Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thoughts on The Magic Flute

James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra. 1991.

The Magic Flute is 218 today. The last opera Mozart completed, he began and completed Le Clemenza di Tito amidst writing The Magic Flute, the work has enjoyed an aura of mystery since its premiere and for a number of reasons. First and foremost is likely Mozart's untimely death, which followed the premiere by a mere two months. The myths surrounding his death add still to the confusion, as does the fact Milos Forman's masterpiece Amadeus, for reasons of compression, depicts the premiere as occurring the night before his death. Second is the nature of the opera's themes. The Rosicrucian symbols and Masonic rituals naturally invite speculation as to their meanings. Last, if you will permit me to name it last, is the music. (I list it last only because I suspect there are many who know of Mozart and the myths surrounding him but not his music.) The three-fold chords of the overture, the solemn marches and hymns, and a simplicity both transfixing and transporting form what Charles Rosen called, "the first genuinely classical religious style." [1] In this atmosphere Mozart gives us exotic locations, fantastic animals, and magic instruments. A religious initiation, a fairy tale, and a spectacle, The Magic Flute will enchant all but the most obtuse listener.

Strange then that such an ethereal work should offer us a most straightforward and imminently practicable morality. We do not have exegeses or debate, moral ambiguity and shades of grey, but rather dark and light, uncontrolled passion and reason. Throughout we have simple wisdom plainly said. Papageno asks Pamina what they should tell Sarastro and she responds, "The truth. The truth, even if it were a crime!" In an aria calming Pamina, Sarastro sings:
Within these sacred portals
revenge is unknown,
and if a man has fallen,
love guides him to his duty.
Then, with a friend's hand, he walks,
glad and joyful, into a better land.

Within these sacred walls,
where man loves fellow man,
no traitor can lurk,
because enemies are forgiven.
He who is not gladdened by such teachings
does not deserve to be a man.

Kurt Moll as Sarastro in the 1991 production conducted by James Levine

That very aria, "In deisen heil'gen hallen. . ." is the antithesis of the Queen's manic fury:

Diana Damrau as the Queen of the Night in the 2003 production conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

Additionally, in considering that both arias, one wicked the other kind, should both be so beautiful, I yield the floor to C.S. Lewis: [2]
Perhaps in the world built by industrialism beauty has become so rare and evil so undisguisedly ugly that we can no longer believe ill of beauty. With the old poets it was not so. They believed that a thing might be perfectly beautiful, might be of a beauty to break the heart, and yet be evil. As for their art, it must be allowed that in one respect art has become more integrated since their times. The old poet, or painter, or musician does seem to have aimed simply at giving each part of his work the greatest beauty. The speeches of wicked characters were made as plausible as the poet could make them, the alluring temptations as alluring as he could make them. He did not feel it necessary to sow hints of falsity in the villain's speech. Perhaps this change is seen most clearly in the history of opera. A modern composer underlines his evil characters or places with discords. An old composer was content with making a courtesan's song soft and melting or a tyrant's song loud and declamatory; within that very general limit he then made each simply good of its kind. Thus Wagner givs Alberich ugly music to sing: but Mozart gives to the Queen of the Night music as beautiful as he gives to Sarastro."
Indeed, consider Alberich's cacophonous "Garstig glatter glitschriger Glimmer" at the opening of Das Rheingold in contrast to the Queen's beautiful, however terrifying, music.

Unfortunately the aphoristic philosophy of the opera and its symbols subject it to many interpretations, even if not wildly different. Perhaps some of its success owes to the fact that so many people with differing beliefs all find them expressed in the opera. Naturally the philosophically-minded will eventually consider whether The Magic Flute's philosophy is elemental and eternal or simply vague. We may desire and extol "love," "virtue," and "happiness" all we want, but without specific definitions of terms we will be hard pressed to come to more than superficial or dogmatic conclusions. Yet we do not go to art for explanation or explication but rather for demonstration and such is why this opera touches me. We arrive at our values by reasoned reflection and The Magic Flute celebrates that fact. We all sense varying degrees of tension between liberty and fraternity, between rights and obligations, loftiness and commonness, each of us leaning one way or another. In this way also, then, is The Magic Flute is a timeless and glorious achievement for in it Mozart gives us the unparalleled feeling of these eternally opposing forces being at once, at last reconciled.

Now anyone familiar with the opera probably does not remember it as being quite so serious and indeed interspersed are Papageno's clowning around and Monostatos' "priapic frenzy." [3] For all of their comedy, though, they are the necessary foils for Tamino. While Papageno can finally cease fretting for his lack of a wife, he does not enter the world of understanding with Tamino. Likewise the aptly named Monostatos, as the schwarz-Papageno [3], does not attain perfection. Regarding Sarastro, I agree with David Cairns that we are meant to imagine him, with his inchoate wisdom, "making way for the 'edles Paar,' the 'noble couple' whom the chorus hail triumphant at the end of their ordeals. . ." [3] Naturally Tamino and Pamina are the heart of the story and their unification is the culmination of all the values everyone has been singing about. In the finale, the chorus rejoices in their union. Not because Tamino, as a prince, takes his proper role as ruler, but because a man, in resisting evil and temptation and embracing reason may fulfill his potential. Likewise Pamina's passage is celebrated not because she is now joined to Tamino, but because once at the mercy of the wills of her mother, Monostatos, and even Sarastro, she is able freely and in understanding to take her place beside Tamino. Both have passed through their trials and now proceed in love and wisdom.

Hail to you on your consecration!
You have penetrated the night,
thanks be given to you,
Osiris, thanks to you, Isis!
Strength has triumphed, rewarding
beauty and wisdom with an everlasting crown!

Francisco Araiza as Tamino and Kathleen Battle as Pamina
in the 1991 production conducted by James Levine.

Will Hartmann as Tamino and Dorothea Röschmann as Pamina,
the 2003 production conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

[1] Rosen, Charles. The Classical Style. W.W. Norton & Company. NY, NY. 1997.

[2] Lewis, C.S. Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, U.K. 1966

[3] Cairns, David. Mozart and His Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley, U.S. 2006.

Other Reading On Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)

Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven. 2007

Chailley, Jacques. The Magic Flute Unveiled: Esoteric Symbolism in Mozart's Masonic Opera. Inner Traditions. Rochester, VT. 1992

Dent, Edward Joseph. Mozart's Operas: A Critical Study. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. Whitefish, MT. 2008

Simon, Henry W. The Festival of Opera. Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1957.

Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis Vol. IV Illustrative Music. "Essay CXLII. Overture, Die Zauberflöte." Oxford University Press. London. 1937.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Movie Review: Playtime

Directed by Jacques Tati. 1967.

The cinema is loud. Not just your Hollywood blockbusters, I’m not talking about your Star Wars and your Die Hard, but rather your 2001: A Space Odyssey and Wild Strawberries. There are many calls to action, so many tragedies, studies, commentaries, epics, and films otherwise fraught with portent and even more that aspire to such loftiness. Now surely there are at least as many films with trivial messages or none whatsoever (the cotton candy of the cinema.) Yet the "loud" movies think they are important and want to convince us, appealing to us by educating, dumbfounding, terrifying, confusing, or shocking us. Playtime of course has an intellectual purpose as well, but Tati does not beat us over the head with it. To understand Playtime one does not need to wade through a Joycean array of symbols, attend to a lecture on the ills of society, or submit to an anguishing cinematic experience. Such is precisely why Playtime catches us by such surprise, because it appeals to us by most rare means: subtlety and charm.

What is it about? The scholarly and academic answer is that Playtime is about how technology and newfangled gadgetry, modernist architecture, and city planning isolate and alienate us from our neighbors. In this line of thinking, Playtime is a scathing critique. That is a rather misleading answer. Another director might have seen the same effects in the same places on the same people that Jacques Tati saw and made a "loud" movie, but not Jacques Tati. The tone of Playtime is not, “Good God man, look what we’re doing to ourselves! We must stop! The humanity! Alas, alack!” Nor is its theme even quite specific as the academic jargon above, but something more general and more personal, rather like taking a gander at a new building and saying , “Hmm. I remember when things were all open and we just kind of mingled. When did these come up? I get in how? How odd. Well I’ll give it a whirl. Uh oh, well I seem to have left something outside. What do you mean I can’t get back out? What a funny situation I am in, no? Why did you build this again?”

Still we would be remiss not to discuss the physical world of the film which does much of the characterizing of urban life. The world is clean, but to the point of sterility. The cars flow in smooth traffic patterns like clockwork or a circus circle. Lights blink neurotically and obnoxious buzzers jar the ear. There is much glass, but it does not function to let you observe something pleasant on the other side that an opaque wall would have blocked, rather it serves to cut you off, usually from someone you want to talk to. This is a central theme of the movie, communication, specifically how our supposedly efficient designs sometimes make it more difficult and less personal. Take the scene when, against all odds, Mr. Hulot runs into an old friend who invites him into his apartment. The focus of course is on the “stuff”: the apartment, its view, the television, the lamp, the projector and so on. Mr. Hulot does not so much reconnect with his old friend so much get a tour of his junk. The viewer, however, has a grand time with this scene, since we see what the people are missing. Just on the other side of the wall, the couple is watching television, staring intently at the very spot Hulot and his friend are looking at, just on the other side. Not only that, but it’s the man Hulot accidentally hit this afternoon. Then as the cars go by, it is not just any bus that passes but the tour bus carrying the folks from the airport Mr. Hulot passed earlier in the day. All of these near-acquaintances are buzzing about each other, but cut off just ever so slightly.

The film’s last scene is surely the jolliest and occupies the entire last hour of the movie. It concerns the opening of a fancy new restaurant, an opening which proceeds to go as far awry as possible. In this scene, though, everyone is together in one big room. They are sitting at different tables, of course, but what isolates them is only their ignoring each other. People are cut off, but not by their surroundings. They are free to interact if they wish, but they do not yet realize it. Then when things start to go wrong, people are jostled about and brought together. A great big party erupts, and every further mishap and accident at the restaurant turns into another eclectic addition to the impromptu celebration. In the wee hours of the morning the patrons stumble out and go their separate ways, a little buzzed and a little befuddled about the evening. What happened? They interacted with and got to know their neighbors in a way they had not expected, all because everything went wrong and they were free to play. The "loud movie" answer is that our happiness lies in chaos, and in not making plans, and that we do not have and should not want any control over matters. Such is not the point of this scene, rather it is that sometimes we sap the less obvious joys from life without realizing, and a plan going a little awry can be an opportunity to rediscover those joys. Sure we are often isolated, but only just so. Like the patrons in the restaurant we are free to act, and sometimes just a little disorder might remind us of that (and jazz things up a little too.)

The movie nonetheless ends on a wistful note. The morning after the party, as Mr. Hulot buys a scarf for a young woman he has been trying to get to know, the tour bus is prepared to leave outside the shop and she runs to catch it. He has paid for scarf, but the party is over and the rules are in full force again, which means he is stuck behind the register line because he is not “allowed” to exit via any space other than the “out” aisle, which is blocked. He gets her the scarf, but indirectly. The task is performed, and he conveys his kindness to the girl who is very pleased, but the act is robbed of just a little of its humanity. Not enough to make Hulot shout, not enough to make us weep, but just enough to make us all sigh.

It is not all disaster and horror when Mr. Hulot gets lost amidst a maze of corporate corridors or trapped on the wrong side of a pane of glass, although it is a little sad when he cannot himself give the young lady the scarf he bought for her. The result is that we realize as Hulot does that he really does not fit in this micromanaged little world. Perhaps we do not either, perhaps no one does. Perhaps it is a little too coarse to be pleasant, a little too clean to want to touch, and a little too predictable to want to play in. It is not horrible, but it is far from delightful, and considering we made it, why did we make it like this? How odd.

To learn more about Jacques Tati and his films, and to see stills from Playtime and hear some of its music, visit delightful Tativille.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Around the Web

While this post is slightly tardy, I plan on using future Fridays simply to highlight or briefly comment on articles, images, and goings on germane to the themes of this site but that I do not intend formally to address. Items here may be already well-discussed, of self-evident significance, et cetera. Without further introduction, the first installment of Around the Web.

1. The new season at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC began with a new production of Puccini's Tosca. Reviews from the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. The production was apparently greeted with booing, displeasure, and a touch of ennui. Here are some images of the previous production and the current, courtesy The NY Post:

The Met's new general manager, Peter Gelb, explained, "For those people who are unhappy, what do they want us to do? Run the same production for the next 50 years? If we don't update productions, this art form will die out." This is an odd remark in two respects. First, it assumes people did not like the production simply because it was new, instead of what seems to be the case, which is they disliked it because it is ugly. Second, (and if by "art form" he means opera) it assumes that the opera must be updated to remain relevant, and under that assumption also assumes that a change of sets qualifies as necessary change to achieve relevancy. It is also possible he simply meant that if we do not build new sets there will not be enough of a demand for people to build them and thus the craft of set-making will die out. I'm note sure if that is plausible.

Franco Zeffirelli, designer of the previous production, reportedly gave what I think is the appropriate response, "You can't stage an opera without keeping in mind what the author wanted." Productions may of course change, but the changes must be appropriate to the work and explicable as improvements.

2. At the WSJ, Paul Marshall reviews the new book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe by Christopher Caldwell, observing of Europe's secular suicide, that "Western Europe became a multiethnic society in a fit of absence of mind. . ." and while "Many Europeans are determined to defend their values. . . it is hard to defend what you cannot define."

3. Lionel Chetwynd and Roger Simon over at Pajamas TV's Poliwood discuss the recent NEA uproar. Specifically, they consider that while a civilization has an obligation to pass on its culture to subsequent generations, or at least the best of and most essential aspects of its culture, perhaps it is simply impossible to have the government perform the task without opening wide the doors to corruption.

4. Earn Big $$$ the NEA Way!

5. Christopher Hitchens laments the sad and unfunny state of liberal comedy.

6. Similarly, movie critic Christian Toto points out how the satirical news source The Onion saw fit to mock the Alzheimer's Disease of a deceased American President who held office twenty years ago instead of poking fun at the incumbent.

7. A bevy of economists weigh in on the likelihood of short-term and long-term inflation.

8. John Ziegler points out that liberals are apparently still apoplectic and frothing over Sarah Palin.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Libertarian Case for “Free” Health Care?

Last month author, columnist, and intellectual-at-large Christopher Hitchens spoke about George Orwell and Hitchens’ new book, Why Orwell Matters, with Russ Roberts of the Library of Economics and Liberty. (A link to the audio recording of the interview is in the footnotes. [1]) It is always a pleasure to listen to Hitchens even though, perhaps especially, when I disagree with him. This interview is no different and I would like to draw attention to one argument Hitchens offered regarding the issue of health care insurance since I have not heard it from anyone else of late.

Long time member of the left, one might expect from Hitchens one of the typical arguments for “free” health care for all. Seemingly, he offers something different. Is he even more inclined today “to stress those issues of individual liberty,” as he said several years ago in a Reason interview? [2] Paraphrasing, Hitchens said: if you offered people health care and freed them from the burden of worrying, “if I lose my job and fall ill, I’ll be doomed,” you will be making them more free. It appears an interesting and novel argument in favor of the proposed “health care reform.” Amongst the many arguments offered in favor of the proposal in recent months this is interesting insofar as it appears to have a legitimate philosophical base. Who doesn’t want freedom? Freedom is great! America is founded on the notion of freedom, we should make people free!

We must first, though, define freedom before we can know whether or not we possess it. In this task I turn to the great author and scholar C.S. Lewis, whose indispensable book Studies in Words will assist us. The modern English free like the Ancient Greek eleutherios and Latin liber originally carried connotations of both autonomy and legal status. The words also contain both ethical and social connotations: that a man is both free insofar as he is not a slave and free insofar as he acts as befits one who is free (as slaves were thought inherently to be nosy, ungenerous, carry grudges, et cetera.) Additionally, the English free grew to be used in the sense of “enjoying the freedom of a city” and by extension, being a citizen of that city and enjoying the commensurate rights, namely the right to vote. With those notions in mind, we may examine the cultural meaning of free. Chief amongst these distinctions is there are certain occupations that befit the free man because he undertakes them for their own sake and not for utility. Even commercial work does not make one free in this sense, since it is done to contribute to some other end. Lewis adds, “Only he who is neither legally enslaved to a master nor economically enslaved by the struggle for subsistence, is likely to have, or to have the leisure for using, a piano or a library.” I believe this definition is most similar to what Hitchens means by “freedom.” If only we could free people of the fear they might not be able to support themselves, they will be able to do their jobs better, more joyfully, et cetera. These are variants of what I call “Star Trek Syndrome,” which is the supposition that if we removed from man his need to support himself, he would be free to devote his time to some worthy pursuit. Yet Hitchens’ idea still sounds credible, as no man living with the anguish of uncertainty can be happy.

Alas, there exist two flaws in this argument. The first is this: it assumes the government is a “rights bursar,” that it exists to (or even simply, may) create and grant freedom. This is an incorrect assumption, as our society, unlike those that heretofore defined free, is one founded upon the principle of natural rights. In a society in which social mobility is impossible, where one is either citizen or slave or lord or serf, where there is neither legal ability nor practical chance for improvement, freedom is essentially inherited. The connotations and prejudices contained in the ancient definitions are foreign to our definition of liberty. In our society, freedom is simply the ability to act uncoerced by force and it is considered distinct from prosperity or happiness. Our government exists but for one purpose, to guarantee our natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The government does not exist to invent additional rights and to grant them to the people, nor can it do these things. The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States of America contain acknowledgments that men are inherently, i.e. already, free. In the definitive biography of our third President, Dumas Malone summarized the Jeffersonian outlook:
Like so many of his ‘enlightened’ contemporaries, Jefferson believed that men had originally been in a state of nature; that they had then been free to order their own actions and to dispose of their own persons and property as they saw fit; that government was instituted among them in the first place by consent.” [3]
Thus the government’s purpose is to safeguard those freedoms, neither to add to nor subtract from them. This concept of natural rights represents a fundamentally different worldview from both its predecessors and successors.

A second flaw is this: who would provide these rights? If, as we have said, a man is born free, then he inherently has a right to his life and thus must be left free to use his mind to decide how best to support himself. The concept of making a man more free by alleviating him of the necessity of supporting himself is in contradiction with the above principle. In creating a legal responsibility for supporting a man, you in fact diminish everyone’s rights, enserfing both the poorer and richer parties to a distributive entity. The only way to “free” one group of people from the “burden” of supporting themselves is to have another group of people support them. The underlying assumption here is that it is not my job to support myself, but someone else’s, i.e. that I am entitled to my own freedom at the expense of someone else’s. Here we must differentiate between two concepts, freedom and prosperity. In the ancient definitions, the prosperous man is free. In our era, the free man is able to become prosperous. To impose the older definition on our society would be to mandate an average level of prosperity, i.e. the more prosperous must be brought down to average to raise those below average to the same point, that way everyone can be said to be prosperous, and thus free. The root of this conclusion is an egalitarian assumption: that equal opportunity must result in equal outcome. If we are all equal in ability, this argument goes, then it must be an unjust system or society that represses some. Without commenting on the truthfulness of this claim, I will say only that it is a concept alien to our foundational laws. It is an extra-legal belief which, of course, your are free to adopt and live by, but not free to impose on others.

If we exercise our memories (or hit the history books) we will recall this view is not new. Proposals for “additional” rights have been made before by many 20th century Progressives. In his 28th Fireside Chat on January 11, 1944 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Necessitous men are not free men." Clearly we see the old arguments and the new are one and the same. From the same speech: [4]

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all-- regardless of station, or race or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries, or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of farmers to raise and sell their products at a return which will give them and their families a decent living;

The right of every business man, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, and sickness, and accident and unemployment;

And finally, the right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security.
Aside from the problem of the authority by which those rights would be precisely (i.e. actually and usefully) defined and administered and the myriad problems of implementing them, author and philosopher Ayn Rand succinctly addressed the fundamental problem of these supposed rights in her 1963 essay, Man’s Rights, asking: “at whose expense?” [5] Is a nation in which some men work to provide these “rights” for others more or less free than one in which each works to support himself? Rand added, “A right does not include the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only the freedom to earn that implementation by one’s own effort.” [5] One is free to pursue happiness, one is not owed happiness itself. In a time of great crisis, FDR asked Americans to sacrifice liberty for security. Americans have, at various points over the past 60 years taken that offer from various people, parties, presidents, congresses, et cetera. We accepted Social Security, which is now bankrupt. We accepted Medicare, which is now bankrupt. We accepted a government monopoly on education and national education standards, and school systems are in shambles. We incentivized home ownership and regulated our economy with disastrous consequences. All of these programs were supposed to make some people, the unfortunates, more free. All of these programs and more will have to be supported at the expense of some: are they more free or less free?

Today, amidst another crisis gladly not as great, our current president asks the same. Perhaps more of the poison is the cure? Yet FDR’s “rights” have indeed secured something: a government continually growing in size and power. Let us return to the understanding that freedom is the right to life, liberty, an the pursuit of happiness. Admittedly, these rights do not spell security. They spell liberty, which cannot be invented, bought, and doled out, only recognized, fought for, and preserved. What man, then, shall we call free? He, “whose life is lived for his own sake not for that of others.” [6]

[3] Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the Virginian. Little, Brown and Company. Boston. 1948. p. 175
[5] Rand, Ayn. Man’s Rights. Signet. New York New York. 1961 (p. 113)
[6] Aristotle. Metaphysics 982b

Lewis, C.S. Studies in Words. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, UK. 1960 (Ch. 5: “Free”)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Movie Review: Master and Commander - The Far Side of the World

Directed by Peter Weir. 2003.

Rarely can a movie exist in two worlds and succeed in either, let alone both, but in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Peter Weir brilliantly manages the feat. On the surface the film exists in several genres, the seafaring adventure, the period piece, and the war film. We see grand shots of oceans and untouched islands and of the HMS Surprise triumphantly gliding across the globe. We look back into the world of canons and muskets and swords. We glimpse into the world of naval hierarchy and discipline. Yet under the surface Master and Commander has a deeper split, with one foot in our world and one foot in the one that preceded it. The essential split is between the era of Liberal Humanism and the one of faith and mysticism. Alone, this ponderous topic would have made for a weighty, cerebral, Bergmanesque movie, but in Master and Commander Peter Weir handles this philosophical divide deftly, allowing the issue to percolate to the surface during a voyage of the HMS Surprise.

This philosophical conflict is most obviously manifested in the relationship between Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and his friend, the ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin. The doctor, a naturalist and surgeon, is a man of the modern world: well educated, skeptical of authority, wary of capital punishment, only grudgingly a soldier. He would prefer to study nature and advance the knowledge of science and only reluctantly admits to being a “fighting naturalist,” as he finds the two do not combine well. Now the obvious contrast to Maturin’s liberal, rational approach is naturally the captain. While I agree that this is so I think the more perfect contrast to Maturin is the rest of the crew. Where Maturin is skeptical of any authority, including Jack’s, to the crew the captain’s authority is practically sacred. Where Maturin reads his science books, the crew refers to the bible and seafaring myths and traditions. What the doctor attributes to simple coincidence the crew attributes to bad luck or ill omens.

Now in contrast to both of these groups we have “Lucky” Jack. Unlike the doctor, who sees authority as inherently corrupting, and the crew, who see it as his sacred right, Aubrey sees the need for an authoritative leader as a necessary evil. The crew follows him unquestioningly, but they do not bear the responsibility of others’ safety or the success of the mission. Stephen is able relentlessly to question the purity of his motives, but he is not responsible for maintaining order on the ship. It is Jack who must govern with wisdom, as he advises one of his lieutenants who is faltering in securing the respect of the men:
Don’t make friends with the foremost jacks, lad. They’ll despise you in the end, think you weak. Nor do you need to be a tyrant. You have the knowledge. . . find the strength within yourself. Without strength, true discipline does by the board.
The captain’s wisdom is not the dogmatic “authority corrupts” script of the doctor or the “follow orders” mantra of the crew. He does the right thing, in the right measure, at the right time, continually balancing and adjusting so the ship does not degenerate into either tyranny or anarchy.

In still more instances the captain is the voice of moderation between the extremes of his liberal friend and the superstitious crew. When the voyage is subjected to a series of incidents including being happened upon by a faster enemy ship, sailing into a squall, and losing both wind and rain, the crew takes to seafaring and biblical myths about “the Jonah,” whom they take to be lieutenant Hollom, who was present at the outset of each unfortunate occurrence. In contrast, the doctor considers the events simple circumstances. When the captain expresses concern to Stephen about the events and the fact that while the crew is obedient, they “cannot abide a Jonah,” he adds to the skeptical doctor, “not everything is in your books, Stephen.” Aubrey has neither resolved himself to Maturin’s philosophy that every thing in our world is knowable and explicable nor turned to any specific mystical explanation of the events. He simply has observed that sometimes events occur which elude explanation.

Now while Aubrey is the wise median between Maturin and the crew, he is also the intermediate figure between two other characters, Hollom and Admiral Nelson. Hollom is one of Aubrey’s lieutenants and hopelessly misunderstands command in war. When the captain offers the above advice about authority to Mr. Hollom and the lieutenant simply reiterates his words, Aubrey replies with disappointment, “unfortunate business, damned unfortunate.” The captain is greatly saddened by the fact that while Hollom has the raw facts he is unable to find the inner confidence and strength with which to assert himself and become an effective officer, despite that he is twice the age of the other lieutenants. When Mr. Hollom tragically takes his own life, the captain speaks a eulogy with his characteristic wisdom:
The simple truth is, not all of us become the men we once hoped we might be. But we are all God's creatures. If there are those among us who thought ill of Mr. Hollom, or spoke ill of him, or failed him in respect of fellowship. . . then we ask for your forgiveness, Lord. And we ask for his. God be praised.
Aubrey chooses not to read the biblical passage about Jonah, which would effectively declare there was indeed something intrinsic about Mr. Hollom that made him a pariah. Nor does he avoid the issue with generic sayings. Rather he chooses to emphasize what keeps men together both on ship and off: fellowship.

In contrast to the tragic story of Mr. Hollom we have Admiral Nelson, who looms like a mythic figure over the whole film. In an early scene when one of his young lieutenants is injured and resting up in bed, Aubrey brings a book about the admiral’s campaigns to the boy for reading. When the boy asks what Nelson was like, Aubrey hesitatingly replies, “You should read the book,” because, of course, you cannot simply or glibly sum up a man like Nelson. He is not just wise or brilliant, but so bound up in the events of Great Britain, naval life, and the war against Napoleon that he is essentially of all these things. Later, when another young officer presses for an anecdote about the admiral and Aubrey tells a funny story about him, the boy is disappointed. The admiral is not a lay person, capable of being in humorous scenarios, he is a hero. Sensing the disappointment, Aubrey then explains that once, when offered a blanket on a cold night, Nelson replied that his zeal for king and country kept him warm. The doctor naturally rolls his eyes and says that Nelson must be, “the exception to the rule that authority corrupts” but the captain asks them to suppress their skepticism and acknowledge that sure the story was corny and were it anyone else you would cry foul. . . but this is Nelson At the same dinner, sailing master Mr. Allen explains that some would say Nelson, with his penchant for disregarding strategy and simply charging at the enemy, was not a good seaman, but a good leader.

Aubrey is both, of course. His naval genius and successes have contributed to the aura of “Lucky Jack,” a persona that makes the men believe his is capable of anything, not just escaping the faster “phantom” French privateer that dogs them, but taking her. In every detail of his actions Aubrey sets the tone for the ship. You may carouse and joke with a little wine over dinner, but you do not so much as slouch on the quarter deck, even under fire. You maintain discipline and punish an insubordinate man, but you reward him too when he goes beyond the call of duty. He studies the formal battle plans in books, but he also makes use of guile and cleverness to outwit the enemy. He rallies the troops by solemnly praising duty and homeland, but also by calling Napoleon a raggedy-ass. Again we see that it is by the careful balance of extremes that Aubrey leads.

We would be remiss, though, not to discuss Aubrey’s friendship with Stephen in more detail. In their conversations he is often Aubrey’s conscience, and his contrasting character makes him an effective one. For example, after Aubrey overextends the ship and loses a man during a storm in an attempt to catch up with and take the Acheron, Stephen reminds him on the one hand that they are only out here because of the war, and thus it is the French that killed the man, but also on the other that the expedition is beginning to reek of pride since he has exceeded his orders of following the ship past Brazil. Later Maturin describes the mission as a “belligerent expedition” and still Aubrey persists. It is not until the doctor is accidentally taken ill and Aubrey must choose between the Acheron and his friend’s life that he relents. What do we make of this? On the one hand, he has put aside his pride once the threat of losing his friend has put matters into perspective, but what of his orders? As was said he had exceeded them and as such, he was indeed acting on pride. . . and he was wrong.

As Aubrey learns about himself and the value of his friend, so Maturin learns about the nature of the service and burdens of command on his friend. After much persisting as to why he thinks Jack should keep his word and allow the doctor to stay at the Galapagos and examine the wildlife, Aubrey is finally frustrated enough to bark, “We do not have time for your goddamn hobbies!” Britain is at war, and all other tasks are subject to the demands of the service. He also sees the toll command takes on Jack, for example when he has to order a seaman to cut loose his friend tethered to the ship (thus condemning him to die) so the ship will not sink, and then later flog that same man for insubordination. What Maturin never really comes around to is the nature of military service, the naval tradition, and the limitations those solidifying structures impose on the liberal pieties he proposes. Surely the captain would wish not to have to flog any man, but he cannot opt to throw the rum overboard instead as the doctor proposes, for several reasons. First, it is a threat that can only be used once. Second, the truth is that the lubrication of rum helps to govern the ship. The simple fact is that the men will put up with much (albeit not a Jonah) but they need their rum, it is as simple as that. Aubrey says, “I’d rather have them three sheets to the wind on occasion rather than have a mutiny on my hands.” Last, the British naval tradition of including rum as part of the sailor’s rations dated back to the mid-to-late 1600s. Such a tradition was not to be cast aside lightly, nor could it be. When Stephen goes on to say how he sympathizes with mutineers because the men are pressed from their homes and jobs and confined on wooden prisons, Aubrey replies rather sadly, “I hate it when you talk of the service in this way, it makes me so very low.” He is saddened that his friend intellectually does not see what holds the ship together, and worse emotionally does not find any joy or beauty in the centuries old tradition of British seamanship. Perhaps seeing the crew’s incredible discipline pay off in the great victory against the Acheron moderated the good doctor’s views.

The very fact that these contrasting forces, philosophies, and characters not only coexist in conditions that could breed anarchy, but also permit the ship to act as one unit with one purpose (defending Britain) is a beautiful thing. Just as the contrasting doctor and captain are able to come together and play beautiful music, so the entire crew is able to come together to produce the beautiful sailing of the ship and the noble deed of defending their country. Yet for all of Nelson’s example, the lieutenants’ enthusiasm, Mr. Allen’s sailing expertise, and the doctor’s liberalism and erudition, it is Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey’s defining characteristic that makes it all possible, his wisdom.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Thoughts on the 2009 Mostly Mozart Festival

So passes another summer and so another Mostly Mozart Festival, now in its 43rd year. Being a relatively young man this was but the second summer I attended the series, but it was also the second time I had difficulty in choosing a concert to attend since, you see, I am quite fond of Mozart. An exaggeration, perhaps, but I do believe there is a bit of a dearth of Mozart at his namesake festival. The NY Times[1] declared the festival, “not so long ago, a fresh idea gone hopelessly stale” and New York Magazine[2] assures that “Centered on the past and bound by self-imposed constraints, the festival has nevertheless found a way to grow young again.” I am not so enamored with the program and while I have not performed a tally, I suspect if one were to hold the festival to a literal interpretation of “mostly,” it would just barely be true.

Now I do not dispute Mozart’s influence on the other composers who share his stage during the festival, nor do I begrudge them their honors. One need not tear down other composers in order to elevate Mozart, but the composer does seem to be getting crowded out of his own show and the festival coordinators themselves seem at pains to emphasize Mozart's primacy and the relevance of the periphery of other composers. Take their “Six Degrees of Mozart Campaign:

Cute and well-intentioned, but rather shallow. (Although if you visit the interactive version on their website you will learn that “Flowering Tree=Magic Flute” and “Chopin was a piano whiz too!")

My observation is that the Mostly Mozart Festival has fallen victim, however obliquely, to the mistaken premise that more can be gained in from so-called “comparative studies” than from intensive and focused studies on a specific topic. If the music is as brilliant as we so readily acknowledge, if it indeed touches us, how can a festival that solely focuses on it be deficient? The music is the festival, and I suggest anyone bored by the latter is in fact bored by the former. Yet it is the context, we are told, that is the key to enjoying Mozart. Now surely a comparison of Mozart and his predecessors (J.S. Bach, D. Scarlatti), contemporaries (J. Haydn, early Beethoven), and followers (Mendelssohn, Brahms) is rewarding. We do appreciate Mozart as a composer more when we notice his uniqueness and when we understand the traditions he inherited and transformed. Yet such an insight first requires intimate knowledge of the individual composers. One must know Mozart qua Mozart and Beethoven qua Beethoven before one starts comparing them, lest one run the risk of making foolish analogies. Facile comparisons of structure and taste in the absence of understanding are apt only to do violence to the composers. The Mostly Mozart Festival is supposed to be an in-depth look at Mozart. When we hear Brahms and Mendelssohn and Wagner elsewhere throughout the rest of the year we may conduct our comparisons, if we so wish. Those composers, especially Brahms and Beethoven even more so, have the rest of the year to shine and they get far more attention from the NY Philharmonic and at Carnegie Hall than Mozart. (Although this year we are graced with eight performances of Mozart from the NY Philharmonic and performances of Die Zauberflöte and Le nozze di Figaro from the Metropolitan Opera. Still, Haydn and Beethoven figure quite prominently in Carnegie Hall’s season, which is wholly sans Mozart.)

Now I don't advocate scrubbing all other composers from the festival. I would suggest, though, that the show be "Overwhelmingly Mozart" with specific pieces of other composers added to highly specific aspects of Mozart, e.g. concertos by C.P.E. Bach and by Beethoven, choral pieces by Handel, et cetera. To highlight and discuss all of the pieces, the festival could include seminars, lectures, amateur performances, informal talks, and question and answer sessions with conductors and musicians. The festival presently offers five “keyboard masterclasses” which is a fine start toward a more scholarly and more Mozart-centric festival. At the concert I attended this summer pianist Robert Levin gave a short talk before his performance of the Piano Sonata No. 18 in D, KV.576. In addition to being a brilliant pianist he is gifted teacher and discussed the unique aspects of the 18th century piano: how it is tuned, how it is made, how it sounds in contrast to modern pianos. He said something that must be said more: that the greatest composers reward the most careful listeners. We have grown accustomed to the brief ditties of today, too used to bulleted lists on websites and snippets on blogs to focus on a long and complex piece of music. Sometimes even music lovers get too bogged down in scholarship and reading about the music, instead of listening. He isolated some of the major themes beforehand and discussed how Mozart moves material around, giving us one thing when we expect another, giving us something unexpected and unusual, and as only he can, finally giving us what we want, but better than we could have hoped.


Part I - Part II - Part III

Note: Jay Nordlinger has also reviewed the 2009 Mostly Mozart Festival in the September issue of The New Criterion. It is good music criticism and overall a fine review. He seems far more sanguine about the far-flung festival than I am. He does say, though, of the festival administrators’ claim to focus on Mozart’s predecessors, contemporaries, and related successors, “That would be just about everybody, no?”


Four Summers - Lessons From Thucydides & The Founding Fathers

Today is the anniversary of the publication of George Washington’s Farewell Address to the American people before he left office. I was planning on making the address my first post on APLV. As it happens, though, another man recently has been the subject of some attention, the historian Thucydides. He was discussed both in Donald Kagan’s article [1] in this month’s edition of The New Criterion and by Victor Davis Hanson in a column on his website. [2] With those articles in mind I revisited selections of The Peloponnesian War and too saw the timeliness of Thucydides observations and his role as a "student of human behavior." (Kagan's phrase.) I also observed some noteworthy similarities among the thinking of its author and those of our Founding Fathers.

As such, I thought I would share some selections with you so the similarities of both the events described and the authors’ observations might be more discernible and useful. Amongst other qualities, these men shared an uncommon perceptiveness.


Summer, 427 B.C. - Thucydides describes the Revolution at Corcyra.

From Book III of The Peloponnesian War [3]

For not long afterwards nearly the whole Hellenic world was in commotion; in every city the chiefs of the democracy and of the oligarchy were struggling, the one to bring in the Athenians, the other the Lacedaemonians. Now in time of peace, men would have had no excuse for introducing either, and no desire to do so; but, when they were at war, the introduction of a foreign alliance on one side or the other to the hurt of their enemies and the advantage of themselves was easily effected by the dissatisfied party. And revolution brought upon the cities of Hellas many terrible calamities, such as have been and always will be while human nature remains the same, but which are more or less aggravated and differ in character with every new combination of circumstances. In peace and prosperity both states and individuals are actuated by higher motives, because they do not fall under the dominion of imperious necessities; but war, which takes away the comfortable provision of daily life, is a hard master and tends to assimilate men's characters to their conditions.

When troubles had once begun in the cities, those who followed carried the revolutionary spirit further and further, and determined to outdo the report of all who had preceded them by the ingenuity of their enterprises and the atrocity of their revenges. The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them as they thought proper. Reckless daring was held to be loyal courage; prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man. A conspirator who wanted to be safe was a recreant in disguise. The lover of violence was always trusted, and his opponent suspected. He who succeeded in a plot was deemed knowing, but a still greater master in craft was he who detected one. On the other hand, he who plotted from the first to have nothing to do with plots was a breaker up of parties and a poltroon who was afraid of the enemy. In a word, he who could outstrip another in a bad action was applauded, and so was he who encouraged to evil one who had no idea of it. The tie of party was stronger than the tie of blood, because a partisan was more ready to dare without asking why. (For party associations are not based upon any established law, nor do they seek the public good; they are formed in defiance of the laws and from self-interest.) The seal of good faith was not divine law, but fellowship in crime. If an enemy when he was in the ascendant offered fair words, the opposite party received them not in a generous spirit, but by a jealous watchfulness of his actions. Revenge was dearer than self-preservation. Any agreements sworn to by either party, when they could do nothing else, were binding as long as both were powerless. But he who on a favourable opportunity first took courage, and struck at his enemy when he saw him off his guard, had greater pleasure in a perfidious than he would have had in an open act of revenge; he congratulated himself that he had taken the safer course, and also that he had overreached his enemy and gained the prize of superior ability. In general the dishonest more easily gain credit for cleverness than the simple for goodness; men take a pride in the one, but are ashamed of the other.

The cause of all these evils was the love of power, originating in avarice and ambition, and the party-spirit which is engendered by them when men are fairly embarked in a contest. For the leaders on either side used specious names, the one party professing to uphold the constitutional equality of the many, the other the wisdom of an aristocracy, while they made the public interests, to which in name they were devoted, in reality their prize. Striving in every way to overcome each other, they committed the most monstrous crimes; yet even these were surpassed by the magnitude of their revenges which they pursued to the very utmost, neither party observing any definite limits either of justice or public expediency, but both alike making the caprice of the moment their law. Either by the help of an unrighteous sentence, or grasping power with the strong hand, they were eager to satiate the impatience of party-spirit. Neither faction cared for religion; but any fair pretence which succeeded in effecting some odious purpose was greatly lauded. And the citizens who were of neither party fell a prey to both; either they were disliked because they held aloof, or men were jealous of their surviving.

Thus revolution gave birth to every form of wickedness in Hellas. The simplicity which is so large an element in a noble nature was laughed to scorn and disappeared. An attitude of perfidious antagonism everywhere prevailed; for there was no word binding enough, nor oath terrible enough to reconcile enemies. Each man was strong only in the conviction that nothing was secure; he must look to his own safety, and could not afford to trust others. Inferior intellects generally succeeded best. For, aware of their own deficiencies, and fearing the capacity of their opponents, for whom they were no match in powers of speech, and whose subtle wits were likely to anticipate them in contriving evil, they struck boldly and at once. But the cleverer sort, presuming in their arrogance that they would be aware in time, and disdaining to act when they could think, were taken off their guard and easily destroyed.

Now in Corcyra most of these deeds were perpetrated, and for the first time. There was every crime which men could commit in revenge who had been governed not wisely, but tyrannically, and now had the oppressor at their mercy. There were the dishonest designs of others who were longing to be relieved from their habitual poverty, and were naturally animated by a passionate desire for their neighbour's goods; and there were crimes of another class which men commit, not from covetousness, but from the enmity which equals foster towards one another until they are carried away by their blind rage into the extremes of pitiless cruelty. At such a time the life of the city was all in disorder, and human nature, which is always ready to transgress the laws, having now trampled them underfoot, delighted to show that her passions were ungovernable, that she was stronger than justice, and the enemy of everything above her. If malignity had not exercised a fatal power, how could any one have preferred revenge to piety, and gain to innocence? But, when men are retaliating upon others, they are reckless of the future, and do not hesitate to annul those common laws of humanity to which every individual trusts for his own hope of deliverance should he ever be overtaken by calamity; they forget that in their own hour of need they will look for them in vain.


September, 1789 - From the Correspondences of John Adams, on the French Revolution of the Summer of 1789.

To his Dutch friend, Francis van der Kemp: [4]

“The French Revolution will, I hope, produce effects in favor of liberty, equity, and humanity as extensive as this whole globe and as lasting as all time.”

To another correspondent: [4]

In revolutions, “. . . the most fiery spirits and flighty geniuses frequently obtained more influence than men of sense and judgment; and the weakest man may carry foolish measures in opposition to wise ones proposed by the ablest.”


September 19, 1796 - George Washington’s Farewell Address, [5]

. . . Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown. In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in changes, upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion, exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothesis and opinion; and remember, especially, that for the efficient management of your common interests, in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable. Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian. It is, indeed, little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.


September, 2009 - Conclusion.

I can add little to those comments without resorting to summarizing. I hasten to add, though, I am not advocating silence or complaisance by citizens. Sometimes, rather often, it is indeed necessary to speak up on behalf of one’s ideas, either to define and argue them or simply to disagree. As Thomas Jefferson wrote to William Branch Giles, a member of The House of Representatives in 1795: [6]

Where the principle of difference [between political parties] is as substantial and as strongly pronounced as between the republicans and the monocrats of our country, I hold it as honorable to take a firm and decided part and as immoral to pursue a middle line, as between the parties of honest men and rogues, into which every country is divided.

Yet Jefferson was also attuned to the nuances of government and society, and years later in his own First Inaugural Address said: [7]

Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.

We must aspire to such finespun thinking, as rare amidst today’s political hullabaloo as it is necessary for all hoping to preserve their own rights and also a civil, functioning national dialogue. After the crazy Summer of 2009, historian and author Victor Davis Hanson reflects on the social and political frenzy, offering some advice: [8]

The solution, of course, is for the majority to simply say enough is enough, and declare a personal code of decency: “I will not stoop to smear and slur, won’t interrupt a speaker, won’t call anyone a Nazi, won’t do to others what they’ve done to me.” Only that sort of code will end the craziness. . .

The point is not to ostracize or point fingers at others in moralistic fashion, but just simply say, “That’s not my way.”

Otherwise, we won’t have a tennis match, an awards ceremony, a Presidential speech, a congressional debate — much of anything without some hysterical rant from the unhinged.


[2, 8]


[4] McCullough, David. John Adams. Simon & Schuster. NY, NY. 10020 (p. 417-418)




Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sehnsucht and Homecoming

I once saw a simple fish pond in a Japanese village which was perhaps eternal. A farmer made it for his farm. The pond was a simple rectangle, about 6 feet wide, and 8 feet long; opening off a little irrigation stream. At one end, a bush of flowers hung over the water. At the other end, under the water, was a circle of wood, its top perhaps 12 inches below the surface of the water. In the pond there were eight great ancient carp, each maybe 18 inches long, orange, gold, purple, and black: the oldest one had been there eighty years. The eight fish swam, slowly, slowly in circles---often within the wooden circle. The whole world was in that pond. Every day the farmer sat by it for a few minutes. I was there only one day and I sat by it all afternoon. Even now, I cannot think of it without years. Those ancient fish had been swimming, slowly, in that pond for eighty years. It was so true to the nature of the fish, and flowers, and the water, and the farmers, that it had sustained itself for all that time, endlessly repeating, always different. There is no degree of wholeness or reality which can be reached beyond that simple pond.
 Christopher Alexander: The Timeless Way of Building, page 38

Once in those very early days my brother brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest. That was the first beauty I ever knew... It made me aware of nature---not, indeed as a storehouse of forms and colors but as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant. As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother's toy garden. And every day there were what we called "the Green Hills"; that is, the low line of the Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery windows. They taught me longing-Sehnsucht...
C.S. Lewis: Surprised by Joy

I was deep in reading Alexander's book last night when I stumbled on the characteristically lyrical passage quoted above: Alexander employs the passage as an illustration of his "quality without a name," a qualify impossible, according to Alexander, to define with a single word, partaking as it does of several words' meanings: alive, whole, comfortable, free, exact, egoless, and eternal. In Alexander's opinion, this "quality without a name" is present in individuals, buildings, rooms, towns, art, music: "It is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named." If I were to attempt to define it, my definition would run thus: Alexander's "quality without a name" is the the dawning recognition, achieved momentarily or otherwise, that the present set of circumstances, events, characteristics, is exactly as it should be, all around me suggests harmony and above all, a feeling that man can, perhaps only fleetingly, feel at home and at rest in this world. I realize, of course, that both my definition and Alexander's definition are deeply unsatisfying as philosophical dialectic. There is no exactness, no precision in the language, and in this instance, I'm willing to concede that in argument, very likely, these statements, as they stand, would be very difficult to defend.  

Nevertheless, I believe that what Alexander is trying to get at is at the heart of human experience: how do I come to feel at home in this world, when so often I feel a stranger? C.S. Lewis, in the quote above, describes a recurring experience both in his life and in his lifework, the feeling of sehnsucht: a word he rifled from German romanticism and that essentially means an insatiable desire (not a carnal desire, I must emphatically add). Sehnsucht is that "unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves? (Preface to The Pilgrim's Regress)." Lewis also describes the experience as a longing for a far-off country, a profound sense of nostalgia for a place unvisited but also strikingly reminscient of home. And of course, for Lewis as seemingly for Alexander (for I think Alexander's experience by the fish pond is akin to the experience that Lewis describes), the experiences are only intuitions of a higher experience, incapable of being defined satisfactorily. This desire testifies to two highly charged polarities in man's experience: his sense of belonging in the present and his suspicion or intuition that some more glorious future or situation awaits him. The former could be described as the biological or cultural sense: the desire to perpetuate the species and to make something of the world, so that it is more our home than when we arrived, and the latter could be described as the religious or philosophical sense: the desire to unfold the origin and mystery of the cosmos, discover its Creator, and ultimately, find peace in the purpose and destination of the individual soul. Of course, the two senses bleed into one another: religion not only has a transcendent quality, but it also has cultural and biological aspect, it is one of the ways in which man attempts to feel at home in the cosmos. 

Good music, art, ceremony, architecture, friendship, poetry all partake of Alexander's "quality without a name," and according to Alexander, we need only awaken our knowledge (a kind of Platonic anamnesis) of this quality, to recognize what constitutes goodness and badness. Even if one rejects Alexander's epistemology, Alexander's point should not be summarily dismissed. At root, it proposes the thesis that it is possible for man to make himself at home in the world, to live in a place that is beautiful. It takes Lewis' quest for sehnsucht and says, Yes, trust those intuitions and make of yourself and your home and your inner life something resembling those intuitions. At heart, it's a call to establish order in the soul, in the home, in the city, in the cosmos. Alexander writes:
Each one of us has, somewhere in his heart, the dream to make a living world, a universe. Those of us who have been trained as architects have this desire perhas at the very center of our lives: that one day, somewhere, somehow, we shall build one building which is wonderful, beautiful, breathtaking, a place where people can walk and dream for centuries.
In some form, every person has some version of this dream: whoever you are, you may have the dream of one day building a most beautiful house for your family, a garden, a fountain, a fishpond, a big room with soft light, flowers outside and the small of new grass.  
One may distrust the lyricism, but the message is clear. The world is pliant in our hands, and we can choose two variant paths: one that induces anxiety, fearfulness, and dread, or one that suggests harmony and contentment. The latter is not an attempt to 'immanentize the eschaton,' it's not a burning rage to see the present world go up in flames only to see a newer, more hygenic order arise in its place. Such a view recognizes the limits and possibilities of human existence: its glories as well as its drudgeries, but it suggests that the drudgeries can be ennobled and raised to a higher plane. C.S. Lewis intuited this from an early age: like Alexander's Japanese pond, he saw in the little tin of leaves and twigs the piercing beauty of nature but no less the vocation to order nature, synthesisize it in our art, architecture, poetry, and music. And even if we never truly find restfulness in our present circumstances (as the Christian must believe, since true rest rests only in God, the effort will have meant the creation and perpetuation of beautiful things in our midst. Lewis writes:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. (The Weight of Glory)
To incardinate these desires in art seems to be one of the highest vocations, and if Lewis' achievements rest secure, one can only hope that the future is as assured for Alexander. Poetry, music, friendship can find their way into any home, but how successful will Alexander be in his crusade? Will the mass of men return to or reinvigorate a form of building and designing that partakes of these simultaneously earthy and transcendent qualities? Or will it continue to build monuments to despair and disharmony?* Will the symbol of our age be 100 stories of steel and glass? Or will it be something more humane, more divine? Will it have "the quality without a name?"

*In the debate between Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman, Eisenmen defends the notion that architecture should be disharmonious (since disharmony is more representative of our "cosmology" than harmony)  and should actually mirror the despair and anxiety of modernity: "I think you should just feel this harmony is something that the majority of the people need and want. But equally there must be people out there like myself who feel the need for incongruity, disharmony, etc." "What I'm suggesting is that if we make people so comfortable in these nice little structures of yours, that we might lull them into thinking that everything's all right, Jack, which it isn't. And so the role of art or architecture might be just to remind people that everything wasn't all right. And I'm not convinced, by the way, that it is all right." And Alexander ends the debate:  
I can't, as a maker of things, I just can't understand it. I do not have a concept of things in which I can even talk about making something in the frame of mind you are describing. I mean, to take a simple example, when I make a table I say to myself: "All right, I'm going to make a table, and I'm going to try to make a good table". And of course, then from there on I go to the ultimate resources I have and what I know, how well I can make it. But for me to then introduce some kind of little edge, which starts trying to be a literary comment, and then somehow the table is supposed to be at the same time a good table, but it also is supposed to be I don't know what; a comment on nuclear warfare, making a little joke, doing various other things ... I'm practically naive; it doesn't make sense to me."

Jane Jacobs

'Constraints on materials, styles, heights, and sizes, rather than on functions; recognition of the street as the primary public space, and of pedestrians as the primary users of it; preservation of façades and street frontages, while facilitating change of use behind them: all such remedies, which are slowly emerging (for example in the renewal of Baltimore and other damaged American cities) and which have been powerfully advocated and illustrated by Leon Krier at Poundbury and by the New Urbanists in Italy and America – all owe an incalculable debt to Jane Jacobs.
But they also illustrate the way in which her own preference for "spontaneity" over "planning" cannot, in the end, be sustained. It is not planning that has destroyed the American city, but the wrong kind of planning directed towards the wrong kind of things.'

Roger Scruton
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006): cities for life


Monday, September 14, 2009

Why I Hate Modernism: The Tragedy of St. Stephen Walbrook

Three years ago, I vacationed in London for two weeks: I traveled solo, and so was able to indulge my own interests and eccentricities. One such interest was a desire to see as many of Christopher Wren's City Churches as possible. On my first visit to London, I had been in awe of the sublime beauty of St. Paul's Cathedral, and so returning years later, I wanted to see whether Wren had sustained that vision in less exalted circumstances, the design of several parish churches. 
I was not disappointed: Wren's English Baroque style is impressive on both small and grand scales. Of the many Wren churches I visited, my favorite was St. Lawrence Jewry, (the previous church had stood near the London Jewish Ghetto). Incidentally, the Church was playing host to a fine group of classical musicians when I visited, an encouraging sign. Many of the London Anglican churches hosted lunchtime or afternoon concerts.

When I visted St. Mary Abchurch, a very kind, elderly gentleman escorted me throughout the church, leading me up to the organ loft and allowing me to mount the exquisitely carved high pulpit. He was extremely knowledgeable, and had a great deal of historical and architectural lore to share. He told me that he 'motored' in from the suburbs every week, so that the church could be opened on weekdays for the visiting tourists. (During my own visit, a half-hour at least, not another tourist was to be seen. St. Mary Abchurch is one of the lesser lights in the Wren repertoire.) He'd gotten friendly with the parson a few years ago, and he had a key, and he thought it very important that such a significant building should be open. When I prepared to leave, I asked him if this was his parish church, did he come in on Sundays for service? 'No,' the old man said, 'I'm an atheist. I don't attend church.' 

The very same day I met my kindly atheist-guide, I visited several other Wren churches, including St. Stephen Walbrook.  I will not attempt to describe the revulsion I felt when confronted with the monstrosity depicted below. That very day, I became the implacable enemy of modernism and of all men who would, by subterfuge and in the teeth of a horrified opposition,  intrude their own inferior talents into a masterpiece.

That detestable object in the center of the Church is rumored to be an altar.

Christopher Alexander and the Timeless Way of Building

I'm currently reading Christopher Alexander's The Timeless Way  of Building and acquainting myself with the remarkable ideas of this very interesting thinker.

His magnum opus is his recently completed, four-volume Nature of Order, where he attempts to craft a synthesis of the various strains of knowledge that inform his own thinking: philosophical, scientific, religious, and of course, architectural. As soon as I finish Timeless Way, I'll write up my own thoughts, but for the present, here are some links to whet your appetite:

Christopher Alexander: A Biography

Christopher Alexander's website, A Pattern Language

The text of a debate between modernist Peter Eisenman and Christopher Alexander

James Kalb on Alexander 

Interview with Alexander's friend and collaborator Nikos Salingaros  

(Inner garden of the Julian Street Inn, Shelter for the Homeless,
San Jose, California)