Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Finally Something Completely Different

Yes, I regret my absence from blogging but more I regret leaving Kanye West at the top of the blog for this long. Anyway, back to writing. Meanwhile, here's a little something to replace Mr. West.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Things I Don't Get #8: Kanye West at Oxford

This might seem a softball post, because it's pretty easy to find confusion, and despair, in the thought of Kanye West lecturing at Oxford. I was going to put lecturing in quotation marks but I'm fairly sure every verb of which Mr. West is the subject ought to be rendered within quotations, and boldface as well. That observed, and Mr. West's distinct character aside, a few things about his prestigious appearance–as I understand it he does just that, appear, having superseded human locomotion after a long talk with Galileo–at the foremost academy of the English-speaking world. Now I'm not surprised that he's speaking at Oxford. He's already spoken at Harvard. I would be more surprised if they passed up the opportunity to entertain a speaker whose most recent work has been read by more than twenty five people, and enjoyed by anyone. No, what I'm chiefly surprised about is twofold.

First, his pattern of speech is fascinating. I've never heard anyone speak like this before.

I don't mean to chide his misuse of literally or modern lingo like illest. I'm saying that the man speaks the way people write. Badly, yes, but interestingly so. Who uses the word vibe as a verb, or creative as a substantive adjective? What an extraordinary discontinuity of ideas, each crashing into the next:
“I think that progression of mind with the advent of a human being named Drake (laughs, smirks, crowd laughs) you know, this idea of holding onto a number 1 spot. And then you get this guy that comes and blows out the water every number 1 of any band ever. Be it me, or Paul McCartney [laughs].
How can you explain that? I realize these are haphazardly gathered quotations, likely somewhat out of context, but that's not remarkable. It reads like a Quentin Tarantino script translated into Latin, run through Google Translate, and edited by a Post-Structuralist PhD candidate.

Second, I'm baffled not only that there are idea therein which you can discern, not comprehend of course, but discern, but also that I agree with these ideas.

For example:
One of my biggest Achilles heels has been my ego. And if I, Kanye West, the very person, can remove my ego, I think there’s hope for everyone.
Yes, the presence of Kanye West and Achilles in the same sentence is risible in the extreme, as is the vexatious question of how many Achilles heels one may have and whether the heel admits the aspect of scale, but that's not an awful analogy. He's talking about overcoming tragic flaws and he's obviously in possession of some self knowledge. Who can fault that?

West on authenticity:
I’d see toys that some people would buy for my daughter and I’d say this toy isn’t quality. I don’t want my daughter playing with this. There’s not enough love put into this, this is just manufactured with the will to sell, and not the will of inspiration.
Yes, again the short, staccato, statements are rife for Shatnerization, but isn't he right? Mass-produced products are soulless. I'm not saying the world would be wholly better off without them, or that everyone  should pay a lot of money for hand-made computer keyboards, but there is an important distinction to be made between the work of craftsmanship and mechanically-produced knockoffs. There is indeed a difference between Michelangelo's David itself and a concrete reproduction, between sculpted bas-relief and mold-formed plastic duplicates.

Now a sound bite on aesthetics:
Let’s have an NBC telethon moment, and say that beauty has been stolen from the people and is being sold back to them under the concept of luxury!
Again, the string of appositions NBC telethon moment is both amusing and indicative of an inability to organize and subordinate ideas, but the rest is not half-bad. The fact that luxury is not equivalent to beauty is a pertinent observation I think.

Waxing philosophical,
Time is the only luxury. It’s the only thing you can’t get back. If you lose your luggage – I’m not gonna say the obvious brand of luggage that I’d normally say because I’ve got a meeting with them soon – if you lose your expensive luggage at the airport, you can get that back. You can’t get the time back.
No, there's no context or larger argument and admittedly Mr. West's opulent lifestyle contradicts his sentiment, but for all the wacky celebrity babbling, he could say worse.

On intellectual property,
I love Steve Jobs, he’s my favorite person, but there’s one thing that disappoints me. When Steve passed he didn’t give the ideas up. That’s kinda selfish. You know that Elon’s like ‘yeah, take these ideas’. Maybe there are companies outside of Apple that could work on them and push humanity forward. Maybe the stock brokers won’t like that, the stock holders wouldn’t like that idea, but ideas are free and you can’t be selfish with them.
I agree. I agree? Again? There you have it: I agree with Kanye West, who also said:
She bought my daughter these three wolves, knowing the whole collection, that it’d play with the song Wolves, and based on this concept.
It's worth note, I think, that a man who seems not versed in the terms and traditions of, well let's say a lot, has somehow, perhaps independently, hit upon some serious ideas. So he's what happens when someone who doesn't know the days of the week tackles the problems of aesthetics and time, and it's tempting to ridicule the incoherence and eccentricity, say, by posting a picture of him tenderly cradling a fish or photoshopping him into the School of Athens, which I considered.

Yet here's a man with talent, thrust into celebrity and success, publicly trying to sort it out. Some formal education would help his cause, and I wish he'd go down that path so I could endure more of his music, the last of which I sampled lost me sixty seconds in at assquake.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Review: Breaking Bad (Season 2)


If Season One was the season of misdirection, Season Two is the season of apposition. Where the first season established, the second develops. All, mind you, while still acting primarily as an introduction. We are not dealt, as we are in countless lesser shows, a thousand trifling difficulties which have nothing to do but prolong a final conflict, nor are we given endless variations of the same problem, none greater or lesser, nor do we endure the most frustrating of development tactics, the endless tease. Instead we see established characters butting heads, their strengths and weaknesses bouncing off one another as they deal with the ongoing turmoil which into Walt's illness, and more so his radical drug-dealing solution to his financial burden, throws the family. 

The season opens with the conclusion previous season's mess, in which Walt and Jesse, seeking to increase their distribution, fall in with the Tuco Salamanca, a brutal drug lord whose savage streak is outmatched and magnified only by his murderous volatility. The denouement of the Season One cliffhanger, in which Walt and Jesse are holed up with Tuco and his uncle, on the lam in a desert hideaway, is a perfect transition from the small-scale antics of the last year to new, higher stakes. As the unlikely duo try to outsmart Tuco they run the risk of hurting more and more people by their scheme. First among the potential victims is Tuco's uncle who, mute, communicates with a bell. Will he take the poison intended for Tuco? Second, and more importantly, comes Hank, Walt's brother-in-law, now a higher up in the DEA. Will Hank get hurt when he's called into the scene?

The conclusion to the nail-biter is classic Season One: fulfilled in the unexpected way. Hank turns up and heroically saves the day as Walt and Jesse escape, but it is the lie Walt concocts which sets up the new season. Walt learns to lie, and in a colossal untruth pretends that he entered into a sleepwalking state in order to explain his absence. We have a foreshadowing of the season in their missing persons photos: it's the family he's trying to save which he is destroying.

Again we have the delicious parallels and contrasts in which I delight. Hank brews and bottles his own beer whereas Walt is an underground meth cooker. When Hank throws away a morbid token of his heroism–Tuco's gold teeth encased in glass–he rejects the violence which even he, Mr. "Indestructible" can't come to terms with, whereas when Walt throws away his cigarettes, he throws away a former venial vice, embracing a new, truly violent lifestyle. Walt adds a secret, violent world alongside his peaceful, domestic life, as Jesse adds a public business with Walt–so to speak and so it seems to others–to his former private hooliganism. These parallels are developed just enough, enriching by contrast without being so rigid that they make the drama predictable.

The biggest contrast, though, is how Walt's increasing absence, taken of course to support his family, hurts Skyler, who seeing only erratic moods and deceit, lets her boss Ted step in more and more to fill Walt's absence. Similarly, Skyler discovers that Ted's been cooking the books at work to help the employees in the rough economy, just as Walt's been breaking the law to help her and Walt Jr. These parallels don't drive the story or dictate the plot just to maintain the similarity, rather they create enriching contrast, so much in fact that the drug dealing shenanigans we expected to play a leading role sometimes become a mere backdrop.

Except in one episode, that is, and one in which Jesse's plot is set up for the season. When one of Jesse's dealers gets pinched by an addict, he has to make a show of force so he doesn't become known as a weakling whose dealers can get hoodwinked, and worse. When he traces the addict back to her house, he enters a surreal world of addiction and iniquity. When he breaks in to get his money and make a name for himself he finds a child living in lonely squalor. Prepared to take his money and run, Jesse can't, and preparing the kid a sandwich sets him in front of the television. We see Jesse's despair not only in remembering the loving suburban home he left, but realizing the erratic, unhealthy lifestyle of drugs which he entered in rejection of his family is the one into which this child was born without choice. When the couple, using the term couple loosely, returns home, their vicious sniping, irrational babbling, and stoned stupor take Jesse by surprise. The tenor rises as the couple bicker profanity at one another until the scene erupts in violence which scares Jesse straight.

There is something refreshing about a clear midpoint in a story. Here, it is also the low point for Walt and Jesse's so-called business. Badger, one of Jesse's dealers, has been arrested, and his plea deal will out everybody. Enter Saul Goodman, lawyer. His office is a hilarious exaggeration of patriotism and the law, with vast columns and flags, all belying his unscrupulous ways. Goodman's frankness about his ways is a stark contrast to Walt's typical shame, and his brutal realism is a contrast to Walt's hand-wringing attempts at moderation. Bob Odenkirk's fast-talking, articulate, and sarcastic performance brings also some welcome levity. Besides safeguarding their secret, though, Goodman hooks Walt and Jesse up with some distribution for a small fee. All they need is some more product.

The ensuing desert sojourn is one part buddy comedy and one part dramatic finale. On the one hand, their lives are on the line: they need to cook the drugs to score the deal, Walt's health is deteriorating, and now they need to pay Saul. On the other hand, the scene is a comedy of errors when the RV breaks down. Holding it all together, though, is the drama of their relationship.

We sympathize with Walt, trying to help his family, whom he fears he always disappoints, but Walt can also be cruel to Jesse, running him down whenever he makes a mistake. In contrast again, though, Walt starts to teach Jesse the craft and science of their project. It's a dark irony that Walt as a mild-mannered, academic teacher couldn't teach chemistry to Jesse when he was a student, but now the two are discussing and bonding while they cook meth in a Winnebago in the middle of the desert. When the episode ends, the two part with the meth cooked and money made. Walt is ready to die, but is given an unexpected, positive prognosis from the doctor. The coughed-up blood is just irritation from the chemotherapy. For now, he's better. In the final scene, Walt excuses himself from everyone's jubilation to the bathroom, where upon seeing his reflection in the metal towel dispenser, he punches it ferociously. It clicks for us that Walt was ready to die. More life means more lies, more risk, and more suffering for his family. He is simultaneously the cause for his family's joy and pain, their suffering and saving.

His return home episode is a brilliant coda to the apparent climax of the previous episode. Loaded with cash and time, Walt starts obsessively to gut and repair his house. He fixes leaks, updates the boiler, and firms up the foundation. About halfway through we realize Walt is doing this to avoid his family. He's fixing his physical house instead of the bonds with his family, which needs tending even more. We start to wonder whether he's ready to keep living and if his experience hasn't alienated him from his family. When he spots the telltale ingredients of meth-making in a wagon at the hardware store and he follows the guy outside and threatens him, urging him to get out of his territory, we call Walt's entire raison d'être into question. Does he cook and deal to save his family or because it gives him purpose and agency? Is he simply preserving his territory because he knows he'll need to start up again?

Walt's apparent refusal to return to normal relations with his family parallels the domestication of Jesse, who now has a furnished apartment and an ordinary, if not a admirable, lifestyle, excepting the worsening heroin addiction he can't quit. Still, he falls for his next-door neighbor, Jane, whom he tries to impress and woo. This, as is often so, has a salubrious and domesticating effect on Jesse, and all seems well for a while. Jesse's apartment gets neater and neater. He wants to meet her dad (played by a much underworked John de Lancie) and throws a little fit when she only introduces him as the tenant. When we learn that Jane is a recovering addict, though, we can see the writing on the wall, which everyone hits in what is perhaps the best television drama I've ever seen.

The finale is a masterful threading of every plot. First, Walt has to thread the needle of a new deal with a meticulous client. Second, he has to be ready for the imminent birth of his daughter. Third, Walt's son, now ominously having cast off his father's name and going by Flynn, starts an online charity website to raise money for his father's next surgery, just as Walt's recent score brings in nearly half a million dollars, dollars which Walt can't spend or explain, of course, a fact which more and more irritates Walt. He is sacrificing so much for his family and not only does it alienate them from him, he gets no credit. The ever-ingenious Saul schemes to get a bot-net of computers to transfer Walt's money through indirect means into his son's charity. So impressive is the seemingly wild success of Flynn's scheme to save his dad that a news crew comes to the house for what becomes a bizarre and brilliantly orchestrated, darkly comic scene: the media praises Flynn for raising the money, which in reality was raised by Walt, who goes on to praise his father not for what he actually did, raise the money, but for the old virtues of being kind and patient and good, virtues he's since abandoned to save them. To top it all off, the misplaced and untimely recognition risks exposing Walt, on national television of all places.

Meanwhile, Jesse is slipping deeper into addiction and taking Jane with him. When she finds out that Walter won't give Jesse his half of the million until he's clean, Jane sets up the climax by blackmailing Walt. After Walt shows up with the cash he tries to reason with Jesse, but Jane slams the door in his face. Despondent, and adding but one more white lie, Walt sneaks off to a bar where he runs into, unbeknownst to him, Jane's dad. They commiserate a bit, each talking about what they do and want to do for their kids. (Alas by now Walt is acting more like a father to Jesse than to Walt Jr. aka Flynn, whose receiving the credit for saving the family has driven a wedge between father and son.) The setup is obvious right? Jane's dad accidentally spurs Walt to go back and reason with Jesse, and in doing so accidentally saves his daughter.

As Walt stands over the intoxicated lovers, curled up like little children, we see a paternal Walt. His daughter has just been born, he's saving his family and foregoing esteem. Then Jane starts to vomit and choke from the drugs. Walt motions to turn the girl on her side, but pauses, and we realize as he looks on and lets her die, that he's turned a terrible corner. The turn is at once shocking yet in retrospect, inevitable, for every incident led to it: Walt's commitment to Jesse and to his own family, Jane falling for Jesse, Jane's father not giving up on her.

The parallelisms to which we're accustomed now grow terrible. Walt gently props his newborn daughter up in bed while he lets Jane die. He cradles his daughter as he does Jesse. He lays his daughter out on the bed to change her while Jane's father lays out the dress for his daughter's funeral. Jesse falls into torturous despair, blaming himself for Jane's death which is in some significant way Walt's fault too, while Walt's actual son gets credit for the good that Walt did.

Then the ultimate end for a season of tension and deceit. Walt's last was one too many lies, and Sklyer, with Walt's most recent surgery successful and having given birth to a healthy girl, leaves Walt, afraid of the truth behind his lies. Then as Jane's father, despondent over the loss of his daughter, fails at his air traffic control job, two planes collide over the city. By his own attempt to save his family, Walt has rained chaos, death, destruction, suffering, and dissolution down on everyone around him, and only, in the end, did he preserve himself, whom he was most ready to sacrifice.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Peace and Reason

Whatever man can make of his destiny, he can't control his legacy. Whatever our endeavors or efforts, we never know what good or bad will follow or be remembered.

I used to think felicior Augusto, melior Traiano was a rather good way to remain in the memory, until I read in amusing contrast the words of the late Paul Eddington, famous for his portrayal of the earnest and ineffectual minister of Yes, Minister, that he'd prefer, he did very little harm. At the passing of Leonard Nimoy, though, it seems hard to top being unanimously and unequivocally associated with peace and reason.

Things I Don't Get #7: Ghostwriting

Amid the confusion of life, harmony refreshes. Second to the joy of agreeing on pizza toppings is the occasion when common sense and philosophy conjoin under the twin suns of logic and propriety. This coalition shines in the simple observation that a thing is and is only what it is, and that calling it something else does not make it so. This happy premise doesn't imply that the process of definition is easy or infallible, or that all things admit singular definition, but that the process of definition is largely objective and its concepts exclusive.

That is, if a writer is a person who writes and you don't write, then you can't be called a writer. The process of ghostwriting and the inherent contradiction between the nominal author's lack of writing and the definition of a writer is the object of my scorn.

Now I understand the economics of the situation. Some people can write but don't have ideas, and some people have ideas but can't write. It seems a happy marriage, but how on earth do you have the gall to put your name on something you didn't write? Worse, what temerity such an individual has either to consider himself an author, i.e. an auctor, a creator, or to expect to be treated like one. There is also a question of sympathy implicit in ghostwriting, namely that the inability of someone to find expression for his ideas is more important, for he gets the title credit, than the inability of someone with the facility to express ideas to find any. I don't see any reason to prefer the former plight to the latter.

Speaking of whom, how can the actual author, that is, the person who did the writing–is it ever a good sign when you need to insist upon adhering to reality?–stand to have his work treated in this manner. Putting your name on someone else's book is not copying by oversight, mind you, the anxiety of every neurotically footnoting student, nor is it accidental imitation, the crippling fear of many writers, and not even is it writing in full knowledge that he will be overshadowed, but writing with the intent of someone else claiming your work as his own. The appropriation by the so-called author is not mere kidnapping, but raising the child as your own, that is, plagiarism, however socially acceptable the form.

Of course the process of ghostwriting entertains a spectrum of possibilities. At one end a would-be author with more money than talent pays someone else to make him look good. A rank process and detestable individual. On the other end, though, I imagine a collaboration something akin to a director and screenwriter, or better, the screenwriter and author of the story. The story guy has the ideas, the "basic narrative, idea, theme or outline indicating character development and action," as the WGA handily writes, and the screenwriter pulls it all together. Nothing objectionable here.

Now to their credit and proper crediting, some book authors defer to this distinction by that indefatigable preposition with, which lets us know that they had a little help. You usually need an electron microscope to read the other guy's name, but it's there and we appreciate the acknowledgement. The work is a collaboration.

Yet ghostwriting in the form of speech-writing has a long history. Such does not seem to redeem the practice, though. For example, though professional speech-writing is thousands of years old, I can never get past the fact that a man is reading someone else's arrangement of his own ideas. Who can readily accept the ideas of a man who didn't comprehend the process, be it art or science, at least of their articulation. This might seem at first look to be unfair, for a poor writer might have a good idea and bad ideas have had lucid and artful expression by good writers, and indeed in truth I don't readily trust the articulate infecund either. Yet to me the processes of writing and thinking seem so much the same that I can't trust in the presence of the latter if I don't see at least an attempt at the former.

Lack and excess of both matter and style are equally unfavorable, and a mean out to be sought suitable to the speaker and occasion. Last, the writing ought to be a frank collaboration or one's own work, however humble.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Top Ten: What Teachers Should Learn in Grad School

The most open of secrets among good and honest teachers is the fact, painfully clear, that a Master's Degree in Education is worthless, at least toward the end of education. It does, however, have several purposes.

The first is to exclude from the profession, to the greatest extent possible, anyone who does not participate in the offering of oblations to the academic immortals, that is, the tenured teacher-teaching scholars of universities. Obeisance to the lords of the ivory towers is the prerequisite for the knighthood of certified pedagogy. Second, the degree in education is purposed to delude any who have not yet learned to distrust professional academic credentialers that such a degree is a stamp of certification which signifies the teacher as qualified. Similarly, the degree confirms bragging rights upon people and institutions who employ only credentialed faculty.

Lastly, and worst, it breaks the spirits of teachers. Whether or not it is designed to, partaking in such preposterous chicanery erodes the will and soul of whoever speak the lie as truth. As with one who parrots propaganda, the spirit of he who does not contest this meretricious process is rendered incapable of resisting further debasement. Hence from modern pedagogical, progressive orthodoxy have subsequently come deference to standardized tests and the companies which profit by their manipulation, sycophancy to politicians who promise facile funding, and at last the meddlesome shaping of curricula. 

Eroded by corruption, graduate programs in education are degree mills to which teachers turn to eek out a few more dollars from their employers, not to improve their teaching prowess. If professors desired, however, to prepare teachers for the classroom, they could offer the following courses. To be sure these are all skills which teachers learn, usually at great pains, in their first few years. There is also much of need and use for teachers which I omit here–certain basics of logic and philosophy–since it is included in a Liberal Arts education, one hopes.

10. History and Philosophy of Teaching the Discipline

This course would include a comparison of philosophies for the discipline which not only explain why it should be taught, but how that purpose can be explained to students so they are not following along like sheep. It should involve frank discussions about teacher bias and how the philosophy of the teacher/program/curriculum dictates what is and is not taught, and how. Too the history of teaching the material, as well as when, where, and why methodologies changed, would not only better situate teachers in the history of their profession, but allow them to see what trends succeeded and what forces have tended to and are now shaping pedagogical trends.

9. Adapting to Different Schedules

Every new teacher struggles with his schedule and the problem how of to break lessons and evaluations into coherent sections. There is a world of difference, for example, between teaching a 40-minute period every day, eighty-minutes every other day, and one or two periods per week. This class would cover adapting to various schedule types and explain how to utilize each schedule's merits and avoid its detriments.

8. Curricula Planning and Pacing

This is the problem of #9 writ large. Teachers should know before jumping into the classroom how the material is going to be spread throughout the curriculum from start to finish. This class can compare sequences of presentation, adjustments for difficulty, adjustments for numbers of class hours/school days, and variations for teaching semester or year-long classes.

7. Comparison of Evaluations

The art of the test is a subtle craft. Teachers would benefit from learning to choose the appropriate type of evaluation, e.g. short answer, essay, quizzes, term paper, multiple choice, and so on. Different disciplines require different types of evaluations at different intervals, and teachers need guidance as to how much of what, when, and what type and quantity is appropriate for different ages, curricula, difficulty, and schedules.

6. Making Tests

The art of the test is a subtle craft in execution too. What teacher hasn't slowly, and after many mistakes, complaints, confusion, and stress, figured out how to:
  1. Write unambiguous directions.
  2. Lay out tests so they are not confusing to administer, take, or grade.
  3. Determine the time frame in which the test can and ought to be completed.
  4. Determine how the pacing, volume, and variety of questions affect the difficulty of the test.
  5. Make various types of questions from scratch and utilize tools and resources to make them.
  6. Vary questions by difficulty, in various ways.
  7. Create a scale of difficulty appropriate to the class' range of student competence.
  8. Weigh sections of tests and types of evaluations within a class.
  9. Develop a consistent method of testing.
  10. Make variations of tests.
And don't forget learning to stagger giving tests so that they can be graded and reviewed in timely, useful manner.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reflections on Polishing My Shoes

Simple manual labor is good for the soul and the mind. While intellectual work leaves the body wasted and the mind exhausted, physical work keeps the body occupied and leaves the mind to take flight without the prescriptions of study. It is curious how in times of physical exertion the mind spies the hidden symmetries of life. Take polishing your shoes, for example.

They are strange things, shoes, with their folds of tailored, tanned animal hide affixed a refined petroleum rubber, but how normal they seem to us. One the one hand, the shoe makes the man. The craftsmanship in the neat layers of leather and those precise dotted patterns of stitching make even the unkempt and ungainly look slick, or slicker. On the other hand we make the shoes, which bear our resemblance, carrying the nicks, scratches, and dents from our falls and foibles. They crease and wrinkle. While technically you can fix them, they're devilishly hard to mend and you can usually spot the scar of the repair. Even like us they over time grow a little too worn to fuss about holding their shape. You can always make them shine, though.

Polishing is an outright absurd practice, though, and among man's most futile activities–mowing the lawn, washing the car, reasoning with people–it certainly ranks respectably high. The wax will rub off at the first drops and dents, of course, but like all futile tasks there is honor in its near-ineffectuality. Who is not impressed at the constancy of a man whose shoes are always polished? His sheer unwillingness to be worn down dull commends him to us, even if he is otherwise deficient, and how much more brilliant is the gleam because of its short-lived luster.

If the shoe resembles man, then the polish parallels his manners. Each makes smooth the affairs of life, and as the wax allow the debris of life to roll off us so the emollients of courtesy and politeness polish our naturally chaffing ways. What petty insults and foolish, honest reactions skulk beneath a layer of glossy custom. How many grievances are averted by the seemingly extraneous thanks, praise, and inquiries of concern–to say nothing of silences–offered under the guise of manners. Too, polish hides the prickly parts of our demeanors and lets others gloss over deficiencies just as it fills in and hides, however briefly, leather's cracks and scratches. A man may be a boor, a churl, or a fool, but if he holds the door for you, or returns your phone call, how unkind will judgment of him be?

Finally, just as with our waxen counterparts, our manners erode over time. The more rubbish that rolls off, the more worn down our manners until we bristle and snap. We reapply the wax and we take our leisure time to regenerate our patience.

Yes, polish and manners may be lies, but they do good. While we may get fooled every so often by affectation and, worse, some may take appearances more seriously than true goodness, a polished world is still a more beautiful one, and to demand matters and people look as ugly as they often are seems a spiteful request.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Things I Don't Get #6: Offertory Shenanigans

So you're at church. Maybe you're visiting a parish or maybe you left the fancy labeled envelopes at home, but you'll be making your offering with cash. The offertory rolls around and as you reach into your wallet you realize you don't have the right change. The cognitive dissonance hits you at once: you have more money than you want to give to God. Embarrassed, you put in the whole amount and pray fervently for the redemption of your piteous, covetous soul.

Or, and perhaps this possibility was unknown to you, you can make change from the offerings in the collection basket. Oh you didn't know this option was on the table? Yeah you just stick your big unbroken bill out at the usher like you're paying for a hot dog, feign confusion that he doesn't have change, and then you can start rifling through the basket. Because nothing says transcendence like making sure you can buy stuff later.

Alright, fine: accidents happen. We forget. Humanum est errare. But how does sucking up your embarrassment and putting a check in the mail lose out to fishing the collection basket for change? I don't get it.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Movie Review: Jaws (Part III)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1975.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV coming soon

18. Persuading the Mayor

One of the most important parts of filmmaking is not just shooting good scenes, but putting the right scene in the right place. As with music and painting, it is often the transitions between elements which prove the most difficult. We ought not take for granted how much effort goes into seemingly inessential scenes like this little nugget, in which Brody and Hooper try to persuade Mayor Vaughn to close the beaches, because it is scenes like this which make or break the pacing of a movie. A few features make it stand out.

First, there is good visual contrast from the preceding scene. The last was night and this is day, the previous was on the water and this is on land, and the earlier revolved around two people, while this around three. Second, the shark is present yet again, but yet again only in the background as a looming threat. In the last scene we worried that it would pop out behind Hooper as he investigated the hull of the wrecked boat and here its presence and destructive power are present here in both the scientific descriptions by which Brody and Hooper hope to convince the mayor to close the beaches and by the vandalized sign which plants in our minds the same scenario which will play out later. Third, the energy of the scene is high but comes only from the intensity of the characters, from their emotion, and from the tight, close-up camera and blocking.

Notice how the men enter the frame from the back, and how the two benches, which will continue to frame the shot, funnel them together, as if circumstances have forced these unlikely men to be partners. The tension prefigures the tension Brody and Hooper will have with Quint and makes us think for a moment that the mayor might be the third major character in the movie. It's a false alarm, though. The camera is also tight, showing us up close and personal their aggression and frustration. There is also a lot of visual energy simply from the movement of Brody and Hooper around the mayor. They pivot around the mayor, who is as physically immobile as he is intractable in argument, moving back and forth and around him and each other as they repeatedly attempt new tacks of persuasion. The close up camera makes all of this relatively slight motion much more intense.

Finally, the scene is also a tease. We think the mayor might be the third main character in the movie, but he's not, and we think that they might be able to persuade the mayor, and they can't. The last shot of their argument belies our suspicions as the mayor walks off leaving only Brody, Hooper, and, of course, the shark in the background. The low angle suggests both their failure and the looming threat of the shark in the deep.

Several touches set off the final shot. Brody is again in the extreme foreground and thus large and the mayor is low in his card in the mid-ground, blocking which reinforces who is in the right amidst the debate. On the other hand, as the mayor off in his car, we spy a one-way road sign and a tall, especially phallic lighthouse in the background, each respectively emphasizing his stubbornness and authority. This detail contrasts Brody, who stands front and tall but impotent, limply lilting and looking down.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Vitae Praecepta Beatae

In the last decades before the birth of Christ, as the Roman people learned to embrace the yoke of an ostensibly reluctant autocrat, the historian Titus Livy began the history of his people from their founding up to the final crisis of their ordered liberty. If St. Jerome is correct in setting Livy's birth in the year 59 BC, then it was a propitious date on which to inaugurate the birth of Rome's patriotic, moralist-historian, for such was the year of Caesar's consulship. A nominal consulship for a nominal republic, the year also marked the year when the First Triumvirate–the cadre of Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar–began blazingly to run roughshod over the remnant of the old order.

Yet this beginning of the republican end, with its wars foreign and domestic, its sullied politics–oh poor beshitted Bibulus!–and its civil strife were not foremost what fascinated Livy, though he knew these years, the most infamous in Roman history then and now, would attract readers, festinantes ad haec hova, more than timeworn tales about the past, hoary retellings of Horatius at the Bridge. The Old History, Livy confesses, is a happy diversion from debates about the contentious years through which his people had navigated.

It is more from that spirit less than that of history proper that I would consider the virtues which animated Livy's history. I do not wish to dwell on comparisons–instructive but dolorous and already complete–to nations long powerful making their own demise, nor will not conjecture whether, paraphrasing Charles Cochrane, mere republicanism can save a republic or mere religiosity religion. Whether traditional republican virtues could be broadly revitalized today and if they could, what effect they would have on the American polity, is beyond my scope here.

It is not now my goal to consider history, furnishing examples by which a republic may prosper or decline, yet, labente disciplina, I would look at those virtues which carried the Romans, and which they carried, so far. My approach will be to systematize and rationalize in the Aristotelian fashion of setting means between excess and deficiency, but recall that these virtues were for the Roman traditional, religious, and instinctive. My modest hope is that their presentation might prove salubrious to the individual, not condemnation but encouragement to their prudent consideration and application.

Virtues: Lack, Moderation, Excess

Religio is of course the concept with which to start and what today will either offend people or send them scurrying toward some other virtue they hope to practice without any obligation. The essence of religio is not the definition common today, a system of beliefs, but rather constraint of human endeavor in the face of divine force. Religio vetuit, religion forbids. In Gaul after his consulship Caesar, as he slaughtered the Gauls, wrote as praise that they were dedita religionibus, (De bello Gallico, 6.16.1) dedicated to religion, and thus undertook certain rituals for administering to the dead. Underneath the ritual, though, is the recognition of a divine realm with which one must be in accord. Roger Scruton writes, "[Man] confronts in [worldly things] not objects only, but the eyes of the gods, who remind him of his duties and offer comforting socially endorsed instructions."  [Scruton, 33] The religious impulse then requires first discrimination, namely between sacred and vulgar, between things of utility and the divine which is for its own sake. Second it requires tradition, accepted practices of propitiation, for those on the rock radices non habent, οὗτοι ῥίζαν οὐκ ἔχοθσιν (John, 8.13) they have no root, and cannot cultivate the seed.

When religio reaches extremes we are left either with superstition or materialism, both sharing the common failure to distinguish between the sacred and vulgar. In removing the agency of man, superstition removes his burden of responsibility to discern and act upon the good, enervating both intellectual and moral virtues. In contrast, materialism, in denying any realm which man does not dominate, elevates man to the role of measurer of all things. Nothing escapes his judgment, which is ultimate and which meddles in all affairs sacred and profane, public and private, and through past, present, and future. There exists a balance between the prudential governance of the material world, “a healthy secularism of the State, by virtue of which temporal realities are governed according to their own norms," as Benedict XVI called it, and the acknowledgment that, ipse fecit nos, et non ipsi nos, God mad us, not we ourselves (Psalm 99, 1-2), and therefore we do not dictate all. Laws which are beyond our right to change make claims on us.

The virtue of pietas, then, is the acknowledgement and fulfillment of such claims. Piety is the fulfillment not of contract, but duty, the making of vows, not promises, and the consecration of life not by technology or human will, but by sacrament, action given power by the word of God.

Lack of piety may stem of course from a lack of religiosity, an indifference to the mystery of the passing generations in which one partakes, but it may also stem from a conscious rejection of tradition. Such rejection begins when one finds tradition onerous instead of ennobling and the rejection takes flight when a tradition is first broken and no one sounds the alarm. It is not without reason that Aristotle wrote that a man's crime is worse if he is the first to commit it (1375a,) for once the chain is broken and the world does not promptly end, the chain is thought to have been perfunctory, stuffy, tradition.

Now it would be easy to propose piety and religious obligation as a panacea for modern woes. Recoiling from this extremity I would consider religiosity and piety as balances upon worldliness. Besides its obligations, religiosity is an inducement to eschew the world of utility, of gaining and spending, and to set something aside as not for meddling. Likewise piety encourages us to consider in our actions and reactions not what we are owed by law, but what we owe by nature.

Similarly, and in contrast to the exacting of one's will and the extraction of one's pound of flesh under pain of law, we find clementia, the willingness to forego what is owed.

In the modern world, or rather transition from the ancient to the modern, the Enlightenment, we find clemency at the heart of each mature Mozart opera: In Die Entführung Pasha Selim permits the escaping lovers to depart, the Countess pardons her cheating husband in Figaro, the men forgive their wayward fiancees in Così fan tutte, Die Zauberflöte's Sarastro tutors the inconstant acolytes, and Titus forgives the conspirators. Among the forgivers, there is no compensation for damages, no quid pro quo, just deference to the love which is greater than the penitent transgression. (We see now that virtue begets virtue, clemency implying penitence.) With the exception of Così, which ends philosophical in confusion, we can feel the great-souledness magnifying Selim and the sacred grandeur of forgiveness permeating Sarastro and Countess Almaviva. We feel them grow large in their glad pardoning–the hilaris clementia of Martial 12.5–and we feel the joy of magnanimity with them as Mozart's music brings to us the "consoling vision which religion grants to all its supplicants." [Scruton, 42]

The only exception is Don Giovanni, who thrice unrepentant and bending no knee is dragged to Hell.

Of clementia we can see its defect in both the polity and individual, in excessive grievance. When an individual is only sated when he gets what he feels owed, when he must have his pound of flesh regardless of details which out to modify his expectations–such as past kindness, good reputation, virtues which balance vices, intent, misjudgment, misfortune, and human weakness–he is a small man. This man prefers to sue than settle, and as his way is imitated, private reconciliation by equity is replaced by public adjudication.

The excess of clementia seems easy to imagine: the insolent or downright criminal run rampant over the good. This is surely a possibility, but I would suggest that an excess of desire to seem forgiving is the more observable and pernicious phenomenon, for transgressing a virtue weakens the individual, but its meretricious application weakens perception of the virtue itself. Such application is present, though I would not argue that it constitutes, the impulse behind plea-bargaining. From a desire to appear magnanimous, forgiving, and liberal, offering a plea-bargain confuses admittance with repentance and in doing so confuses a commuted sentence with forgiveness. Moreover, and even worse than the obvious inducing of the accused to expect lessened punishment, the attempted institutionalization of a virtue which can only be practiced by the offended party, not a judge, confuses law and equity. Worst of all, plea-bargaining debases the virtues–in this respect unwritten laws which are not exacted by force–by extending them unasked to those who broke written laws which are backed up by force, and he who would break a written law would certainly break an unwritten, and thus unenforced, one. [Aristotle, 1374] The bargaining process also admits great corruption against the accused. Dr. Dalrymple writes,

...plea-bargaining is intrinsically unjust because it may induce the innocent to plead guilty and the guilty to hold out for a lesser punishment than they deserve. It encourages prosecutors to intimidate defendants by multiplying and exaggerating charges on the great Hitlerian principle that if you sling enough mud, some of it sticks. It undermines the principle that the prosecutor’s purpose is not to secure a conviction at any price, but to secure justice. [Link]
A judge may adjudicate only according to objective legislation and policy of administration. Law is therefore a more harsh and less flexible standard than equity, which may moderate disputes with less severity.

After religio, it is likely gravitas which is the most neglected of Roman virtues. After all, who wants to be the stiff rather than the wit, the killjoy than the life of the party? Yet to the Roman mind, man and his life were predominately serious. The disposal of life, literally the putting down of it, that is, the doing of it, is not a trivial business. To carry oneself with gravitas is not to be a pompous, officiating Polonius, but to walk as if your existence has purpose and consequence. Gravitas does not imply seeking attention or conceit, adrogantia, but simply being counted in the reckoning.

That hard edge of gravitas is burnished by the good humor of comitas, which bids us be responsible and serious, but not stiff. While gravitas urges us to value our dignity, comitas urges courtesy, an ease which does not assert but attends. If gravitas cautions us not to be timid, comitas reminds us to note the humor of life. Still, as Cicero says, however useful it might be, leve enim est totum hoc risum movere. (De Oratore, 2.218) Humor is a relief, not a mainstay, and comitas should never degenerate into levitas, being lighthearted when we ought to be serious.

Pliny the Younger, writing to the orator Arrianus, (Epistulae 8.21.1), advices moderation:
Ut in vita sic in studiis pulcherrimum et humanissimum existimo severitatem comitatemque miscere, ne illa in tristitiam, haec in petulantiam excedat.
Mix, Pliny urges, the light and the severe, so that we do not gravitate toward the extremes of gloom or frivolity.

Again, the false appearance of a virtue is the most damaging. Livy again, writing about Appius Claudius–most famous for the construction of the Via Appia and Aqua Appia under the tenure of his censorship–points to a noteworthy contrast when he observes Appius' fraternizing and canvassing: profecto haud gratuitam in tanta superbia comitatem fore. (Ab urbe condita, 3.35.6) That is to say, the arrogant man may use graciousness to further his ends, therefore in him it is conspicuous.

We join the twin virtues of firmitas and constantia, the latter the origin of a most lovely name. It is easy to caricature constancy of character as obtuseness, but apart from Cicero's philosophizing connection of it to Stoic εὐπάθεια, the Old Roman was not a thinker, let alone one of subtlety. He did not value sophistical refutations and live at the cutting edge of philosophical trends. Caesar, less praising now, writes of the inconstancy of the Gauls, consiliis capiendis mobiles (De bello Gallico, 4.5.1), and how they take new plans easily and must retreat from their errors of their foolish fickleness. In amusing imitation of a self-made Roman, Petronius' Trimalchio, the freedman who made it big, wanted written on his tomb: nec umquam philosophum audivit. (Satyricon, 71) He never listened to a philosopher. Roman virtue was a process less of intellect than tradition, and the Roman did not consider a lot of subtle thinking in choosing the right path.

It is of course worth exploring the philosophical tack in Tusculan 4.12, in which Cicero, summarizing the Stoic position, observes that man naturally seeks what is good and thus what seems good, but in seeking his desire is twofold: either founded in prudence, called volition, or founded in violent desire, lust, which is found in fools (in omnibus stultis invenitur.) Therefore incitement of the former is joyful, whereas excitement of the latter is immoderate elation away from the control of reason. Thinking from the Stoic position, then, we can view inconstantia as an immoderate, immature response to the appearance of the good. It is appropriately associated with youth, who seeing the various goods cannot choose among them but move from one to the other.

One extreme of constantia is of course obtuseness, literally dullness to other observations. This stubbornness can manifest itself as A. pride, for example an intelligent man ignoring reasoning which contradict him, B. anti-intellectualism, an irrational distrust of thinking subtler or finer than our own, or C. traditionalism, distrust of the new. The other extreme is fickleness, in which we find A. an irrational distrust of our own judgment, B. the excessive worship of reason, which trusts what is argued more than what is demonstrated, and C. faddism, which prefers the new simply because it is new. The obtuse persist in error and the fickle wander from error to error.

Constantia then requires disciplina, the learning by which one chooses the good, for he cannot attain the good if he does not aim at it, and who can aim who does not see his target. Let us commend, though, the discussion of humanistic and Christian education to elsewhere, and discuss frugalitas, satisfaction in economy. Of frugalitas Marcus Aurelius spoke best, recalling what he learned from his adopted father: enjoy the luxuries which fortune may furnish, but do not miss them when absent. (Meditations 1.16) Live neither as a pauper nor helluo, poor man or squanderer.

All of these virtues require two more: severitas, the strictness to moderate oneself, and virtus, one's manly essence and full worth. Of all we have mentioned these virtues are perhaps naturally twin, for the exuberance and outward exertion of the virtus implies a need for severitas, a restraint. The virtus must be cultivated, surely with the good allowed to grow and the bad pruned, but even with the good pruned moderate, lest even one good grow at the expense of choking some other virtue.

The excess of these virtues are the most gross, and their defects the most pitiful. Untutored and unmoderated, severitas mistakes self-debasement for self-mastery. Severitas degenerates into excessive fault-finding and doubt. Excess severity is paralyzing, not ennobling as severitas should be. In detriment of severity we find excuse-making, as inimical toward manliness today as it was ever.

In immoderate virtus in excess becomes hubris, arrogance, and insolence run riot. Again we find Don Juan, in the words of David Cairns:
There is no protection against his fundamentally destructive energies... He is the logical consequence of the Enlightenment's cult of individualism and unrestrained liberty. 
In detriment the manly spirit is timid, weak, and enervated. It is cowed when it should be assertive, sluggish when it should soar, and reluctant when it should be ready. Reason fusts in him unused and he plods, but sleeping and feeding.

The modern idioms of looking at oneself in the mirror with pleasure and waking up in the morning with gusto might have pleased a Roman. Wake up neither with regret nor ready for mischief, the extremes of severity, but prepared for a prudent and disciplined day, and seek in the mirror neither the prideful nor pitiable, the extremes of virtus, but the cultivated self.

Auream quisquis mediocritatem
diligit, tutus caret obsoleti
sordibus tecti, caret invidenda
     sobrius aula.

Barrow, R. H. The Romans. Penguin Books. Middlesex. 1949.

Cairns, David. Mozart and His Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 2006.

Cochrane, Charles Norris. Christianity and Classical Culture. Oxford University Press. 1968. (Reprint from Clarendon Press, 1940)

Duff, J. Wight & Duff, A. M. A Literary History of Rome. Barnes and Noble. New York. 1960.

Scruton, Roger. An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture. St. Augustine's Press. South Bend Indiana. 2000.