Charlestown Carver, who was active in Boston in the late 1600s. But the metaphor suggests that Death friezes a life into a fixed form that can be judged.

"antique abandon of the disgraced": The jumble of old headstones and their guilty dead.

"Jehovah's buffets and his ends": Buffets must be punishments. Ends are either final dispositions or ultimate, hidden purposes.

"baroque / and prodigal embellishments": an apt description of the tombstones, although the baroque style is accomplished in a very naive, "folk" way.

"smoke ... off-scourings of the town": The smoke comes from Boston's factories, founded by the descendants of the Pilgrims, who made eastern Massachusetts the second area in the world to industrialize, thus fouling the land that the Indians had owned while enriching themselves. The factory smoke merges with their own corpses' ashes.

"Espouses and confounds" is the first line not in iambic pentameter: possibly enacting the entropy that has set in after the Pilgrims' time.

"The libertarian crown": I have not found a 17th-century usage, but "libertarian" wouldn't have the modern sense of Milton Friedman. It could mean generous, or tolerant to dissenting sects such as the Puritans.

"Charles the Second": King's Chapel was founded in the first year of his son James II's reign. Mentioning Charles II here is a minor error, unless Lowell believed that Charles had ordered the chapel to be built before he died. James II is the villain in Hawthorne's tale.

"... built their mausoleum": Treats the King's Chapel as the Pilgrims' mausoleum because it stands next to their graves, even though the king built it against the wishes of their community and at the expense of their graveyard. Lowell knows this, so his rhetoric is venomous.

"A clutter of Bible and weeping willows guards ... ": I saw no willows, so unless they have been cut down, Lowell must be thinking of images on graves.

"the just and the unjust": cf. Acts 24:15 "And have hope toward God, which they themselves [sc. the Jewish elders] also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust." This resurrection is what will happen at Jehosaphat. The graves of King's Chapel contain the bones of unrepentant sinners, according to this poem.

guards/wards/clouds: a Yeatsian off rhyme.

"The poor dead cannot see Easter crowds": They would not want to see those crowds, which are presumably swelled with Catholic Bostonians. Here Lowell introduces the contrast between communitarian Catholics and solitary Puritans, important later on. There are two reasons that the buried Puritans cannot see the modern crowds: 1) they are dead, and 2) many large buildings have been constructed in modern times between the cemetery and "Boston Common or the Beacon Hill."

"The golden Statehouse dome": A Boston landmark, it is no longer controlled by WASPs of Puritan heritage, but by Catholics, Jews, and other "strangers" who dominate the Massachusetts legislature in Lowell's time and in ours.

"Where they live is home": Their home is reduced from Massachusetts to the crowded plot where their bodies lie.

"A common with an iron railing": A public cemetery is a "common," but of a ghoulish type. The iron railing was erected in 1884.

Mary Winslow (born Mary Chilton) was the first female person to land with the Pilgrims at Plymouth: hence the symbolic mother of New England. The tomb of John and Mary Winslow is actually a small, plain, sandstone headstone in King's Chapel Graveyard, not "a spreading cenotaph ... wreathe[d with] frayed cables." But a cenotaph is an empty tomb, a memorial that does not mark the position of a buried body; so maybe Lowell's idea is that the iron railing is John's and Mary's monument now that their bones have been dispersed.

As noted above, John Winslow was Lowell's direct ancestor. He died before King Philip's war and served on a jury that convicted settlers for murdering an Indian. Frank Bidart writes, "In sum, Lowell chooses as his emblematic 'Indian Killer' not a famous soldier in the Indian Wars, but a successful Puritan businessman, a 'good citizen,' whose religious convictions and mercantile habits inevitably led to the near-extinction of New England's Native American tribes." I find this plausible, although it is not self-evident that John Winslow is the Indian Killer of the title.

"the laugh of death / is hacked": reprises the theme of death as the mason of the headstones.

"A green train ..." This is a vivid and literal description of what one hears as the Green Line train (which is painted green) passes below the cemetery. It may evoke the idea of the dragon of the Apocalypse (Revelations 12 and 13), although that beast is red.

"the great mutation": Google suggests this is an astrological term, perhaps known to Lowell, but I think the main reference is 1 Corinthians 15:52: "for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed."

"will these placques / Harness the spare-ribbed persons of the dead / To battle with the dragon?": Taken apart literally, the question means: will the gravestones ride the skeletons of the dead pilgrims to fight against the dragon of the apocalypse?

"Philip's head ... on the platter": like that of the last prophet, St. John the Baptist. For some reason, this image reminds me of a passage in Joyce's Ulysses (London, 1960, p. 508) in which Shakespeare's disembodied head appears and says, "'Tis the loud laugh bespeaks the vacant mind."

"fouls in pantomime / The fingers of kept time": As King Philip's fingers tap to indicate the passage of time, he grins and makes a lewd gesture. (This is the only literal reading I can--tentatively--suggest.)

This is the beginning of a speech, presumably uttered by the head of Philip to the dead Puritans, although it is also a speech of Lowell to the same audience. The vocabulary is distinctive: "trollop," "noddle," "beg a leg." I think these terms evoke Restoration comedy and other light literature from that era. For instance, "my self-flattering noddle supposed this carriage particular to me ..." (from The English rogue: described, in the life of Meriton Latroon, a witty extravagant. Being a compleat history of the most eminent cheats of both sexes ... 1666). The diction is remarkable because neither Philip nor the Puritans would have spoken in this foppish way.

"this people is but grass": Compare Emerson's poem "Hamatreya," in which the Puritan settlers of Concord claim the land forever, but the "Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys / Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs; / Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet / Clear of the grave. "

"the trollop dances on your skulls ... that thought the world an eggshell:" King Philip is interested in the contrast between the Puritans’ subjective beliefs and reality. The Puritans believed that what they knew--everything enclosed by the "eggshells" around their brains--was real. But their brains rotted, and people whom they would consider "trollops" crushed their hollow skulls, much as the actual bodies of the Puritans have decayed and their bones have been crushed by sinners unimaginable to them.

"the gulls ... beg a leg / To crack their crops": Philip must refer to the gulls of nearby Boston harbor, sitting on piles that "squelch" the soil below, making noises that evoke Judgment Day. "Beg a leg" can mean "good luck." "Crack their crops" could refer to the pouches in birds' throats that hold food to be broken up. The sound of these lines is astringent: lots of "s's." Some of the sense is obscure to me.

"Only the dead are poorer: Everyone has become richer in Massachusetts except the first merchant settlers who founded the commercial republic. They, being dead, are poorer.

"Where State and elders thundered raca/ hurled Anathemas at nature:" The church and state of colonial Massachusetts insult nature. "Raca" is the Aramaic insult ("fool") that Jesus mentions in the Sermon on the Mount as an uncharitable remark: "whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council" (Matthew 5:22). An anathema is a curse that casts its target out of the religious communion.

"at nature and the land / That fed the hunter's gashed and green perfection" What they curse is the green and natural land that the Indian hunters had enjoyed. At least some Puritans held that Grace and nature were separate. Grace was granted by God and revealed by piety, social norms and restrictions, thrift and prosperity (i.e. both church and state). Nature and the wilderness symbolized sexual temptation and evil. Nature-worship (like the Indians' spirituality) was devil-worship and witchcraft.

Its settled mass concedes no outlets for your puns: "It" is divine judgment. It is "settled" because of the Puritan doctrine of predestination. Puritans held that everyone was either elected or damned, regardless of what they we might say (our "puns" and "verbal Paradises").

Looking for a more specific connection between Puritanism and punning, I found Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds' article on "Thomas Pynchon, Wit, and the Work of the Supernatural". Pynchon, like Lowell, is a direct descendant of Massachusetts Puritan elders who subverts that heritage. Pynchon loves puns, uses verbal coincidences as causal forces in his novels, and perhaps understands them as subverting predestination (which implies that God has pre-planned everything). Hinds quotes Benjamin Rush (originally a Calvinist, but later a convert to the doctrine of free will), who observed in 1799 that "wit of all kinds, and more especially that species of it which is called punning, has a tendency to weaken the understanding by unduly exercising the imagination." The Puritans would see themselves as immune to wit: sober people who plainly stated the truth. Philip wittily accuses them of being beguiled by their own language and imagining a Paradise in language.

Your election ..., Hawking ..., Flutters and claws in the dead hand of time: The "Election" of the Puritans is their salvation, which results from God's grace alone. King Philip/Robert Lowell likens election to a hawk above "this slime" of worldly life. The hand of time is dead because everything is predestined.

"For souls as single as their skeletons": The Puritan soul stands in a direct, unmediated relation to God and is saved or damned alone. To be a Puritan is to wait for a bird to swoop down and decide one's fate. In contrast, Lowell, a Catholic, believes that the community of the Church is an intermediary and salvation comes through communion with others.

(Here ends the speech of King Philip, who presumably does not endorse predestination but uses it to mock his Puritan enemies.)

Metaphorically, you go into the hole of a grave when you die and your fate is decided for you. It is possible that a literal attendant let people down into the burial vault or the subway under the Burial Ground, in Lowell's day.

These lines begin a description of the cityscape around the Burial Ground. The "T-squared buildings" that were already erected by 1946 would have included the Parker House Hotel nearby. Such buildings are "T-squared" because large modern structures tend to be angular (in contrast to natural forms), but also because the Boston "T" runs underneath the streets.

"the braced terrain: the land here is hilly, and on several occasions the Burial Ground had to be supported by new retaining walls and terraces, or the skeletons would have tumbled down toward the harbor.

“When you go down” used for the second time: anaphora.

Roughcast is a coarse plaster exterior wall-covering that can incorporate gravel or pebbles. King's Chapel is handsomely faced in stone. I think Lowell means that if you are buried here, among the Puritan Fathers of Massachusetts, your body gets a fancy resting place. He does not specify whether the resting place is temporary until Judgment Day or permanent. Compare earlier: “Where they live is home / A common with an iron railing …”

This whole section plays with surprising contrasts between ephemeral events (a painter at work, a mouse eating walnuts) and permanent facts. One would expect the scene of a man painting to last for just a short time, and even the red paint on the fence will chip or fade. But Lowell tells us they are "forever" (enjambing that word for surprise). Likewise, one would expect the "chiseled angels" on the headstones to last much longer than a human life. They are ancient and unchanging, like the bones beneath them, whereas we, like mice and painters, will soon pass away. But Lowell says "as if their art were as long as life," thus reversing the Latin tag, "Art is long, life is short."

"I ponder on the railing at this park": Lowell, or the poem's narrator, appears for the first time, placed at the gate in the present (modern) moment.

"the man who sowed the dragon's teeth": Cadmus, who sowed the dragon's teeth from which sprung a horde of armed men who fought until five remained, and they became the founders of Thebes and the heads of its aristocratic houses. The "Indian Killer" plays a similar role as founder of the city-state of Boston and its Brahman families.

"Who sowed so ill for his descent": Sowing alludes to the Cadmus story, and to the idea that you reap what you sow. "Descent" could mean the decedents of the Indian Killer (including Lowell) or the Killer's descent below ground as a corpse, or both.

"this underworld and dark": hendiadys for "this world that is dark and under us."

We suddenly find ourselves in an entirely different world. Nature, instead of being sharply distinguished from grace, is divinely enchanted. Religion centers on the fecund figure of Mary instead of a male deity or an impersonal Providence. Sexuality is holy ("the bridal chamber," the peering Bridegroom). The soul is not imprisoned in a body that rots, but is the "whole body," and specifically the female body. We are not in a graveyard any more, but in a garden. The diction is no longer reminiscent of the King James Version, classical myth, Puritan sermonizing, or Restoration wit. Instead, it evokes the Marian devotions of early English poetry.

Indeed, from "Who was the man who sowed the dragon's teeth" to the end of the poem, Lowell is reworking the last 11 lines of his earlier poem entitled "Cistercians in Germany" (from Land of Unlikeness, published in 1944). It is an explicitly anti-Nazi work. The Germans "howl: 'Who was this man who sowed the dragon's teeth ...?'" They reply, "the bankers and the Jews." But Bernard appears to offer some kind of resolution, "gathering his canticle of flowers, / His soul a bridal chamber fresh with flowers, / And all his body one extatic womb." Saint Bernard was named a "righteous gentile" for stopping pogroms against the Jews of Rhineland Germany and founded the Cistercian monastic order. Lowell longed for a Catholic community infused with Bernard's pacific spirit. But the Nazi setting of his early poem was distant and abstract, and the attribution of feminine qualities to the male saint strikes me as somewhat strange. Lowell later told Frederick Seidel, "The 'Cistercians' wasn't very close to me, but the last lines seemed felt; I dropped the Cistercians and put a Boston graveyard in." (Collected Prose, p. 247.) Thus Puritans took the space occupied by Nazis in the earlier poem, although that doesn't mean that Lowell regarded the two as equally evil.

Gospel me to the Garden: The form of the prayer sounds medieval. Parádeisos is one Greek word for "garden," deriving originally from a Persian word for a walled outdoor space. Eden is a Paradise, in that sense. In the book of Daniel, Susannah is bathing in a walled garden when she is seen naked by lecherous men. According to Old Testament law, there are two possible places where women can be found with men not their husbands: within the city or in the fields. In the city, the woman has a duty to cry out if she is raped, so if she is found with a man, her consent is assumed and she merits execution by stoning. Outside the city, however, no one can hear her cries, so she is considered innocent. Susannah's "Paradise" is an ambiguous zone that blurs the harsh boundaries of the law. Lowell's garden, with its ecstatic, fertile Mary and the peering Bridegroom, evokes Susannah's Paradise as well as Eden and a Cistercian cloister. It also evokes New England before the Puritans arrived.

"Where Mary twists the warlock with her flowers": Compare "Or will King Philip plait /
The just man's scalp in the wailing valley ...?"
That question is now answered with a surprising alternative: Mary will plait Philip's hair. Philip may be a "warlock" in the sense of a protector against foreign invasion. Or perhaps a scalp is a lock (of hair) cut in a war. Mary peacefully braids Philip's hair with her flowers, healing and restoring.

"As through the trellis the sudden Bridegroom": The groom must be Mary's spiritual suitor--perhaps Lowell or the devout reader. Compare George Crabbe's lines: "Hark, it is the Bridegroom’s voice: / 'Welcome, pilgrim to thy rest!' / Now within the gate rejoice ...." A trellis, like an iron gate, is a divider, but its purpose is to support flowers and produce shade.

Overall, the poem evokes the following styles or cultural referents:

Meanwhile, the poem plays with the following distinctions, all introduced with irony and ambiguity:

The concluding section suggests a solution by offering a vision of tolerant, nature-loving, female-centered Paradise. The narrator, who observed the Puritans' ghoulish graveyard through its iron fence, ends as a Bridegroom peering into Mary's flowery bridal chamber.

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February 10, 2011

forays into postcolonial literature

A couple of weeks ago, flying to California, I finished Jane Eyre and bristled a bit at the way the narrator shapes our emotional responses in line with her own rather specific moral worldview. The very next day, as I flew back to Boston, I read Jean Rhys' 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which imagines the life of Antoinette (Bertha) Mason before she is taken to England to be the madwoman on the third floor of Thornfield Hall.

In Jane Eyre, the first Mrs. Rochester is the inscrutable, horrifying Other. A sexually licentious madwoman, she is the precise opposite of the reasonable, composed Jane. Jane has a "little pale face," whereas Bertha--a "Creole"--has dark hair and features. Rochester says that he longed for "the antipode of the Creole" and found it in Jane.

In rebellion against Jane Eyre, the Dominica-born Jean Rhys starts her story with Antoinette's childhood (not Jane's) and allows Antoinette to narrate much of it. (According to Wide Sargasso Sea, "Bertha" is not her preferred name but is a hated nickname applied to her by Rochester.) Rhy's novel is not the converse of Jane Eyre; it doesn't replace one narrator's subjectivity and values with another. Instead, it deliberately shifts among voices, so that Rochester narrates parts of the plot and emerges as a partially sympathetic character, just as Antoinette seems both pitiable and frightening. Whereas Jane Eyre resolves suspense by revealing what Rochester has thought and done, Wide Sargasso Sea leaves us deeply uncertain about whether Antoinette is mad at all, and whether her madness is hereditary or caused by other people.

Because Rhys' novel takes place in Jamaica and Dominica shortly after the emancipation of slaves on those islands, the book has a new "other": black people. Antoinette is white, the daughter of slave-owners. Some of the current debate about Wide Sargasso Sea concerns the degree to which the black West Indians are represented fairly and given adequate voice. Unlike Bertha in Jane Eyre, they do speak--at considerable length--but they are not narrators and their inner thoughts are relatively mysterious. This debate seems appropriate to me, but I can only say that Christophine (an ex-slave and spiritual healer) is my favorite character. If I were transported into the world of the novel, I would much rather talk to and learn from her than any of the white people. (That is a statement about the novel, not about me.)

Since finishing Wide Sargasso Sea, I have also read J.G. Farrell's, The Siege of Krishnapur, a 1973 novel (and Booker-prize winner) that is often described as post-colonial. Pankaj Mishra explains that there was a Victorian genre of the "Mutiny novel," in which a dashing and attractive young couple meet on the voyage "out" to India, find themselves in the middle of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, have many hair-raising escapes, and live happily ever after. The Siege of Krishnapur is a parody of this genre.

It begins with a rather arch description of young English ladies and gentlemen flirting in Calcutta. This sentence is typical: "Although he generally liked sad things, such as autumn, death, ruins, and unhappy love affairs, Fleury was nevertheless dismayed by the morbid turn the conversation had taken."

The racism of the Empire is scathingly satirized, although native Indian characters have no speaking roles (with the exception of one young prince with a British education). Some of the young ladies and gentlemen find themselves besieged in the fictional town of Krishnapur, where they behave in rather valorous and chivalrous fashion. But they are also beset by scurvy, cholera, and famine, which degrades them sufficiently that by the time their rescue party arrives, they stink and look horrifying. Meanwhile, the travesty of their "civilizing" mission has been thoroughly debunked. They have even fired busts of great Western thinkers like cannon balls into the Sepoy lines, literally killing the Indians with Shakespeare. (But Keats' curls make him an ineffective missile).

Ferrell and Rhys were white Britons who wrote relatively early post-colonial novels that debunked imperial fiction. Of the two, Wide Sargasso Sea is incomparably a greater work, in large part because Rhys' imagination encompasses the colonized as well as the colonizers.

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January 21, 2011

artistic excellence as a function of historical time

The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini has compiled his top ten list of all-time greatest classical composers. As explanations for his choices, he offers judgments about the intrinsic excellence of these composers along with comments about their roles in the development of music over time.

These temporal or historical reasons prove important to Tommasi's overall judgments. For example, Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, when played between works composed in the 20th century, "sound[s] like the most radical work in the program by far." Schubert’s "Ninth paves the way for Bruckner and prefigures Mahler." Brahms, unfortunately, "sometimes become entangled in an attempt to extend the Classical heritage while simultaneously taking progressive strides into new territory." Bach "was considered old-fashioned in his day. ... [He] was surely aware of the new trends. Yet he reacted by digging deeper into his way of doing things." Haydn would make the Top Ten list except that his "great legacy was carried out by his friend Mozart, his student Beethoven and the entire Classical movement."

It seems that originality counts: it's best to be ahead of one's time. On the other hand, if, like Haydn, you launch something that others soon take higher, you are not as great as those who follow you. Bach is the greatest of all because instead of moving forward, he "dug deeper." So originality is not the definition of greatness--it is an example of a temporal consideration that affects our aesthetic judgments.

One might think that these reasons are mistaken: timing is irrelevant to intrinsic excellence or "greatness." It doesn't matter when you make a work of art; what matters is how good it is. But I'm on Tommasini's side and would, like him, make aesthetic judgments influenced by when works were composed. Why?

For one thing, an important aspect of art (in general) is problem-solving. One achievement that gives aesthetic satisfaction is the solution of a difficult problem, whether it is representing a horse in motion or keeping the kyrie section of a mass going for ten minutes without boring repetition. The problems that artists face derive from the past. Once they solve the problems of their time, repeating their success is no longer problem-solving. To be sure, one only appreciates art as problem-solving if one knows something about the history of the medium. That is why art history and music history enhance appreciation, although that is not their only purpose.

Besides, in certain artistic traditions, the artist is self-consciously part of the story of the art form. Success means taking the medium in a productive new direction. This is how traditions such as classical music, Old Master Painting, Hollywood movies, and hip-hop have developed. It is not the theory of all art forms in all cultures. Sometimes, ancient, foundational works are seen as perfect exemplars; a new work is excellent to the extent that it resembles those original models.

The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns was a debate about whether the European arts and sciences should be progressive traditions or should aim to replicate the greatness of their original Greco-Roman models. The Moderns ultimately won that debate, not only promoting innovation in their own time but also reinterpreting the past as a series of original achievements that we should value as contributions to the unfolding story of art. Since we are all Moderns now, we all think in roughly the way that Tommasini does, admiring Beethoven because his contemporaries thought his late works were incomprehensible.

Meanwhile, classical music and Old Master painting have become completed cultures for many people. Their excellence is established and belongs to the past. Beethoven was great because he was ahead of his time, but now the story to which he contributed is over. The Top Ten lists of classical music are closed. I am not sure this is true, but it seems a prevalent assumption. Maybe we are all Ancients now.

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January 13, 2011

round Charlotte Bronte's thumb

(Written at 30,000 feet over the Rockies, en route to San Francisco, after finishing Jane Eyre)

If Jane Eyre really were what it purports to be--the "autobiography" of someone of that name, as "edited" by Currer Bell--I think we would read it as follows. We would take it as the testimony of an individual who claims she has been helped by several good people but thwarted and controlled by quite a few bad ones. From her time as an orphan under Mrs. Reed, to her captivity at Lowood School, to her two near-marriages, Jane always feels she is being "mastered" (a frequent and significant word in the book) by others for their purposes, whether those are mercenary or pious. She submits until she revolts--for, as she observes:

This is not quite true, because Jane also has a talent for skillful but well-motivated manipulation, especially in dealing with Rochester. Still, this passage captures the general pattern of the novel: submission followed by revolt or flight. What Jane ultimately attains is control, so that she can say, "Reader, I married him." (Not: "Reader, he married me," or even, "We were married.")

If Jane Eyre's testimony were true and complete, it would condemn half a dozen characters for their poor treatment of her: Mrs. Reed, Georgiana and Eliza Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, Naomi Brocklehurst, Miss Scratcherd, Blanche Ingram, St John Rivers, and the still-sighted Rochester are some of the book's many villains. But we would recall that all this testimony was coming from Jane, whose acknowledged faults are few and minor and deeply regretted. So I think we would resist the narration and seek other perspectives. Maybe Mrs. Reed had trials with little Jane that should excuse some of her perceived coldness.

In fact, Jane Eyre is not an autobiography. Mrs. Reed has no reality or perspective except what we can glean from the book. The dominant perspective--the choices that channel our emotional and moral responses--are all and only Charlotte Bronte's.

By condemning Mrs. Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, and St John Rivers, Bronte did not wrong those individuals, for they never lived. But Bronte also had real-life targets: uncharitable bourgeois women, hypocritical Calvinists, and men of great soul who enroll others for their noble purposes. Her fictional examples support a distinctive worldview, which surely includes the following elements: a passionate but unorthodox theism; fondness for domesticity and heterosexual romantic love; English patriotism with a dose of Francophobia and possibly racism; a very loosely Kantian insight that one should "enjoy [one's] own faculties as well as ... cultivate those of other people" (seen as twin duties); a feminism that resists patronizing and narrowing attitudes towards girls and women; and a measure of social egalitarianism, as captured by passages like this: "I must not forget that these coarsely clad little peasants [all girls] are of flesh and blood as good as the scions of gentlest genealogy; and that the germs of native excellence, refinement, intelligence, kind feeling, are as likely to exist in their hearts as in those of the best-born."

Because the book is contrived to support a particular worldview, it has always elicited furious responses from holders of conflicting views. Victorian critics who defended Calvinism or social inequality denounced its alleged vulgarity. The Christian Remembrancer (June 1848) couldn't believe that Mrs. Reed would die unrepetant; such a caustic depiction of a propertied Anglican lady showed "want of feeling." Later, modernists disdained the novel for its theism and bourgeois domesticity. Although enduringly popular, Jane Eyre has been critically acclaimed only since the 1960s, when the feminist and generally liberating aspects of the book's worldview were recognized (and its religious conclusion overlooked).

For myself, I find the worldview appealing enough, the story compelling, and Jane a likable character. What I resist is the contrivance of all the events and characters to reinforce one perspective. It doesn't seem to me a polyphonic novel or one that explores tensions and conflicts among worthy values. Lady Frederick Cavenedish thought "the authoress turns oneself and one's opinions round her thumb." My very favorite novels are ones that let you loose.

[I take the quotes from The Christian Remembrancer and Cavendish from the Penguin edition's introduction by Michael Mason--who is no relation, I assume, to Bertha.]

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January 4, 2011

race, sex, and God in The Lord of the Rings

I recently finished reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to my 11-year-old daughter, three decades after reading those books to myself and then largely forgetting them. We enjoyed them. The story was a little too violent for her, and there was not quite enough psychological depth or development for me, but it was great on plot and large-scale imagination.

The main argument against Tolkien is an alleged lack of psychological complexity and nuance. After reading the trilogy to his daughter, Edmund Wilson wrote: "there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child. ... There is never much development in the episodes; you simply go on getting more of the same thing. Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form. The characters talk a story-book language that might have come out of Howard Pyle, and as personalities they do not impose themselves. At the end of this long romance, I had still no conception of the wizard Gandalph, who is a cardinal figure, had never been able to visualize him at all. ... How is it that these long-winded volumes of what looks to this reviewer like balderdash have elicited such tributes as those above? The answer is, I believe, that certain people - especially, perhaps, in Britain - have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash. They would not accept adult trash, but, confronted with the pre-teen-age article, they revert to the mental phase which delighted in Elsie Dinsmore and Little Lord Fauntleroy and which seems to have made of Billy Bunter, in England, almost a national figure."

Most of this is unfair in detail. (I can visualize Gandalph quite clearly.) Wilson's deeper aesthetic is also subject to debate. I am reminded of the quarrel between H.G. Wells and Henry James. James claimed that the only true source of excellent fiction was "the sincere and shifting experience of the individual practitioner." In other words, you should write about what you know, and the merit of your work is the perceptiveness and depth of your observations. But that implies a narrow scope, a small canvass. Art can also explore vast differences in real (or possible) worlds. Wells had a point when he described James as "a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den." Wells, Tolkien, and other fantasy writers are interested in getting well outside of the cage in which they think bourgeois realists like James (and Wilson) have fenced themselves. I am open to both sides, myself.

While we read Tolkien, I was quietly thinking about three themes that are relatively subtle:

1. Race: In our world, there is only one hominid species, and all the so-called races are completely equal morally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically. In the Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien, however, there are several hominid peoples: "men," dwarves, elves, hobbits, orcs, wraiths, ents, and perhaps others. They are not equal. In particular, orcs are worse than all the others: intellectually and morally inferior. If you lived in Middle Earth, you would want to see all the orcs exiled, confined to reservations of some kind, or cured of their defining orcness.

It's a fictional world and therefore not literally a racist commentary on ours. J.R.R. Tolkien apparently held egalitarian attitudes toward Jews and Africans. But what does it mean to invent a world in which there are inferior races? And what should we think about the specific portrayal of the orcs? It seems to me that each of the peoples of Middle Earth evokes a culture from our earth: Hobbits are Englishmen out of nursery rhymes and folk tales; elves are Celts; dwarves are Germanic or Nordic; and orcs ... I think the orcs are Turkish. They carry scimitars, and their language sounds like a parody of Turkish. They are physically dark, in contrast to the fair elves, and submissive to their despots. These are European stereotypes of Turks, which, in turn, may carry a whiff of the ancient Greeks' views of Persians.

2. Sex: One way in which Tolkien is a children's author is the sexlessness of the story. All the characters are male except for some very remote and idealized ladies. Sam is deeply embarrassed by the thought he might marry Rosie--like a 13-year-old. The one truly passionate connection is between Sam and Frodo. I have no problem whatsoever with same-sex attraction, but I wonder whether Tolkien thought of the connection as romantic.

3. God: Apparently, Tolkien (a devout Catholic) once wrote, "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism."

As a learned believer, a professional medievalist, and a student of allegorical Christian literature, Tolkien was entitled to that reading of his own work. But I find it surprising. In a Catholic story, I would expect evidence of a single, benign creator; providence as a determining force for good; posthumous judgment of individuals; and a divine sacrifice that saves the world. Perhaps the ring is found by Bilbo for Providential reasons, but that is a very subtle and implicit explanation, if it's true at all. Frodo sacrifices, but he is not a Jesus-figure. He sacrifices much less than his life and he is only a mortal hobbit to start with. Nobody has a relationship with anything like a personal God. The ethic of the Lord of the Rings seems mildly ascetic and spiritual, but more pagan than Catholic. Perhaps Tolkien thought that by deliberately suppressing all the explicit points of Catholic faith, he could make the story pervasively and fundamentally Christian. But he may have succeeded instead in creating a world that fits other religious views even better.

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December 6, 2010

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall was my favorite book of 2010. It is a miraculously sympathetic story about Thomas Cromwell, the man most famous for engineering Henry VIII's divorce, dissolving the English monasteries, making Henry head of the English church, passing legislation requiring everyone to swear that those acts were just, and executing people who failed to swear. The standard punishment was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered--just about the worst way to go. Yet in Wolf Hall, Cromwell emerges as a practical, reasonable man of the world, trying to hold his family, business, and country together in a humane fashion.

Mantel vividly conjures early 16th-century England. The narration is present-tense, and the environment is economically and unpretentiously but sensuously described. The language is consistently modern. Sometimes, we can presume that we are reading translations of dialogues actually conducted in Latin or French; but even the chatter of English commoners is rendered in modern idioms--heightening the feeling of proximity and naturalness. The narration is third person, and Mantel goes to great lengths to avoid using the proper nouns "Thomas" or "Cromwell." "He" is the subject of most sentences, or else the narration slips into "free indirect speech" (with Cromwell's thoughts and style coloring the third-person voice.) At first, the device of avoiding Cromwell's name confused me. There may be four men in the room, but "he" always refers to the hero. I got used to the technique, which allows Mantel to stay very close to her protagonist's consciousness without using the first person singular. (For how could Thomas Cromwell write a 21st-century narrative?)

I think there might be a handful of anachronisms in Wolf Hall. At one point, Cromwell observes that Homer's existence is doubtful, yet my quick scan of recent scholarship suggests that the "Homeric Question" was not raised in Cromwell's time. (E.g., Philip Ford, "Homer in the French Renaissance"; and Filippomaria Pontani, "From Budé to Zenodotus: Homeric Readings in the European Renaissance.") The fact that I could find a couple of slips just reinforces the verisimilitude of this long and wide-ranging story.

Above all, it is fun: full of humor, vivid characters, and dramatic events. Representation affords pleasure, as Aristotle noted two thousand years ago. Difficult feats of representative art can be especially pleasurable, and what could be more difficult than to represent the inner state of a long-dead lawyer best known for judicially murdering St. Thomas More? I enjoy representation most of all when the author treats her subjects with affection, and Mantel is humane toward virtually all her creations, even the ones who hate one another.

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September 1, 2010

Jonathan Lethem, A Fortress of Solitude

I recently read The Fortress of Solitude, a 2003 novel by Jonathan Lethem (having previously read Motherless Brooklyn, a funnier and perhaps tighter book by the same author). Fortress of Solitude has been compared to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: both are heavily fictionalized memoirs that begin in early childhood, when language and memory are still unformed, but emotions are raw and potent. Both focus on a sexualized and delinquent adolescence, deal with questions of national or racial identity, explicitly consider art and aesthetic theory, and end with the protagonist as an author reflecting on his own story.

Joyce's character lives in British-ruled Dublin late in the 1800s, whereas Lethem's hero grows up as one of two white boys in an otherwise African American block and school in the Brooklyn of the 1970s. The local bullies, the protagonist's best friend, and his main girlfriend are all Black, while in Portrait of the Artist the key figures are Irishmen. Joyce's hero debates Shakespeare, whereas Lethem's writes about soul and Motown.

I found some personal resonances. I'm just a couple of years younger than Lethem and his fictional protagonist. My aunt and uncle actually lived not far from his fictional setting. My father, a cousin, and several other people I've known attended the high school where the hero studies. My college was not much different from his. Black-White relations, graffiti, punk, and the condition of bankrupt New York City were peripheral or contextual issues for me, central in the plot of Fortress of Solitude.

It's an ambitious or even risky book. The biggest risk is departing from a fully naturalistic plot: let's just say that some things happen in the novel that could not happen in the real world. I felt it become somewhat slack in the middle, once the hero leaves Brooklyn, but become suddenly taut again at the end when all the plots collide. Like the plot, the prose is ambitious and risky. Consider, for instance, this early paragraph with its evocation of filtered childhood memories, its free indirect discourse (where do Isabel's thoughts begin?), and the use of "ribbon" as a verb:

I think Lethem pulls off a fine novel, although sometimes it's a close-run thing.

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July 1, 2010

W.S. Merwin, "The Drunk in the Furnace"

On the occasion of Merwin's being named Poet Laureate, it's worth taking a look at a 1960 poem that marked his move from formal and referential to vernacular. He also started telling short stories in poems.

The opening phrase, "For a good decade," is casual, American slang: it means, "For a decade at least." But the word "good" also poses a question. Was there a good period after the construction and abandonment of the furnace (which may have poisoned the creek and stripped the valley) and before its occupation by "someone"? Was the furnace better empty than turned into a "bad castle"? I think its re-use is "bad" only from the perspective of the Reverend and his flock of haters, but the question floats.

This poem is no allegory--it resists decoding--but we are entitled to explore associations between things in the text and objects outside. For example, what if the gully is our natural world and the furnace is our industrial exploitation of it? Or what if the abandoned landscape is poetry and the person inside the furnace is managing to get some "twists of smoke" out of the old sounds and forms? (He seems to be comfortable in there, and enjoying himself.)

There are three sets of characters on stage: the person "cosily bolted behind the eye-holed iron / door"; the observers who start in ignorance, become astonished, speak (I think) in the third stanza, and "hate trespassers"; and finally, their "witless offspring" who, at the end "Stand in a row and learn." The guy inside is surely the hero--in fact, there is a vague air of disciples and sermons on mounts. His "spirits" aren't necessarily alcoholic, despite the title. If it's a self-portrait, it's modest but also very bold. When all the old forms have crumbled, it takes brains and hard work to create regular, seven-line stanzas that can make the young "stand agape." At 82, Merwin is still hammering and anvilling away.

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May 26, 2010

naive and sentimental art

These are two works of European Gothic architecture that epitomize the charm of the middle ages.

Bonafatius Bridge, Bruges

Chimères on the roof of Notre Dame de Paris

The Chimères were made and placed on Notre Dame in the 1800s. The Bonafatius Bridge was designed and erected in 1905. There are, of course, thousands of other examples of Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture from all over the world that were built between 1820 and 1950. Big Ben, Yale University, the National Cathedral in Washington, and the Cinderella Castle in Walt Disney World are famous examples. But most people presumably realize that an American cathedral was not actually built in the middle ages. The examples shown above are notable because they can easily fool viewers; one could almost call them "counterfeit Gothic."

I used to regard authenticity as a high value, and I would dismiss a Victorian Gothic structure while admiring even a rather crude work genuinely made before 1200. If that preference is defensible, I think the underlying principle is some version of Schiller's idea of naive and sentimental art. Naive artists do what they think is right or best. They don't see themselves as having a "style" but as making objects that are beautiful and true. In contrast, sentimental artists imitate the styles of other times, admiring their authenticity. After sentimental art arises, naive art becomes impossible.

Thus nineteenth-century European and American architecture is almost all "revivalist" (neogothic, neoclassical, neo-Egyptian, etc.), with the exception of structures that were perceived as functional, such as railway stations and bridges. We see those functional buildings as naive but impressive; we recognize that the Gare du Nord has a style even though its builders just thought they were covering railway tracks. As for the neogothic works, we reject them as sentimental fakes--especially when they infiltrate genuinely medieval places like Bruges or Notre Dame. They may be OK in Orlando, but not in Paris.

But that judgment is contestable. Schiller's distinction between naive and sentimental art is itself a product of a certain time. Placing a high value on authenticity (as he did) is characteristic of Romanticism. One could instead see Victorian Gothic art as very fine, at its best. One could celebrate the spirit of play that sometimes animates it. And one could recognize an authentic impulse in the devout attempt to replicate a defunct culture.

I write all this now because I am reflecting on my visit to the Palácio Nacional da Pena, near Sintra, Portugal, which appears Moorish/Gothic but was really built in 1842-1854. Crowning a steep mountain, it overlooks a real Moorish castle that was itself heavily reconstructed in the same period (deliberately to look like a Romantic ruin).

Pena is fun. Because it was meant for play, everything is designed for maximum entertainment, not for any serious purpose. For instance, there are fortifications meant simply to be walked on for the view; they have no defensive purposes. Inside, concrete walls are painted to look like wood. Even the trees on the mountain's slopes were carefully planted by a monarch of German extraction, to resemble a Teutonic forest.

This kind of example exposes the decadent currents in revivalism, the real pitfalls of inauthenticity. Play is fine; we are homo ludens. Gothic woodcarvers engaged in play when they depicted magical beasts on misericords. But when you tax people to build expensive seats of government, you had better be at least somewhat serious. Pena is furnished in a cluttered, Edwardian style, just as the last royal family of Portugal left it when they fled republican rebels. They deserved to be kicked out of a place so frivolous and so costly. I thought the parts of Pena that remain from a medieval monastery (namely, a small chapel and a cloister) were far more satisfying that the pseudo-Gothic additions, not because the craftsmanship was better in the former, but because excellence requires a degree of seriousness.

My bottom line: fine art needs an authentic motivation, but imitating another culture can be done with authenticity.

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May 17, 2010

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

Zadie Smith finished her first book, White Teeth, while she was an undergraduate. It's much more than a prodigy's tour de force; I think it's a fine and lasting novel.

It is elaborately plotted. The events span the period 1857-1999 and create a complex and deliberate pattern, full of symmetries and recurrent patterns. The whole structure encompasses three extended families (Bangladeshi Muslim, West Indian/British, and Anglo-Jewish) plus numerous well-developed hangers-on. As an example of what geometers would call a "reflection symmetry," the two Bangladeshi twin brothers grow up in the East and the West, each embracing the other's hemisphere, and they both make love to the same woman on the same day, whose child could therefore be either one's. As an example of a "rotational symmetry": at one point, disgruntled teenagers from each family are living with the next. Guns are fired in parallel situations in 1857, 1945, and 1992.

This whole structure could be considered artificial and mannered--especially when everything comes together neatly in the denouement. Smith is interested in no less a matter than Fate, the sense that life is pre-plotted. This seems especially salient in the lives of immigrants from the former colonies. Their lives are symmetrical, recurrent. Fate is also an explicit topic in at least three cultures that Smith explores and counterposes: Islam, Christian fundamentalism, and molecular biology.

I am not as interested in Fate, but I love the elaborate structure for a different reason. As many have noted, Smith is a genuine genius at mimicking and sympathetically portraying diverse people. Who am I to say whether she can see the world like an 85-year-old Jamaican Jehovah's Witness? But I can vouch for her precise evocation of a secular Jewish teenage boy with academic parents living in North London in the 1980s. I was there, and she's got that demographic spot on. All the other characters--who range magnificently across continents, religions, generations, races, and classes--seem entirely plausible.

What happens when you create an artificial structure of events and portray it from myriad perspectives, sympathetically and without the imposition of your own voice? That is a liberal political achievement, because it respects individuality and difference and refuses to boss people around, even in the imagination. It is also an artistic achievement. "For me," Nabokov wrote, "a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm." Nabokov's recipe is: curiosity, which makes you describe all kinds of people and objects; tenderness, which makes you love them all; plus aesthetic pleasure, which arises when the first two are achieved harmoniously and elegantly. Smith is an artist in the true Nabokovian sense.

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March 23, 2010

debating Bleak House

Steven Maloney has a thoughtful post about moral issues in Dickens' Bleak House. He cites two of my posts on the same subject, so this is a bit of a back-and-forth. I would summarize my thoughts about the novel as follows:

1. Mrs. Jellyby illustrates how an author's judgment of a character can be correct even though the same author's choice of that character is problematic. I find Mrs. Jellyby awful, as does Dickens. She is callously unconcerned about her own family because she is obsessed with an obviously foolish charitable scheme in Africa, a place of which she knows nothing. No doubt there were women like that in Dickens' day, when paths to national political and civic leadership were reserved for men. But bourgeois women were also struggling to play useful public roles despite a powerful cult of domesticity. Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch--for example--is a great soul largely squelched by her narrow opportunities for improving the world. So it bothers me that Dickens would choose to portray a woman who should just stop worrying about society and serve her family better.

Steven makes a fair point that a whole range of characters populates Bleak House, and both the men and women exhibit various levels of social and domestic responsibility. The fact that Messrs. Skimpole and Carstone are as irresponsible as Mrs. Jellyby reduces the misogyny of the novel. Yet there is no female character with any capacity for social improvement--despite the terrible needs that Dickens portrays--and that seems a flaw.

The general category that interests me here encompasses fictional characters who have genuine virtues or vices, but whose description reinforces a harmful stereotype.

2. I think that Bleak House is a nationalistic novel, encouraging readers to broaden their sympathies to encompass all Englishmen (while stopping at the coasts of England). That's certainly not my favorite ethical stance, but it's better than a narrower frame or a vacuous and sentimental concern for human beings in general. Such nationalism is a form of solidarity, not just empathy. Building the nation-state as a community of mutual concern was an arduous task that could still fail today. Bleak House (and the liberalism it represents) improved the world.

Steven makes an important observation about Mr. Skimpole, who professes literally not to understand his social obligations. That creates an interesting problem for moral assessment. I think Steven is right that Skimpole is ultimately a charlatan and his kind of non-understanding is either inexcusable or spurious.

I've written much more about the ethical interpretation of literature in Reforming the Humanities: Literature and Ethics from Dante through Modern Times (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

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December 11, 2009

the most enjoyable novel of the 1800s

Having just finished Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868), I want to report that you cannot have any more fun reading a novel from that century. (Which is saying a lot.) It's a detective story with some initial elements that later become commonplace: a country house party with eccentric guests, a missing diamond, incompetent local constables, a lovely young lady, a likable young man, and a genius of a detective who has an absorbing hobby. ("The Great Cuff" cares for roses as Holmes loves his violin and Nero Wolfe, his orchids). All this is described by a Watson-like narrator who has trustworthy motives but less perception than the reader.

But then, since Collins is a fount of plot ideas rather than a derivative writer, the story veers away from what will later become the formula of a drawing room detective story. We are soon reading text by other narrators and following the course of a troubled love story. By the time we're done, we've been to India, heard the lamentable story of man from the colonies whose life is ruined by racist prejudice as well as disease and scandal, and observed a scientific experiment meant to reveal the location of the lost Moonstone.

It is all very suspenseful, and suspense is an explicit topic of the narration. (The experiment at the end, in particular, requires creating suspense for several onlookers.) All this was grist for my sister's mill. In The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt, Caroline Levine argues that Victorian novelists developed new techniques for creating suspense. This was not just a trick or a way of providing entertainment and pleasure. Rather, they put their readers through an experience of suspending judgment and awaiting evidence that was reminiscent of science and that had a similar moral purpose. In the Moonstone, as she notes, the suspense catches the attention of onlookers who have been confused by prejudice and makes them reach the moral truth.

In passing, she explains that Collins was one of the first novelists to complain that reviews gave away too much plot. The same writer who more or less invented the detective novel was also an early critic of "spoilers." Strangely enough, the back cover of my copy of the Moonstone (Barnes & Noble Classics, 1993) gives away a major event that only occurs on page 447 of a 472-page novel. It was probably the worst spoiler that I have ever seen on a book cover, but fortunately I came to believe it was an outright error and so was pleasurably surprised when the event actually occurred.

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October 6, 2009

War and Peace: an ethical interpretation

The moral backbone of Tolstoy's War & Peace seems to be a distinction, or maybe a continuum. Simple, authentic virtue is at one end, and complexity, affectation, and vice are on the other:

simplicity/authenticity/virtue ‹------› complexity/affectation/vice
Peasants, especially Karataev, who "had no attachments, friendship, or love ...; but he loved and lived lovingly with everything that life brought his way, especially other people--not any specific other people, but those who were there before his eyes" (973). Aristocrats, especially salon-goers like Kuragin and Anna Pavlovna Scherer; also rakes and seducers
Russian culture (e.g., Natasha's peasant dance) French civilization (a ball)
Russian intellectual humility: "A Russian is self-assured precisely because he does not know anything and does not want to know anything, because he does not believe it is possible to know anything fully" (639). "... the sweeter it was for [Marya] to think that the wish to understand everything was pride, that it was impossible to understand everything ..." (659). German philosophy and theory; English competence
The country, the regiments, Moscow, the Church The court, the general staff, St. Petersburg, the Masons and philosophers
A military commander as fatalist, merely trying to prevent complicated efforts that might make things worse (Katusov) A military commander as genius, employing grand strategy (Napoleon)
The Russians at Borodino (saving the fatherland) The Russians at Austerlitz (trying to achieve glory)
The "national war" of Russian partisans against the French invaders (1033) A traditional war of armies on battlefields
Peaceful idleness. "Biblical tradition says that absence of work--idleness--was the condition of man's first blessedness before the fall" (488). In "his ability ... to sit motionless and think, doing nothing, Pierre semed something of a mysterious and supreme being" (1014) Pointless activity. "No one in the house ordered so many people around or gave them so much work as Natasha. She could not look at people indifferently. without sending them somewhere" (518). This period leads to her moral crisis.
Silence: "A continual restraint of speech" (1075) Speech, chatter
Fatalism: "this very absence of purpose gave him that full, joyful awareness of freedom which at that time constituted his happiness" (1103) Purposive action, striving
Limitations/deprivation. "A superfluity of life's comforts destroys all the happiness of the satisfaction of one's needs, and ... a greater freedom to choose one's occupation the freedom which in this life was granted him by education, wealth, social position--precisely that freedom made the choice of an occupation insolubly difficult" (1013). "One had to wait and endure" (1015). Apparent freedom, choice. "All unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity" (1060).

At first, I read with great resistance, because this moral scheme seems wrong to me. If you have the choice, shouldn't you be bilingual rather than monolingual, curious rather than ignorant, and ambitious for the good rather than fatalistic and passive?

But then I began to realize that the moral scheme is more complicated. Complexity and artifice are always bad in War and Peace, but they have several alternatives--as symbolized by the fates of the main characters:

If Pierre is the moral heart of the novel, I can find a spirit here to endorse.

(All quotations from the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage, 2007)

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October 5, 2009

worthless art?

Background: According to Richard Dorment in The New York Review, Andy Warhol had a picture of himself taken in a photo booth in 1965. He had the image transferred to acetate plates so that he could turn it into a silkscreen print. However, at the suggestion of a friend, he decided "to send the acetates to a commercial printer for silkscreening." As a result, he never touched the prints, although in 1969 he signed one and dedicated it to his dealer Bruno Bischopfberger. Later, it became Warhol's standard practice to have his works manufactured commercially and then sign them. In 1970, the same self-portrait was reproduced on the cover of Warhol's catalogue raisonné (a book purporting to show all of an artist's authentic work). Presented with this volume, a delighted Warhol signed his name across the cover.

Nowadays, there is an "Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc." that determines whether individual objects are genuine "Warhols." The Board has denied that the self-portrait of 1965 is genuine. "It is the opinion of the authentication board that said work is NOT the work of Andy Warhol, but that said work was signed, dedicated, and dated by him." When the Board has physical control of a disputed work that it rejects, Dorment writes, the work "is mutilated by stamping it in ink on the reverse with the word "DENIED"—thereby rendering the picture unsaleable even if the board later changes its mind."

Dorment launches a fierce attack on the Board. But how can its actions make objects "worthless"? If you think a Warhol is a striking image that would enliven your wall, you can buy one and prize it even if the back has been stamped "DENIED." In fact, you can make your own version of this perfectly reproducible object and it will be as striking as the one Warhol had manufactured in 1965.

If you think a Warhol has value because the physical object is directly connected to the late artist of that name, the connection that you prize is real (or not) regardless of what the Authentication Board says.

If you bought a Warhol at auction, you may fear that the "DENIED" stamp will cause its resale value to plummet. But the resale value is just a function of what other people think about the object. Why should you substitute their opinion for yours?

For myself, I would much rather have a Warhol with a DENIED stamp applied by a Pynchonesque "Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc." To me, the stamp would not be a "mutiliation" of the original object, but a consummation of the original concept. In fact, if a DENIED Warhol were available for cheap, I might buy it on the bet that those stamps will become priceless.

The conceptual art of Duchamp and Warhol made theoretical points that really couldn't have been argued in prose. These two forced us to acknowledge that a work of art is a physical object, basically like a toaster; and the magical aura that we associate with it because it was hand-made by a genius is a bit of a joke. They played with use-value, market-value, authenticity, creativity, originality, fame, and mechanical reproduction. I think their points, having been made, can now be pretty much left behind. Beautifully crafted individual objects remain worth making and appreciating. But if you're going to collect Warhols, I don't think you can be too upset if some officials dispute their authenticity. This whole business requires a sense of humor.

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July 20, 2009

the irony of Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall was not a major artist, in my opinion. He was a decorative illustrator who developed a distinctive and memorable overall style without producing any particularly memorable works. As Richard Dorment wrote recently in the New York Review, we value Chagall mainly for what he remembered and depicted. He painted nostalgic fantasies of the Eastern European Jewish world that was ruthlessly destroyed--along with almost all of its people--during his lifetime. In my view, Chagall's art, his biography, and the cataclysm around him combine to make something worthy of space on museum walls.

The irony is that Chagall--a poor kid from a provincial backwater--had the privilege of joining two sophisticated modernist movements: Cubism in Paris and then Suprematism in Moscow. (The Suprematists are most famous for Kasimir Malevich's "Black Quadrilateral on White," the first completely abstract painting.)

The Cubists and the Suprematists were committed to the great modernist project of transcending arbitrariness. When a traditional painter used a Renaissance style to depict the Virgin Mary in order to illustrate Catholic ideas, the modernist saw layers of arbitrariness. They asked: Why Mary? Why Catholicism? Why a vanishing point in the middle of the rectangular canvass? None of these questions had answers that would really count unless one belonged to the culture of the artist, sharing his biases and beliefs. One could appreciate such art from a cultural distance--but only because of its emotion and its form. So why not strip art down to those two essentials? Malevich wrote: "Suprematism is the rediscovery of pure art that, in the course of time, had become obscured by the accumulation of 'things.' ... The new art of Suprematism ... has produced new forms and form relationships by giving external expression to pictorial feeling."

Chagall didn't paint that way, and it is possible that he did not even understand these ideas. Maybe he would fail an art history exam about the work of the masters whom he knew personally. Richard Dorment says so: "And just as he had assimilated Cubist form without, I think, necessarily understanding it, so now he appropriated Suprematist style without having the slightest idea that for Malevich abstraction was a means toward the elimination of the self in order to achieve a higher level of spiritual experience. Chagall wasn't an explorer and he wasn't an intellectual."

Right, but he was a witness with a memory, and we can appreciate his painted memoirs for what they depict. Meanwhile, Malevich is not interesting or important because of his monochrome rectangles. He is important because he created them, along with radical manifestos, on the eve of the Soviet Revolution. In other words, his pictures belong to an interesting story that also involves his biography and the historical context. If all art--including High Modernism--is contextual, contingent, embedded, narrative, immanent, and local--then it's hardly an accusation to say that Chagall illustrated his own past. Malevich did the same thing, unwittingly. He illustrated the moment of revolutionary ferment around 1914. The question is the quality of Chagall's illustrations (and about that, I must say I have mixed feelings).

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July 3, 2009

Ward Just, City of Fear

I've taken a break recently from War and Peace (which is heavy to carry on planes), to read the much slimmer war novel City of Fear by Ward Just. This was my third Just novel, the others being Echo House and Forgetfulness. These three excellent books share some common themes. Just's big story is the evolution of official Washington from Kennedy's Camelot to the Reagan Era. The capital changes from a Cold War city--whose leaders were morally troubling but tough, ideological men on the federal payroll as soldiers, politicians, and spies--into a city of fixers: corporate lawyers who instead of litigating make phone calls and pull strings on behalf of clients. The main decline takes place during the Vietnam War, which Just covered and which is clearly a moral linchpin for him. Often the shift occurs within families, creating tensions between Cold-Warrior fathers and fixer sons. The fathers have Midwestern roots, usually in industrial Wisconsin or Downstate Illinois. The Midwest stands for America, in contrast to the "federal city"--which, however, Just evidently loves. Certain parts of DC receive particularly affectionate attention in his pages, especially a corner of Georgetown north of Q and east of Wisconsin that becomes a lofty refuge for several of his characters. Vietnam and France, where the author lives today, also figure repeatedly.

I have emphasized the commonalities, but these are wonderfully diverse novels, each intricately constructed even though a plot summary would retell a lot less action than you'd expect in a fictional book about spies and wars. (Marriages and father/son relations are central.) The narration involves frequent flashbacks, stories within stories, and ruminations told with implied indirect discourse. Sometimes I think the structure is contrived as well as simply complex, as when a character in City of Fear looks up from a conversation to see a relevant event playing on the TV. Then again, coincidences happen--especially to people near the center of power in media-saturated environments. Events really do revolve around them.

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April 21, 2009

Juan Sanchez Cotán

This is a remarkable painting that I saw in the San Diego Museum of Art last week. I like it for two reasons that often seem to apply to great works.

First, it's good in itself. If you had no idea where it came from, you might guess that it's a nineteenth-century American work, or possibly even a contemporary painting based on a photograph. Regardless, you might appreciate the striking composition, with a few large items displayed in an asymmetrical curve before a black background--the melon slice and cucumber extending into our space. You might also admire the realism of the fruit contrasted with the almost abstract frame.

But then you find out that it was painted in 1602 by a rather mysterious figure named Juan Sanchez Cotán. Before Cotán, no one had painted fruit or other inanimate objects by themselves--only as details in larger works. Cotán painted several "still life" paintings of fruit around 1600, and then entered a Carthusian monastery where he painted only religious works until his early death. With his fruits and vegetables, Cotán launched a genre that remained very important for Dutch genre painters in the 17th century, for impressionists and post-impressionists, and then for Cubists and other high modernists. Representing vegetables on a table became a means of exploring space and light, of commenting on art, and of making subtle points about affluence and decay.

Thus Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber has qualities that you cannot infer from the image alone. For instance, we can call it "original" and "influential" because we know what comes before and after in the history of art.

Implication: If someone painted exactly the same picture today (whether or not he copied the original), it would be a different work of art with an entirely different significance from Cotán's painting. Borges explored the same idea in "Pierre Renard, Author of the Quixote." The fictional Renard writes passages of Don Quixote verbatim without consulting the original book, thereby creating a work that is identical to Cervantes' masterpiece in terms of the letters on the page, but entirely different in value and purpose.

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April 16, 2009

Kipling: understanding and control

I just finished Kim, which was my favorite novel when I was 12 years old. I wanted then to be Kim, a boy spy in the Orient. Later, I would have avoided the book as imperialistic and juvenile. But a favorable word by Pankaj Mishra sent me back to it. It is a bit of a "Boy's Own" adventure, and it is certainly imperialistic--in an interesting way. It is also finely constructed, challenging, and beautiful to read.

I was attentive to the different ways that Kipling's characters understand or fail to understand cultures other than their own. Almost the full possible spectrum of such understanding is represented. Right at the beginning, we meet the English curator of the museum in Lahore, a man learned in the languages and religions of South Asia. He derives some of his knowledge from "books French and German, with photographs and reproductions," drawing on the "labours of European scholars" accumulated over at least a century. (That body of work is a remarkable achievement.) But the curator also recognizes an old beggar as "no mere bead-telling mendicant, but a scholar of parts," and engages the Lama in a respectful conversation, from which he continues to learn.

In Chapter 4, a "dark, sallowish District Superintendant of Police" speaks fluent Hindi or Urdu and wittily urges a woman to veil herself--enforcing not a British law but a local custom. She observes, "These be the sort to oversee justice. They know the land and the customs of the land. The others, all new from Europe, suckled by white woman and learning our tongues from books, are worse than pestilence." In Chapter 11, we learn that the same policeman is actually a Government spy, "not less than the greatest" agent in the Secret Service. What makes him effective is his deep affinity for his Hindu subjects.

To control requires understanding and respect. It changes the ones who rule as well as those whom they govern. The two cultures grow more alike, either enriching or adulterating themselves (depending on your perspective and the way the merger turns out). Some Europeans in Kim do not understand this dynamic. For instance, the Rev. Bennett says, "My experience is that one can never fathom the Oriental mind." He can't even understand when Kim, in Urdu, calls him "the thin fool who looks like a camel." To misunderstand is to lack control, as the Russian and French spies find to their humiliation near the end. They believe they can "deal with Orientals," but they utterly misread the people around them.

And then there is the lama, who doesn't wish to understand because he doesn't want to rule. "It was noticeable that the lama never demanded any details of life at St. Xavier's, nor showed the faintest curiosity as to the manners and customs of the Sahibs." As a result, the Europeans affect him not at all. (Even the spectacles that the curator gives him never change the way he sees the world.)

So the imperialism that Kim describes and--presumably--celebrates is a process of careful, respectful interpretation and learning. It's not surprising that the head of the Royal Ethnographic Survey is also the chief spy for Britain, or that an Anglified Bengali should wish to use charms and to describe them in scientific papers for the Royal Society. This "Babu" is, in fact, the perfect example of an imperialistic mix, with his invocations to Herbert Spencer as a prophet of karma, his Latin tags, and his brilliant mimicry of diverse Indians.

Kipling himself spoke Hindi before English, and his father was the curator of the Lahore Museum. So Kipling was the kind of imperialist he celebrated. What he overlooked was the economic exploitation essential to the British Raj. The British didn't just "oversee justice"; they also made the rules to maximize their profit. The only hint of that fact in the novel is a complaint that the Babu makes when he pretends to be drunk in order to manipulate enemy spies. He is actually a British spy, despised in all his disguises. Yet perhaps Kipling faintly understands that the Babu's complaint is just.

For better and for worse, the United States has never produced many people who yearn to understand, love, and control foreign countries. We intervene often enough, but we tend to beat a quick retreat when we find distant lands impossible to understand or to master. There have been fine American scholars of distant cultures; but they are rarely the same Americans who have invaded and governed such places. Today, after the new Counterinsurgency Manual and the shift in US tactics, American soldiers are busy learning Arabic and Pashto. I am not sure that their knowledge will last or accumulate, nor that it is motivated by the kind of love, affinity, and urge to possess that was so common among Anglo-Indians. I suppose the strongest example of real American "imperialism" is domestic; white Americans have periodically immersed themselves in minority cultures and have thereby helped to change and control them.

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March 23, 2009

an accelerating cascade of pearls (on Galileo and Tintoretto)

This is a detail of Tintoretto's "Tarquin and Lucretia" (1578-1580), which belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago but is now in Boston for the astounding exhibition entitled "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice." (Probably never before have so many comparable paintings by these competitors been hung together.)

In the detail, pearls are strewn across Lucretia's clothes; Tarquin has just broken the strand. The spheres are caught on their way downward, spaced at growing intervals.

People have always known that objects move, and have always depicted motion in still images--since the ancient cave paintings. But I think Tintoretto's painting may reflect a new way of thinking about motion and space. The image represents a precise instant at which each pearl would occupy a different and predictable location because of the mathematical laws of nature. The objects are frozen, but their locations allow us to infer their movement.

Galileo revolutionized science by claiming that nature was a book written in the language of mathematics. Tintoretto painted Galileo's portrait from life in 1605-7, which shows that the two geniuses knew each other. By 1638, Galileo had proved (either in a real experiment on the Tower of Pisa, or in a thought-experiment) that objects of different weights would fall at the same accelerating rate. And forty years later, Tintoretto was interested enough in this Galilean conception of time and space that he painted pearls accelerating down Lucretia's chest. It was another thought-experiment.

In Tiepolo's "St. Dominic Instituting the Rosary" (1737-9), the rosary itself plummets at high speed from an enormous sky painted on the ceiling of the Gesuati Church in Venice. That is an excellent example of baroque theatricality, but not a unique one. By then, Europeans automatically thought of motion in Galilean terms. Tintoretto was perhaps the first to paint that way.

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March 16, 2009

Shih Chieh Huang

Mr. Huang is a youngish artist who uses cheap, discarded objects (soda bottles, baggies) and electronic components such as motion-detectors, LEDs, and fans to create objects that seem animal. My family and I saw his installation at RISD this weekend. It was like a whimsical aquarium; anemone-like creatures on the floor deflated their plastic bags shyly when you walked near them, and the big jelly-fish-like thing in the middle turned to watch you with its human eyes. It all sounds like something that Pixar or Disney would create. I respect their talents, but Huang is a studio artist rather than an entertainer, and I think the difference has to do with the following factors. He has a sense of humor but doesn't play for laughs. His use of banal waste products to make lovely organic objects stimulates subtle ideas about nature and human action without driving home an obvious point. He leaves the wiring and electronic gadgets unconcealed; there's no pretense to being something other than an art installation. Most important, Huang is a fine and careful individual craftsman. My little daughter and I were inspired to make something somewhat similar when we got home, and I developed a sense of how remarkably hard it would be to copy a Huang.

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February 3, 2009

Aert de Gelder, "Rest on the Flight to Egypt"

This painting, from about 1690, is one of my favorites in our new home town of Boston. (It's in the Museum of Fine Arts.) The "Rest on the Flight to Egypt" is an old subject for paintings, going back to the middle ages. It illustrates Matthew 2:12-14:

For some reason that I don't know, artists have (for many centuries) chosen to depict the little family pausing on the way to Egypt. That makes an acceptable subject for a Protestant, because it's a "history painting"--an illustration of something that really happened, according to the Bible. In contrast, a painting of the "Holy Family" or the "Virgin and Child with Saints" would be problematic from a Protestant perspective. Those extremely common subjects developed as Orthodox and Catholic devotional objects, as icons or stimuli to prayer and meditation. For Protestants, they verge on "graven images."

De Gelder (a student of Rembrandt) was a Protestant, but he has found a way here to imitate a "Holy Family" or a "Madonna and Child with Saint." Joseph resembles St. Jerome in a painting of a sacra conversazione. And (as my wife Laura notes) the Madonna's halo has migrated onto Mary's extraordinary circular, gold-rimmed hat.

I take no sides in the Protestant/Catholic debate about religious images. But I think the shift from a Madonna and Child to a history painting has produced wonderful effects in this particular work. Since the baby is not an object of veneration, he can act like a real infant--snuggling down into his mother's lap instead of being displayed upright. Joseph reads a grown-up book, presumably for the edification of the adults in the family--but he pauses to gaze affectionately at his newborn (holding his place with his finger). It's an affectionate representation of a human family, with subtle echoes of the grand Catholic tradition.

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December 31, 2008

The Winter's Tale

Reading The Winter's Tale this week reinforced my sense that Shakespeare, in his last years as a playwright, was worried about the power of a dramatist to influence people's passions and make them believe falsehoods. In both The Winter's Tale (1610-11) and The Tempest (1611-12), this power is seen as political and as morally ambiguous. The issues that concern Shakespeare remain alive today, although now the medium that is most problematic is film rather than live theater.

The Winter's Tale has a fantastical plot. It's a fairy-tale, involving an abandoned and miraculously rediscovered princess, a talking statue, and even a bear that appears without warning and devours a significant character. Whereas Shakespeare took most of his plots from purported works of history, this one was obviously a fiction--both because it was unbelievable and because the original authors were recent Englishmen. Only The Tempest belongs as clearly to the category of fiction.

One problem with telling a fictional story in an engaging way is that you thereby make people believe what is not true. This power has often made moralists uncomfortable. According to Plutarch, when the very first tragedies were performed, Solon attended and asked Thespis, the first playwright, "if he was not ashamed to tell so many lies before such a number of people."

In Shakespeare's time, Sir Phillip Sidney defended fiction on the ground that it was not the author's intention to deceive. "The poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false." As author of Astrophel and Stella, Sidney was not a liar because he could count on his readers not to believe the plot. But in the midst of an effective theatrical performance, the audience will suspend disbelief. It is the playwright's goal to make that happen.

Apart from the moral disadvantage of making people believe in lies, there's also the practical problem of overcoming their skepticism and making a play "work." Shakespeare was surely aware of the latter challenge. Throughout The Winter's Tale, characters are incredulous about what they see. One important scene is not enacted but rather narrated by minor characters, one of whom says, "this news which is called true is so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion." There is even a comic subplot about a trickster, Autolycus, who sells fantastical tales to rustic fools:

Shakespeare is aware that his plot is unbelievable, yet he also knows that an audience will be absorbed in his fairy tale. Even today, we care about the characters and hope for a happy ending as long as the curtain is up. That is a power akin to magic.

Some of the events of the play are sheer accidents. But several are contrived by characters who work behind the scenes. Paulina, above all, is an orchestrator of events. It is because of her art (not by magic or coincidence) that Hermione vanishes for 16 years and reappears at a dramatic moment. Paulina is probably responsible, too, for Hermione's rather disturbing appearance to her husband as a ghost who prophesies his death (III.3.18ff). If Paulina provides lines for the real Hermione to recite to her spouse, then Paulina is a chillingly effective playwright. She is also a cause of Perdita's banishment, since she brings the baby before the king as a kind of tableau that is supposed to draw his sympathy. That drama fails, but the final tableau that she stages (with the talking statue) is a success, both dramatically and morally.

Paulina is a teller of lies--for instance, she announces falsely that Hermione is dead--but she is also a very blunt teller of truth. For instance, although everyone else uses tactful euphemisms for death and murder, Paulina is starkly literal:

Paulina's mixing of blunt fact with elaborately staged fiction may be problematic, in Shakespeare's eyes. Perdita is a straightforwardly good character, and she disdains even carnations because they mix human art with nature (IV.4.82).

Paulina, like Prospero in The Tempest, is a playwright within the play. Both characters are on the side of right or justice. But both are disturbing figures who exploit minor characters, have forceful personalities, and go to elaborate lengths to plan cathartic dramas across long spans of time. I wonder whether Shakespeare considered his own art equally disturbing and wished to be more like the simple and straightforward daughters in these two plays.

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October 20, 2008

the politics of Wind in the Willows

I recently read Kenneth Grahame's classic to my 9-year-old. As you may remember, Toad is the heir to the local manor and fortune and the one character in the neighborhood with an advanced education. He begins as an awful person--arrogant, selfish, pretentious, wasteful, lazy, and a menace on the road. He takes some hard knocks and finally learns to be a good squire. His transformation is shown by two major signs: his behavior at a banquet in his own Hall, and his friendships. Whereas in the bad old days Toad used to make risibly arrogant speeches at dinner parties, the new Toad, "by pressing delicacies on his guests, by topical small talk, and by earnest inquiries after members of their families not yet old enough to appear at social functions, managed to convey that this dinner was being run on strictly conventional lines." Meanwhile, he shows genuine respect and admiration for his three main friends--the acknowledged best of whom, Mr Badger, speaks with a notably uneducated accent and dresses roughly.

(As for Toad's friend Mole--he is a wonderful caricature of a provincial middle-class suburbanite. "On the walls [of his garden] hung wire baskets with ferns in them, alternating with brackets carrying plaster statuary--Garibaldi, and the infant Samuel, and Queen Victoria, and other heroes of modern Italy.")

This is a conservative vision. No one gains any rights vis-à-vis Mr. Toad. He is not compelled to act better, nor to renounce any of his wealth or prestige. He isn't (for example) taxed to fund better education for the myriad little rabbits who live in the Wild Wood. Instead, he helps to restore the ancient social equilibrium by acting responsibly and generously and thereby winning the respect of the neighborhood.

It's not my ideal. I'm glad the real Mr. Toads of England had to pay inheritance taxes, and the real Moles and Rats got subsidized access to higher education. But The Wind in the Willows has a moral core as well as charm. In our era of billionaire celebrity heiresses, we could do worse.

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October 1, 2008

nationalism as the enlargement of human sympathy

I finished Bleak House last night. It's such an enormous and complex novel that one could talk or write about it forever. But I have a job. So I'll just offer one thought about Dickens' moral imagination.

I read Bleak House as nationalistic. Of the many dozens of characters, I believe only one is foreign: the French maid Hortense. She is completely wicked and a Francophobe caricature with her ridiculous accent and irrational passions. A more important character, Mrs Jellyby, foolishly engages in charity work overseas while neglecting her own English household and community. In the end, she is "disappointed in Borrioboola-Gha, which [turns] out a failure in consequence of the king of Borrioboola wanting to sell everybody--who survived the climate--for rum." The model of British manhood, Allan Woodcourt, is forced by economic necessity to travel abroad, where he experiences a "terrible shipwreck over in those East Indian seas." He plays the hero in this crisis and "saves many lives"--presumably British lives.

This drawing of boundaries and discounting of outsiders is unappealing. But Dickens may also be skeptical about the wisdom of trying to help people whom one doesn't know. (This is Esther Summerson's explicit view, and she is the moral center of the novel.) The nationalism of the novel is not by any means imperialistic. It is isolationist, and perhaps driven by modesty.

Besides, the drawing of boundaries can mean an enlargement rather than a restriction of one's moral commitments. Bleak House dramatizes the interconnections among British people. One could cite literally hundreds of examples, but one stark one [warning: plot spoiler coming] is the death of Lady Dedlock. She has been the most fashionable and elegant aristocrat in the land, but she expires in a pauper's graveyard dressed in the clothes of a peasant whose baby had died from preventable disease. Her body is literally mistaken for that of someone at the opposite end of the social spectrum.

The leading idea of the novel is that all British subjects are one family and they must take care of one another. This is nationalism as mutual responsibility. It's not a state-centered nationalism that favors political leaders or big bureaucratic programs. In fact, Bleak House seems disturbingly cynical about Parliament and the government as possible sources of reform. Instead, the ideology (if there is a single ideology in this polyphonic book) is one of non-fundamentalist Christian solidarity. That's not my favorite ideal for our times--but we'd be better off if we had it.

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August 24, 2008

the moral evaluation of literary characters

I'm on p. 521 of Dickens' Bleak House--hardly past half-way--but so far Mrs Jelleby is proving to be a bad person. Like many of my friends (like me, in fact) she spends most of her days reading and writing messages regarding what she calls a "public project"--in her case, the settlement of poor British families on the left bank of the River Niger at the ridiculously named location of Borrioboola-Gha. Meanwhile, her own small children are filthy, her clothes are disgraceful, her household is bankrupt, her neglected husband is (as we would say) clinically depressed, and she is casually cruel to her adolescent daughter Caddy. Caddy finds a man who pays some attention to her, but Mrs Jellyby is completely uninterested in the wedding and marriage:

Mrs Jellyby's friends dominate the wedding breakfast and are "all devoted to public projects only." They have no interest in Caddy or even in one another's social schemes; each is entirely self-centered.

Within the imaginary world of Bleak House, Mrs Jellyby is bad, and her moral flaws should provoke some reflection in the rest of us--especially those of us who spend too much time sending emails about distant projects. The evident alternative is Esther Summerson, a model housekeeper who cares lovingly for her friends and relatives and refuses to interfere with distant strangers' lives on the ground "that I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated ...; that I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others ..."

Fair enough, but we could also ask why Dickens decided to depict Mrs Jellyby instead of a different kind of person, for instance, a man who was so consumed with social reform that he neglected his spouse, a woman who successfully balanced public and private responsibilities, or a woman, like Dorothea Brooke, who yearned for a public role but instead devoted her life to the private service of men. Both the intention and the likely consequences of Dickens' portrait are to suppress the public role of women.

The general point I'd like to propose is this: the moral assessment of literary characters (lately returned to respectability by theorists like Amanda Anderson) requires two stages of analysis. First one decides whether a character is good or bad--or partly both--within the world of a fiction. And then one asks whether the author was right to choose to create that character instead of others.

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August 4, 2008

an introduction to Prague

Prague from Hradčanská (2)I think few people really enjoy visits to beautiful old places, and they're not helped by most guide books and tours, which just attach dates, artists' names, and styles to the objects on view. Guides also tell anecdotes about events that happened to occur where one is standing. The result is history as one thing after another, which is fundamentally tedious. Much more compelling is some kind of explanation that presents works as intentional efforts to solve problems within their cultural contexts.

I am unqualified to explain Prague in those terms. I don't speak the language, haven't read most of the acknowledged classics of the literature, and have only spent a total of 14 days there. But this is a blog, so qualifications are waived. Here is my brief introduction to the city, based on four of its historical figures and their contexts.

1. Emperor Charles IV (1316-1378)

To imagine the Prague of 1350, think of the high middle ages: of ladies in tall conical hats, troubadours, sophisticated theologians. Also remember plague victims and open sewers; but it's a mistake to think of those times as ignorant and backward (as in Steve Martin's "Theodoric of York" skit). Progress was never linear or uniform; life was probably better in Central Europe in 1350 than in 1640, during the wars of religion. Certainly, the culture was highly sophisticated and developed. Looking out over the city, one can pick out the medieval parts (mixed with some modern imitations) by looking for angular spires, pointed arches, and steep triangular roofs. IMG_0193

Prague became the capital of the whole of central Europe whenever the local monarch was elected Holy Roman Emperor, which happened on several occasions over the centuries. (Its status as an occasional capital helps to explain its magnificence.) When Charles IV was elected, he became the highest figure in the vast hierarchical system called feudalism. Each piece of land was assigned simultaneously to serfs, a local lord, a major lord, often a king, and the emperor; and each of these had different rights and duties. The whole system was circumscribed by law; and the feudal law reflected general principles that could also be discerned in ecclesiastical law, municipal law, and even the rules of chivalry and courtly love. The same way of thinking was also evident in theology, which Charles IV studied at the great university of Paris as a youth. Medieval Europeans loved hierarchies and patterns generated by distinctions and rules; but within each cell of a pattern, they welcomed improvisation and elaboration. A clear illustration is a Gothic church, with its regular pointed arches and windows, each heavily and uniquely decorated. All of this took work: one intentionally brought diversity into order and then embellished the results.

Charles IV personally made Prague a city of greater sophistication, elaboration, and order by founding the university that bears his name and commissioning major works of architecture. To explore his city, one could climb the medieval Jindřišská gate tower and look for other Gothic tours and spires, walk through Old Town Square with the Týn Church and famous clock, visit the university and bridge both named for Charles as their founder, and ascend to the Royal Castle, within which is St. Vitus Cathedral--substantially built under Charles' patronage by a great Gothic master, Peter Parler.

The Cathedral is good place to think about the Czech people and what has defined them, in Charles' day and thereafter. One answer emphasizes the Slavic side. Czechs were originally a group of Slavs not sharply differentiated from other Slavs. (It is the human condition to belong to groups not sharply distinct from others.) Today their language is defined by dictionaries and grammars and is different from Slovak or Polish. In the middle ages, Bohemia was already a province, along with the other Czech province of Moravia. It had a quasi-mythical founding figure, "good" king Wenceslas (Vaclav; pronounced "vatzlav") who was expected to return, like Arthur, to serve his people. Thus Czechs were of the tribe of Vaclav. That was also Charles' given name, before he ascended to the imperial throne, when he became Karel/Karl/Carolus. But the population he ruled included many who spoke German or Yiddish. That remained the case in Bohemia until 1948. Thus another answer is: Czechs were a multi-ethnic people in a melting pot. Charles himself spoke German and Czech along with Latin, French, and Italian (and all five languages have had deep impact in Prague).

2. Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612)

Rudolf held the same offices as Charles, plus others. He was a Hapsburg, thus of German extraction, although he too spoke several languages. The political system he oversaw was still feudal; serfs on huge estates paid for the massive and numerous Renaissance and baroque palaces that crown Hradčany hill. But this was the beginning of the age of absolutism. Although Rudolf was not an absolute monarch like Louis XIV somewhat later on, he had more power and a more effective bureaucracy than Charles IV had possessed at the high point of feudalism.

We are now in the Renaissance, whose definition is the recovery of Greco-Roman culture. At the peak of the Italian Renaissance, the result is simplicity, clarity, and still perfection. A Madonna by Raphael is an idealized woman in a peaceful and transparent three-dimensional space, often framed by classical architecture. But the recovery of ancient civilization also dredged up all kinds of odd and esoteric ideas and practices: magic, religious cults, speculative philosophies, and strange and deliberately distorted works of art. Renaissance Europeans were always interested in the eccentric side of the ancient world, but this interest rose in Rudolf's time and especially in his own circle. He made his court the world's center for occult and cabalistic studies, collected a huge museum of strange objects, and patronized the style of art we call Mannerism. This style deliberately eschewed clarity and perfection and made an issue out of the artist's personal style ("maniera")--the odder the better. Mannerist architects played with the classical rules, using traditional elements of Ionic or Corinthian orders but deliberately turning them backwards or upside-down.

IMG_0270Magic and the occult were not yet distinguished from science. Rudolf brought both Kepler and Brahe to Prague and made it the greatest scientific center of the age. We could see his era as a struggle (not perhaps fully conscious) between the transparent and the secretive, and between classical norms and personal eccentricities.

It would be hard to conduct a walking tour of Rudolf's Prague, since he locked himself in his castle to avoid assassins; and not much other Renaissance architecture survives. Better to look out of the Castle windows at the subjects' houses below. There is also some important Mannerist art in the Sternberg Palace.

Rudolf provides a good opportunity to think about religion. In Charles IV's day, all of Europe north of the Alps was Catholic, with the exception of the Jewish ghettos, of which Prague's was particularly important. But the Protestant Reformation came especially early and strongly to Bohemia, thanks to the influence of the pre-Protestant religious reformer Jan Huss. During Rudolf's reign, as religious wars raged in France and the Low Countries, tensions simmered in Prague. Everyone had to take a side and could easily be burned at the stake for taking the wrong one--unless one were the Emperor. Rudolf seemed neutral or perhaps committed to his own strange and unorthodox beliefs. After he died, religious conflict dominated Central Europe and may have killed 20 percent of the whole population. The Thirty Years War ended with Bohemia under Austrian rule and mandatory Catholicism.

III. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (in Prague 1786-9)

Mozart was not a Czech; he was a German-speaking subject of the Austrian Empire. But he did some of his most important work in Prague and especially liked the city. He is a representative figure from an era in which Prague was a provincial Austrian capital and German was the only official language.

Mozart found a Baroque city. There had been an enormous investment in religious art and architecture as the authorities tried to institutionalize Catholicism after 1648. They naturally commissioned Baroque works, that being the style of the era. Baroque artists were learned in the classical orders, but they changed them to make them dynamic and dramatic. Every surface (pilaster, column, lintel, frieze, and cornice) might be bent and decorated. Buildings were situated for theatrical effect, emerging surprisingly from crowded streets or looming dramatically above. Paintings and statues were likewise situated within and around buildings for dramatic impact.

Baroque is an art of ornament. The real structure of an object is concealed with embellishments. Windows are hidden to allow the light to play mysteriously on painted surfaces. In its final phase, rococo, the ornament becomes the art. Gilt frames break loose from paintings and flow all over walls in abstract, plantlike forms.

Rococo seemed to reflect the artifice and inauthenticity of a culture dominated by feudalism and Catholicism, when the most sophisticated people (such as Mozart) were republicans and free-thinkers. So rococo contended against at least two major alternatives: neoclassicism and romanticism. Mozart dramatically reduced the ornamentation typical in Baroque music; instead, he combined several musical themes in related keys to build ordered and transparent musical structures. Don Giovanni, the transcendent example of his classical style, was first performed at the Neoclassical Estates Theater in Prague.

This was a city, then of Baroque theatrical propaganda versus Enlightenment and Neoclassicism; of absolutist feudalism and revolutionary thinking; of artifice and critique.

IV. Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Kafka was an unobservant Jew, a Czechoslovak citizen with a Czech name who spoke German, and a potential victim of the German State if he hadn't died prematurely. He was alienated, skeptical, detached. These are hallmarks of modernism, of which Prague was a major center. It was the only place in the world where Cubist buildings were constructed (see Josef Gočár's Cubist House of the Black Madonna with Gothic spires in the distance); and it was the seedbed of literary theory. IMG_0278

One could contrast Kafka to the highly talented and abidingly popular Czech artist Alfons Mucha (1860-1939). Mucha was a Czech nationalist and a Slavophile (although not at all antisemitic). He thought that the Czech people had an essential character that could be celebrated in art. The way to celebrate it was to illustrate dramatic episodes of Czech history in a realistic yet idealized style. His illustrations decorate, for example, the Municipal House, a shrine to Czech culture and language that was deliberately built at the head of Na Prikope street--am Graben to Kafka--which was the center of Prague's German-speaking cafe and theatrical life. In contrast to Mucha, Kafka didn't fit in, didn't believe in the essential character of any nation, couldn't complete any public project, and didn't think that he could or should tell straightforward stories. I emphasize the negative, but of course he invented some of the greatest stories of our age.

A day devoted to Kafka might begin with the old Jewish synagogues, because he was interested in his heritage and the Prague-Jewish traditions of Cabala. It is then possible to see some of his old cafes, plus many important Cubist and other modernist buildings. There is even the world's only Cubist lamppost on Wenceslas Square.

Reading the City

A final photo posted below shows a Gothic arch from the Middle Ages still embedded in a house that was given a Baroque facade in the eighteenth century, behind a modern commercial sign in the new international language of English, and a guy on a cell phone. This is Prague, endlessly fun to interpret if one begins to learn its codes.


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June 16, 2008

the ethics of liking a fictional character

(Waltham, Mass.) I have mentioned before that Middlemarch is my favorite book. Specifically, I am fond of Dorothea Brooke, its heroine. I like her; I want her to succeed and be happy. Allowing for the fact that she is a fictional character, I care about her.

Such feelings represent moral choices. Caring about someone is less important when that person happens to be fictional, but novels are at least good tests of judgment. Thus I am interested in whether I am right to care about the elder Miss Brooke. It seems to me that George Eliot was also especially fond of her heroine, and one could ask whether that was an ethical stance. Or, to put the question differently, was Eliot right to pull together a set of traits into one fictional person and describe that person in such a way as to make us like her?

The traits that seem especially problematic are Dorothea's beauty, her high birth, and her youth. She is a young woman from the very highest social stratum in the hierarchical community of Middlemarch, surpassed by no one in rank. She is consistently described as beautiful, not only by other characters, but also by the narrator. In fact, these are the very first lines of Chapter One:

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible,--or from one of our elder poets,--in a paragraph of to-day’s newspaper. She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense.

This introduction contains no physical detail, in contrast to the portrayals of other characters in the same novel, such as Rosamond and Ladislaw. The simple fact of Dorothea's beauty is not complicated by the mention of any particular form of beauty that a reader might happen not to like.

We have a tendency, I think, to want beautiful and high-born but lonely young ladies to live happily ever after. When we were young, we heard a lot of stories about princesses. We expect a princess to become happy by uniting with a young and attractive man; and whether that will happen to Dorothea is a suspenseful question in Middlemarch.

If we are prone to admire and like Dorothea because she is beautiful, Eliot complicates matters in three ways. First, she produces a second beautiful young woman in need of a husband, but this one is bad and thoroughly unlikable. (At least, it is very challenging to see things from Rosamond's perspective, as perhaps we should try to do.) Second, in Mary Garth, Eliot creates a deeply appealing young female character who, we are told, is simply plain. Third, Eliot makes Dorothea not only beautiful, but also "clever" and good.

Evidently, beauty does not guarantee goodness, nor vice-versa; yet several people in Middlemarch think that Dorothea's appearance and quality of voice manifest or reflect her inner character. This seems to be a kind of pathetic fallacy: people attribute virtues to her face, body, and voice as poets sometimes do to flowers or stars. But of course the characters who admire Dorothea's appearance as a manifestation of her soul may be right, within the world that Eliot has created in Middlemarch. Or perhaps character and appearance really are linked. Rosamond, for instance, could not be the same kind of person if she were less pretty.

I presume that it is right to like someone for being good, but it is not right to like someone because she is beautiful. One could raise questions about this general principle. Is someone's goodness really within his or her control? Perhaps we should pity (and care about) people like Rosamond who are not very virtuous. On the other hand, if we can admire beauty in nature and art, why not in human beings? And what about cleverness, which is not a moral quality but is certainly admired?

One interpretation of the novel is that Dorothea does not have a moral right to her inheritance or to her social status. These are arbitrary matters of good fortune, and she is wise to be critical of them. She does, however, according to the novel, deserve a happy marriage to a handsome man because she is both good and beautiful (and also passionate). The end of the novel feels happy to the extent that she gets the marriage she deserves. Does this make any sense as a moral doctrine? Is it an acceptable moral doctrine within a fictional world, but inapplicable to the real world?

Beautiful people tend to find other beautiful people, just as the rich tend to marry the rich and (nowadays) the clever marry the clever. Lucky people have assets in the market for partners. But is this something we should want to see? What if the plain but nice Mary Garth ended up with a broodingly handsome romantic outsider, and Dorothea married a nice young man from the neighborhood? Would that ending be wrong because beauty deserves beauty, or would it only be an aesthetic mistake (or a market failure)?

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May 27, 2008

my favorite book

I first read Middlemarch when I was 17. It was assigned in the Telluride Association Summer Program at Cornell, and I think I loved it because it was the first time that I had read any book in a seminar, with real college professors and many hours spent on a single text. It was my first experience with close reading and with the application of challenging theory to literature. Gradually, as the years passed, I forgot most of the content of the novel--even the plot. I used to joke that it had retired undefeated as my favorite novel. But then, about a month ago, I opened it casually to remind myself of something near the beginning, and I found myself unable to put it down. I finished the very same copy that I had read almost a quarter century ago.

What is Middlemarch? It is a great feminist text, an indictment of the structure of relations between men and women that is not an indictment of the men as individuals. Patriarchy stunts the lives of male and female characters alike; and women often actively promote it. (Mrs. Garth, for example, is consciously raising her son Ben to be superior to her daughter Letty, and she is able to do that because she has such strong ideas and such control of her household that her husband could not object.) The "imperfect social state" of patriarchy prevents Dorothea from achieving public greatness and reduces her to "liv[ing] faithfully a hidden life."

It is a superbly constructed story. Henry James denied that Middlemarch was "an organized, moulded, balanced composition, gratifying the reader with a sense of design and construction." It was, he wrote, "a treasure-house of details, but ... an indifferent whole." That was nonsense, and I suspect he was jealous. Five or six plots are carried throughout, intertwining and building pressure on the characters until the denouement reveals Dorothea's true heroism. Although the novel is not overburdened with coincidences or artifice, one could spend months finding careful symmetries and parallels. Take, for example, the brief visit of Dorothea to Rosamond's house that opens Book V. This is the first time that two major story lines intersect. The women are foils, different in class, character, and appearance. Their first encounter, in the presence of a man who becomes an object of jealousy, causes all three to see themselves differently, in ways that reverberate until the end. This episode is just one example of how skillfully the whole work is constructed.

It is a grown-up's novel. "Marriage," says the narrator, "has been the bourne of so many narratives." A bourne is a brook, and many romantic stories are streams flowing toward the inevitable wedding, when the ingenues, having overcome obstacles to their love, are united in a timeless happily-ever-after. In Middlemarch, however, two of the three essential weddings come near the beginning, and then the plot really begins. The novel is not cynical about marriage, nor critical of it. But it refuses to dwell only on the moment of falling in love or becoming united. Lives go on, and going on is hard.

It is a novel that is remarkably clear-sighted about economics. "I will learn what everything costs," Dorothea exclaims at a crucial moment. Debts and inheritances figure strongly in the plot. There is an important auction. People confuse "use value" with "exchange value" (what things are really worth versus what they capture in a market). Because of the social structure of a market, it is not easy to be moral. "Spending money so as not to injure one's neighbours" is a challenge.

It is a novel about a large network. I wish I had marked each significant character on a piece of paper and drawn a line between them whenever they had some "connection" (which is an important word in the text). The result would be a complex web with at least 50 nodes and hundreds of connections, which often link the gentry to the riffraff in just a few steps. News and gossip travel with fateful effects along this network. In many cases, the parties who are linked directly do not understand one another. In fact ....

It is a novel about misunderstanding other people; and the misunderstandings arise for a huge variety of moral, psychological, and social reasons. People misread others out of vanity, fear, naivete, and even because of admirable faith. Middlemarch would be one kind of novel if the omniscient narrator patronized these characters for their all-to-human failure to know one another. But the third-person omniscient narrative voice is occasionally broken by a first-person acknowledgment of uncertainty. The narrator will remark that he (or she?) doesn't know what a particular character was thinking. This must be a deliberate reminder that understanding other human beings is never possible.

The narrator also occasionally expresses an explicit judgment or even interrupts the narration irritably. These outbursts are comic surprises because the rest of the narration is so objective. For instance, I love this beginning of chapter XXIX: "One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea--but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect."

Perhaps the most prevalent reason for misunderstanding in Middlemarch is egoism, which comes in many forms, some contemptible and some fully excusable. Egoism is relevant to the idea of a network, because any node can be taken as the center and all the other nodes can be seen as arrayed around it in various degrees of separation. There is a famous and very rich passage in Middlemarch about our propensity to see ourselves as the central node:

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass [mirror] or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent ...

The narrator supplies a heartbreaking reason that we must place ourselves at the center of the network, act egoistically, and fail to understand one another fully. "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity." Our "stupidity" is essential for our survival; none of us could bear to comprehend the suffering of everyone else.

Finally, Middlemarch is, I suppose, a comedy. It has jokes, a lightness of tone, and a satisfying conclusion that I would not call tragic. Most of the loose ends are tied up. And yet there is a powerful sense of the weight of norms and the inertia of history. We are left with a deep question: whether Dorothea's life has turned out to be a good one.

[Spoiler warning: I can't address this question without giving away the conclusion.]

On one hand, we may think that she has done very well. She exclaims, "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?" She has made life considerably less difficult for Rosamond, Lydgate, and Ladislaw because of her actions in Part VIII, which are believable and yet extraordinarily generous and courageous. Few indeed would act as well as she does. Her virtue has some reward. She marries a man who truly respects her greatness of soul, and she presumably finds some fulfillment as a wife and mother.

On the other hand, Dorothea is a far greater person than Ladislaw (as he would be the first to agree). Yet it is Ladislaw who wins a seat in Parliament and plays a role in national affairs. "Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth." Dorothea is forced into the private realm because she is a woman; also, because the public realm is reserved for very few even among men of wealth and privilege. Only a few hundred serve in Parliament, for example--not including Dorothea's own uncle, whose ambitions are frustrated.

This is a great illustration of Hannah Arendt's argument that politics is the realm of character, courage, and real freedom. The private realm, no matter how we try to enhance it by elaborating our ideas of courtship, intimacy, and sentiment, is no place for greatness. If that were also Eliot's view, Middlemarch would be a protest novel, and its target would be a conformist, consumerist culture that suppresses greatness by narrowing the realm of politics. But again, that's only one side of the story, for Dorothea does succeed in her own realm of domestic life and private relationships. "The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

The novel reveals Dorothea's hidden life, but of course it is a fiction. A real life like hers would never come to light. That makes her story a kind of tragedy, but one that we all share unless we have the enormous good fortune to achieve public renown. In other words, I can't really pity Dorothea without also feeling sorry for myself and almost everyone I know.

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April 24, 2008

an open Embassy

The Swedish Embassy in Washington is a gift to our city. It's a Nordic modernist building right on the Potomac, with a public esplanade that helps form a continuous riverfront walkway. The building itself is made largely of glass and has no evident security at its doors. It symbolizes transparency and accessibility. One day, my 8-year-old, some family friends, and I visited for a free circus show on the lawn. Inside was a highly educational and interactive kids' science exhibition, free of charge and open for wandering in and out. Downstairs was a very serious exhibition about child trafficking, with advice on how you can get involved in addressing the problem. I love the combination of entertainment, instruction, and social activism.

I realize that the United States cannot play the same role as Sweden plays in today's world. If we built a glass-walled embassy in the middle of a foreign city and invited people to stroll through, it would probably be blown to bits. Still, we have tilted awfully far in the opposite direction, our embassies and cultural facilities surrounded by blast walls and Marines. The Swedish gift to DC is at least a reminder of what we have lost.

PS I wanted to illustrate this contrast by showing the US Embassy in Stockholm, because I suspected it might be a rather forbidding structure like those in London and Moscow. But it was built at a time of greater confidence and openness, in 1954. The Minnesota-based architect was Ralph Rapson. It's not my favorite kind of building--rather isolated from the city's fabric, designed to be reached by car, and set in a suburban lot. But those were the ideals of the time--not least in Scandinavia--and it was meant to look open and cheerful.

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April 8, 2008

John the Baptist, raw and cooked

It occurs to me that a structuralist anthropologist could make hay out of Matthew 3:4 ("And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.")

As I understand it--barely--the distinction between raw and cooked is one of the central oppositions that creates the structure of any culture, according to the pioneering anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. He notes that human beings are capable of eating a very wide range of things either raw or cooked. What is considered edible varies enormously by culture. But the distinctions of raw/cooked and edible/inedible always exist and create a whole set of rules and norms by which people live. The category of the raw is always associated with the natural and often with the dangerous or forbidden. The cooked is associated with culture and with fitness for human consumption. Thus people are never to be cooked. In some cultures, pigs can be cooked; in others, not. In some cultures, you must cook fish to make it edible; in others, it can be eaten raw (but elaborately prepared). The cook is always a borderline or "liminal" figure who selects what to prepare and thus transforms it from a raw to an edible state. We then take the food into our bodies and make the natural into the human.

So what of John the Baptist? He is a wonderfully liminal figure, bridging the Old Testament and the New. Catholics see him as a Hebrew prophet who dies before the Crucifixion and can never take communion (which is eating the body of Christ); yet he recognizes Jesus as savior. He comes from civilization but wanders in the desert alone like a beast. The two items that he eats are especially interesting from a Levi-Straussian perspective. Honey is a carefully prepared ingredient, but it is made by bees in their elaborate society, not by humans in ours. We don't heat it to prepare it for our consumption, but eat it "raw." And locusts are generally considered inedible, although John subsists on them. He ends up with his head on a plate, but served raw at Salome's table. Most interestingly of all, John's main function is to pour water on Jesus' head to transform him and begin the new dispensation. That sounds a lot like cooking.

When a particular story happens to fit a theory perfectly, we cannot conclude that the theory is right. The story of Paolo and Francesca is a beautiful fit for Jacques Derrida's idea of logocentrism, but that doesn't vindicate Derrida. It is, however, satisfying to find a perfect illustration of a major theory, even one so out of fashion as structuralism.

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March 24, 2008

Woolf's Orlando

I picked up and read Virginia Woolf's Orlando over the weekend. Generally not my cup of tea--I could do without the coy inside jokes and the motif of "barbarian" Africa, which begins on p. 1 and runs throughout. However, I found myself developing respect for two aspects of this highly unusual novel.

First, it is impressive how the narration evolves to match the historical period described on each page. The language shifts from courtly Elizabethan prose to the rapid-fire, cinematic feel of a movie. James Joyce does the same thing even more radically in Episode 14 of Ulysses. Perhaps Woolf's subtler experiment is more satisfactory; but in neither book is this technique a gimmick. I think modernism arises when artists, in any medium, realize that you cannot simply describe the world. You always do so in a style; and styles vary. The problem is: Why should you pick one style instead of another? Why, therefore, should you make art at all? One answer is abstraction, which means dropping the pretense of objectivity. Woolf and Joyce try something different; they make the change of style itself the subject of their story.

Second, I came to see that Woolf respects her protagonist. Orlando is generally identified with Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf had a relationship. For quite a few pages, I thought the portrait of Sackville-West was patronizing. Orlando has great legs and lots of money. He (later she) yearns to be a writer, but writes nothing of value. I cannot imagine that Sackville-West would want to be so portrayed. But it turns out that Orlando matures as the novel progresses, and the story of his/her development is moving because it reaches a conclusion in full, self-conscious, capable and creative adulthood.

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February 21, 2008

chamber music

Last Saturday in Syracuse, my Mom and I heard the Rossetti String Quartet play works by Mozart, Dvorak, and Debussey. Such events always provoke nostalgia for me, because chamber music used to play a very important role in my life. In my young adult years in New Haven, Oxford, and Washington, I used to attend concerts at least once a week. I usually went by myself. In childhood, however, I usually attended with my father, who died just weeks ago. He and I often had tickets to the very same concert series, the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music. In London, we went to many venues, but I especially remember the rather drab hall of the Ethical Culture Society, in which we heard fine performances. And other locations occur to me as stray thoughts--for instance, a basement in Lucca, Italy, where we once heard the Chilingarian Quartet. To tell the truth (at last), I really went along because I liked Dad's attention on the trips to and from the concert halls. I used to count the minutes until each recital ended; but a habit formed.

I had other reasons to be nostalgic last Saturday. The Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music has moved from the University to a public middle school. It's not a school that I attended, but it's part of the same district, and the students' art and official warning notices on the walls were timelessly familiar. The concert program contained a memorial notice for my own music teacher, who recently died. I recognized many subscribers to the notice; some were parents of my childhood friends. And I knew members of the audience. They were almost uniformly white-haired. The median age must have been 75. These were the same people, indeed, who belonged to the Friends of Chamber Music 35 years ago. They were much the same kind of people who filled Wigmore Hall or Alice Tulley Hall in 1970 and who still predominate at the Phillips Collection or the Library of Congress recitals in Washington.

When we consider why the audience for chamber music has aged and shrunk, it's tempting to revive the usual explanations: inadequate musical education, limited funds, the kids today. But I suspect a deeper reason, which makes me even more nostalgic or elegiac. If the heart of the chamber music tradition is the string quartet, the piano sonata, the art song, and the trio, then it really lived from about 1750 to 1950. When the audience at last Saturday's concert was young, Shostakovich and Bartok were still writing chamber works in that tradition. The latest works of that era commented on the classic ones in the repertoire. To be sure, there are still composers today, and they still produce quartets and sonatas. But as far as I know, their style is abruptly different from that of the nineteenth-century masters. They are too hard for almost anyone to perform, and rather difficult to enjoy. They have an audience, but it is small and highly sophisticated. Meanwhile, the tradition of Mozart and Brahms is no longer alive. It is an antiquarian or historical interest. I doubt it will ever die off completely; in the age of, even the most obscure tastes can find markets. But I don't think it will fully revive unless contemporary music itself reconnects with the classical background--which may not be a natural or even a desirable development.

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February 1, 2008

greatest poems

Years ago, I heard Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler speak at the Library of Congress. Their assignment was to read and reflect on their ten favorite poems. Vendler read some not-very-famous work by poets she knew, as well as some important poems that mattered to her for biographical reasons. Bloom then said something like this (in his stentorian voice, with his eyelids batting madly): "I like Helen, and I admire her criticism, but those were not the ten greatest poems in the English language. Here are the ten greatest poems in the English language." He proceeded to recite ten lyric poems about the self in a hostile world. I don't remember the list, but I recall that it began with Tom O'Bedlam's song:

From the hagg and hungrie goblin
That into raggs would rend ye,
And the spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moones - defend ye!

I simply don't read enough poetry to have a worthwhile top-ten list of my own, but I could cite some English lyric verse that has struck me as particularly magnificent over the years: Thomas Wyatt, "They Flee from Me that Sometime Did Me Seek" (chosen, I admit, because I am moved to hear a voice from so long ago); Shakespeare, the song from The Tempest ("Full fathom five, &c," because it is so abstract that it exemplifies lyric); Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"; Arnold, "Dover Beach"; Browning, "The Bishop Orders his Tomb" or another of his great dramatic monologues; Yeats, "Among School-Children"; Wilfred Owen, "Dulce et Decorum Est," Eliot, "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (on which Vendler is a superb guide). These authors are all dead white Englishmen, which simply reflects the limits of my reading.

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December 28, 2007

notes on "genre fiction"

I'm going to try a little light blogging again, although I'm still very emotionally preoccupied. Throughout this difficult period, I have been trying to use novels as a distraction--reading works by Alan Furst, Patrick O’Brien, and Ward Just that could be classified as "genre fiction." It struck me yesterday that that disparaging phrase is a solecism. Should we call Hamlet "genre fiction" because tragedy is a "genre"?

Traditionally, literature emphasized plot, and traditional plots involved grand, dramatic moments. They could be classified by "genre," according to the nature of those moments. For example, there were plays about murderous revenge, happy marriage, and the salvation of souls. But as we move toward the era of Jane Austen and then Henry James, writers become increasingly interested in the craft of representing subtle, interior states. They are able to dispense with dramatic plots and then almost to drop plot completely. Ulysses is an anti-epic because it describes a fairly unremarkable day in the life of an ordinary citizen. Such description becomes the mark of literary excellence, especially when it is layered with irony and reference.

In short, "genre" is what you subtract to get great modernist works. But some authors have continued to serve the taste for dramatic plots, and so we still see novels about crime and espionage, among other genres. (Fictional modern detectives make momentous choices and judgments under intense pressure, much as princes did in Shakespeare’s day.) "Genre" novels have dubious literary status because we presume that real excellence lies in thick description, whereas plot is a crutch--especially if the plot is formulaic.

And yet reliance on dramatic plots does not preclude close and subtle description. I quote P.D. James:

E. M. Forster has written: "The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development." To that I would add: the queen died and everyone thought it was of grief until they discovered the puncture wound in her throat. That is a murder mystery and, in my view, it too is capable of high development.

Genre fiction, in other words, can vary in its degree of literary seriousness. For instance, Alan Furst has revived the noir espionage thriller, in the tradition of Eric Ambler. He provides good entertainment but not much depth. The narration is very straightforward and I detect little irony or complexity. There are discrete portions of dialog, alternating with pure action. (Two characters are talking; then they are running along, being shot at.) Almost all the characters are highly competent and there’s lots of sophisticated spycraft to keep you impressed. It would be a lot harder, however, to tell the same kind of story if the characters were confused and fallible.

Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels belong to a hoary subgenre of war novels, the Napoleonic naval series. At least since Horatio Hornblower, we’ve been able to follow the assent of fictional British officers from midshipmen to admirals. These heroes are brave in battle but humanitarian toward their own; Nelson is always the model. But O’Brien crosses this subgenre with Jane Austen; he mixes espionage and battle scenes with close and ironic description. Consider the following passage, picked almost at random. Dr. Maturin has just been given a commission by the admiral himself:

"There is only one thing I do not care for, however," he said as the order was passed reverently around the table, "and that is this foolish insistence upon the word surgeon. ’Do hereby appoint you surgeon … take upon you the employment of surgeon … together with such allowance for wages and victuals for yourself as is usual for the surgeon of the said sloop.' It is a false description, and a false description is anathema to the philosophic mind."

Maturin is a physician, which is a gentleman's occupation, in distinction to the tradesman's job of surgeon. He is a snob about the difference, but he doesn't want to appear so. Thus he settles on the ideal of precise terminology, which he values as a scientist. All of this is efficiently shown, adding a level of richness, humor, and irony to the narration. Equal depth could be found on almost every page.

Which brings me to Ward Just’s Forgetfulness. Superficially a spy novel, this book actually tells a very simple story that could be summarized in a paragraph (if one wanted to spoil the suspense). Most of the text is devoted to very close descriptions of the interior state of one flawed and unheroic, but interesting, individual. Ward Just does not choose a spy plot to entertain. Rather, he wants to reflect on the secret "war on terror," which is a crucial political issue today. The result is fine literature, and whether we call it "genre fiction" hardly seems to matter.

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November 9, 2007

a new self-consciousness in art

Traditionally, artists work within a style, but they don't think of themselves that way. They either equate their style with art itself (believing that they depict nature as it always has been depicted), or else they offer abstract and universal reasons for their stylistic choices. For example, classical styles were often defended on the ground that the ancient Greeks had discovered universal principles of beauty and representation.

Then, at a certain point, it became obvious that all art depicts the world through a style, that styles differ from time to time and place to place, and there is no independent aesthetic standard that makes one better than all the others.

Since then, to make a picture has been an entirely different matter. You must start by picking a style. The most obvious move is to use someone else's style, which is why revivalism became the major mode in the early nineteenth century, the age of Gothic revival and the troubadour style; of Greek revival; and of orientalism. There have been various efforts to avoid style altogether--abstraction, minimalism, surrealism--but they have all quickly become styles of their own.

I have been convinced of this Hegelian story for more than twenty years, and I have seen a lot of images in that time. I'm always looking for the moment when full stylistic self-consciousness begins. As of our last trip to Paris, I'm pushing the onset back a few decades. The Musée Jacquemart-André owns a fresco that Tiepolo painted in the mid-1750s to depict the arrival of King Henri III (of France) at the Villa Contarini, near Venice, in 1574. (Click for a large image). Tiepolo chose to paint this image in the style of Veronese. He didn't copy an actual Veronese--something that might have been done centuries before. Instead, he painted the scene as Veronese would have seen and shown it. I don't think that choice would have occurred to any artist before 1750, and once it happened, art was on its way to modernism.

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October 22, 2007

nostalgia, imagination, redemption

On plane rides last week, I very much enjoyed reading Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Chabon imagines that in 1941, a temporary refuge was created for European Jews around Sitka, Alaska. The piny islands filled with millions of Yiddish-speaking, urban "Yids" who created a kind of shtetl or Brooklyn of the North. Unfortunately, their lease ends around the present time, which is the time of the narration. Thus the whole district is threatened with "reversion"--which means a new diaspora for the population. In this context, a Raymond Chandleresque detective story unfolds.

Nostalgia and imagination are two keynotes of the Jewish experience. The religious are nostalgic for the ancient Kingdom; they imagine the Messiah. The secular are nostalgic for Poland ca. 1920 or Brooklyn ca. 1950. They are prone to imagine Marxist or Libertarian utopias; fictional narratives built out of nostalgia; or successful assimilation. At the personal level, nostalgia for youth and flights of imagination seem especially common among Jews, although maybe I'm just thinking about myself.

Michael Chabon imagines--with phantasmagoric clarity--a whole world of Sitka Jews. He threatens this world with closure, thereby making his main characters and his readers nostalgic for a completely imaginary past. The Sitka world itself is built on nostalgia and imagination: as in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the rabbi's house is an exact replica of his old home in Eastern Europe, but the inhabitants dream of Zion. Chabon is nostalgic, too, for hard-boiled detectives who live in flop-house hotels and walk noir streets. Out of that material, he imagines something completely original.

If nostalgia and imagination are two thematic centers in the book, a third is redemption. Chabon sets up a powerful contrast between religious redemption and the redemption that involves two human beings who forgive one another and decide to move forward together. Achieving that requires imagination and some suspension of nostalgia.

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September 5, 2007

or what you will

On reading Twelfth Night recently, I was moved by the ending. Feste the Fool is left standing alone to sing of the cold winter, when the rain it raineth every day. Twelfth Night marks the end of Christmas, an interlude from work. This particular Christmas in Illyria also seems a break from the weather, for no one speaks of cold even though most of the action is outdoors. A willow cabin seems sufficient shelter. These are perhaps the "Halcyon days" of the winter solstice, what we would call an "Indian summer" (cf. 1 Henry VI, I,ii,131).

This Christmas is also a break from war and--most strikingly--from family. Orsino, Olivia, Viola, and Sebastian, the romantic leads, are all orphaned and childless. There is no mention of any family, either, for the minor characters of Sir Andrew Aguecheeck, Sir Toby Belch, Malvolio, Antonio, Maria, and the Fool. Since these characters have no parents or children, they have no one to govern them and no responsibilities. Virtually any of these people could be paired with anyone else. Even gender is no bar, for Viola is dressed as a man and attracts Olivia's love. Illyria is like summer camp or freshman year at college. The characters are not wanton, but for them, everything is undecided.

The marriages of Olivia and Sebastian, Viola and Orsino represent a happy ending, but also the end of the interlude. After their weddings, Illyria will have a governing structure; families will be created in separate households. Immediately before everyone leaves the Fool alone on the stage, Orsino carelessly addresses his fiancée by the name she has used in her guise as a man:

Cesario, come--
For so you shall be while you are a man,
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen!

Orsino still sees Viola as "Cesario" and wants to postpone their marriage (and her transformation into a woman) until after the play ends. Maybe his slip of the tongue is homoerotic, but I think it is something else as well. Orsino wants to prolong the interlude, the time when he pines for a distant lover to the sound of "high fantastical" music, no one is attached to anyone, people drift freely from court to court, and you can do what you will. But the Fool is the most knowing character throughout the play, and once Orsino sweeps offstage with his retinue, the Fool sings of the winter that is adult life:

But when I came to man's estate
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain
'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate
For the rain it raineth every day.

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August 20, 2007

Susanna Clarke's industrial revolution

I think this is a fairly obvious point, but I can't find it elaborated anywhere in the web: It seems to me that Susanna Clarke's very entertaining novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an allegory of the Industrial Revolution. (Crooked Timber's John Quiggin sort of says so, but very briefly.)

In real life, steam-driven mass manufacturing was born in the North of England. The financial, human, and social capital came in part from old Northern cities like York. But York did not become a major manufacturing center--that was the fate of cities like Manchester and Sheffield, which basically sprang up in the early 1800s.

The Industrial Revolution began during the Napoleonic Wars when, for example, pulley blocks for British ships were mass produced. But new manufacturing techniques did not seem to alter the war profoundly. Meanwhile, the new techniques were being used to create specialized luxury goods, such as Wedgwood pottery. The use of steam power and interchangeable parts was still a gentleman's pastime and an interesting sideshow.

But these innovations expanded beyond anyone's control or expectations. Suddenly, factories that burned fossil fuels and used interchangeable parts were producing most of England's ordinary products (such as clothes); were employing a large proportion of the population; were threatening to enable mass human slaughter through deadly armaments and chemicals; and were changing the landscape itself--driving iron railroads across it and tearing the mountains open for coal.

[Spoiler warning: I reveal the conclusion of this very suspenseful novel below the fold.]

In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, it is magic that is born (or reborn) first in the old city of York, among gentleman amateurs. Magic plays an amusing role in Wellington's Peninsula Campaign, but the outcome is the same as in history. Magic also amuses the London populace and entertains some gentlemen. But then suddenly it explodes beyond the control of a few amateurs and transforms both the social order and the landscape, especially in the North. Straight new roads open up; the countryside is turned upside down. The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, a fairy who represents the decrepit old country order and green nature, is literally crushed under a different kind of nature made of rocks and minerals. A new regime begins, in which the child of slaves (i.e., the working class) promises to rule rationally and dispassionately. The small-scale, arbitrary cruelties of the pre-modern order are over, but no one knows whether the future will be bright or bleak.

I read the book more than a year ago, but I am confident that the analogy could be further substantiated with evidence from the text. I only recall one major difference between magic in the novel and steam power in real life. In the novel, magic is a medieval practice, reborn after a mysterious hiatus in the early-modern period. In real life, industrial manufacturing had some pre-modern antecedents--people mention tin-mining in Tudor Cornwall, for example. But basically it was new and "revolutionary," not a rebirth of anything. I can only assume that Clarke wanted to break the analogy with manufacturing for aesthetic reasons--her references to a lost medieval world are remarkably persuasive.

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July 23, 2007


Early in P.D. James' mystery Death in Holy Orders (2001), she establishes that her characters will speak formal, allusive, complex English of the type that an average reader could never master in real speech. Here, for example, a divinity teacher is addressing his student:

"You might as well take your essay. It's on the desk. Evelyn Waugh wrote in one of his travel books that he saw theology as the science of simplification whereby nebulous and elusive ideas are made intelligible and exact. Your essay is neither. And you misuse the word 'emulate.' It is not synonymous with 'imitate.'"

"Of course not. Sorry, Father. I can imitate you but I cannot hope to emulate you."

A few pages earlier, in discussing an anonymous letter, another character says, "And the writer is educated, I'd say. He--or she--has got the punctuation right. In this under-educated age I'd say that means someone middle-aged rather than young."

I think this is a relatively easy game to play. In the quiet of her study, the author composes careful sentences that incorporate quotes from books she happens to have at hand. In the text, she explicitly mentions the difference between educated, erudite speech and ordinary talk. She thereby creates an air of superiority that some readers seem to enjoy.

Thus I have to admit I was pleased to encounter the following sentence of narration early in the novel: "In addition to its size, Father Sebastian's office contained some of the most valuable objects bequeathed to the college by Miss Arbuthnot." This is a howler--the room doesn't contain its own size. The Baroness James has committed a basic grammatical error. Ha! I only hope the plot turns out to be good.

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July 9, 2007

the end of narrative?

I've recently read two reviews that are highly pessimistic about narrative. Daniel Mendelssohn reviews 300, the film by Zack Snyder about the Battle of Thermopylae. He notes that the movie (which I have not seen) lacks a meaningful plot. Neither side seems to be fighting for any particular reason. Their characters and their choices have no discernible consequences. He compares the film to a video game, meaning a shoot-em-up game in which the hero mows down aliens or monsters. The popularity of "300" strikes him as deeply ironic since the first great original narratives of the Western tradition (Herodotus' History and the attic tragedies) came soon after the Battle of Thermopylae itself. Mendelssohn suspects that the grand narrative of the Persian invasion stimulated the Greeks' interest in meaningful stories. As they saw it, a Persian king of cruelty and hubris was defeated in a struggle against freedom and virtue. Thus ethos (character) and daimon (destiny) were meaningfully linked. That was the mainstream spirit of Western literature until--well, possibly until the movie "300."

Meanwhile, Edward Rothstein reviewed Lawrence Kramer's book, Why Classical Music Still Matters in The New York Times. Rothstein argued that the Western art music tradition produced complex and lengthy narratives in which the components were abstractions (melodies or themes). That was an impressive achievement, but it is dying with the manifest decline in classical music since 1950.

These two arguments are parallel, and they are both worth worrying about. I'm not actually too concerned about narrative in films and books. "300" sounds like a shoot-em-up video game, but there is nothing profoundly new about such entertainment. (There were very popular bear-baiting shows right next door to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.) In our time, fictional and historical narratives seem to be in pretty robust condition.

However, I agree with Rothstein that power and vitality is slipping away from the Western art music tradition, which includes not only classical music but also ambitious forms of jazz. That doesn't mean that the future is barren; we could see a revival. But the Western art music tradition was much shorter than the tradition of meaningful text narrative. It started with the sung masses of the late Middle Ages but really flourished, as Rothstein says, during the "long 19th century" (ca. 1775-1914). There's no guarantee that it will recover, whether in the form of jazz or any other style.

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June 5, 2007

John Donne, The Ecstacy

(In Portsmouth, New Hampshire) In a review by John Carey, I came upon a strange and wonderful John Donne poem, "The Ecstacy." Here it is in the left column with my literal paraphrase to the right. (Literal interpretation seems to me a necessary first step in understanding metaphysical poetry, or any dense verse.)

by John Donne

WHERE, like a pillow on a bed,
    A pregnant bank swell'd up, to rest
The violet's reclining head,
    Sat we two, one another's best.

1. Two people (the narrator and a woman; see 4) who are fond of one another sit on a flowery bank.

Our hands were firmly cemented
    By a fast balm, which thence did spring;
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
    Our eyes upon one double string.

2. They hold hands and look into one another's eyes.

So to engraft our hands, as yet
    Was all the means to make us one;
And pictures in our eyes to get
    Was all our propagation.

3. They unite by holding hands and visualizing the same object (possibly the propagation of the violet mentioned below: 10)

As, 'twixt two equal armies, Fate
    Suspends uncertain victory,
Our souls--which to advance their state,
    Were gone out--hung 'twixt her and me.

4. Their souls meet in between their bodies and ...

And whilst our souls negotiate there,
    We like sepulchral statues lay ;
All day, the same our postures were,
    And we said nothing, all the day.

5. negotiate (possibly about whether to have sex; see 13) while they lie still and silent for the whole day.

If any, so by love refined,
    That he soul's language understood,
And by good love were grown all mind,
    Within convenient distance stood,

6. If a third person who fully understood love stood nearby, ...

He--though he knew not which soul spake,
    Because both meant, both spake the same--
Might thence a new concoction take,
    And part far purer than he came.

7. he could benefit morally from what they say in one voice, which is:

This ecstasy doth unperplex
    (We said) and tell us what we love;
We see by this, it was not sex;
    We see, we saw not, what did move:

8. "This state of fusion shows us that we did not love sex or bodily motion, ...

But as all several souls contain
    Mixture of things they know not what,
Love these mix'd souls doth mix again,
    And makes both one, each this, and that.

9. but the union of two souls that were never self-sufficent.

A single violet transplant,
    The strength, the colour, and the size--
All which before was poor and scant--
    Redoubles still, and multiplies.

10. If you replant a single flower (perhaps the violet in 1), it can grow and multiply.

When love with one another so
    Interanimates two souls,
That abler soul, which thence doth flow,
    Defects of loneliness controls.

11. [Likewise,] when two souls are in love, they create one better soul.

We then, who are this new soul, know,
    Of what we are composed, and made,
For th' atomies of which we grow
    Are souls, whom no change can invade.

12. We are this new soul, composed of our own original souls as atoms.

But, O alas! so long, so far,
    Our bodies why do we forbear?
They are ours, though not we; we are
    Th' intelligences, they the spheres.

13. But why do we shun our bodies?

We owe them thanks, because they thus
    Did us, to us, at first convey,
Yielded their senses' force to us,
    Nor are dross to us, but allay.

14. It was through our bodily sensations that we learned to love; bodies are not superfluous but are mixed with souls into an alloy.

On man heaven's influence works not so,
    But that it first imprints the air;
For soul into the soul may flow,
    Though it to body first repair.

15. Just as heaven (i.e., stars or angels) must influence us through the physical medium of air, so a soul communicates with a soul by means of the body.

As our blood labours to beget
    Spirits, as like souls as it can;
Because such fingers need to knit
    That subtle knot, which makes us man;

16. We struggle bodily to create images that are like souls (referring either to the common thought mentioned in 3 or to conceiving a child).

So must pure lovers' souls descend
    To affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
    Else a great prince in prison lies.

17. Thus we must descend from thought to our senses ...

To our bodies turn we then, that so
    Weak men on love reveal'd may look;
Love's mysteries in souls do grow,
    But yet the body is his book.

18. and appreciate one another's bodies."

And if some lover, such as we,
    Have heard this dialogue of one,
Let him still mark us, he shall see
    Small change when we're to bodies gone

19. And if the third person stayed to watch us have sex, he would still think that we were spiritually united.

The movement of the poem is from static bodies upward to thoughts and then back into animated bodies. At the beginning, "we" are two separate motionless physical objects (we "sat"; we "lay"). In the middle verses, "we" are one disembodied consciousness, addressing a passive third party and deciding whether to reenter our bodies. At the end, body and soul are one.

I read the poem as an argument by a male narrator to a female lover that they should have sex, because it will be like "ecstasy" (a religious "state of rapture that stupefies the body while the soul contemplates divine things"). In that case, the claim that both souls speak as one in the middle of the poem is more of a hope or a lure than a fact. There is some irony in the poem--a gap between what the narrator means and what he says, and perhaps also between how he sees himself and how we are supposed to see him. But the irony hardly cancels the sensuality of this poem that begins with pregnant swelling banks and ends with souls gone to bodies in plain view of an approving observer.

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May 21, 2007

angles on US history

(Indianapolis) I'm attending a meeting on teacher education. During a morning session on the teaching of American history, there was some criticism of a certain national historical narrative that's often retold by children when they are asked what they've learned in school. According to this story, from time to time, Americans have realized that there are problems, such as slavery or segregation; and then the government has solved each problem by law.

Even though this is a celebratory and patriotic narrative, it's not a conservative one. It emphasizes progress by and through government, contrary to a truly conservative national history, which would begin with a self-reliant, faithful people and end with a decadent welfare state. For similar reasons, conservatives should dislike the patriotic iconography of official Washington, with its monuments to Jefferson and Washington as the founders of the government that now occupies vast marble office buildings (including the 3.1 million-square-foot structure named for Ronald Reagan). Certain kinds of populist or participatory leftists may be equally hostile to the progressive/statist story, because it ignores citizens and their agency.

With such thoughts in my mind, I walked over to the Indiana State Museum and saw an exhibition of paintings by William Edouard Scott (1884-1964), an African American artist born in Indianapolis and educated in Chicago and Paris. His works tell a strongly progressive narrative of American history, although not one centered on the government. An easel painting ("Freedom," 1960) shows, from bottom to top, Crispus Attucks being shot by the British in 1775, John Brown (1850), "Abe Lincoln and Fred Douglas" (1863), Thurgood Marshall raising his hand to testify (1954), and an eagle marked "NAACP" downing a bird marked "KKK."

In 1915 alone, Scott painted 20 murals in public high schools in Chicago and Indianapolis. The same year, he painted murals for the office buildings of the Chicago Defender, a major African American newspaper. The Defender editorialized, "When our new buildings are decorated by the works of our own artists we are contributing something substantial to American progress, especially if we obtain the services of well trained men or women."

Note the evocations of racial identity and solidarity, contributions to the American commons, progress, patriotism, excellence, expertise, and equality of women and men. This was a common kind of discourse in the mid-1900s, and one that the state sometimes funded. For instance, Scott won a Federal Arts Project competition in the war year of 1942 to decorate the Recorder of Deeds building in Washington, DC. He produced a mural -- shown above -- of Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln to enlist Black troops in the Union Army. (Douglass himself became the Recorder of Deeds in 1881.) Credit: dbking; some rights reserved.

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April 18, 2007

Gonzalo's commonwealth

Gonzalo is the most virtuous character in Shakespeare's Tempest, a man "whose honor cannot / Be measured or confined" (v,1,135-6). He arrives on Prospero's island in the company of vile politicians who have organized a coup and are prepared, some of them, to kill for even more power. They mock him after he makes his speech in favor of his ideal society:

I' th' commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things, for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty --
SEBASTIAN: Yet he would be king on 't
ANTONIO: The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.
GONZALO: All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavor; treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
SEBASTIAN: No marrying 'mong his subjects?
ANTONIO: None, man, all idle: whores and knaves.
GONZALO: I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T' excel the Golden Age. (ii,1,161ff.)

Gonzalo sounds like Rousseau--and has Rousseau's problem, acutely noted by the wicked Sebastian and Antonio in their prose interruption to his blank verse. Gonzalo would need power to create his society without power. When he says, "I would ... execute all things" he implies that he would be sovereign, yet there would be no sovereignty in his anarchistic commonwealth. He must force men to be free.

Rousseau would not be born for another century. But Gonzalo quotes another Frenchman, Montaigne, whose essay "On Savages" described Native Americans as happy and free. There were two "savage" natives on Prospero's island when he arrived (although Caliban was actually an earlier immigrant). Prospero quickly made both of them his slaves, thus acting "contrary" to Gonzalo. Also against Gonzalo's principles, Prospero demands "service," charges people with "treason" and "felony," and controls his daughter's marriage "contract" and "succession." Prospero seems to be the hero of the play, which is presented as a comedy. Yet modern readers mostly recoil at his treatment of Caliban, his paternalism toward Miranda, and his slave Ariel's obsequiousness.

Yet Prospero is the hero, I think, and Shakespeare's vision is a dark one. Gonzalo may be appealing, but he is ineffectual. He has served the usurping Duke Antonio and supported the law of that regime (see i.1,30). He does nothing to overthrow Antonio or create a Golden Age. Prospero was also originally an idealist. He shunned "temporal royalties" in favor of his library, becoming a harmless scholar (i,2,131). He wanted to "abjure" his "rough" powers, as he finally does in Act V. Unfortunately, power did not vanish in Milan because Prospero refused to exercise it. His own brother and confederates overthrew him and sent him into a dangerous exile with only his child.

Then he came to a place with no sovereignty, a desert island. He had his books. Otherwise, there was no property, no crime, no border, no master or slave. But now Prospero understood that he could not simply abjure power without putting himself in grave danger. He would have to be master or mastered. Thus he made himself dictator of his new "dukedom" until, by means of an elaborate scheme, he was able to restore justice. When he finally arranges for a lawful succession, his own story is over. "And thence retire me to my Milan, where / My every third thought shall be my grave" (v,1,378-9).

Prospero wishes to avoid ruling--as does Lear at the beginning of that play. Gonzalo describes a society without rulers--just like Lear's vision once he is out on the heath (iv,6). But Gonzalo is actually nothing but a tool of a despotic state. Prospero realizes he must use rough power to restore order and imperfect justice before he dies. Shakespeare takes that to be a happy ending.

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April 9, 2007

my home as described by Stephen Dunn

(Syracuse, NY) We're visiting my parents in the house where I grew up. It's a cottage on the top of a steep hill. The back yard leads into a large urban park: nicely landscaped with meadows and stands of cypress trees, but always somewhat dangerous. Inside, as I've noted before, there are almost 30,000 books. Wherever there are spaces over bookcases or on the stairwells, my parents have hung prints. These are mostly rather sedate works--but on the steps to the attic hangs a Kathe Kollwitz engraving of Death or the Devil dragging a mother away from her baby. The furniture in the living room was once upholstered in white leather.

All this is background to a poem that Stephen Dunn wrote when his family rented the house from us. I think this must have been 1973-4, when Dunn was a visiting professor at Syracuse University and we were in London. The poem, typed on a real typewriter that bit into the paper, reads:

Letter to a Distant Landlord

This is the 20th century and you
are invisible, across the Atlantic,
beyond reach. We sleep in your bed,
we make love where
you made love and it's strange
we've not met.
This house, though, does speak
of you; all the books, the good
junk in the attic, that
startling print in the upstairs hall.
You've brought the past forward
to mingle like a fine, old grandfather
with the appliances and dust.
And we approve.
Even the ghosts here are intelligent.
They wait til the children are asleep
then sit in the white chairs
in the livingroom. Some nights
it's Nietzsche, last night it was
Marx. They are all timbre
and smoke, all they want is
for me to get off my ass, to break
my spririt's sleep.
But they don't insist. They've seen
so much their rancor has turned
to sighs. We do not learn
is what they've learned.
Yet we are comfortable in your house.
It is what we wanted.
The park nearby is beautiful
and dangerous, a 20th century park,
the kind we must walk through. Our small
belligerent dog picks fights there
with Shepherds. They pick fights with him.
Sometimes though they're all tails and tongues,
like us, and the air smells good
and the grass is freshly cut.
And so we send our checks
and try to imagine your hands,
your face, the way you discuss
the things you must discuss.
Some day after you're back,
smelling our smells and rearranging
your lives, maybe we'll appear
at your door disguised as ourselves.
We'll say we're looking for a house
(that'll be our only hint), sneak
the glimpses we want, and move on
like strangers who brushed by
on their way somewhere else
and don't know why, in this century,
they cannot stop.

I love this poem as an evocation of my home, Dunn's private life, and the 20th century. I'd only quarrel with one aspect (and even on this point I grant Dunn his license). I doubt that the ghosts in our house talk about Nieztsche and Marx very often. There are shelves of books by those authors that might conjure their spirits once in a while, but I'm sure they don't reign over the house. The local spirits are English, bewigged, dusty, and interested in facts rather than theories.

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April 2, 2007

on mannerism and modernism

Over the weekend, I spent some time in the El Greco room of the National Gallery, Washington, which holds the finest collection of his work outside Spain. The National Gallery wisely hangs El Greco alongside Tintoretto, an artist 23 years his senior who was a direct influence. Both painters depict figures elongated beyond realism. They hide the backgrounds or otherwise pull their subjects out of three-dimensional space onto the plane of the picture. They leave their brushwork visible; they choose unearthly colors; and they draw attention to their own tortured emotions.

El Greco was an idiosyncratic artist, unique among Western masters because of his training in Crete. But he was not a madman, a visionary outsider, or a modernist trapped in a sixteenth-century body. He won major commissions and had a successful career because he belonged to a recognizable movement. Called "Mannerism" only in modern times, this movement encompassed Pontormo (1494-1557), Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540), Parmigianino (1503-1540), and Bronzino (1503-1572) as well as Tintoretto (1518-1594) and El Greco (1541-1614)--the last in the line.

Mannerism is derived from the Italian "maniera," which means "style." All Mannerists had idiosyncratic styles (albeit with some similarities), and they all drew attention to style as an issue. Seeing elongated forms, wild colors, and visible brushwork, you had to know that you were looking at a work of art, created by an individual with his own techniques and values. You couldn't forget the artist and see only the subject.

Why was that approach popular? It arose in a troubled and disillusioning time, marked by religious wars, the Sack of Rome (1527), profound skepticism about traditional beliefs, and political assassinations. Disturbing images fit the age. But I also think that the logic of aesthetic development led to Mannerism.

Up until about 1520, Renaissance artists had tried to answer certain questions that seemed objective or "given." How should one represent a beautiful human body inside a room? How should one depict a scene involving several figures, such as a Madonna and Child? How should one reconstruct ancient art, especially as it was described in classical books? To these questions, a Raphael or a Leonardo was a fully satisfactory answer. Once these masters had painted their works, the only choices were to imitate them or to try something different. But the very idea of deliberately doing something different raised the question of style. It made the subjective intentions of the artist, his originality, his mental state, and the physical object he created interesting.

Exactly the same logic is evident in modernism, which explains why early modernists loved El Greco. But there was a big difference. Mannerism soon yielded to large-scale, durable movements, starting with the baroque. Baroque artists, like their renaissance predecessors, struggled to address questions that seemed "given" or inevitable. How to depict dramatic human interactions? How to show non-ideal human beings in a beautiful way? How to show wild landscapes with only small human figures, or no people at all? How to paint indoor scenes lit by fire? How to recreate the actual ancient art of The Laocoon?

For modernists, there are no objective aesthetic questions. We now think that the artists of other times and places struggled to address issues that seemed inevitable, but these questions were actually relative to the local cultures. It is possible to understand a medieval artist who has a simple understanding of perspective--or a baroque artist who views the world as a stage. But it is impossible to be like them: to address a question that seems intrinsic to art. Instead, everyone is a mannerist today. Every artist develops a maniera of his or her own and creates works that appear, first, as art objects; second, as products of a particular artist, and last (if at all) as representations of something.

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February 21, 2007

was Velazquez left-handed?

My post from 2005 on Las Meninas, Velazquez' masterpiece, has drawn some very interesting and original comments. The latest contribution comes from Barbara Robinson of London Ireland who, like Colin Dixon, believes that the whole painting is a mirror image. Ms. Robinson adds some evidence. These two paintings are both by Velazquez and they show the same girl, the Infanta Margarita, three years apart. The image on the right is a detail from Las Meninas; the one on the left is part of a freestanding portrait.

Barbara Robinson (who sent me these images) emphasizes the parting of the hair and "the decorative hair slide," which are reversed in these two pictures. Her son adds that if Las Meninas is an image in a mirror, then Velazquez is shown holding his paintbrush in his left hand, which makes him what we Americans call a "southpaw." (Note that there were very large mirrors in Valazquez' day.)

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November 1, 2006

top 10 paintings

The Guardian proposes "20 paintings to see in the flesh before you die." There's much discussion on the Guardian's site and on Crooked Timber. I happen to have my own list lying around. I notice that I have picked innovative pictures, because I believe that we derive aesthetic pleasure not only from a work in itself but also from the story of art, which is a sequence of courageous discoveries and experiments. Further, the following are mostly pictures that have something to say about art. They imply theories of painting and representation that we could try to paraphrase in prose. That makes them especially interesting. But they are not mere manifestos or illustrations of ideas; they are also extraordinary images.

  • Giotto, Scenes of the Passion, Capella Scrovegni (a.k.a Arena Chapel), Padua, 1305
  • Masaccio, Tribute Money, Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria della Carmine in Florence, 1426-8
  • Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Wedding, National Gallery, London, 1434
  • Piero Della Francesca, The Flagellation, Urbino, 1455
  • Giorgione and/or Titian, Fte Champtre, Louvre, Paris, 1508
  • Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), Madonna di Loreto, 1603-05, S. Agostino, Rome
  • Diego Velzquez Las Meninas, The Prado, Madrid, 1655
  • Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, Mauritshuis, The Hague, ca. 1660-1661
  • Edouard Manet, The Old Musician, National Gallery, Washington, 1862
  • Some limitations: These are all paintings (not sculptures, drawings, stained glass, or buildings) that I have personally seen during my late adolescence or adulthood. I can't recommend such reputed masterpieces as Caravaggio's Burial of St. Lucy, because I have only seen them in illustrations. This stricture also explains the European bias; I've never visited Asia (beyond Turkey), Africa, or South America. Finally, my list doesn't adequately represent Modernism. I didn't want to add token works to represent a whole category of art; I wanted individual masterpieces. I had difficulty identifying specific Modernist works that could stand up to particular "Old Masters." (However, I was tempted to include a Picasso like The Guitar Player, or a Matisse.)

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: fine arts

    October 18, 2006

    a production of Lear

    (Chicago) Last night, I saw King Lear at the Goodman Theater. Stacy Keach was the King, and the director was Robert Falls. It was a "strong" production, in the sense that the director's choices were bold and potentially controversial. For example, the setting (stunningly produced) was somewhere in post-Soviet Russia or Eastern Europe.* Lear, Cornwall, and Edmund were either gangsters or Putin-like dictators. The "knights" were riot police.

    I thought all of the director's choices were defensible, and some were brilliant. For example, it was a good idea to make Cordelia a quietly rebellious teenager who detests her family's vulgarity. The actress, Laura Odeh, is small and young-looking and wears plain jeans, whereas her sisters are gangster molls. Her rebelliousness plausibly explains why she refuses to make a speech in praise of her father.

    Likewise, the setting reminds us how unjust is Lear's original regime. He recognizes the injustice himself, once he loses his knights:

    .... A man may see how this world goes
    with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond
    justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in
    thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which
    is the justice, which is the thief?

    I also liked the violent, urban setting. Regan and Cornwall order Gloucester's castle "shut up" against Lear. The stage directions tell us that the banished men wander on a "heath"--a natural place. Nature is a major motif in the play, always opposed to artifice. Several characters wrestle with whether nature is just or cruel. But the word "heath" is never spoken on stage, so it is a legitimate idea to make that barren place into nighttime streets, populated by the poor, the naked, and the crazy. When Edgar, Gloucester, and Lear are cast out, they become homeless--just like the homeless men in our cities.

    Robert Falls' bold directorial choices remind me of a general point. Any written text dramatically under-describes what is literally going on. It gives us only partial information about setting, clothing, "blocking," tone of voice, pacing, facial expressions. Even a staged or filmed production must leave much to the imagination and will be seen differently by different people. But the director and cast fill in some missing details.

    We might think that their first task is to figure out what is literally going on, so that we can watch and make up our own minds about general themes. But any intepretation of the literal meaning of the text must be informed by a theory of its general meaning. So, for example, Robert Falls knows from the end of the play that Lear will come to see his own kingdom as deeply unjust, arbitrary, and artificial. Therefore, Falls sets Act 1, Scene 1 in a Russian gangster's club. If Lear's regime is brutal, then Kent (his most loyal follower) must be a bit of a thug. That is how Stephen Pickering played him last night.

    Likewise, toward the end of the play, Regan suspects a sexual relationship between Oswald and her sister Goneril. ("I know you are of her bosom." "I, madam?" "I speak in understanding; you are; I know't.") Therefore, several scenes earlier, Falls introduces Oswald and Goneril in flagrante delicto. That is an extreme case of using gesture and stage position to illustrate a theme.

    That scene underlines the play's pervasive sexuality, which is often overlooked. Regan and Goneril are sexual rivals for wicked Edmund. Falls also thinks that Lear is sexually jealous of his youngest daughter. In this production, the King is not enraged by her first word -- "nothing" -- but by her explanation:

    They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
    That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
    Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
    Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
    To love my father all.

    Overall, Fall's production could be described as nihilistic. He chooses, for example, to have Goneril suffocate Regan and then kill herself, joining a heap of bodies on stage. And Albany literally rapes his wife Goneril while he curses her:

    Thou changed and self-cover'd thing, for shame,
    Be-monster not thy feature. Were't my fitness
    To let these hands obey my blood,
    They are apt enough to dislocate and tear
    Thy flesh and bones: howe'er thou art a fiend,
    A woman's shape doth shield thee.

    I don't know if those are good choices, but there is no question that Lear is a bleak play. Since it is set in a pagan world, Shakespeare need not assume divine providence or a morally ordered universe. Post-Soviet Russia seems an ideal metaphor for cosmic disorder and cynicism. "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport."

    *Charles Isherwood, the NY Times reviewer, says that the setting is Yugoslavia. That makes sense: a kingdom divided in parts turns to anarchy.

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    August 4, 2006

    Calvino's free hyper-indirect discourse

    I recently finished Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, in William Weaver's translation. It's a novel about trying to read a novel of that name by Italo Calvino--a difficult and even perilous task, since the book is constantly being mixed up with others, stolen, or fraudulantly exchanged. Ten of the chapters are the beginnings of novels that the protagonist ("you") try to read, hoping that they are continuations of what you have read so far. Each is a parody of a particular type of literature and a genuinely suspenseful story that breaks off just when your interest is most aroused.

    Calvino's writing has an aspect that I have never seen before, although it could be viewed as a radical extension of "free indirect discourse." That is the technique of describing something in the omniscient third person, but in such a way that it seems to take on the perspective and language of a character within the book. A famous example from Austen's Emma:

    She had ventured once alone to Randalls, but it was not pleasant; and a Harriet Smith, therefore, one whom she could summon at any time to a walk, would be a valuable addition to her privileges. But in every respect as she saw more of her, she approved of her, and was confirmed in all her kind designs.

    Harriet certainly was not clever, but she had a sweet, docile, graceful disposition; was totally free from conceit; and only desiring to be guided by anyone she looked up to. Her early attachment to herself was very amiable; and her inclination for good company and power of appreciating what was elegant and clever, shewed that there was no want of taste, though strength of understanding must not be expected. Altogether she was quite convinced of Harriet Smith's being exactly the young friend she wanted -- exactly the something which her home required.

    Literally, that is the narrator's description of Harriet Smith mixed with some of Emma's thoughts--but the two are inseparable. The whole narration is suffused with Emma's voice. It is Emma, for example, who sees Harriet as "not clever." Emma's patronizing attitude is presented with delicious irony.

    Calvino takes this technique a step further. He describes what books would be like if they told particular stories. He uses such descriptions of imaginary texts as a means of story-telling. Examples:

    A fight scene from the chapter entitled "Outside the Town of Malbork (p. 39): "The page you're reading should convey this violent contact of dull and painful blows, of fierce and lacerating responses; this bodiliness of using one's own body against another body ..." As you read about the description of a fight, you visualize the actual struggle--but through the eyes of a book that Calvino regards with irony.

    From Calvino's parody of Magical Realism entitled "Around and Empty Grave": p. 225: "I pass through a series of places that ought to be more and more interior, whereas instead I find myself more and more outside; from one courtyard I move to another courtyard, as if in this palace all the doors served only for leaving and never for entering. The story should give the sense of disorientation in places that I am seeing for the first time but also places that have left in my memory not a recollection but a void."

    Calvino flagrantly violates the rule that writers should show and not tell. He tells us what the story is about and thereby narrates it.

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    June 21, 2006

    Las Meninas and mirrors

    Last fall, after a business trip to Madrid, I posted a mini-essay about Velazquez' great, complex, and enigmatic painting, Las Meninas. My essay was mainly about the difficulty of looking at and enjoying a work so famous and so heavily interpreted--and how that same self-consciousness is a subject of Las Meninas itself.

    Now Colin Dexter from London has written to propose a theory that, to the best of my knowledge, is original as well as plausible and attractive. As he puts it: "Surely the whole painting is a mirror image." See here for two slightly different versions of his theory.

    In poking around for online histories of mirrors (to confirm that there could have been very large mirrors at the Spanish court in 1656), I found this fascinating excerpt from Glass: A World History by Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin:

    Some who have traced the rise of autobiographical writing during the Renaissance have suggested that this 'discovery of the self' was linked to mirrors. Likewise it is pointed out that Renaissance artists such as Drer explored the inner man through the use of mirrors during their painting. This is an argument forcefully put by Lewis Mumford and he cites the self-examining portraits of Rembrandt as the high point in this artistic introspection.

    The timing of the causal link is right; good mirrors developed in almost exact pace with the development of a new individualism between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The geography is right; the epicentres of Renaissance individualism in painting and other art forms were Italy and the Netherlands, two of the most advanced areas of mirror-making and their use. The psychological link is plausible; people saw themselves in a new way that detached them from the crowd and allowed them to inspect themselves more carefully. We can see the process at work in a number of great artists. Yet as with all supposed connections there are doubts. Most cultures have mirrors of some sort and one wants to know more about how mirrors are used, the relative clarity of metal and glass mirrors and so on.

    On the question of use, it is clearly important to discover the way in which mirrors were regarded. In the west they were largely looked into to see the person. This was both a cause and consequence of growing individualism. In China and Japan and perhaps other civilisations mirrors were used for different purposes. It is worth examining one example in some detail to see the differences that mirrors and culture could make.

    A number of analysts, both foreign and Japanese, agree that in Japan mirrors were traditionally used in a very different way from that in the west. They looked through the mirror image and through the 'observing self.' The mirror was not an instrument of vanity and self-assessment, but of contemplation, as can be seen in Shinto shrines where the mirror is the central object. The individual does not gaze into the mirror to see a rounded portrait of the physical and social person in front of the mirror, but to gaze through the physical into the innermost, mystical self.

    I like the idea that mirrors were both a "cause and consequence" of individualism--the kind of individualism that we see so strikingly in Las Meninas. It makes sense to me that the technology of reflective glass would have different effects depending on the cultural context. Likewise, I reject the simple theory that the invention of printing increased freedom and undermined authority. There was a complex reciprocal relationship between technological and cultural change in the era of Gutenberg--just as there is today.

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    June 18, 2006

    how to enjoy Venice

    I love Venice. My family and I just returned from an idyllic week there and are mourning our departure. However, we noticed that a lot of the other visitors didn't look very happy. Maybe they were having a better time than it seemed as we watched them trudge across the Piazza San Marco. I'm sure that some of them enjoy activities that I don't happen to like (such as shopping), and that's great. But I also know from overhearing their conversations that at least some of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit this small city every day are quite unhappy.

    Venice is a city of crowds, of heat in the summer and dampness in the winter, of bad smells. The tourist industry, which arrived in the eighteenth century, is virtually the only business today, and that means inflated prices and sometimes mediocre food. The crowds--to which we contributed our own four bodies--contain very few Italians. There's nothing wrong with masses of Americans and other stranieri, but it isn't a novel cultural experience for us to hear American voices.

    So why go there at all? Because there is an indescribable richness of art, architecture, and political and social history in every Venetian neighborhood. I don't think that any other spot on earth has the same concentration of beauty and interest. (It's amazing to know that an estimated 96% of its paintings permanently left Venice during the French and Austrian occupations of the early 1800s. So many remain.)

    It takes a fair amount of information and background to reveal that beauty. If you rely on a Fodor's guide or the equivalent, then you will go where everyone else goes--to places like San Marco, where the crowds are most intense. Behind the crowds, the gondolas, and the water, you will see a multi-colored, variegated, architectural backdrop. You may like that setting, or you may not, but you probably won't like it enough to compensate for long lines, high prices, and difficulties getting your restaurant bill or finding the right vaporetto.

    In a bid for readability, guide books typically provide anecdotes about each location. But why do you need to stand outside the jail from which Casanova escaped? The story is just as good if read more comfortably from home.

    What you need is some way to make sense of all that decoration--not to mention what's hidden away in remoter Venetian neighborhoods and inside all those the buildings. Works of art and architecture are deliberate and specific statements of meaning, not just efforts to be pretty. They are solutions to specific problems. As with nature, so with art: you need to understand before you can appreciate.

    Unfortunately, you would need a vast amount of knowledge to make sense of Venetian art, which was excellent from the ninth century to the nineteenth. (There are also fine Greco-Roman, modern, and post-modern works in the city.) The scope and variety is intimidating.

    Here, then, are some ways to narrow the focus. Even if you could only do one or two of these activities, I think you would enjoy the city more than if you tried to hit the top-ten list from Fodor's.

  • Go around the city contrasting Veronese and Tintoretto. Their lives overlapped for 60 years. They had the same influences, the same set of skills, some of the same patrons, and the same basic ingredients. But Veronese was decorative, sunny, apparently more interested in pretty women, clothes, and architecture than in religious subjects--or at least so the Inquisition thought. Whereas Tintoretto appears, on the evidence of his painting, to have been an obsessive, tortured, and deeply spiritual genius. Often they painted similar subjects, which makes for direct comparisons. (E.g. Tintoretto's "Marriage of Cana" in S. Maria della Salute versus Veronese's "Banquet in the House of Levi" in the Accademia--great to see on the same day). In addition to the other paintings by each artist in the Accademia, and Tintoretto's harrowing cycle in S. Rocco, it would be important to visit each man's parish church, where he painted a great deal and was buried. (It's S. Sebastiano for Veronese; Madonna del'Orto for Tintoretto.)
  • Focus on the major scuole, charitable fraternities for bourgeois Venetian laymen. You can obtain an introduction to the history of Venetian art by visiting the following scuole in this order: the Scuola Grande di S. Marco (hard to get into, but the facade is an experiment in early Renaissance architecture and scientific perspective); the Scuola Grande di S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni (with charming early Renaissance paintings by Carpaccio); room 21 of the Accademia Gallery (equally charming Carpaccios taken from the Scuola di Sant' Orsola), room 24 of the Accademia (a whole preserved chamber from the Scuola della Carita with a high-renaissance masterpiece by Titian), the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco (Tintoretto's cycle from the end of the Renaissance), and the Scuola Grande dei Carmini (with elaborate and cheerful rococo ceilings by Tiepolo).
  • Consider the facades of a dozen Venetian churches--there are more than 125 still standing--as efforts to solve a common problem. The typical Christian church has a high central nave and two lower side aisles. This is a design borrowed from Roman law courts, which were called "basilicae." Many people find the plain front of a basilican church an ugly shape: a high box with two smaller boxes on either side. So the architect must cover, conceal, or soften it without tacking on a completely different shape. There are dozens of solutions to this problem in Venice, some original, and each reflecting specific values. For example, Palladio, wanting to imitate classical aesthetics, started with two Greek temples. He put the larger one in front of the nave and sliced the smaller one in two, putting each half in front of an aisle. He used this solution at least four times in Venice, and it's interesting to compare the subtle differences.
  • Buy a Chorus Pass, which provides admission to 20 Venetian parish churches. Each participating church provides laminated cards that identify the significant works of art. Visit as many of the churches as you can. The cards won't help to distinguish works that are commonly considered masterpieces from ordinary paintings and sculptures. But maybe that's an advantage. Decide which works you like best, and keep a record of your favorite artists.
  • Take the King James' version of the Bible along and read the passages that are illustrated in so many works of art, starting with the fine early Christian objects in Torcello and the Basilica of S. Marco. For instance, all artists who portray a scene called "The Annunciation" choose a specific phrase from Luke 1:28-38 to illustrate; which phrase they choose makes a significant difference.
  • Sit alongside a picturesque stretch of canal and consider the buildings opposite, one by one. It would help to have a detailed guide, like Alta Macadam's Blue Guide to Venice, and some schematic drawings that distinguish Byzantine, gothic, Renaissance, and baroque architectural elements. Each facade tells a story. For example, two columns incorporated into an old window may be of Greco-Roman origin. The arch over the same window, if it's Venetian gothic, reflects powerful Moorish influence. (Venice grew rich trading with the Moslem world.) The little round opening below the window may be modern, cut to accommodate an electric fan. The next window was perhaps used for loading freight onto boats; now it's bricked in. The whole scene is a record of human adaptation and expression over scores of generations.
  • permanent link | comments (0) | category: cities , fine arts

    April 12, 2006

    Judas, priest

    I don't know much about gnosticism, but it's interesting to compare the newly translated gnostic "Gospel of Judas" with the four canonical gospels as works of literature. The contrast that jumps out at everyone concerns plot and characterization: Judas is the hero, rather than the villain, in the document named after him. But I was interested that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have literary merits far in excess of "Judas." Perhaps this was one reason they prevailed in the early centuries of Christianity.

    1. Point of view

    In the canonical gospels, it's easy to identify with the apostles. Jesus is a partially mysterious figure, but his followers are very recognizable human beings. For example, Peter's denial of Jesus (Matthew 26:74-75) is one of the most vivid descriptions of the internal state of a flawed person ever written in antiquity, as Erich Auerbach argued in his book Mimesis.

    In parts of the canonical Gospels, the apostles are distinguished from everyone else because Jesus shares secrets with them alone: "Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them" (Mark 4:11-12). It appears that the purpose of Jesus' secrecy is to deny the multitude knowledge that would save them.* However, we readers have full access to what the twelve apostles learn in private, so we can fully understand the parable. We naturally identify with the disciples and not with the multitude. John ends his Gospel: "these are written, that ye might believe ... and that believing ye might have life."

    In contrast, it's impossible to identify with Judas in his eponymous gnostic gospel. Jesus asks whether anyone has the strength to bring the "perfect human" out from within him, and apparently Judas does. He and the other apostles also receive remarkable visions--among others, a vision of themselves as temple-priests who commit various sins. They know things about "Barbelo" and other exotic realms. In all these respects, they are unlike us. It is very difficult to identify with them as they receive Jesus' gnostic message--which (in any case) remains cryptic even after he explains it to them.

    2. the dramatis personae

    In the canonical gospels, virtually every character is a realistically depicted human being. God is abstract and universal, but God does not speak or appear in the gospels themselves. There are some angels, but they act roughly like human beings and understand the emotions of their human interlocutors. (Said the angel, "Fear not, Zacharias ...") When Jesus appears transfigured in a shining raiment, it is a powerful image because we have come to know him as a regular human being, starting as a baby.

    In contrast, there are multitudes of non-human characters in the Gospel of Judas: for instance, the seventy-two luminaries, who themselves make another 360 "luminaries appear in the incorruptible generation." There are also various supernatural beings with names like Yaldaboath and Saklas. It is impossible to visualize these figures in any concrete form. Even Jesus is introduced with a phrase that suggests he didn't appear or behave like a regular mortal: "Often he did not appear to his disciples as humself, but was found among them as a child."

    3. Laughter

    Famously, Jesus does not laugh in the canonical Bible, although he is laughed at to scorn. In the short text of "Judas," he laughs three times--in fact, it is his characteristic way of opening a dialogue with the apostles. His laugh is mirthless, a scornful dismissal of sinners.

    *This is the passage (the Parable of the Sower) in which Jesus describes some seed that falls on a rock where it cannot put down roots. Likewise, in "Judas," Jesus explains: "It is impossible to sow seed on [rock] and harvest its fruit." The Parable of the Sower must have had special interest for the Gnostics, because it explains why a few are chosen and the rest are ignorant. Note that while Mark says, "these things are done in parables ... that [hina] they may ... not perceive," Matthew softens it to: "Therefore speak I to them in parables: because [hoti] they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand" (Matt 13:13). In Matthew, the Parable is a technique for enlightening the ignorant; in Mark, it is a way of keeping them so.

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    February 28, 2006

    Shakespeare in retirement

    I recently finished Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, a chronological series of essays about Shakespeare's life and its influence on his work. It leaves me thinking about the reasons for Shakespeare's early retirement around 1611. That year he turned 47 and was probably not in bad health, for he had bought an expensive annuity that would only pay off if he faced decades of retirement (Greenblatt, p. 364). Why then did he quit London and write nothing more on his own? Greenblatt explores three explanations, and I will add a fourth of my own that's completely speculative:

    1. It was a very sensible business decision to retire. Shakespeare had worked extremely hard and become wealthy. But the risks were high. Any time there was a sign of the plague, the authorities would close down all theaters. A fire like the one that destroyed the Globe in 1613 could destroy Shakespeare's investments in his company. In 1604, he and his colleagues had inadvertently offended the King with the Tragedy of Gowrie, a dramatization of James' own past. Such mistakes were easy to make and could cause the government to close companies or even to impose grim punishments like shaving off actors' noses or chopping off their hands. Shakespeare may have decided to quit while he was ahead.

    Why didn't he continue to write plays in Stratford, giving up his roles as actor, producer, and theatrical investor? Perhaps it's an anachronism to imagine Shakespeare as a simple writer: he had always been a creator of theatrical entertainments, involved in all aspects of the work from writing to costumes. Shakespeare showed little interest in the publication of his own plays, so it may not have occurred to him to write without also acting and producing. (He collaborated with John Fletcher on three plays after 1611, and his motive may have been to help Fletcher or the company.)

    2. Greenblatt speculates that Shakespeare wanted to spend time with his daughter Susanna. His will was carefully written to benefit her above all others. The bond between fathers and daughters is a major theme in Lear, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, among other plays. Shakespeare explores that relationship far more fully than he does the bond between husbands and wives. It is not such a strange thought that he would trade the stress of theatrical management in London for domestic life with a beloved child.

    3. More interestingly: perhaps Shakespeare had moral or even "existential" doubts about his own power to create imaginary worlds and to move large audiences to his will. His last sole-authored play is The Tempest, in which Prospero manipulates all the other characters by contriving an elaborate plot and even magically creating specters who act out scenes.

    ... graves at my command
    Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
    By my so potent art. But this rough magic
    I here abjure.

    Greenblatt compares Shakespeare's power to "ope" the graves of Lear, Caesar, Hamlet, Henry IV and all the other historical figures of his plays, who come magically to life. Could Shakespeare, like Prospero, have "abjured" that power for ethical reasons? We could supply reasons specific to Shakespeare's age. Before and during the Reformation, many were skeptical of fiction (because it lied), of tragedy (because it suggested that creation was not fundamentally good), and of entertainment (because it distracted from faith). Shakespeare could have shared those worries. Or perhaps this man who surpassed all others in the capacity to create illusions with words saw dangers that transcended his time.

    4. We know that Shakespeare discovered how to represent the interior life of characters on the stage. He invented the soliloquy and also learned (as I think the ancients had) to use irony to give glimpses of characters' inner thinking. Not only could he hint at the private thoughts of characters, but he could conjure up their social and historical contexts with just a few words of description. However, the stage is not really the best vehicle for exploring psychology or for depicting social context. The novel offers far richer possibilities for those purposes. Shakespeare read Don Quixote, which provided the plot for his lost collaborative play, Cardenio (ca. 1613). I like to think of him retiring to Stratford, to an annuity and to quiet surroundings, so that he could write a different kind of work--perhaps the first great English novel, or conceivably some other narrative text, such as a biography or even an autobiography. Perhaps that work died unfinished with its author.

    Many critics have noted that Shakespeare had an extraordinary capacity not to take an authorial position on the issues of his plays, but rather to depict a range of perspectives. Coleridge called this skill "myriad-mindedness"; Keats named it "negative capability"; and Arnold said that Shakespeare was "free from our questions." A novelist, too, can attain neutrality or multi-mindedness: Cervantes is an excellent example. But negative capability in a narrative requires different techniques from those appropriate in drama. If Shakespeare tried to write a novel, would he have struggled to suppress his own opinions? Or would he have seized the opportunity, finally, to say what he believed?

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Shakespeare & his world , fine arts

    February 2, 2006

    Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red

    I've been wanting to write something insightful about this novel, which I read recently. To state that is is a masterpiece is not nearly as convincing or useful as to interpret it or elucidate one of its many themes. Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to collect my thoughts about My Name is Red. Rather than leave it unmentioned, I'd at least like to express my admiration for this remarkable book. It contains intricate, completely original puzzles and stories on metaphysical subjects--worthy of Borges. However, Borges was uninterested in human beings and couldn't sustain a plot or create appealing characters. My Name is Red revolves around two people who are richly imagined and likeable. They interact with numerous other people, at least two of whom have unforgettable personalities. Pamuk's puzzles and Borgesian short stories are integral parts of an overall plot which is very suspenseful, compelling, and naturalistic. Whereas Borges is cold and cerebral, Pamuk is deeply humane.

    The novel plays with philosophical themes--the purpose of representational art, the relationship between painting and memory, the idea of an artistic style and of originality, blindness and insight, the influence of the West (and cultural influence, in general). With excellent "negative capability," Pamuk avoids taking a position on these issues but instead shows them from many angles. If all these virtues weren't sufficient, My Name is Red vividly represents the unfamiliar world of Istanbul, ca. 1591. And Pamuk makes great use of the modernist device of giving each chapter to a different narrator--all highly unreliable. At the very end, we learn something surprising about the narration of the whole book.

    Pamuk has been persecuted by the contemporary Turkish state; he just won a tactical legal victory. The following two claims are both true but are completely separate and independent:

    (1) Orhan Pamuk is a hero of free speech whose legal case is important for human rights. (And I say that having spent some six total weeks in Turkey, a country for which I feel a lot of sympathy and fondness.)

    (2) Orhan Pamuk is one of the greatest contemporary novelists in the world.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    November 25, 2005


    In the National Gallery this morning, I was looking at a Madonna and Child by Antonio Rossellino (I show a detail here). It's a low-relief sculpture carved about 1475. Look at the pillow at the bottom right, on which the toddler Jesus stands. This is a representation of a squarish object, depicted in linear perspective. To work correctly as a representation, it must be viewed from straight ahead. The marble pillow is also a three-dimensional object. You can look at it from several angles. If you were allowed to take it down off the wall, you could hold it, feel it, slide your finger behind it. It would not be a square but kind of a fat trapezoid. There is something quite strange about a three-dimensional object whose purpose is to look like an object of a different shape if viewed from a particular angle. What shape is it really?

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    November 9, 2005

    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

    I just finished reading Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an amazing novel about the "return of English magic" during the Napoleonic era. It resembles books in which the author conducts research into some occult or supernatural beliefs and then pretends that these beliefs are true. That mix of historical research and make-believe is evident in Umberto Eco's novels, in the Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, and (to name two less successful examples) in my Something to Hide and Tongues of Fire. However, Clarke's book is different. As far as I can tell, the scholarly research that appears to underlie the novel is entirely invented. Clarke has made up the historical tradition that she seems to have rediscovered. That tradition is so richly imagined and so multidimensional that it seems real.

    At the same time, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a compelling, suspenseful story. Despite being about magic, it's for grownups. Adult relationships (especially a marriage and the competition between two professionals) are at the heart of the book. I read it jealously, since I would rather have written it than done any other kind of work. But my jealousy--which also happens to be a big theme in the book--did not prevent me from enjoying it thoroughly.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    November 7, 2005

    trying to look at Las Meninas

    Last week in Madrid, I spent a long time staring at Las Meninas by Velazquez. I soon realized that some of the other tourists, especially those accompanied by professional guides, were deliberately looking at the painting in pocket mirrors. I went to the museum gift shop and bought myself a small mirror. I thought I was clever to find one, but on reflection I suspect that the Prado stocks mirrors just so that people can use them to view Las Meninas.

    I don't know precisely why people look at Velazquez' masterpiece in a mirror. To me, however, the reflection of the painting looked extraordinarily three-dimensional--more real and natural than the tourists who constantly passed in front of it. Velazquez depicts light coming from three angles, the back, the right, and the front; and all the resulting shadows and highlights create a startling illusion of depth when viewed in a small mirror.

    Many of the tourists behaved in the following way. They rapidly approached the painting, planted one of their party in front of it, took a digital picture of this person, and then walked away. I often saw this in my mirror.

    Las Meninas shows Velazquez looking back at us, so to speak. He has been painting a large canvas that we cannot see. It blocks his view, so he looks around and directly at the middle of the crowd of tourists. Several of the other people represented in Las Meninas also look in our direction.

    What is Velazquez painting? There is a mirror behind him on which appear the faces of the King and Queen of Spain. So perhaps the mirror reflects the canvass that Velazquez has been working on. In that case, we are viewing a double royal portrait reflected in the mirror. There is no reason to assume that the King and Queen still stand before Velazquez at the moment depicted in the painting. He might be working on the background or applying a varnish after his sitters have left.

    Alternatively, perhaps the King and Queen do stand in front of Velazquez, just where I stood with my mirror and the other tourists posed for their snapshots. Then the mirror behind Velazquez shows the two live Royals. He might be painting them, or he might be painting something else while they happen to visit his studio.

    In fact, the royal couple could be visiting Velazquez while he paints Las Meninas, which is a portrait of their daughter and her attendants. Then, on the canvas in front of him, Velazquez would also appear--painting Velazquez, painting Velazquez, painting Velazquez, in a mise-en-abime. All these theories have been advanced and defended.

    When I was in the Prado, Velazquez appeared to be looking--not at the King and Queen--but at the backs of tourists, who faced the viewfinders of cameras, which appeared in my mirror as I stood with my back to Velazquez looking at him. It was a very "post-modern" moment, made even more self-referential by the fact that Foucault himself wrote a famous essay about the self-referentiality of Las Meninas.

    Why were the tourists taking pictures of Las Meninas? Because it is a Masterpiece. Walter Benjamin explained that when a unique object is reproduced thousands of times over, the original gains an aura. It alone is "real," and all the coffee table books, documentaries, postcards, coasters, and candles that reproduce it are fakes. People want to be able to go home and see themselves in a reproduction of Las Meninas that proves that they were near the actual object, the one that Velazquez himself made. Velazquez, after all, was a Great Artist--which happens to one of the messages of Las Meninas. The artist shows that his genius has made him the peer of great aristocrats.

    Las Meninas is a Masterpiece for several other reasons: the excellence of the illusion, the air of mystery, the striking ensemble, the self-portrait (which ties the image to its genius-maker), the perennial appeal of a princess and her life at court, and even the remoteness of Madrid in the 19th century, which allowed visitors to report that there was a great painting in the Prado that people couldn't appreciate unless they went all the way to Spain to see it. "Las Meninas" had an aura even when it could only be reproduced in lithographs.

    I have spoken of "tourists." I want to make clear that I was also a tourist in the Prado, also standing in front of the artifact to be near it and blocking others' view. I would never take a snapshot of myself in front of a painting; I'm too much of a snob for that. But I am writing a souvenir right now, wanting to remind myself what it was like to be near Las Meninas. While I was there, I had so many meta-thoughts that I'm not sure how well I saw the thing-in-itself.

    One kind of tourist wants to do what is typically done by tourists. The goal is to experience the classic experience. In contrast, we academics are trained to be original. We get no credit for writing something that has already been written. For us, Masterpieces like Las Meninas become imposing, they gain a kind of aura, because so much has been said about them in the past that there is surely nothing we can add. Ortega y Gasset argued that Velazquez had established the nobility of painting by depicting himself as a courtier-painter. Foucault declared Las Meninas to be the death of representation. John Searle declared Foucault to be wrong. Svetlana Alpers took issue with both Foucault and Searle. And legions of specialists have isolated the pigments, analyzed the perspective lines, traced Velazquez' influences, and identified the figures in the painting. What else is there to say?

    Actually, if I had time to play the academic in relation to Las Meninas, I would look at what has been written about the dog (hoping, of course, that no one has written anything, because then I could leave my mark). Pets are domesticated nature, and nothing could be more domesticated than a large hunting dog that allows a dwarf to step on its back without moving. In Renaissance terms, court dwarves are natural (as opposed to supernatural), but also unnatural (as opposed to normal); and they are part of the King's domestic scene. Painting, too, is domesticated nature: it is infinite, shifting space reduced through magical artifice to a flat, motionless surface.

    In Las Meninas, everyone is looking at someone or something: everyone except the dog, whose eyes seem to be closed. We look at nature; nature doesn't look at us. We look at paintings, and usually paintings don't look at us. But Las Meninas is an unusual painting, one in which the artist has to peer around a large canvass to look in our direction, and in which a mirror pointed in our direction eerily reflects the King and Queen of Spain. Las Meninas is a piece of canvass with some paint on it; it is also an artifact with a sacred aura. Viewed in a mirror, it looks more real than reality. All this is enough to make you wonder how natural the painting really is.

    permanent link | comments (8) | category: fine arts

    November 3, 2005

    the monastery of the royal shoeless

    Yesterday, before my conference began, I explored Madrid and took a tour of El Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales. This is actually a Franciscan convent, which is why the nuns are "shoeless." They were originally "royal" because the institution was created to house princesses and other aristocratic women who (thanks to dynastic politics) were not destined to marry, or were widowed, or needed to retreat from court scandals.

    Franciscan nuns are called "Poor Clares" after their founder, Chiara of Assisi, the daughter of Favorino Scifi, Count of Sasso-Rosso. Chiara (or Clare) renounced all her considerable worldly goods in order to follow the example of her personal friend, Francis of Assisi. In her struggle to become poor, she had to contend first with the hostility of her father and then with a series of popes who wanted the nuns who followed her to hold property in common. Other orders held vast quantities of joint property, but radicals of Clare's day believed that such wealth, even if it technically belonged to the group rather than to individuals, corrupted the Church. Clare persuaded Gregory IX to change his own prior written instructions and grant her the Privilegium Paupertatis, the "privilege to be poor." He knew this was a radical and subversive idea. For if the "Clares" were poor, why might the Church be rich?

    Anyway, the Royal Shoeless of Madrid, although Poor Clares, have certainly held some collective wealth. Their monastery contains numerous chapels and halls arrayed around a tranquil, two-story cloister. Practically every inch of the interior is covered in religious art: paintings, sculptures, frescos, reliquaries, gilt altarpieces, and dioramas made of porcelein figurines. Most of the art is distinctly second-rate, although there seems to be a fine Titian and some magnificent Flemish tapestries executed to designs ("cartoons") by Rubens.

    I am very accustomed to religious art and love a great deal of it. I have also been in nunneries built for aristocratic women, such as the Beguine-houses of Bruges. But I must admit that the sentimentality of the art at the "Descalzas" put me over the edge. Picture cloistered virgin princesses spending their lives worshipping before images of the Mother and Child. I presume they see Mary as the ideal woman because she represents motherly charity without sex. Then notice that underneath several of the Madonnas in the Descalzes are wounded babies laid out on crosses or tombs. In each of these images, a Baroque putto has been crucified to foreshadow his tragic end.

    The "Descalzas" also contains an extraordinary collection of saintly relics in elaborate containers. They are said to be the body parts of tortured and murdered Christians, displayed for adoration. Then there are whole rooms full of Hapsburg portraits--the men depicted in armor--and some elaborate allegories of Catholicism versus heresy.

    Sentimentality, opulence, aristocratic pedigrees, vows of poverty, military violence, images of torture in a home walled off from all worldly evils ... the mixture is hard to take. Not that I envy the nuns of the Descalzas. There was something about the walls--scrubbed clean but last painted a long time ago--the bare electric lighting, the stern signs, and all that didactic art that made me think of a hospital, a scary old boarding school, or even a reformatory. We never saw the nuns themselves; they hide away while the tours go through.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    September 5, 2005

    Laxdaela Saga: political freedom and psychological insight

    On our way to Iceland, I read an Icelandic saga that we happened to have in our apartment (because my wife had read it in college). The sagas were written in the thirteenth century, when Iceland was reasonably well integrated into Christian Europe; but they are set 200-300 years earlier, in the days of the Icelandic Free State. This was an amazing polity, a nation formed by chieftains from Norway, Ireland, and other diverse places and cultures. They met annually at an assembly called the Althing, which functioned as a legislature--writing criminal and civil laws--and a court. They had no executive branch at all. This meant that there were no taxes and no public expenditures on things like temples and churches, roads, or armies. For the same reason, there no police power. The main sentence passed at the Althing was outlawry. An outlaw was supposed to leave Iceland. If he stayed, anyone could kill him.

    Me and my girls at Thingvellir, where the Icelandic assembly began meeting in 930

    Incidentally, women had a striking degree of freedom and equality. They could divorce at will (although they would only receive half of the property if they showed cause for the divorce); and they represented several of the strongest characters in the saga I read. All the characters seem to care whether husbands and wives had compatible personalities and loved one another--which surely wasn't a priority in early-Modern Europe. Perhaps the hardship of Icelandic life made everyone (including women) indispensable; or perhaps the lack of an executive power prevented women from being dominated.

    The Icelandic sagas and their world have attracted distinguished modern theorists with interests in moral philosophy and/or politics and economics: notably, Richard Posner, Alasdair McIntyre, and Jared Diamond. The only primary source I have read is Laxdaela Saga (in translation, of course), but I did find it fascinating. It has a complex plot that can only be described as "realistic." It is about people and their property and relationships. There is almost nothing supernatural or otherwise unbelievable. Perhaps in a society created as an actual voluntary contract--one that preserved a great deal of individual liberty--people became interested in human motives and actions. What Jakob Burkhardt famously wrote of the medieval mind was not true of the Icelanders. He said that in the Middle Ages,

    both sides of human consciousness--the side turned to the world and that turned inward--lay, as it were, beneath a common veil, dreaming or half awake. The veil was woven of faith, childlike prejudices, and illusion; seen through it, world and history appeared in strange hues; man recognized himself only as a member of a race, a nation, a party, a corporation, a family, or in some other general category.

    In contrast, the sage-authors were like Burkhardt's "men of the Renaissance": "self-aware individuals" who recognized themselves as such. It would be fascinating if their self-awareness arose because they happened to find themselves on an unpopulated island (something like the State of Nature) and negotiated a "liberal" social contract.

    I was most surprised by the following feature of the Laxdaela narrative. Gudrun Osvif's-daughter is the central character, a very strong, clever, and passionate woman who marries four times, begins a feud, raises a family, and ultimately becomes Iceland's first nun after the conversion to Christianity. Clearly, she loves Kjartan Olafsson very passionately. She hates his innocent wife and provokes her third husband, Bolli, to kill Kjartan--but we can see that even at that moment she is motivated by her repressed love. The narrator sees this too, and chooses to end the whole saga with her confession to her son: "I was worst to the one I loved most." All of her important acts arise from her unstated passion for Kjartan; but the author does not say so as he (or she?) goes along. Nor does Gudrun or any other character explain her motives explicitly.

    It is common enough for a modern novelist to "say and not tell"--in other words, to make a character act consistently as a result of one underlying emotion, but not to explain the reason until the end, if at all. It is also common to explain actions as the results of unconscious and repressed emotions. But I was surprised to find these features in a medieval text. In contrast, the authors of the various Arthurian romances (as I recall) tell us exactly why each character takes each action; yet the knights and ladies act on unpredictable whims. They have little coherence as characters. The author of Laxdaela Saga is both more sophisticated and less explicit about human motivations than his contemporaries in England, Germany, or France. Again, I wonder whether his insightfulness is connected to the political system under which he wrote.

    By the way, whatever you do, don't read Laxdaela saga in the "translation" by Muriel Press (1899), even though it's available free on the Internet. The sagas were written is a terse, factual, straightforward, easy style. As Gerald of Wales wrote during the Middle Ages, "this people [the Icelanders] have a truthful and terse speech. They use few and short words" (pdf). But Press uses numerous archaism and coinages, turning the original text into something flowery and obscure: more like late Joyce than Hemingway, who would be a better model.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    July 11, 2005

    books I read as a teenager that I'd like to read again

    On the blog "Balloon Juice," John Cole lists five books that he read as a teen or young adult and that he considers worth re-reading today. He asks some other bloggers to compile similar lists, picking them out by name. By way of Laura at 11D, the game reached Russell Arben Fox at In Medias Res, who passed it on to me. I'm flattered to be "tagged." Besides, nostalgia is one of my most pervasive and favorite emotions. So here goes ...

    When I turned 12 and 13, I attended a very scary English school, then for boys only, physically resembling Hogwarts but much more concerned with corporal punishment and personal neatness. To get there, I rode British Rail by myself and often read the newspaper on the way. (The headlines must have been about recession, oil shortages, racial conflict in London, terrorist bombings, and revolution in Iran. The details change, but the wheel keeps turning.) Most of my books came either from the school's library or from the public library branch behind Victoria Station, where I would walk on my own.

    I mention all this because it's only by thinking of physical places that I can conjure up titles of books from that era. Among the ones that I would like to read again were Rudyard Kipling's Kim and William McFee's Casuals of the Sea (1916). I thought Kim was a great adventure (no parents, espionage, mysticism, the Empire--what more could a boy want?). Later in life, I would have assumed that it was sheer imperial propaganda. But Pankraj Mishra's recent essay in the New York Review of Books has made me want to look at it again (although I'd rather read Mishra himself). As for Casuals of the Sea--it was some kind of fictional biography, beginning with the hero's conception in an extramarital sex scene that I shouldn't have read when I was 12 (although I suspect it was tame). The protagonist then lived in London and worked on ships, but I remember little else.

    During those years, I read a series of Napoleonic sea novels that traced the hero's career from midshipman to admiral. It wasn't the "Horatio Hornblower" series, because I had read that earlier. I vaguely remember that the author's name was Irish. Could I have been reading the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brien? It seems unlikely, especially since I read Post Captain in 2004 and had no recollection of it whatsoever.

    For the next five years, we lived in Syracuse, New York, making frequent, long visits to New York City and spending the summers in England, with two separate months in Paris. I believe a read a lot of history and archaeology in those years. The one book that I recall well enough to want to re-read is Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station, which is basically the history of the idea that human nature is highly changeable. I would call that idea "historicism," and it became my main intellectual interest right through graduate school. Wilson brilliantly combines intellectual history with portraits of major political figures: above all, Lenin.

    In about tenth grade, I read a series of anti-totalitarian novels from the 1930s, cementing my liberalism. They included Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four (which I was assigned to read, with millions of others, in 1984), Malraux's Man's Fate, and Koestler's Darkness at Noon. The 1930s seemed much closer then than they do today, partly because another 20 years have elapsed, and partly because the Soviet Union still existed.

    I also read lots of mystery, suspense, fantasy, and adventure, ranging from Ivanhoe to John le Carre. I fondly remember Ursula Le Guin as well as Tolkien. I have no idea whether I would find the Earthsea trilogy fascinating or sheer hokum today, but I'm looking forward to trying it with my little daughter in a few years.

    One summer in my later teens, I went each day to the National Art Library inside the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is open to the public as a nineteenth-century venture in democratic education. There I read Ernst Gombrich's Art and Illusion with great interest. Gombrich was deeply influenced by his friend Karl Popper; he saw the history of art as a series of scientific experiments in representing the world realistically. Since the stone age, people have found or randomly created objects that happen to resemble the world. They notice the resemblance and so learn to imitate nature. But each imitation is wrong in some ways; later artists learn to correct it. One of Gombrich's aphorisms is "Making comes before matching."

    By the way, Gombrich's account of art history is intended to answer the following question: "Why is it that different ages and different nations have represented the visible world in such different ways?" He replies that art has always had a single purpose--representation--and it has proceeded by trial and error. This theory contradicts a historicist account, according to which each "culture" has its own fundamental conception of art. In my late teens, I wanted somehow to put those two ideas together.

    So whom do I "tag" to continue this game? How about: Prairie Weather, Brad Rourke, Brett Marston, Ciarn O'Kelly, "Imshin", Anjali Taneja, and Eli.

    permanent link | comments (4) | category: fine arts , memoir

    May 31, 2005

    Seamus Heaney's Beowulf

    I just finished Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf. I haven't done any background reading or learned anything about the social context or critical debate, so these are untutored thoughts (fit for a notebook, which is what my blog really is).

    1. A gift economy: Beowulf learns that Hrothgar, king of the Danes, is suffering from the scourges of a monster, so, unbidden, he sails to Denmark to offer his services. After he has killed Grendel (a whole day after, in fact--see line 1784), Hrothgar allows him to choose treasures from his store; Beowulf is "paid and recompensed completely" (2145). The hero sails home and gives everything he has received to his king, Hygelac (2148). Hygelac responds by giving Beowulf an ancient sword, land, hides, and a hall and throne.

    None of this is negotiated in advance. The great anthropologists Bronislaw Malinoswski and Marcel Mauss showed that gift-giving is sharply distinguished from negotiation in some societies. We still have vestiges of a gift economy (for instance, our exchanges of dinner invitations and birthday presents). However, in other cultures, the gift is the main medium of exchange, the means by which goods circulate and incentives are created. As Hrothgar tells Beowulf (in Heaney's translation):

    For as long as I rule this far-flung land
    treasures will change hands and each side will treat
    the other with gifts; across the gannet's bath,
    over the broad sea, whorled prows will bring
    presents and tokens. (1859-63)

    Queens and other wives are also gifts (see 2017), which is not to say that they are powerless. Great Queen Modthryth, for instance, orders men shackled, racked, tortured, and killed for looking directly at her face.

    2. The poem as buried treasure: Beowulf was completely forgotten for eight centuries, and then used only as a source of historical data until people like Tolkein and Yeats began to recognize its literary value and take inspiration from it. In other words, it had nothing to do with the history of English literature from the Norman Conquest until 1900, except that the language in which it was written evolved slowly into ours.

    For his part, the anonymous author set his story in a distant and almost lost past--the culture of his pagan, Viking ancestors. There is an air of elegy in the whole work. Therefore, it is poignant that the poem seems to foretell its own burial. The dragon who finally kills Beowulf has found a treasure from a distant past:

    There were many other
    heirlooms heaped inside the earth-house,
    because long ago, with deliberate care,
    somebody now forgotten
    had buried the riches of a high-born race
    in this ancient cache. Death had come
    and taken them all in times gone by
    and the only one left to tell their tale,
    the last of their line, could look forward to nothing
    but the same fate for himself: he foresaw that his joy
    in the treasure would be brief. (2231-2241)

    The author of Beowulf resembles that last survivor (also anonymous); but Tolkein, Yeats, and their contemporaries found the treasure that he left behind and saved him from total obscurity.

    3. The beautiful digressions: In Mimesis, Erich Auerbach observes that "the Homeric style knows only a foreground." He means that every episode, flashback, digression, and simile in the Iliad is told with the same intensity and emphasis. The author does not know how to--or chooses not to--make the main story line primary and relegate the subsidiary parts of the narrative to the background.

    The same is certainly true of Beowulf, which has a striking tendency to wander off into stories that are not part of the main plot but are related to it in various tenuous ways. (For example, either the narrator or a speaker will tell a whole story because the main character behaves differently from Beowulf.) Our relationship to all the characters in the main and subsidiary plots is the same, because none has an interior life.

    However, I often found the digressions to be the most beautiful portions of the text, as if the author had found tender and moving passages and inserted them into the narrative because he liked them. Perhaps the best is the "Father's Lament" (2444-2462), an epic simile that Beowulf introduces in the middle of a speech that is itself digressive, because it describes an episode from his own past:

    It was like the misery felt by an old man
    who has lived to see his son's body
    swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
    and weep for his boy, watching the raven
    gloat where he hangs; he can be of no help.
    The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
    Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
    that his child is gone; he has no interest
    in living on until another heir
    is born in the hall, now that his first-born
    has entered death's dominion forever.
    He gazes sorrowfully at his son's dwelling,
    the banquet hall bereft of all delight,
    the windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
    the warriors under ground; what was is no more.
    No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.
    Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
    and sings a lament; everything seems too large,
    the steadings and the fields.

    That is very fine poetry, I think--both the original and the translation. However, I must say that I found Heaney's version uneven. Sometimes the word-choice seems misguided. For instance: "Here we have been welcomed / and thoroughly entertained" (1820-1). It sounds as if the guests had heard a few good jokes, when actually they were given mead and food and beds. Or take this passage: "He was Yremnlaf's elder brother / and a soul-mate to me, a true mentor, my right-hand man when the ranks clashed ..." (1324-1326). "Mentor" is a latinate word with a bureaucratic or institutional ring. "Soul-mate" sounds new-agey to me. "Right-hand man" is slangy and American. I'm sure each word is accurate and justified, but the overall diction seems miscellaneous, as if Heaney had relied on a thesaurus. I can't really read the original, but surely it is dignified and formal, whereas sometimes Heaney's diction is colloquial Americanese: "Yet there was no way the weakened nation / could get Beowulf to give in and agree" (2373-4). ("There was no way" instead of "It was impossible for"; "get" instead of "persuade.")

    On the other hand, this is a poem by the deserving Nobelist Heaney, and it has many strengths. For example, Beowulf's cremation scene is deeply moving and certainly deserves comparison to Hector's funeral in Book 12 of the Iliad. As Beowulf is consumed in a great pyre,

    A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
    with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
    of her worst fears, a wild litany
    of nightmare and lament; her nation invaded,
    enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
    slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.

    What she faces is too much to bear, yet human beings by the millions have faced as bad and worse.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    April 5, 2005

    New York's aesthetic

    I went back to New York yesterday, to hear former Governor Jim Hunt, Federal Judge (and Pennsylvania First Lady) Midge Rendell, Wendy Puriefoy of the Public Education Network, and others speak in support of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools.

    As a child and a young adult, I spent a lot of time in New York City, and it left a powerful imprint. However, I don't get there much these days. With the benefit of distance, I decided yesterday that the city's distinctive aesthetic can be captured by three simple concepts.

    First, it is a strongly rectangular place, on account of the famous Manhattan street grid and the vertical rectangles of the buildings. Second, everything seems to be covered with fine, intricate patterns. That's because you can see a long way in Manhattan: far along the straight streets and up the sides of the buildings (or down them, if you're inside). In a city like Washington, you can't get far enough away from a window or a car to see it as a shiny point in a pattern. If you do get a distant view of a building, it lies low on the horizon, so that most of your visual field is sky and trees: lumps of color. But in New York, the distant windows and balconies etch regular patterns on the massive rectangles all around you, patterns that are complicated by tree limbs, wires, cornices, fire-escapes, and signs. The rows of buildings make thin vertical stripes as they recede toward the vanishing point; and the cars on Park Avenue or the FDR Drive are numerous enough to form their own mosaics. Even human crowds turn into patterns.

    Third, New York is huge. Even if youre moving quickly in a car down a long avenue, you're conscious that there's much, much more of the central city than what you can see. In this respect, it's different from the densest and tallest sections of Chicago or Philadelphia.

    Rectangularity, delicate pattern, and vast scale: these three concepts combine to give New York (and especially Manhattan) its distinctive look. Within this structure, more concrete and idiosyncratic aspects of the city awaken my oldest memories: the quick double-taps on car horns, the smell of chestnuts and hotdog-water from vending carts, the deadened roar of traffic heard from 20 or 40 stories up; the surge of pedestrians jay-walking at the first break in traffic.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts , memoir

    January 28, 2005

    the murder of Marlowe

    In the Milwaukee airport (which has a used-book store!), I recently bought Charles Nicholl's The Reckoning. This is a careful effort to solve the murder of Christopher Marlowe in 1593. Most people think that Marlowe, Shakespeare's rival, died in a tavern brawl. It turns out that he was killed after a long meeting in a respectable private house, owned by a woman who had government connections. The other people present were all professional spies, as was Marlowe himself. Nicholl painstakingly assembles evidence that suggests--although it doesn't prove--the following story. (Warning: I'm about to give away Nicholl's "plot," so skip if you think you might read the book.)

    The Earl of Essex, who had a private intelligence service, wanted to finish off his chief rival, the disgraced Sir Walter Raleigh. In parliament, Raleigh had made speeches against the large population of Dutch merchants then resident in London. Essex' men posted an anoymous poem on the London streets threatening the Dutch merchants with a murderous riot; it quoted several of Marlowe's plays. The government formed a commission to investigate who had written this dangerous broadside. They arrested Marlowe's former roommate, the playwright Thomas Kyd. Among Kyd's papers (probably planted by the government), were "atheist" writings, "denyinge the deity of Jhesus Christ our Savior." Under torture, Kyd stated that the papers must be Marlowe's, and that Marlowe was a scoffer against religion. Whether or not Kyd said so explicitly, others held that Marlowe had shared his heretical opinions with Raleigh, who dabbled in magic and was often accused of atheism. In general, Marlowe and Raleigh moved in similar circles.

    Marlowe was arrested. Perhaps the Essex faction expected to be able to condemn him and tar Raleigh with the association. Or perhaps they hoped he would actually give evidence against Raleigh. Unfortunately for them, Marlowe was released--almost certainly because he was an experienced agent in Robert Cecil's spy service. Accused, but evidently under someone's protection, Marlowe represented a risk for several parties. He might provide Cecil with evidence that would reveal the machinations of the Essex faction against Walter Raleigh. Or he might reveal too much about his own work for Cecil. The two major spy networks in the country both had reasons to silence him.

    Somehow he was enticed to meet alone with several agents associated with Essex as well as one of Cecil's leading fixers. The meeting lasted all day and may have involved tense negotiations. In the end, Ingram Frizer, probably a spy for Essex, killed Marlowe. The three spies presented a highly implausible story of self-defense to the coronor's jury, which accepted it. And so Marlowe was silenced.

    A serious literary critic could interestingly explore the relationships between two kinds of "plotting" in Marlowe's life. Many Elizabethan espionage operations were elaborate fake stories, designed to influence popular opinion or to entrap an enemy. Spies were actors, playing parts. Elizabethan plays also had plots, half invented and half based on facts. Nicholl notes this relationship, but he doesn't have space to interpret Marlowe's plays closely in the light of his discoveries about their author's other life.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Shakespeare & his world , fine arts

    December 28, 2004

    aesthetics and history

    Last week in Bruges, Belgium, at the medieval Hospital of St. John, we saw an altarpiece by Hans Memling that's sometimes entitled the "Mystic Marriage of St. Catharine." (The picture to the right is just a detail; click here for a photo of the whole original painting.)

    Even if you knew nothing about this work, you might like it--not necessarily in a digital photograph, but in its original 31 square feet of paint. The figures are extraordinarily realistic. The cloth is rich; the colors are luminous and balanced. The woman wears an expression of repose and kindness. Her pale white skin, the ruddier skin of the man behind her, and the wool of the lamb create interesting tactile contrasts. However, if you somehow thought this were a modern illustration, you might not give it a great deal of thought. You would have to acknowledge the artist's technique, since practically no one can paint light, texture, and skin so naturalistically today. But then again, naturalistic oil painting isn't very useful now that we have color photographs. And if the image turned out to be a photo of models in medieval clothing, it would be downright strange.

    Actually, the altarpiece was painted from 1474-79. That fact makes it much more beautiful than it would otherwise be, I believe. But how can an external fact increase the beauty of an image? The colors would be as rich and harmonious if they had been painted yesterday.

    I think that the date and provenance of a work are relevant to its aesthetic value--for two reasons. First, a painting can evoke a whole lost culture. Flanders in the 15th century was cruel, superstitious, oppressive, dirty, and sometimes vulgar. (There is even some vulgarity in the right wing of the "Mystic Marriage of St. Catharine.") The same civilization was also dynamic, prosperous, and vigorous--the world's leader in international commerce--yet capable of spiritual purity and calm. An image like Memling's altarpiece reflects the best of its entire cultural milieu, which greatly increases its beauty.

    Second, a great work from the past belongs to the "history of art." We tell this story as a series of discoveries and revolutions (borrowing ideas from other fields of history). It is a heroic tale, beginning with the Archaic Greeks and ending with Picasso and Matisse, if not with post-modernism. Each era or movement is described as solving problems or overcoming prejudices inherited from the past. Once the great artists of a particular moment have solved their problems, we no longer admire repetitions of their success. Thus Memling is impressive because he can imply complex interactions among multiple figures much better than his teachers, Van Eyck and Van der Weyden, could. But any journeyman artist of the 17th century could place eight people in an organized open space and show how each related to the others. So what is original in Memling is commonplace two centuries later. And what is original is also beautiful, because we view the whole history of (Western) art as a moving narrative.

    Our emphasis on the historical development of art is itself a feature of our own civilization, not something universal. The first people to tell heroic stories about the development of art were Pliny and Vasari, each coming after a great era of creativity. Their way of appreciating painting and sculpture works perfectly in a secular museum, less well in a temple or a church, which has a different purpose. Memling himself would have had a very limited understanding of the history of art, as shown by the fact that he placed biblical figures in late-Gothic, Flemish settings. Yet our historical sense is what makes us find Memling so beautiful.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: fine arts , philosophy

    September 8, 2004

    the decline of reading

    On July 8, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released a report entitled "Reading at Risk" which uses Census Bureau data to track a substantial decline in the percentage of Americans who read any books, but especially works of "literature" (defined simply as all forms of fiction, drama, and poetry, without regard to quality).

    For those of us who are concerned about civic engagement, it is interesting that regular volunteers are more likely to read than other people. In fact, according to the NEA's fairly sophisticated statistical model, volunteering turns out to be an independent predictor of literary reading. In other words, if you compare two people of the same race, income, age, employment, etc., if one volunteers and the other doesn't, the volunteer is more likely to read fiction or poetry.

    This is only a tidbit of information. I would love to know whether literary reading also predicts other forms of civic engagement, such as voting, joining and leading associations, and protesting. And I would be interested in qualitative research (such as in-depth interviews) that shed some light on why volunteers read--and readers volunteer. In any case, this is an important empirical question. I'm a philosopher, trained in normative (moral or ethical) reasoning, and I have written two books arguing for the moral and civic value of the humanities. But empirical questions are also important. For example, if we argue--in the tradition of Greek Sophists and Renaissance humanists--that stories teach moral lessons, then we should see some behavioral differences between avid readers and non-readers. Apparently, we do.

    Rivka, author of the excellent "Respectful of Otters" blog, raises a series of doubts about the NEA study. Unfortunately, I think she's wrong.

    First, she cites a Gallup release entitled "Poll Shows Continuing Strong American Reading Habits." That survey does present some good news and should be taken seriously. However, it's not strictly comparable to the NEA/Census report, because it includes non-fiction, whereas the NEA focusses on fiction, drama, and poetry. Moroever, in the Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who did not read books at all doubled between 1978 and 1990, then remained pretty stable until the last poll was conducted in 1999. This is consistent with the NEA/Census trend. I haven't find other studies that go back several decades, but the Ipsos surveys show the same distribution of book-buyers by age, income, and region as the NEA/Census.

    Second, Rivka notices readers all around her and recalls huge positive changes, such as the expansion of Barnes & Nobles franchices into towns that were previously without bookstores. How do those observations fit with the NEA study? One answer is that all concrete, personal observations are selective and need to be checked against representative data. How many independent bookstores have gone out of business while B&N expanded? For every commuter train full of readers, how many houses are there without any books? Besides, there is a pretty simple explanation for the evident quantity of readers today--population growth. There are more people, but the average person reads less, so the number of readers has remained flat since 1982: about 96 million people.

    Third, Rivka detects a tone of elitism in the study and the New York Times' coverage of it:

    I'm suspicious of arguments that the majority of people are stupid, uninformed, evil, or immoral, ranged up against a tiny minority of the righteous. In the circles in which I move, the claim that 'most people don't read' is often cited as evidence for this worldview. One of the most vicious online arguments I ever had was with a man who maintained that 'only one or two percent of Americans read anything at all,' and I see that similarly extreme claims have even made it into published books.

    Fair enough, but the NEA study doesn't call people stupid and immoral, and it doesn't claim that no one reads. Ninety-six million adult readers are a lot of human beings by any standard. The question is: compared to what? It seems that we are less likely to read literature today than we were in the past, and that's a bad trend. We Americans seem to be more likely to read than Belgians and Portuguese, but less likely than Canadians, Swedes, and Brits. So there is no call for rending our clothes and putting sackcloth on our loins, but we ought to ask why the rate of reading is down.

    Fourth, Rivka wonders about "literature." As she says, it's "a word with highbrow associations," and she wonders "how the average person applies it. If the Census Bureau asks a voracious consumer of Harlequin Romances about her tastes in 'literature,' will she consider that it applies to her daily reading, or will she deny that she reads any literature at all?" Actually, Census didn't use the word "literature": the survey asked about novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. Only the report uses "literature" as a catch-all. Perhaps some people don't know that the romances they read are "novels," but I would think that's a small problem.

    One final point: in an effort to bridge the "two cultures" of math/science and the arts/humanities, the NEA provides a pretty clear and succinct discussion of statistical modeling at the end of the full report (pdf). I've never seen an explanation of logit models before in an arts report.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    August 20, 2004

    the possibility of historical fiction

    In the book that I'm writing about Dante, I observe that most forms of serious historical fiction are no longer tenable today. A century ago, dramatists like Stephen Phillips in England and Gabrielle D'Annunzio in Italy could still write critically-acclaimed verse dramas set in the middle ages. Churches and other public buildings (especially on college campuses) were still built to look gothic--even in the New World, where there could have been no genuine medieval structures. And there was still a living tradition of "history painting."

    I argue that such fiction is untenable today because it embodies a kind of contradiction that we can no longer stomach. How can a scene from the distant past be depicted with the methods of the present? Victorian painters dressed their characters in medieval clothes, but their paintings were obviously conceived by nineteenth-century artists. If they had been eye-witnesses to the scenes they depicted, then they would have been medieval painters, and their style, as well as their subject, would have looked Gothic. Likewise, DAnnunzios Francesca da Rimini is full of historical details, but it is written in avant-garde free verse. It is obviously not a rediscovered medieval passion play, for it obeys the conventions of symbolist poetry and modern drama. DAnnunzios audience sat across a proscenium arch from a scene that was supposed to resemble a photograph of Ravenna taken in 1250as if there could be any such thing. They were obviously in the hands of a modern playwright. As Paolo Valesio writes, The more the author tries to give the color of historical faithfulness to his designs, the more those designs appear as what they are: dreaming silhouettes. Nietzsche has earlier remarked: Winckelmanns and Goethes Greeks, Victor Hugos Orientals, Wagners Edda characters, Walter Scotts thirteenth-century Englishmensome day someone will reveal the whole comedy! It was all beyond measure historically false."

    Recognizing the artificiality that's always involved in representing the past as if one were an eye-witness, modernists of the 20th century either abandoned the effort altogether or they made a topic of the artifice, as in Joyce's Oxen of the Sun episode.

    And yet ... there are still many excellent and ambitious novels that represent episodes from the past as if from an eye-witness's perspective. Within the past few months, I have read three. Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower depicts a completely unfamiliar world: rural Germany during the Romantic era. The young poet Novalis, home from a sophisticated university, falls in love with a very ordinary 12-year-old neighbor. The values, beliefs, and behavior of the characters are plausible, even though we would never encounter anything similar today. The novel is a window into a different form of life, but its form is strictly modern.

    I also read one of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin novels: essentially genre fiction about the Napoleonic Wars, but very well researched and ably written, so that you feel that you are observing battles and love-affairs from the time of Jane Austen. And last night I finished Barry Unsworth's stunning Morality Play. This work also belongs to a modern genre--detective fiction; and the first-person narrator is obviously a 20th-century creature. He observes and describes the emotions of the other characters with detail and psychological insight that could only be modern (post-Freudian), even though he is a 14th-century protagonist. The plot is unpredictable and suspenseful, yet it relies on many conventions of modern crime fiction.

    If anything, I think historical fiction is more likely to "work"--to satisfy readers--than it would have been fifty years ago. Historicism is back; modernism is out. This makes me wonder whether the modernists were right to reject representations of the past as artificial. Actually, their logic compelled them to doubt representation altogether. They believed that any form of representation reflected an arbitrary cultural style, so it could not be objective. If they were wrong and one can represent the present world (as most of our novels presume to do), then one can just as well represent the past. It simply takes a bit more research.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    August 9, 2004

    the 12th-century revolution

    The division of history into periods can obscure as much as it reveals, emphasizing change only at the cusps of eras, and continuity everywhere else. For example, we are accustomed to dividing the "middle ages" from the "renaissance." This periodization (a modern choice) conceals important shifts before 1400 and exaggerates the rate of change thereafter.

    In particular, it misleads us into ignoring the radical break that occurred during the 1100s (which we assume to be just a typical "medieval" century). Consider that the following elements of European civilization were widespread in 1200 but absent, or only nascent, a century before: law, understood as a consistent and comprehensive system to be refined by experts, not dictated by lords; the gothic style in art and architecture; cities with large urban populations; colleges and universities; chartered corporations; scholastic philosophy and theology, with conspicuous roots in ancient thought; popular institutions for health and education, mostly founded and staffed by mendicant friars inspired by St. Francis and St. Dominic; ideological arguments about church and state, wealth and poverty; republican government in many Italian city states but also in some northern towns; chivalric orders; elaborate Arthurian mythology as expressed in several rapidly developing modern languages; European imperialism, as exemplified by the Crusades and various forays against the Moors and Slavs; and organized nations with princely courts and secular bureaucracies. The rupture with the past was enormous, and there was more continuity than change thereafter.

    (I'm influenced here by Harold Berman's Law and Revolution I. I realize that our technology-obsessed culture tends to see the invention of the printing press (ca. 1450) as the revolutionary moment. But I have previously given some reasons not to view moveable type as overly important.)

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    July 27, 2004

    from Persia to 12th century France and the 21st century web

    Here's a discovery from our family visit to France three weeks ago. It's a twelfth-century carving taken from a monastery in Burgundy. Unmistakably, it's influenced by Persian images of lion-kings, the most famous of which date from the time of Xerxes. Frenchmen ("Franks") went to the Middle East in the 12th century to fight the Crusades, so perhaps they saw carved Persian lions. Nevertheless, it's amazing that a stone-cutter back in Burgundy was able to capture the essence of an animal he never saw--and of Persian art. Perhaps he copied a piece of Crusader booty, something like this printed textile lion from 10th-11th century Iran.

    One could find out more about this artifact. Art historians are industrious and prolific, and I'm sure there is specific work on this sculpture as well as general writing about the influence of pre-Islamic Near-Eastern art on medieval Europe. That is the kind of work, however, that tends not to find its way online. Most scholarly research doesn't go onto the Web because scholars want peer-reviewed publications, and there are few online professional journals. Most publications from before ca. 1995 aren't digitized. Besides, museums control the right to photograph the works they own. I know from personal experience (with the Bibliotheque Nationale in France) that they like to charge a lot for reproduction rights of obscure images. Giving pictures away doesn't fit their business plan. Therefore, there really aren't that many images online. For example, the label under this French medieval lion said that it was derived from Sassanid Persian models (AD 224-651). In fifteen minutes of assiduous searching, I found only one Sassanid lion on the billions of web pages that Google indexes.

    On the bright side, it is amazing how people with unpromising motives and perspectives can contribute to knowledge because of the Web. I found the lion's gate at Persepolis thanks to a site that basically advertises a psychic. And I found the printed lion textile on a high school website.

    Jamie Boyle, one of the leading proponents of the digital commons, writes:

    If I had come to you in 1994 and told you that in the space of ten years, a decentralized global network consisting of a lot of volunteers and hobbyists and a ideologues and a few scholars and government or commercially supported information services could equal and sometimes outperform standard reference works or reference librarians in the provision of accurate factual information, you would have laughed. Your incredulity would surely have deepened if I had added that this global network would have no external filters, and that almost anyone with an internet connection would be able to "publish" whatever they wanted, be it accounts of Area 51, the Yeti, and the true authorship of the works of William Shakespeare, or painstaking analyses of Scottish history, how to raise Saluki dogs, and the internal struggles in the American Communist Party. Worse still, many inhabitants of this very strange new place will wilfuly and joyfully spread the wildest of rumours and speculations as facts, without going through the careful source-checking or argument-weighing that scholars are supposed to engage in. Your first reaction to this flight of fancy, (and the correct first impression of the World Wide Web as of its inception) was that this would thus be a uniquely and entirely unreliable source of information. And yet ... when your child last had a research question from school did you go to Google, or the Encylopedia Brittanica?

    When I wanted to find a Persian lion to compare to this French one, I used Google and found some imperfect matches. I was somewhat successful because I was willing to go to sites created by psychics and high school kids as well as museums and archaeologists. (This demonstrates Boyle's point about the value of an open network.) On the other hand, I could have done much better in my university's library, if I'd had the time and patience. And I could have learned much more online if we had different legal and economic incentives for publishing images and research.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: fine arts

    July 12, 2004

    back from France

    We spent last week in northern Burgundy. We chose our location because we had found a nice and affordable house to rent for the week. Its a fairly typical corner of rural France, not an area that's especially famous for its art and history. I dont mean that its remote or undiscovered. Tourists travel there for the Chablis wine, to ride by rented houseboat along the Burgundy Canal, and to see the old villages. Nevertheless, its not one of the top destinations in France; its less popular than Paris and its environs, the Loire valley, Provence, Normandy, and probably even Languedoc and Alsace. Within Burgundy, the most impressive and popular destinations are Dijon and Beaune, but those cities were too far south for us to visit. Almost all the other tourists we saw were French; there were virtually no Americans.

    Yet, by driving within a 30km radius of the little town of Noyers, we were able to see (listed roughly in chronological order of their creation): Cro-Magnon cave paintings of human hands and wooly mammoths deep underground Alesia, where Caesar defeated Vercingetorixs 250,000 Gauls and mastered France (later the site of Gallo-Roman city whose excavated ruins we visited) a 7th century Christian church nearby, heavily restored but largely intact after 13 centuries of continuous worship the great pilgrimage church at Vzelay, where medieval Christians believed that St. Mary Magdalens bones were kept; this is a vast, austere, but light Romanesque basilica with more than 100 vivid scenes carved on its capitals, also the venue of major sermons by St. Bernard (declaring the Second Crusade) and St. Francis the monastery of Fontenay, built according to Bernards wishes without any decoration except one statue of the Virgin, Gods light streaming through its windows, and its pure, legible mathematical proportions the medieval walled hilltop town of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, with its steep streets and stone buildings (where the movie Chocolat was filmed) the medieval walled town of Noyers, half-timbered like a fairy-tale illustration and bordered by a lovely placid river the little church at St. Thibault, lofty and lace-like with two layers of intricate Gothic stonework inside the perfectly symmetrical, soberly classical Renaissance Chateau of Ancy-le-Franc, the only building actually constructed by Serlio, who was one of the most important architectural theorists of the age the French baroque chateau of Tanlay, with its steep roofs and conical towers and the substantial towns of Avallon, Semur-en-Auxois, Tonnerre, and Auxerre, each one rich in medieval architecture. These are the sites we saw; we passed by many more.

    There are parts of Western Europe that are less dense with old art than this part of Burgundy. Northern France was more heavily industrialized (which makes it less beautiful but not necessarily less interesting than Burgundy) and was then battered by the two world wars. Germany sustained even more damage. Nevertheless, our week in an almost-random corner of France reminded me of the amazing density of beautiful and interesting sites throughout Europe. If I had barrels of money and not much civic responsibility, I could easily continue last weeks journey for the rest of my life, traveling slowly from Gibraltar to St. Petersburg (or from Oslo to Istanbul). That kind of life would contribute nothing to the world, but it would be endlessly interesting.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    June 10, 2004

    Basilica of Notre-Dame, Montreal

    I'm still with the Deliberative Democracy group, with no time to blog, but I wrote the following several days ago ....

    Last week, I was in Montreal for four days. There was plenty of unscheduled time, so I walked for hours each day. Montreal is an impressive and lively city. I don't write travelogues on this blog, but I would like to say a few words about the Basilique Notre-Dame. This must be one of the best Victorian buildings in the worldand there are many. Some Victorian buildings are either unimaginative imitations of medieval models or damaging renovations of actual medieval structures (or both). In contrast, the Basilica is a highly original Gothic building constructed on open land in the New World. It resembles a great Victorian train station, museum, or exposition hall more than a medieval cathedral.

    Most of its components derive from medieval architecturespecifically, the French High Gothic of the Ste. Chapelle in Paris, which is the acknowledged inspiration. The arches are pointed, the columns have gothic capitals, the windows are filled with stained glass, and there are scores of life-size sculptures of saints in medieval garb. (An exception is the huge pulpit, which is reached by a broad, winding staircase that's more baroque than medieval in inspiration.) However, the overall appearance of the building is not at all medieval; it's highly original. This is partly because of specific architectural choices. For example, there are rose windows in the ceiling of the nave, which would have been impossible and unimaginable in the 13th century. Also, the nave is proportionally wider than any medieval one I've seen, perhaps because Victorian construction techniques allow a wider span. Quite apart from technological issues, I suspect that medieval builders would have preferred a loftier but narrower shape.

    I have never seen a medieval church (not even Ste. Chapelle or the lower church in Assisi) that is as heavily decorated. Every single surface of Notre-Dame is covered by stained glass, tile, statuary, or high-relief sculptural decoration that's also painted with zigzags and other bold patterns in dark primary colors. Theres virtually no unpainted stonework. This all sounds terribly busy or even vulgar. However, the patterns are small and the overall structure is simple and easily legible. As a result, the surface patterns make a restful impression. Finally, all the patterns and other decorative features are symmetricalthe result of a single planwhereas most medieval buildings are more organic (or haphazard).

    If you look at the details of Notre-Dame, many are not very fine. The figures in the stained glass (from Limoges, France) are much larger and coarser than anything medieval. However, the building as a whole is unusual, interesting, and worth a long trip to visit.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    May 14, 2004

    Abu Ghraib

    We like to bomb from 30,000 feet,
    fly back to Whiteman, MO after the run,
    then drive to the mall for something to eat,

    Or wire funds to the guys who buy the guns
    that jab into the backs of old women
    who stagger away from burning homes.

    We don't do firing squads, rape rooms, mass graves,
    midnight arrests; we think we don't know how.
    A GI is a big buzz-cut guy who saves

    The cowering victims of a foreign war,
    or despotism, or incompetence.
    We can even oust regimes from afar.

    Dick and Lynne, in the VP's residence,
    once more shoulder the burden to maintain
    security, order, and common sense.

    They're grandparents with degrees, guardians
    of churches, agencies, and industries:
    they know just how to handle ruffians.

    Saddam built his own Lubyanka, grim and dank.
    Isaiah asked: "How hath the oppressor ceased?"
    The new commandant of Abu Ghraib's a Yank.

    And Babylon shall be as Sodom and
    Gomorrah; by her shall we sit and weep.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: fine arts , verse and worse

    April 23, 2004

    embarrassment of riches

    I don't have an especially good CD collection. Nevertheless, I can listen any time I like to great performances of some of the most challenging and profound musical masterpieces ever written. I can half-listen to Casals play his heart out while I read a book or play with my kids. I can command Horowitz to re-play the same historic concert so many times that I'm bored of it. I can use a Bach keyboard CD as a little refresher between two grand operas. If we're more in the mood for drama, the local video store has hundreds of superb movies, each the equivalent of an excellent theatrical performance. I sometimes think this easy access to masterpieces is almost sickening, as if our walls were lined with the freshest and most sumptuous creamy clairs and champagne poured from our faucets; or as if we were lazy emperors with bevies of geniuses for slaves. Once upon a time, even if you were rich and lived in a great cultural capital, you could only hear a Beethoven symphony once in a while. The other day, I listened to a beautiful passage that was on the radio in our supermarket--but I left when all my groceries were in the bag.

    I'm not at all sure that this is a good way to live. It makes it hard to appreciate ordinary performances or to play music (or act) oneself. It probably lowers the demand for live music and drama and thus makes it harder to earn a living in those fields. It deadens our responses to the great works of the past. And it must be a terrible burden for people who want to create new works.

    (These problems seem less serious in the visual arts, since photographs never come close to capturing the impact of original buildings, paintings, and sculptures. It also seems less serious with books, because one has to devote many hours of complete attention in order to read a book at all.)

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: fine arts

    April 15, 2004

    Manet's "Old Musician"

    Yesterday, I was rereading part of Legal Modernism, a book by my friend and former colleague David Luban, and I remembered that it was thanks to this book that I first saw Manets The Old Musician as one of the greatest and most interesting paintings ever painted. Its in the National Gallery in Washington, where I live, and I often force friends and relatives to look at it with me.

    Heres the argument for its enormous significance (drawing heavily on Luban and on Charles Fried, but with some wrinkles of my own):

    Modernism arrives in any art or discipline when practitioners regard the present as the dead end of a long historical tradition. This happens partly because they come to believe that no further progress is possible along traditional lines. For instance, for centuries European artists pursued a great adventure in representing all kinds of three-dimensional scenes on two-dimensional surfaces; they mastered perspective, chiaroscuro, oil paint and other media, modeling, the representation of artificial light, everyday urban life, nudes, exotic landscapes, and movement. This was an exciting and aesthetically satisfying drama of discovery, but it seemed played out by 1900. There were no frontiers to cross. The same could be said of narrative prose or classical music at that time.

    Modernists in any discipline also face a more profound problem. They begin to view the tradition itself as arbitrary. It has pursued certain values and made certain core assumptions, but it could have started elsewhere. The careful study of works from distant cultures underlines this point. So modernists, in a neo-Kantian spirit, ask Why should we do art or philosophy this wayor any other particular way? What justifies or grounds the assumptions of our discipline? They regard Enlightenment as freedom from prejudice, and they condemn as immoral the continued production of art that rests on unquestioned assumptions. Unfortunately, there is no art (or any other human creation) that doesnt rest on groundless values provided by some kind of tradition. That is the modernist dilemma.

    There are a set of available responses. For example, one can try to create works that are not arbitrary because they are based on changeless nature, mathematics, or science. This is the impetus behind the functionalist architecture of the Bauhaus (no style, just engineering). That impulse created some lasting works in several arts, but it soon became patently obvious that scientific forms of art were actually time-bound styles, instantly datable.

    Another option is the sophisticated reactionary art of a T.S. Eliot or a Richard Strauss. These men could make modernist art, but they deliberately preferred to work in the pre-modern tradition, for ideological reasons (at least in some of their work).

    Yet another option is common in postmodernism, which often treats any serious attempt to create something authentic as a bit of a joke, and provides irony in place of beauty or truth.

    Manets Old Musician represents the final option, one rarely achieved in any art, but characteristic of the greatest High Modernism. Manet makes a work of art that is successful as such (in other words, it is moving, beautiful, and memorable), but it happens to take as its theme the End of Art. Six figures and an infant stand before a sketchy background. It turns out that each of these figures represents a classic work of art, from an antique sculpture of the philosopher Chrysippus to Manets own Absinthe Drinker (1858-9). The whole painting, then, is an anthology of the history of art. The frame awkwardly truncates part of one figure and a vinereminding you are observing a framed picture on a flat surface, hanging in a museum. The figures seem isolated and inert. Not one meets anothers eyes, and none is doing anything. The Chrysippus figure in the middle has put down his violin, and there is a powerful sense that the music that once animated and coordinated these figures has stopped. The Old Musician, strikingly, stares directly at the viewer.

    Isolation (or alienation, or anomie) became a 20th-century clich, presumably because of the reality of life in a modern metropolis, where (for the first time in history) we dont know most of the people we see. In The Old Musician, the figures incorporate portraits of displaced people from a cleared slum near Manet's house. But in this work, the theme of isolation is more than a valid criticism of modern social injustice. I think Manet cannot find a place for himself in the trans-historical community of artists, because he has achieved a painful Enlightenment in realizing that all art is conventional and arbitrary. At that point, all the past moments of art look disjointed (not stages in an inevitable progression), and there is no room for Manet to join the tradition. Instead, he steps outside of the story, where we are standing, and declares it over. The result is moving, strange, and unrepeatable, but there are analogies in other fields. Ive argued that Ulysses plays a similar role in the history of narrative prose, and all of Nietzsches mature works are philosophical analogues to The Old Musician.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    March 9, 2004

    rap + written "art" poetry = ?

    I'm wondering what would happen if one tried to combine the rhythm of rap with some of the conventions of written poetry. (This is a naive question; there may be very obvious answers and lots of great examples.) As I understand it, rap lines usually contain four strongly accented syllables. There may also be any number of unaccented syllables, but each line takes an equal amount of time to say. That means that lines with many syllables go very quickly; but the four accented beats occur at a regular rate. Rhyme alerts listeners to the end of each line. Rap is sung/spoken against a digital beat, and the combination of that beat, the changing speed of the words, and the regular occurance of strong accents makes for an interesting form of syncopation. Rap doesn't work especially well on paper, because it's too hard to tell which syllables should be accented, and there's no background beat.

    In contrast, it's hard to hear the length of a line in most modern written poetry. Even if rhymes are used, they tend to be subtle (off-rhymes or slant rhymes) and they are often concealed by enjambment. In conventional forms like iambic pentameter, each line has the same number of syllables, but a varying number of accents. In free verse, the number of syllables varies, but the reader still perceives each line as a meaningful unit. Information about line breaks is transmitted best on paper; it may be lost in speech. (Poetry in which line breaks are completely unimportant is simply prose.)

    I don't really listen to rap, but I understand that it's a vital cultural phenomenon with tremedous energy and potential. I do read some contemporary "art" poetry, and I deeply admire a portion of what I read. I would probably like even more of it if I understood it better and worked harder at it. Written verse is valuable if only because silent, slow, careful reading of distilled language is good for the mind. Besides, "art" poetry connects to a wonderful heritage of writing as old as Sappho. Yet I suspect that as a whole body of work, current written poetry is not really going anywhere.

    So could written verse draw inspiration from rap prosody? If rap performers could be persuaded to write some silent verse, they would contribute their energy and experience to the form. The technical trick would be to signal strong accents and line-speed--two aspects of language that ordinary writing does not automatically convey. I wonder if it would be possible to use subtle typographic clues, like slightly larger print for the accented syllables.

    permanent link | comments (5) | category: fine arts

    February 29, 2004

    Helen Vendler

    Because she's one of my favorite critics, I just read Vendler's new book, Coming of Age as a Poet (Harvard, 2003). It's a study of the first mature and fully successful verse of four major poets: Milton, Keats, Eliot, and Plath. Vendler argues that poets change their themes, topics, and messages during their careers, but they often achieve a stable poetic personality in their twenties. From their first "perfect" poem to the end of their careers, they retain a hard-won combination of: certain formal and stylistic habits (including characteristic diction); physical and historical milieux that they typically describe; major symbolic references; characters or types of characters whom they include in their verse; and some sort of (at least implicit) cosmology.

    Vendler touches on problems of "existential" importance: for example, whether Sylvia Plath's extreme pessimism can be valid, and whether Plath is morally blameworthy for it. She defends strong aesthetic judgments on the basis of an implicit theory of poetry. She treats any excellent poem as the difficult and worthy achievement of a deliberate artist, which means that she links her aesthetic judgments to judgments about character (and an implied theory of the good life). Vendler's own writing is dense, careful, perceptive, and concerned with vital matters--not just poems, but the topics that they wrestle with. She works with the even more concentrated, complex, and passionate words of four major poets. The combination of her acuity and theirs is very challenging. I kept thinking, "Why don't I have a coherent style and world-view? Why can't I read with this degree of care and accuracy?" Like a good sermon, Coming of Age as a Poet is an exhortation to try harder, be tougher, do better--not necessarily as a poet, but as a person.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    February 20, 2004

    Brett Cook-Dizney: political artist

    I heard a great presentation this morning by Brett Cook Dizney, a muralist/activist/hip-hop artist/teacher. He tells wonderful stories about his own "non-permissional" art works, like the time he erected big (illegal) murals of the police officers who beat Rodney King on a California street, or the time he painted an anti-violence mural on a wall that had been claimed by street gangs. This kind of work is free for anyone to see; in fact, it is often appropriated by anonymous strangers. In one case, a set of his huge murals mysteriously disappeared from a San Francisco street and then reappeared five days later. High-quality graffiti art, typical of the early hip-hop scene, contributed to a kind of "creative commons."

    I've written critically about the New York Art World. I've argued that art leaders are subversive or radical, but in a way that doesn't take alternative perspectives seriously and that doesn't persuade anyone. They create works that are intended to shock bourgeois Middle Americans, but they only reach their fellow bohemians. And when elected leaders resist funding them, they take immediate resort in the First Amendment.

    I stand by that argument, but it's good for me to be exposed to someone like Cook-Dizney. Sometimes, his work reflects the kind of radical politics that I think is over-supplied in the current art world. (For example, he erected a mural of Fidel Castro in Miami--shocking, brave, but offensive and unlikely to generate thought or dialogue in the audience that it reached.) However, he says that he has moved from merely saying what's wrong with society to helping to create a better world.

    A lot of his current work is intensely collaborative, involving (for example) street parties where everyone helps design and make a multimedia project. These projects make city blocks immediately more beautiful; they also create social networks and political capital. The fact that Dizney-Cook's work is now constructive does not mean that he has abandoned his independence or radicalism.

    In any case, a lot of his subversive statements on behalf of marginalized people are valid and thoughtful. (Example: he erected big panel portaits of Harlem residents inside the Harlem Studio Museum when it was not welcoming to people in the neighborhood.) I think if you are going to do political art, you should be judged on your politics as well as your formal technique. On those grounds, I would criticize an image of Fidel in Miami, but I think most of Cook-Dizney's work is wise and thoughtful.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    December 8, 2003

    visual aspects of music

    Hearing live chamber music one night last week, I thought about the visual dimension of music, which we miss when we listen to recordings. Musicians often show a lot of expression on their faces, and they exchange meaningful looks that are interesting to interpret. In a string quartet, they all hunch over when they're playing fast and intensely, and then sit back during lulls. I also like the general sight of their gleaming wooden instruments and slender bows, vibrating like insect wings.

    I suspect that composers often think about visual issues when they write. For example, why give a theme to the first violin and the accompaniment to the second, and then switch their roles after a few bars? On a recording, it would sound the same if the first violin repeated the melody. But it's visually interesting to see a motif passed around a semicircle of musicians, or bounced back and forth.

    One of the pieces I heard last week was Tchaikovsky's sextet for strings, "Souvenir de Florence," which I happen to know quite well from a CD. According to the program notes, the composer told his brother, "I definitely do not want to write just any old tune and then arrange it for six instruments, I want a sextet--that is, six independent voices, so that it can never be anything but a sextet." By listening to a recording, someone with a reasonably experienced ear could tell that there are two violins, two violas, and two cellos playing; and the piece would sound different with a different ensemble. However, you would need a fabulous ear to tell that the first viola has a consistently different role from the second. This is much clearer when you can see that the first viola is sitting over there, and she's the young Japanese-American with a somewhat worried expression who re-tuned after the first movement; whereas the second viola is an older Jewish gentleman with a serene expression. One might object that these assignments were no part of Tchaikovsky's plan. But he did expect us to be able to keep track of parts. Moreover, the combination of different musical roles, instruments, and players' faces creates an interesting aesthetic layer that is missing on a CD.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: fine arts

    December 1, 2003

    Ariel's song

    Ariel's song, from Shakespeare's last play (The Tempest, 1:ii), seems a premonition of modernism. In traditional poetry, it's fairly obvious what is being described, represented, or signified. But it takes sophistication to notice the formal features of the poetry itself (such as meter, rhyme, and assonance) and any allusions to other literary works. In some modernist poetry, by contrast, what is described is unclear, or there may not be any literal referent at all, but the formal features of the writing immediately draw our attention. Thus modernist poetry can be more or less abstract in a way that recalls the modern visual arts.

    Ariel's song is striking because the characters who hear it do not know if it means anything; they cannot see a speaker and may simply be hearing the wind. That it is poetry, however, becomes obvious from the alliteration, rhyme, and powerful rhythmic scheme:

    Full fathom five thy father lies;
    Of his bones are corals made;
    Those are pearls that were his eyes;
    Nothing of him that doth fade
    But doth suffer a sea change
    Into something rich and strange.
    Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell:
    Burden. Ding-dong
    Hark! Now I hear them--ding dong bell.

    The form tells us this is poetry (and very beautiful and memorable), but is it about anything? It conjures up an image, but not one that necessarily connects to the rest of the play. Ferdinand thinks he finds a meaning in it: "The ditty does remember my drowned father." His interpretation may be right, but there is no apparent reason for a voice suddenly to describe his father dead beneath the sea. This is an experience, then, of formal beauty that may or may not have significance or explanation--and that seems characteristic of modernism.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Shakespeare & his world , fine arts

    November 17, 2003

    New Orleans and Salt Lake City

    I'm writing this on Sunday night, flying from New Orleans to Madison, WI, on a precisely northward path across Middle America. I was in New Orleans to give a keynote luncheon address at the International Conference on Civic Education Research. Nine days ago I gave a similar speech at the International Conference on Service-Learning Research in Salt Lake City. I keep thinking about the contrast of these venues. Salt Lake City in November is cold, dry, thousands of feet above sea level, rimmed by snowcapped peaks. It seems a place of stark contrasts, with no gradations between the city and the wilderness, the lake and the desert, the Mormons and the non-Mormons, the prosperous clean-cut business people and the few homeless men with their prophet beards and wild eyes. Large banks and hotels (Victorian or modernist) stand foursquare between straight wide avenues and barren lots. The huge moon and streetlights make the night as light as day. Almost everyone I saw was white.

    Whereas New Orleans is low and lush, hot, humid; pools of still water lie under highway overpasses and the river is higher than the streets. Even at noon, it's dark under the porticoes and along the narrow streets of the French Quarter. Its a tawdry city, decrepit, violent, poor, and fun, at least for visitors. Everything mixes and shades into everything else: streets into bayous; restaurants into strip-clubs; legitimate museums into freak-shows; graveyards into living streets; tourist districts into ghettoes; trash into antiques; Africa and the Caribbean into the Bible Belt; Catholicism into Hoodoo; English into Cajun French; the legal into the illicit; the Disneyfied, desegregated present into the cruel past of slavery, Jim Crow, and yellow fever. On Sunday morning, I watched Vietnamese waiters serve chicory coffee under the dank neoclassical canopy of the Caf du Monde, as if in Saigon under the French, but to the tune of a mournful blues saxophone.

    In Salt Lake City, many residents won't drink coffee, let alone alcohol, whereas in New Orleans, you can legally sway down the street with 20 of your buddies holding open cups of beer. In Salt Lake City, you stand docilely on empty street corners until an electronic buzz informs you (and you alone) that it's time to cross. In New Orleans, bands stop and play right in the middle of intersections. Yet both cities seem profoundly American, as if our usual mixture can be analyzed and its components exhibited separately for clearer investigation.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    September 19, 2003

    the many Bachs

    For some reason, I was thinking about all the dramatically different ways in which people have seen and admired J.S. Bach since his own day.

    After writing a list like this, one is expected to say, "Of course, Bach was all of these things, and that's why he is so great." I'm going to be a little less predictable and say that Bach was all of these things, of course, but he was at his greatest as the composer of narrative works that were grounded in his understanding of human life and emotion.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    June 16, 2003

    the printing press didn't cause a translation revolution

    Many people believe that the Church suppressed the translation of the Bible into modern languages during the Middle Ages, but the invention of the printing press gave people an unblockable means of access to Scripture. This story is often cited to show that institutions are dangerous because they try to control knowledge, but technological innovation enhances freedom.

    I am no expert on this subject, but I would suggest some grounds for caution: —The Bible was legally translated into certain modern languages, from Slavonic to Old English, starting before the year 1,000. (See this page; and I saw a beautiful medieval French Bible at this exhibition.) —To be sure, there were edicts against translation in the 16th century and later, and the Catholic Church developed a reputation for obscurantism in modern times because the Mass was only said in Latin until 1962. However, the Church became reactionary after the Council of Trent (1545-63); this attitude should not be read back onto the Middle Ages. —The Wykliffe Bible was banned and burned, but not because it was written in English; rather it was considered distorted by a specific heresy. —It was very hard to translate into the vernacular until the late middle ages, because modern languages were only gradually developing and gaining enough vocabulary to render the Bible. There was no such thing as "Italian" or "German" in 1250; instead there were hundreds of local dialects, each spoken in a small area, and most lacking rich vocabularies. —No medieval Western European Christians knew Greek or Hebrew, so they would have had to translate from the Latin translation by St. Jerome. It took brilliant Renaissance scholarship (and an infusion of Greek experts after Consantinople fell to the Turks) before there was a reliable original from which to translate. People who emphasize technology as a historical factor tend to overlook the profound linguistic and literary innovations that were required before a first translation could be made. —The Latin Bible was not secret; Latin was the language of literate people throughout Europe. —The Church invested tremendous resources in popularizing the Bible through painting cycles, stained glass windows, "picture Bibles," passion plays, and readings in churches, including huge, broad-aisled Franciscan and Dominican churches that were designed to hold mass audiences. (These were "communications technologies" of great power.) —Some modern critics assume that the Church wanted to control the original text of the scriptures because then it could withhold the radical parts. I could be wrong, but I would guess that popular passion plays and Franciscan sermons actually emphasized the radical messages of the original Bible.

    All of this matters because it casts doubt on some widespread modern assumptions about power, institutions, and technology.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: Internet and public issues , fine arts

    May 13, 2003

    public work and multiculturalism

    Here is a somewhat different way of analyzing the campus battles over "great books" versus "multiculturalism" or "diversity." Participants can be sorted into groups depending on what kind of works they think should be available or required in schools, colleges, and other venues. "Canonical classicists" want everyone to read great works from Plato to NATO. "Diversity proponents" want everyone to be exposed to works written (or composed, or painted) by people of multiple ethnic, cultural, religious, sexual, and racial identities—in order to promote empathy, respect, tolerance, etc. And true "multiculturalists" want people of different cultural backgrounds to be able to study intensively works created by people like them, so that a campus will be home to multiple cultural communities.

    This is one dimension that we can use to categorize the antagonists in the campus culture wars. But there is also another dimension. At one end of this second spectrum are those who emphasize that students should experience, appreciate, understand, or at least be exposed to works created in the past or in other places. Somewhat contentiously, I'll call this the "consumerist" approach. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who stress that we should create new cultural products, including stories and paintings, performances, critical interpretations, and historical narratives.

    Putting the two dimensions together, we see that there are at least six possible positions in the debate:

    canonical classicism

    The standard conservative view is (a)—there is a fixed supply of great works from the past that students should experience and appreciate. The standard diversity view is (b)—everyone should experience works by authors of color. And the standard multiculturalism view is (c)—people should be encouraged to study works by members of their own groups, using their own cultures' criteria of excellence. These positions are "zero-sum": adding a text to the curriculum may require taking another text out. In contrast, options (d)-(f) are potentially "win-win," and I think they are underdeveloped. There is a fair amount of (e)—i.e., people of all colors and creeds should collaborate because this will create the most interesting new works of art. But I think conservatives should work on developing (d), if indeed it is a viable position. And multiculturalists should develop (f), which would amount to the view that people of various cultures should be assisted in producing new works, thereby contributing to the global commons.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: fine arts

    April 8, 2003

    Joyce's modernism

    Continuing the theme of modernism from yesterday ... For six hundred years, English has been tinkered with until it has become a fine instrument for describing what's literally going on and what people are thinking. The vocabulary is famously huge, the syntax is supple, and there are narrative techniques for all occasions. As an example of perceptive modern prose, consider James Joyce's spare description of Leopold Bloom in a hearse:

    Mr. Bloom entered and sat in a vacant place. He pulled the door to after him and slammed it shut tight. He passed an arm through the armstrap and looked seriously from the open carriage window at the lowered blinds of the avenue. Nose whiteflattened against the pane. Thanking her stars she was passed over. Glad to see us go we give them so much trouble coming.

    We don't really know how the old woman talks or what she's thinking. Maybe she's a police informant spying on the house opposite; maybe she's a he. But Joyce has focused his lens so that only Bloom's mind shows clearly. Thus we learn about the objects that Bloom handles—the door and the armstrap—but only about their functions, because he is too preoccupied to note accidental features like material and color. His very name reflects his state of mind, for he experiences himself as "Mr. Bloom" when he rides in a hearse. We might like to learn more (for instance, what kind of buildings line the avenue?), but such information would ruin the realism. Thinking is perspectival, selective; and we know just what Bloom notices.

    Modern literary English allows an author to choose almost any vantage point, any focus, and any depth of field. Why then does Joyce use so many other idioms? For instance, in the "Oxen of the Sun" episode, he mimics every major prose style in the history of English. At one point, Bloom has just entered a house where a woman is suffering her third day of labor. He means to express his sympathy to the family, but he finds himself among callous drunks who are loudly discussing whether it would be better in the eyes of the Church for the woman or the baby to die. Bloom mutters vague abstractions to avoid expressing a view, perhaps because any opinion could be heard upstairs. Then ...

    in Joyce's version ....

    That is truth, pardy, said Dixon, and, or I err, a pregnant word. Which hearing young Stephen was a marvellous glad man and he averred that he who stealeth from the poor lendeth to the Lord for he was of a wild manner when he was drunken and that he was now in that taking it appeared efstoons.
    But sir Leopold was passing grave maugre his word by cause he still had pity of the terrorcausing shrieking of shrill women in their labour and he was minded of his good lady Marion that had borne him an only manchild which on his eleventh day on live had died and no man of art could save so dark is destiny. And she was wondrous stricken of heart for that evil hap and for his burial did him on a fair corselet of lamb's wool, the flower of the flock, lest he might perish utterly and lie akeled (for it was then about the midst of the winter) and now sir Leopold that had of his body no manchild for an heir looked upon him his friend's son and was shut up in sorrow for his forepassed happiness and as sad as he was that him failed a son of such gentle courage (for all accounted him of real parts) so grieved he also in no less measure for young Stephen for that he lived riotously with these wastrels and murdered his good with whores.

    in a literal paraphrase ...

    "That's the truth," said Dixon. "And a pregnant word, if I'm not mistaken," he added, when the thought struck him. Young Stephen roared at the pun and added sarcastically, "He who steals from the Lord lends to the poor." He was wild when drunk: his eyes shone and his voice was loud and shrill.
    But Bloom was grave and quiet, for he still heard shrieking from upstairs. The sound of a woman in labor always moved him, and these particular cries reminded him of his wife Molly, who had borne his only baby boy. The baby had died (of accidental poisoning) after just eleven days. The doctors had said that nothing could be done. Molly was so grief-stricken that all she could do was to shop for the best little wool blanket so that their son wouldn't have to lie cold in the winter ground. Now Bloom watched brash young Stephen, his friend's boy, and grieved for his own dead child. But as much as he mourned the baby (a beautiful child, everyone said), Bloom was just as sorry to see Stephen wasting his life with drunks and his money on whores.

    Joyce's prose resembles a thick but uneven hedge screening the literal truth. Here, we can just about cut through the fifteenth-century language to to see what's going on. In other places, it is impossible to make out even the basic narrative facts. For instance, we are almost never permitted to overhear Bloom's thoughts about what to do or where to go next. Much like Odysseus, he just shows up in episode after episode.

    Frustrated by this and other omissions, we might say: If only Joyce would just tell the story! Why does he have to use a pastiche of past and present styles, so many of which are opaque?

    The question assumes, of course, that there is a truth to grasp. But perhaps my "literal interpretation" above is simply one idiom, a product of its time, just as Everyman reflects the culture of England in 1500. In that case, Joyce has carried realism to its final stage. He doesn't describe the world or consciousness (either objectively or subjectively), because to do so would be to forget the fact that all seeing is from the point of view of a style. Instead, he describes some past and contemporary ways in which life has been described. As in one of Nietzsche's magic tricks, the real world—disappears! Literature, not life, is the subject of Ulysses; yet the book itself counts as literature (in Stephen's words, as an "eternal affirmation of the spirit of man"), because it is perceptive, tender, and humane.

    This rare combination—a declaration of the End of Art that is also art—is characteristic of the greatest works of modernism. Note, however, that Joyce must deny that there has been progress in the history of English narrative style. The succession of idioms that he mimics does not evolve toward clarity. If modern English prose has somehow surpassed its predecessors, then Joyce would have no excuse to abandon it.

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    April 7, 2003

    modernism in dance

    I know less about ballet than about any other art form, which is to say, nothing. Thus I was fascinated to read Jennifer Homans' article "Geniuses Together," in the New York Review of Books some time ago. I have long believed that "modernism" means a recognition that all the past ways of representing the world have been arbitrary and culturally relative styles. Once modernism arrives, we have three main choices: (1) historicism, the effort to reproduce past styles accurately and comprehensively; (2) abstraction, the effort to move beyond style and representation altogether by taking inspiration from something universal, such as mathematics or the unconscious; or (3) irony, the joking recognition that there is no way out of style. I've argued that these are the choices faced by the visual arts and also by philosophy. My friend David Luban argues that even law faces this dilemma. From Homans' article, it appears that the ballets of Stravinsky perfectly illustrate the same situation. First came a historicist phase, around 1909, when Michel Fokine was Stravinsky's choreographer:

    Ballet, [Fokine] said, was hopelessly "confused." It was historically nonsensical for pink-tutued ballerinas to run around with Egyptian-clad peasants and Russian top-booted dancers; ballet dancers were ridiculously "straight-backed." ... Ballet, Fokine insisted, must be reformed, and it was here that his ideas dovetailed with Diaghilev's: a ballet, he said, must "have complete unity of expression." It must be historically consistent and stylistically accurate. Petipa's French classical vocabulary was appropriate only for French classical or romantic subjects. If a ballet was about ancient Greece, then the choreographer must invent movement based on the art and sculptures of that place and time. .... In Fokine and Diaghilev's historicist aesthetic, classical ballet was not a universal form, but a particular style. ....

    And then came abstraction, with Balanchine:

    Choreographically, Apollon Musagète created a stylistically unified, Fokinesque "whole" world. But Balanchine broke with Fokine in one crucial respect. .... For Balanchine, what mattered was that the external shape, color, and tone of the movement capture an important idea. He was not interested in historical accuracy or what he called "petty, everyday" emotions: he was trying to show something more elevated: "supplication."[7]

    In 1957, Balanchine further simplified Apollo (as it was then renamed) by dispensing with the ballet's seventeenth-century sets and costumes in favor of simple black-and-white practice cloths against a plain backdrop. As such, he brought Apollo into aesthetic orbit with his most recent Stravinsky collaboration: Agon. .... Agon was the culmination of an aesthetic Balanchine first introduced in 1946 with The Four Temperaments, and it changed everything we know about how to watch a dance. Agon has no clear narrative, no melodic or lyrical line: rather, it piles blocks of movement and music one on top of another. ....

    Of course, dancing in plain lyotards in front of plain drapes is also a style. In the other arts, sooner or later, minimalism and abstraction are seen as arbitrary styles, at which point irony becomes the only option. I wonder whether this has happened in dance.

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    March 3, 2003

    what Dante knew about Francesca

    Notwithstanding all this civic engagement stuff I try to do, I'm actually a moral philosopher. I have an incomplete manuscript of several hundred pages on the story of Paolo and Francesca and what it means for moral theory. (See this webpage.) It occasionally bothers me that I have left so much material untouched for so long. Today I sensed a lull and took out chapter one. It's a mess, but I enjoyed starting to reorganize it.

    Dante ended his life in the household of the lord of Ravenna, one Guido Novello da Polenta. Dante was Guido's close friend and courtier. Guido's aunt was Francesca do Rimini, one of the most famous damned souls in Dante's Inferno. So it's intriguing—although not profoundly important—to ask whether Dante was already close to Guido when he wrote about Francesca. I spent this morning organizing the available (scanty) evidence: a nice break from more current concerns.

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    February 24, 2003

    renaissance portraits

    I stayed downtown today. Some of us from CIRCLE had an interesting lunch in Union Station, discussing research ideas with some potential applicants. I was also on my cell phone a fair amount, mostly talking to fellow NACE members about opportunities to mobilize the organization. In between things, I ran—literally ran—into the National Gallery. I headed for an area that I hadn't been in for a long time, and found myself looking at a couple of striking portraits of Guiliano de' Medici, who was murdered at mass in the Pazzi conspiracy. The Gallery has Botticelli's amazing painting (which looks almost like a fine modern cartoon, with its bold blocks of color and exeggerated features) and also Verocchio's large bust of the same young man. Guiliano is ugly but charismatic; confident or perhaps arrogant; and very much an individual. I can't think of anything else to write about these portraits except art-historical cliches ("Renaissance individualism," "unsentimental realism" ...), but it was a 25-minute break that will stay with me for a long time.

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