Tuesday, July 31, 2012

On the Displeasure of Noise


The Street Enters the House
Umberto Boccioni, 1911
It is probable if not unavoidable he who enjoys music detests noise. It is inevitable he who seeks beauty avoids it at all cost. This distinction is, alas, necessary, for every aesthete knows one or a dozen musicians who though they tickle Bach's ivories by day, by night nod, nay hoof, to the bozartian splooshing of the chart-toppers. What an unhappy education, discovering the vulgar reverse of their ennobled facade! Puzzling though this contradiction is, I pass it over at this time. However frustrating and offensive such bedlam may be, its disorder is the subject of musical criticism, here not my means or end. Instead I would focus on what we might call incidental noise, and such noise in particular as produced by man. I say this not just because the whining fits and starts of a weed whacker at this very moment vex me, but because the noise of nature is always appropriate. Rustling trees and booming thunder do not perturb because wherever they are, they belong. To rustle is appropriate for a tree and to tweet is appropriate for a bird, and so forth. More importantly, the sounds of nature are always appropriate to the place, thus babbling is appropriate to brooks, crashing to the shore, and so on.

Jackhammering, however, is not natural, but rather incidental to man's desire to live in a house. It is never appropriate to any thing or any place and therefore always disturbs. We could dwell with profit on the words we use to describe what noise does to us. It disturbs and perturbs, that is, unsettles us from the prevailing order and throws us into confusion. Noise annoys, that is, molests, harms, and causes aversion.  It irritates, that is, makes irate, and disrupts, i.e. breaks. Finally, noise itself, from its Greek origins means to make nauseas. Noise makes you miserable. Noise makes you want to be anywhere other than where you are.

I hope these meanings make noise seem a little less innocent. It's not just a little petty paper-crinkling. We need not invoke the power of music to observe the potential of sound. Let us rather just note then, that it is no small matter to break the silence. We ought, then, break it with some trepidation.

We break the silence to confess our love and our fear. We break it with heroic ballads and sweet nothings. We break it with sonatas and sonnets, couplets and concerti. With church bells we break it to sign the sacred and we break it with clock chimes to mark our portion of the eons. Hence, then, the infinity of displeasure through the seconds of a cell phone's half-penny speaker torturing five bars of Mozart so the caller can find out whether to record Law and Order. Hence, then, the dis-ruption from a man smacking his lemon lozenge over Beethoven's nightingales.

Focus is the mark of seriousness and appropriateness an apprehension of the nature of a place or thing. Noise, as we have defined and discussed, then, obstructs these virtues.

Yes, we all make noises, many of them unpleasant. Yet we ought not expect everyone else to welcome or deal with them simply because they are common. Imposing tolerance of common vices is no virtue, but refraining from displeasing others is politeness.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Directed by Christopher Nolan. 2012.

Maybe it's time we all quit trying to outsmart the truth
 and let it have its day. –Alfred

Spoilers!

So out pour Gotham's poisons, from its wounds by the Joker. The peace Batman bought in The Dark Knight came at the price of truth and covering up the tragedy of Harvey Dent will cost Gotham. The reckoning of its sins will come in the form of Bain, a mercenary and rejected pupil of Batman's own mentor, Ra's Al Ghul.

From this premise director and co-writer Christopher Nolan crafts a brawling, blistering finale to his Batman trilogy. Unlike Batman Begins, which began by interlacing with his training the formative events throughout Bruce Wayne's youth, and The Dark Knight, which began with sequential capers featuring the Joker and Batman each dominating in their respective and then exclusive spheres, in The Dark Knight Rises Batman's bravura entrance is delayed until relatively late in the film. Instead Bane takes center stage with his bold and brutal high-jacking of a CIA jet. While TDK had Batman and Joker locked in a duel it will be Bane whose actions dominate DKR. Once his assault begins in the first scene, the rest of the film consists of attempt after attempt to stop him.

In contrast both Batman and Bruce Wayne are clearly at the end of their arcs in the trilogy and while Nolan conveys this in the plot and dialogue, the visual cues surpass and supersede. If we recall the opening of Begins the first scene with young Bruce features him falling in a well and, injured, crawling on the floor amidst a flurry of bats. In The Dark Knight we first see him hulking around as Batman on his own two feet, mauling criminals. Finally, Bruce enters The Dark Knight Rises limping with a cane. The similarity to the ancient riddle of the Sphinx, "What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?" is not limited to the arc of man's growth, maturity, and decline but also to the fate of the Sphinx. When Oedipus solved its riddle the Sphinx destroyed itself and when Bruce solves it he defeats his enemies and frees himself.

Yet such freedom comes at the end of a painful and tortuous path for both Bruce and Gotham city. In Batman Begins Ra's Al Ghul sought to destroy Gotham City by scaring its people into killing each other by means of a psychotropic drug, in The Dark Knight the Joker tried goading the people of Gotham into violence by uprooting law and order, and finally in The Dark Knight Rises Bane simply decides to annihilate the population of the city. When we bear in mind Bane's ultimate goal we may realize all of the chaos and destruction Bane unleashes upon Gotham is for the purpose of breaking Batman's spirit, of making Batman realize he failed to protect Gotham and to inspire goodness in its people, and that he was wrong to think they could be saved. We can then see Bane as the combination and perfection of Ra's and the Joker.

In fact we can be more specific and say Bane is the combination of Ra's' enmity and the Joker's anger. Ra's had enmity for Gotham, not for Batman or any individual. (Remember Ra's had the opportunity to kill Bruce but was content to repay his betrayal kind for kind.) Ra's did not want the people to suffer but  wished without any pity for them not to exist. In contrast the Joker felt anger toward Batman and not intrinsically the people of Gotham. The Joker wanted to use the people of Gotham to prove to Batman and all the righteous that the only way to live was "without rules." He did not want to kill Batman but to make him suffer so much that he would break his own rules and kill the Joker. Bane is the terrifying synthesis of these villains, wishing both to wipe out Gotham and make Batman suffer.

It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads... So legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! Let us be in revolution... –Maximilien Robespierre

After Bane's successful blitz in which he both murders the mayor and traps the entirety of the Gotham Police Department underground, he plants the seeds of Gotham's self-destruction. Bane's politicking and theatricality are the means to this end and he presents himself to the people not as a ruler but as a liberator. Batman, in preserving the image of Harvey Dent, brought peace to Gotham for Dent's image inspired a special law which permitted the government to keep most of the organized crime world behind bars. Bane shatters Dent's image and the peace and not only reveals the truth about Dent to the citizens of Gotham but also releases and arms the criminals imprisoned by the now nugatory Dent Act. At last, standing in front of City Hall with his goons and looking very much like a 21st century Gracchus or Marius, Bane declares Gotham City freed from the lies of oppressors and returned to the people.

This "liberation" results in no sudden utopia but in instant violence and looting. At Bane's urging, Gotham's disenfranchised, criminals, and malcontents begin to raid the homes of the wealthy. Their reign culminates in the formation of a kangaroo court in which show trials pronounce the guilt of police and the rich and sentence them to a choice between death or a deathly walk across the barely-frozen river. The journey from storming the prison to revolutionary bloodletting has proved short.

This social war rages in the absence of Batman, beaten and locked up by Bane in a foreign prison, and becomes a crucible for a character we have heretofore overlooked: Selina Kyle. We meet her mid-heist, stealing from Bruce Wayne of all people. Wayne is quickly wise to her predicament: she has skills but she owes money to all the wrong people.

Hathaway does a splendid job with Selina Kyle, who projects confidence in her skills but a vulnerable uncertainty about who she is or what she believes. She is initially quite envious of Wayne and pitiless about the evaporation of his fortune, even claiming, unaware about what funds Batman, she does more with the proceeds of her thieving than he did with his billions. Yet Selina fears Bane even as she envies Bruce. While she looks on at the chaos unbound by Bane and the violence perpetrated by the mob against the monied, one of her larcenous friends asks her if this isn't just what she wanted: everything is everybody's. Her silence is a clear answer, but her turnaround doesn't end there. Later, in exchange for a little help, Batman gives her a computer program which will wipe all record of her and give her a much-longed-for clean slate. She now has the chance, as Bruce did, to leave Gotham to its fate. Before, she might not have approved of Bane's revolution but she refused to move against it because she thought the rich were evil, and if they were evil they deserved evil. Now, Batman's goodness and suffering has taught her pity.

She redeems her promise to Batman and this redemption is a transformation from enmity toward, if not friendship at least friendship's wellspring, kindness. Similarly, her rejection of Bane and his revolution in favor of accepting an alliance with Batman becomes a turn from envy to its opposite, emulation. Finally, killing Bane herself both fulfills her transformation from fear to confidence and makes amends for her earlier betrayal, itself rooted in fear.

Like Bruce, Selina had to discover herself, accept a mentor, and choose a path.Bruce too needed to lose himself in the world to find himself anew. He had to choose his father or Ra's as a mentor, and then finally decide what he would do to fulfill his goal. She had to continue thieving or become someone new, choose whether to follow Bane or Batman, and then finally act. She chooses to leave her past behind, follow Batman, and save him and Gotham. Selina's transformation was what Bruce long ago hoped Batman would inspire, an inspiration symbolized by the "blank slate" software he gave her to start her new life. Batman became Gotham's silent guardian by doing the unasked and not proclaiming it, and so did she. As we can see, Selina Kyle's arc is meticulously mapped and exists as an intriguing story in its own right as well as an essential thread to both The Dark Knight Rises and the trilogy.

In Selina's transformation and Bane's twin goals Christopher Nolan gives DKR appropriate themes for the finale to his Batman trilogy. These are not simply three films about Batman, but a trilogy with direction and purpose. Other characters populate Gotham city this time but they don't intersect with the themes quite so much. Lucius Fox returns but mostly as Batman's gadgeteer. In the grisled Commissioner Gordon, however, we see the toll of a lifetime policing Gotham, the exhaustion of a man struggling to preserve his honor, ethics, family, and life throughout decades of relentless corruption and violence. When we see on his face the guilt and burden of covering up Dent's crimes and betraying Batman we remember his statement from The Dark Knight, that "I don't get political points for being an idealist, I have to do the best I can with what I have." Finally, we find in Gordon an Everyman, a lifelong citizen of Gotham who one day sees a mysterious protector come to his beleaguered city, wage a war against its depraved criminals for nearly a decade, and one day give everything to a people who grew to despise him, and on that last day, in that protector, Jim Gordon found the Prince of Gotham.

Ultimately and appropriately, Batman lives at the heart of this trilogy. Now while Christopher Nolan weaves other threads, namely the nature and fate of Gotham City, he weaves them around Batman. Such is not to say they are extraneous since they are most emphatically not. The other themes, however, revolve around questions about man's nature so it is fitting the classical story of a man's growth, maturity, and end is the center. In The Dark Knight Rises, he struggles to rediscover his will when faced with the truth that he never had a future with Rachel, i.e. as Bruce Wayne. Yet Batman is either unwanted by the public or unable to defeat Bane. As a result Bruce/Batman is trapped in an existential limbo. The personal story of Batman, however, takes one the nature of a saga when we observe it takes place in the shadows of two men: Thomas Wayne and Ra's Al Ghul. Batman struggles toward his father's vision of a free and prosperous society while Bane tries to inflict his mentor's punishment on Gotham. This striking and significant symmetry lends unity to the trilogy and tremendous weight to The Dark Knight Rises finale.

Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is a shining example of filmmaking. It easily outclasses excellent adaptations of comic book characters such as The Avengers and Spider-man and outright shames the rest. Each film's plot is painstakingly constructed and the trilogy is thematically unified, an extraordinary feat for an original screenplay. While there are here and there convenient coincidences and commonplace elements, there is never a hint of carelessness. For the sake of criticism I tried a number of times to change re-arrange some elements of the films to see if I could not fashion some additional symmetry or meaning and each time I unravelled the film.

I initially criticized those who called The Dark Knight Rises "satisfying," as if it were a sandwich which temporarily sated one's appetite. I thought such faint praise for a movie which should simply be called excellent. Yet now I recognize in that reaction not cheap approval but a rather tender sentiment rising from the final scene in which, after having shared in the suffering of Bruce Wayne and the burden of Batman for three films, we feel free.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Essay & Review: Artwork of Middle Earth


Few modern books, if any, have inspired as much artwork as those of J. R. R. Tolkien. The obvious but incomplete reason is that Tolkien wrote some ripping battle scenes, from the defense of Helm's Deep to the ride of the Rohhirim and the siege of Gondor. I say incomplete because as much if not more attention has been lavished on the quiet and understated moments in the history of Middle Earth. So why should anyone care about the Prancing Pony, Bilbo's foyer, or Theoden's Hall? Why do these created places and spaces take on more significance than actual ones? The answer lies in Tolkien's ability to create a world, and not just a physical one.

While we do relish Tolkien's meticulous descriptions of  Bag End and the seven levels of Minas Tirith, these places also exist in time. If Orthanc, for example, were simply the home of Sauruman it would be, for all its splendor, just a place, albeit one significant to the heroes of The Lord of the Rings. Yet when Orthanc is the ancient fortress built thousands of years ago on the Northern border of the Numenoreans, who in their decline they could no longer maintain it and offered it to Sauruman, it becomes part of the history of Middle-earth, a history we gladly get swept up in. Places in Middle-earth exist not simply now, in the age we are reading about, but they have existed, and this gives them a unique authenticity. The Philosopher said that what appears to have been always what it is, is regarded as real. Indeed. Too, a place which housed great kings and outlasted many battles deserves to endure, a home which has housed generations of a family ought to be the home of their descendants. Their history gives the places of Middle-earth their authority.

Tolkien achieves this authenticity in two other ways, the plainest of which is his use of the languages he invented for Middle-earth. Yet it is not the euphony, novelty, or even uniqueness of the Elvish languages that imbues Middle-earth with authenticity but the logic of the roots and names. Whether it is Nan Curunír, "Valley of the Wizard," or the Noldor "those with knowledge," Tolkien's peoples and realms do not simply have names but feel named. This adds a human presence to all of Middle-earth even where the historical details are not painted in.

Lastly, Tolkien creates his world with details in short, often rather vague, asides. These are easy enough to spot but I would quote one of my favorites from The Two Towers. Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin, who inquire about whether Fangorn Forest is like the Old Forest near the Shire,
Aye, aye, something like, but much worse. I do not doubt that there is some shadow of the Great Darkness lying there still away north; and bad memories are handed down. But there are some hollow dales in this land where the Darkness has never been lifted, but the trees are older than I am.
Tolkien has in fact not told us anything about who is doing what, when, where, or why, rather he has created a sense of the way things are, the nature of things in Middle-earth. In two sentences Tolkien sketches an ancient world full of creatures older even than hoary Treebeard himself, a world which has passed through a darkness so great that evil endures in cracks and crevices. Tolkien's use of the passive voice with," bad memories are handed down" is especially effective, suggesting both that the darkness was so great that it could not be forgotten and that those passing the memories down are still bitter. The information also comes as bit of a discovery about a place we thought we knew.

By these means Tolkien's stories come to the reader not only as romances and mythologies, but as an inheritance of rare histories which invites us to step into Middle-earth. As such, Tolkien enthusiasts have a particular fondness for drawings of Middle-earth. Here are my thoughts on a pair of collections.


Realms of Tolkien and Tolkien's World


Harper Collins published both of these volumes in the early an mid 1990s and they feature respectively 58 and 60 paintings. Fans of Peter Jackson's filmed Lord of the Rings will recognize the many by John Howe and Alan Lee and Tolkien aficionados will recognize the handful of Ted Nasmith's meticulously detailed work, but the remainder, a diverse assortment of drawings from lesser known artists and even amateurs, will be a welcome surprise to all.

In particular, Realms of Tolkien features the work of Dutch artist Cor Blok, whose work so pleased Tolkien himself that the two met and the author bought two of Blok's paintings. Blok's work draws least on the common elements of design we associate with Middle-earth, such as the Nordic look of the Rohirrim and so forth. Without the familiarizing effect of traditional visual design elements Blok's paintings focus on the essence of the action.

The bloodiness of at the Hornburg takes on a new starkness with Blok's orange slashes and tiny lopped heads. His Mûmak is a truly alien creature and our shock at it draws us closer to the fear of the humans in the picture far more than our reactions to any old elephant could. Other styles are far from antiquated, though. Nasmith's (above) captures the grandur and scale of that "moving hill," and Swedish artist Inger Edelfeldt captures its power with billowing dust clouds and scattering men. The variety here is a real pleasure.

In both volumes each painting is accompanied by the corresponding selection from Tolkien, and while some of these could have been longer it is helpful to have some of the text beside, both to have the author's description set the stage and to compare the picture. Many but not all of the paintings are full-page for reasons of aspect ratio. The wide landscape paintings are unfortunately not rotated but printed across the page so they can be viewed beside the text, a reasonable decision but one which results in a significantly smaller image and much wasted space. Yet that's a minor complaint about these volumes, both splendid and rewarding paths through Middle-earth.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Socialism: What's in a Name?


We were fortunate this past week in being treated to political science theses from two acclaimed film directors, Milos Forman and Joss Whedon. I am not going to begin this brief critique by criticizing the credentials of these men, because I expect thoughtful and intelligent movies and such a demand necessitates a thoughtful and intelligent director. Nor will I suggest because these men are wealthy they ought not hold such positions, and though it indeed may be irrational or hypocritical for them, it is their ideas and not their characters which are in question.

What political theories have they brought forth? Similar ones, it turns out. Both directors take issue with the oft-repeated claim that President Obama is a socialist or that his policies are socialistic. It must be noted that of their arguments, at least as they have been reported, Forman's is the more complete. He at least acknowledges the question of government authority and the United States' exceptional grounding in liberty. For Whedon whoever disagrees has, "gone off the reservation," a downright embarrassing rhetorical sleight. The directors' arguments, however, are most similar: President Obama's policies are not socialism because they do not contain the essence of socialism, which Forman claims is in fact twofold: totalitarianism and the desire to eliminate social classes. In contrast, President Obama's policies merely seek to ameliorate suffering.

Before continuing, I would like to note that this is a conversation worth having: a discussion of what something is. Public political conversations in particular often focus on administration and policy but seldom on theory.

We first should note that most Americans, left and right and center, want to avoid the term socialism. In varying ways and to varying degrees it is associated with foreign affairs, Marxism, totalitarianism, and not-so-successful revolutions, so everyone wants to ditch it. However it gets remade or renamed, though, we must define its essence. We must also be diligent not to define it arbitrarily or simply define it as something we do not like so we may distance from it ourselves and our own ideas.

Outright we can see that the attempt to define the essence of socialism simply as any policy not for promoting social welfare is a failure insofar as it attempts to define something by what it is not. Unfortunately, Whedon's attempt at definition goes no further, although Forman's does. Forman defines it as totalitarianism or an attempt to create a classless society. We may dispense with his definitions also for they already constitute other ideologies, totalitarianism and egalitarianism.

So what is socialism? One might be tempted now to say, in a more precise wording of Whedon's inchoate and confused statement, that most laws are social because they concern how people relate to one another, even laws prohibiting murder and larceny. Exempted from this definition of social laws might be religious laws such as, for example, laws against blasphemy or laws against saying, having, or doing certain things simply because they are immoral. Yet this definition of "socialism" will help us very little since it would include most laws. Clearly and despite its name, some other principle besides social intercourse is at work. Besides, no one would call a law prohibiting murder a socialistic one. We need to develop a more restricted definition of socialism.

Yet if we exclude social living and appeals to morality, for example, appeals to ideas or to a deity, what remains to discuss? Material things. The question here is now whether the individual may own as much as he wishes or whether, at a certain point, someone or some other body, decides he has made enough. The confiscation of property might be carried out in a monarchy, oligarchy, or tyranny, and for egalitarian, bureaucratic, tyrannical, or non-social moral reasons, yet in all cases the means of production are taken from the individual. Consequently, we may add, the confiscators decide how to spend the confiscated resources and thus plan the economy. In all of these systems it is property which is at stake. It is only a question of who takes it from you, and why.

Recommended Reading

Mises, Ludwig von. Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Chapter 15: Particular Forms of Socialism.


Friday, July 13, 2012

Sacred Music from the Middle Ages to Today


Update: This video after several thousand views was blocked by several companies, evidently because they don't understand the concept of fair use.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What Not to Tweet II: Political Edition

or, Yes you can undermine all of your credibility in 140 characters.

Rabble, rabble rabble!
You can feel it in the earth. You can feel it in the water. You can certainly smell it in the air: another presidential election season is upon these United States. Millions of concerned citizens have risen from their slumbers to carry forth the sacred fire of democracy by making room for The Daily Show on their DVRs. Yet with this great power comes great risk: to tweet or not to tweet?

The choice is yours, but as a courtesy I note the following cautions which when unheeded have caused me to think twice about someone's intellect or character.

10. Approval/Disapproval

Don't express approval or disapproval of something without any explanation. Persuade by reason not character, or you'll sound like a pompous fool. Don't assume people agree with you, even about fundamentals. You don't know why they're following you.

9. NOW!

Precious little must needs be done right now. I know you mean that this election is important, but let's reserve the word "now" for referring to "right this very moment" and not "this year."

Also, I know the election is important. I know you care. Don't over do it.

8. How __________ can win.

It is presumptuous to offer unsolicited advice. If you want to help a candidate's campaign, do it. If they don't want to appoint you chief strategist, well, that's tough luck. Offering advice to them publicly and without having been solicited is tantamount to saying, "Here's what they should do if they want to win which they clearly don't because they didn't ask me but I'm going to tell you anyway because I care that much."

Also, no one cares about your strategy of using Fig Newtons to help Candidate X win. If you're doing something, just do it. Tell other people what you are doing by all means, but don't tell them to do it.

7. Invidious References

Let us try and avoid references to communists, fascists, and the chancellor of Germany from 1933-1945.

6. "We"

I'm not necessarily included in "we" unless you mean Americans, and if you do mean Americans just say "Americans." Otherwise, saying "we" makes me feel like you're trying to include me in your group when I didn't ask. Again, you don't know why they're following you so don't alienate them by being presumptuous.

5. Change your avatar.

Nothing says, "I just started paying attention" more than changing your avatar to include a political message.

Also, we know what the candidates look like. Don't put his face on anything, ever, under any circumstances. In fact, don't put anything political on clothing of any kind. Buttons are the only acceptable form of advertising, and you only get to wear one.

4. Use the actual campaign slogan.

I know what the candidate says. Repeating it does not make you a concerned citizen or a reporter, it makes you a mouthpiece.

3. Blaming X

"Oh if only it weren't for the Democrats/Republicans/Klingons everything would be fine" translates into "If only everyone agreed with me everything would be fine."

2. Polls

I don't care what 45% of ambidextrous people, 55% of long-beaked jackdaws, or "most of" any group thinks. Admittedly, though polls can be relevant to a particular point. Use caution (and reason.) Also, on election day, I don't need a play-by-play account of the tallying of votes. Let's all just wait and find out together, shall we?

1. "Just Vote"

Please don't tell me that you don't care whom I vote for but that you "just want me to vote." You do care and you should, but my dog won't necessarily get to that last leg of the race. If he doesn't, I lose. I might decide to pick the next best candidate and I might not. If not, I lose. Please leave me alone.

Lastly, standard rules of tweeting still apply, especially Standard Rule #1.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Book Review: The Fortunes of Permanence

by Roger Kimball. 2012.

Dignity, tenacity, truthfulness, humor, confidence, freedom, joy, courage. The reader may follow with great pleasure and profit any of these threads (Roman virtues all, you say?) through Roger Kimball's new volume The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia. These "cultural instructions" more than any genealogy or anatomy of culture constitute Kimball's book and their embodiment and exile become the touchstones of Culture and Anarchy. We have not, though, some ivory tower classification, for Kimball does not study these virtues in the vacuum of a philosophical treatise but in the lives of men. In fact while he prefaces each chapter with some choice quotations I think the following from Cicero might suffice for the whole:

In the days beyond our memory the traditional ways attached themselves by their own appeal to the outstanding men of the time; and to the ancient ways and to the institutions of their ancestors men of moral superiority clung fast.

Yet ours is an age of amnesia and the doors to the institutions have been shuttered and the men dragged off, and through the mud. They have been branded nationalists, racists, moralists, and ethno-centrists. They weren't "open-minded." Well, neither Cicero nor Burke, for example, would have tolerated living amongst a variety of scoundrels in the name of diversity, nor praised courage for the purpose of undermining the nation, nor joy over its destruction. Virtues without fixed values are virtues in name only, and after decades of being weaned off the real thing Western civilization is pretty "open." The result has been not the widespread joy and liberty of utopian prognostication but mass ennui. The West is passive in response to challenges to its fundamental traditions, tacit to mockery of its principles, and stultified faced with Islamic fundamentalism. The quiet and ambitious goal of The Fortunes of Permanence is, then, the rehabilitation of the men who vivified traditional Western values. If rehabilitation is the goal, though, energy is the theme and the fire of the West begins with the Greeks.

The heart of The Fortunes of Permanence begins with Pericles' storied Funeral Oration, which the Greek general took up with reluctance at the start of a bloody and costly war, and not because of its elegy for the fallen or even its roots in tradition or praise of the Athenian forefathers, but for the zeal and energy witch which Pericles took up duties of democracy. Kimball sees in Pericles' ancient exhortation the joy of the agonistic spirit and the antipathy toward shame. Most of all he sees a leader confident enough in the justice and beauty of his land and the goodness of his fellow citizens to say without irony or doubt:
. . . as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian.
What is the alternative to such joyous undertaking of civil life and refusal to be lax "in the face of the perils of war?" Shuffling apologies, desultory policies, and dithering responses from politicians alongside the "words, words, words" of the intelligentsia? Kimball concludes Part I, "Does Pericles point the way? The alternative is suicide."

Part II, the heart of The Fortunes of Permanence, is a cheerful series of accounts of intellectuals long rusticated by the urban managerial elite. Now while rustication would have served most of them just fine, we would benefit from knowing a thing or two about, say, John Buchan. What can we learn from the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps? Well, apart from it being a gentlemanly thing to know a bit about a man who can write a good ripping yarn, he was an uncommon man of great energy, and by "great energy" I mean that he wrote Nelson's History of the War at the blistering pace of 5,000 words a day, a fact which when coupled with his simultaneous directorship of the British secret service would make anyone who ever put pen to paper put head in head.

What made Buchan so active? No coddled upbringing but a big old conk on the head when he was but five. He wasn't educated on politically correct pabulum but "schooled to toughness." The defense of his country probably put a fire in him too, although toward the end of his life a different concern gripped him. Barbarism was one threat, yes, but de-civilization, that is, "civilization gone rotten" is perhaps a more terrible sight. Too he feared the normalizing effects of science and the "extinction of eccentricity," a justified fear given how he himself would be ironed out of popular discourse.

Rudyard Kipling might not have been ironed out of the literary world but his didactic purposes have been. Today Kipling is permitted to play host to the exotic East and introduce us to Mowgli and friends but not to teach. I suppose his demotion is due not so much of the rejection of poetry's didactic imperative which dates from Hesiod, but a disagreement with him over his ideas. Kimball one-ups T. S. Eliot's observation that poetry, "is condemned as 'political' when we disagree with the politics" by adding that, "Kipling might have written good poetry, but it wasn't good for poetry to have been written by Kipling." Hence the ironing, sanitizing, et cetera. Kimball's discussion of the poetry is scholarly and his remarks about the oft-trotted criticism of refreshing. Yet more revealing than the obvious fact that "white" in the "white man's burden" refers not to the color of skin but the lawful citizens of civilization is Kipling's idea of civilization as something "laboriously achieved" and "precariously defended." It is this virile belief, in the value and identity of Western civilization, which has prevented Kipling passage into the literary Pantheon.

Kimball labors most lovingly on G. K. Chesterton, "Master of Rejuvenation" who perhaps most embodies the vigorous citizen whom this book is meant to praise and inspire. Vital energy abounds in Kimball's descriptions of this man of letters, arguments, and apologetics, of his ruddy health and strenuous genius. How much more joyful Chesterton's "mere excitement of existence" rooted in orthodoxy than the postmodern, post-structuralist, deconstructed, tedium rooted in. . .

If modernity's cultural guardians banish Buchan for his eccentricity, Kipling for his defense of the West, and Chesterton's orthodoxy, what palpitations must they suffer from someone who defended the culture of the Old South! Richard Weaver took up the strenuous, romantic, and perhaps futile challenge of defending the Old South and its virtues of hierarchy, chivalry, gentility, and religion from the North's centralizing mechanical and political machines.

The concluding chapters of Part II on modern art might seem a dour turn from the preceding eclectic stands against the 20th century's encroaching progressivism, relativism, and socialism, but they couldn't provide a finer contrast. Never have the progressive credos seemed like so many bromides. "Art for art's sake" seems more an excuse for not learning your craft and refusing to live up to creative heights of your predecessors than any grand philosophical pronouncement. If art is not subject to strictures of form and purpose, then it devolves, as it has, into esoterica meaningful only to its creator, so who cares about it?

Kimball deftly brings this observation around to architecture in his lively discussion of an exhibition of the architecture of Peter Eisenman and Leon Krier. Why would you want, as Eisenman does, your space to "disrupt" and "intrude?" It is made for man, no? The space may be logical and highly ordered but, to be frank, so what? If a man is to live in a space it must meet his needs and seldom among those needs are being disrupted and intruded upon. Quite simply, nobody wants to live in an ugly building and, to quote Roger Scruton, "Nobody wants to live in it because it's so damn ugly." Yet beauty is a value, and we moderns can't have that can we?

Ugly buildings lack what Kimball, continuing his theme of vitality, calls "the animating leaven of taste." Ugly architecture is dead to us because it is unpleasant and we avoid it as we avoid all unpleasant things. Post-human architecture is anti-human architecture and it will limp along in "sterility and exhaustion" until its purpose turns back to man.

The final branch of The Fortunes of Permanence might be subtitled, "Unmasking the Friends of Humanity." Oh you know the Friends of Humanity: the managerial progressives, the distributers of "social justice," and their many brothers and cousins. All they want is to remake society; is that so much to ask? The reward is universal brotherhood and abundance. Not sold? Well, that was my best pitch. I apologize if I failed to sell you utopia but it is a rather touch sell, is it not? To fall for it I suppose one needs to think human nature infinitely malleable, that one may be educated or trained out of any behavior. Too you would need to thing society and its infinite parts equally pliable. Nothing immovable, nothing permanent stands in the way of progress. Just as modern theories of art pushed God, man's nature, and tradition from the center so have modern political theories, and just as modern art is enervated and listless so is modern politics. Stand up for what?

Marxism and its offshoots, hybrids, and bastards have everywhere degenerated into vacuousness. In politics it has devolved into lawlessness, in academics into relativism, and in art into banality. Who would have thought that the widespread loss of valid intellectual criteria and the politicization and celebration of that loss as "social (fill-in-the-blank)" would lead to degeneration? Just Pericles, Cicero, Burke. . . and if those voices are too distant, Burnham, Kolakowski, and Hayek.

Again I have mentioned the great men. Perhaps now their presence will seem less conspicuous here and more necessary in the world.
In the days beyond our memory the traditional ways attached themselves by their own appeal to the outstanding men of the time; and to the ancient ways and to the institutions of their ancestors men of moral superiority clung fast.
As Kimball has shown us, the rejection of these men had to follow the rejection of their values. Their disappearance is no coincidence for the Marxian intelligentsia knew too, as Alan Bloom wrote, that, "The essence of education is the experience of greatness." The Fortunes of Permanence is such an experience.

The Fortunes of Permanence is also an important book, not just remedy but tocsin. How close to the brink of de-civilization must the West creep before it pulls back?

Alarms aside, but not far, The Fortunes of Permanence is a vigorous book of joyful praise and serrated criticism. Kimball's knowledge and love of the classics are not so much apparent in as infused into the pages. If it contains an abundance of quotations from the greats, from Aristotle to Orwell, well so much the better for a book about culture and permanence. If it is Kimball's great achievement that Classical values and the men who lived them shine so, his portrait of the left is equally admirable. Never has the left, traced finely from the French Revolution through today, seemed so dull: it's politics so many utopian schemes ending in tears, its art so much "outrage by the yard." Yawn.

In contrast, the virile and adventurous spirit of the West, from Pericles to Burke, in Homer and Kipling and yes, even in the Dangerous Book for Boys, endures.


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Monday, July 2, 2012

App Review: The Sonnets by William Shakespeare

Touch Press. 2012.

Hot off the heels of their outstanding 2011 iOS app T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland, Touch Press brings us the even more impressive app of Shakespeare's Sonnets. If you have used their Wasteland app then you you know this is no simple etext presentation of the sonnets but a rich program for studying and enjoying  the poems.

Shakespeare's Sonnets features all 154 sonnets plus A Lover's Complaint beautifully laid out in grey text over a deckled white background and very easy on the eyes. You can swipe up and down to bring up the next or previous sonnet or you can tap the sonnet number to bring up a menu which presents you with each sonnet's number and incipit.

A bottom menu lets you easily switch with one tap to the corresponding 1) notes from the Arden edition, 2) commentary from Don Paterson, 3) place in the 1609 Quarto, or 4) blank space for your own notes. You can tap the text to see if there are any notes for a particular word or to listen to the passage. That's right, Shakespeare's Sonnets includes audio recordings of all 154 sonnets read by actors such as Patrick Stewart, Fiona Shaw, and Stephen Fry. Moreover, the audio performances are presented with optional video so you can choose to 1) listen to the audio as you view the text, 2) listen to the audio as you view the text and notes or commentary, or 3) view a split screen of the text and video. I have yet to sample all of the readings but they are so far excellent.

The entire app supports AirPlay so you can stream the text, audio, and video to any Apple TV and thus to any TV or projector, a wonderful option for teachers. Those studying the poems will undoubtedly enjoy the searchable index and even more so, the hyperlinked notes. For example, if you are reading Sonnet 32 and encounter a reference to No. 78 in the notes, you can simply click the note and jump to No. 78.

Lastly, Shakespeare's Sonnets includes a section of forty short discussions with a number of scholars including poet, writer, and musician Don Paterson, James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and Henry Woudhuysen, Professor of Enslish at UCL. The discussions range from biographical details and Shakespeare's use of the sonnet form to recurring characters, and the order, language, and sound of the sonnets. The brief and lively videos serve as neat introductions to a variety of topics and could be useful points of departure for group discussions.

One note, though: due to the quantity of audio and video and the fact that it is not streamed but downloaded to the iOS device, the app weighs in at a hefty 1.37GB

Overall, this is an outstanding app rich in resources and brilliantly polished. It's also a veritable steal at $13.99. A scant price to pay for having this elegant presentation of Shakespeare's treasures at your fingertips.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Movie Review: Prometheus

Directed by Ridley Scott. 2012.

How critical can one be of a film exploring the origins of mankind while Adam Sandler's carnival of juvenilia wails on in the adjacent theater? Rather, if its director is Ridley Scott and he had the pretention to call it Prometheus. In fact this latest of Scott's offerings is the most ambitious film in the Alien series he launched in 1979 with the finely crafted gothic horror Alien. His return marks not only a leap forward for the franchise in technical polish and panache from the c-grade schlock of Alien vs. Predator, but a new seriousness of purpose, I can't resist, alien even to the best films in the series like James Cameron's 1986 Aliens and its progenitor.

Like much else in Prometheus the premise is a science fiction staple: whence man? Alas, the premise is the only unconfused element in Prometheus. Almost. The plodding opening is clear enough. One hundred or so years from now scientists discover identical markings in ruins of ancient dwellings from across the world. They all share the image of a man, his hand raised to the heavens pointing to a cluster of five stars. The scientists conclude this is an invitation and a few years later a trillion dollar mission is on its way through the cosmos financed by, well, trillionaire Peter Weyland. On board are a scientist couple, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), with Captain Janek (Idris Elba), Mission Commander Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), and the android, David (Michael Fassbender.)

The Characters

Charlie Holloway, scientist, explaining things to the
audience–I mean crew.
I would hasten to add that, with the exception of Dr. Shaw (Rapace) not one of these characters is especially likable and hardly any of them are well drawn. Holloway, while mostly rude and unpleasant, is rendered uninteresting by the fact that his aggressive interest in the mission never translates into any virtue or vice. In one scene he casually sits on the counter drinking alcohol from a bottle while the other scientists probe an alien head. Is this supposed to be hubris, indifference, arrogance? He has a tattoo of a crucifix on his shoulder which must mean. . . something, I guess.

Captain Janek
Janek would have been tolerable as a gruff captain if he were better at his job, although he comes into his own at the end when he suddenly develops values of use to the plot. The fact that he several times says he "just drives the ship" would make him a good Brechtian everyman if he didn't have that last minute change of heart. Actually, that change in which Janek says his only goal (his new only goal, I guess) is to prevent anything from reaching Earth would be interesting coming from a conservative character, contrasting the scientists, but the writers didn't do that. He also meant aliens and their goo and not ideas, so never mind.

Commander Meredith "Grumpy-Pants" Vickers
Vickers is a frigid shrew throughout and is surprisingly unimportant. Late in the movie she is revealed to be the daughter of the elderly Weyland, the ship's financier, whom we also discover to be on board. So what of the relationship? She seems like she's there to protect him, or to prove something to him since he seems devoid of any paternal love for her, but then she says she didn't want him to go on the mission while she was stuck on Earth. So. . . why is she there and why does she matter? If she doesn't matter then why can't she just be in charge of the mission? Why did Weyland hobble her control over the mission by saying the scientists were "basically in charge?" Hey, wouldn't it have been interesting if maybe she was trying to take control of the mission for her own purposes, like Prometheus, or if she wanted to overthrow her father and take control over his power and dynasty, like Zeus did to his father, Cronos?

David
David the android watches Lawrence of Arabia and studies humanity, meaningless facts without the context of David's character and androids in general.   At one point David watches the opening of Lawrence of Arabia where the colonel puts out a match by pinching it and explains to his fellow officers that the tricks is not minding the pain. This seems significant, is it making some point about accepting pain in life? Does David feel pain? Does he understand what Lawrence means? He doesn't react to it at all and no one else does either even though many other people are present. Is it supposed to be significant that he learns about people by way of movies?

In a fleeting moment of meaning and comprehensibility, David asks Charlie why Charlie made him, which I guess is supposed to mean why mankind made androids. Charlie responds, "because we could." David then asks whether Charlie would not find such an answer from his own creator quite unsatisfactory. Yet what kind of questions is this, and what kind of answer? Wouldn't mankind make androids for particular purposes? Why is this David's response, anyway? I guess he could have said anything because we don't really know anything about his character so no answer would have been out of character. I guess he just said what the writer needed so David could say what the writer wanted. Oh, and why would David ask such a question of Charlie, and not Weyland, the man who considers himself David's father?

It is mentioned that when Weyland stops programming David that he will be free. So at the end when Weyland is dead and David helps Dr. Shaw escape, is this important? Why does he do this? Out of altruism, to get himself off the planet, to make up for lying to her?


Michael Fassbender has fairly been praised for his performance, but David's sympathetic character results simply from his often sad looking face. We in fact do not know enough about his nature or aspirations to have opinions about him. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation we know about Data's limitations and aspirations to become human so what he does has context. In Aliens, Lance Henrikson's android character Bishop is clearly there to serve them. In Prometheus, well I just wrote three paragraphs trying to figure out what's going on with this character.

Peter Weyland
Weyland's character makes sense insofar as he says what he wants: to meet his creator and for his creator to save him. Let us think for a moment, though. First, the movie operates under the premise that a race of people created man. No mention is made, however, of the possibility that these creators are immortal, so is Weyland looking for the exact alien that created him? What if that alien is dead? Would another alien know, or care? Do all of these aliens make people? This problem is similar to David's above where the necessary distinction between individual and group is entirely left out. Second, why does Weyland want his creator to save his life? Obviously he doesn't want to die, but does he want to live forever? Does he just want to be cured of something? Is he afraid of death? Does he want to accomplish something? How shallow Weyland's explanation suddenly seems when we actually ask questions. He would be more interesting as a character on a quest for the fountain of youth, or who wanted to ask his maker why he had to die, or to redeem or forgive him, or anything more specific than simply saving his life.

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw
Finally we come to our heroine, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. She wants to discover the creators of mankind for the sake of knowledge but she also has faith in Christianity. Like her father, she "chooses to believe" and Shaw seems intent on reconciling her faith with what she expects to find on the planet. When her husband asks what she'll believe after finding the aliens Elizabeth replies, "Well who created them?" This faith is symbolized by a cross she wears around her neck and you would think that when David takes it away from her (because it might be contaminated) the moment would be fraught with significance, but it's not. Now because this moment is not significant, when she reclaims it that moment can't mean much either.

The bottom line is that these characters don't work in this context. It made sense for the cast of Alien to be gruff and unprofessional because they were deckhands whose lumpen grind was maintaining a dark, cold interstellar garbage boat. It made sense for the cast of Aliens to be rough and tumble because they were ripping marines. Those groups of people also didn't ask any profound questions: they were there to survive. This cast had to be professional and purposeful because they were on a trillion dollar expedition to discover the origin of humanity.

Now you might be thinking, "Hey, maybe the characters don't matter so much. Maybe the movie is about other ideas." That is indeed a fine notion, but if it is so then far to much time is devoted to them. 2001is not about the characters but it wastes no time with dialogue or any information about them.
It would have been interesting if everyone on the ship had different reasons for being there which could be compared and contrasted, and fulfilled or not fulfilled, or change and not change, et cetera, but the writers didn't do that.

The Plot

The plot contains even more holes and ambiguities than the characters and because it is very popular to praise movies that ask questions or that leave elements unresolved we must probe Prometheus' particular brand of not knowing and see if it holds up.

First we must note it is not as if the answerable but insignificant questions of this crapulent plot hide the fact that the ultimate question is unanswerable, but rather the insignificant questions are unanswerable too. Is this an absurdist, existentialist slap in the face? I'm not sure it's not and I cannot see any other legitimate explanation. Prometheus does not in fact "raise questions" it simply does not work.

Let's make a quick comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Prometheus recalls in its opening shot. In 2001, we wonder what the monolith is, why it occurs at certain times in history, whether man causes it, or it responds to man. We wonder about the nature of being and knowing, time and change. Prometheus doesn't ask these, or similar or any, questions, rather it simply leaves plot points unresolved. In the same way we couldn't figure out if what the characters were doing was significant to their natures because we didn't know them, we cannot figure out if what they are doing is significant to the plot because we do not have enough facts. The chaps at Red Letter Media have made a characteristically raucous and entertaining litany of questions left by Prometheus. I emphasize: raucous.


These questions are not interesting in and of themselves. They are questions not about philosophical ideas but about the plot, and who cares about the plot apart from the ideas it provokes? Because I don't know something about David's nature his character and what he does cannot provoke questions about. . . well, anything. The ending, however, makes a more definite statement. Shaw's decision to continue searching for the alien home world to find out why they decided, after they made man, to destroy us, demonstrates how deep rooted this question is in man's nature. Even after all of the death and destruction of the mission she wants to keep searching. Or does she just want to prevent them from actually destroying earth? Bah. . .

Overall, Prometheus doesn't generate questions about life but rather only generates questions about itself.

Technical Aspects

Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-film.
Besides the wettish, lapidary visages of the aliens I did not find much of Prometheus' visuals appealing. The sets are confined to the hallways aboard the two ships, neither of which are particularly memorable or beautiful. The foley effects in the opening act are terribly matched and synchronized. Without anything vested in the characters and without any understanding of the plot I found the pacing languorous, a problem compounded by the leaden dialogue. Since Prometheus has been praised as suspenseful, I ask: How can it be suspenseful if you don't empathize with any of the characters, have any idea about why they're doing what they're doing, or what the possible results of their actions are?

Prometheus features a musical motive which sounds whenever something is discovered. While I very much like the idea of a "discovery" leitmotif, it didn't really work after its initial use, largely because we never really discover anything.

Overall I cannot count Prometheus as a success and the exceptionally untied plot nips at the credibility of the writers to the point where I cannot even call Prometheus an honest endeavor, at least as far as the writing goes. It owes what unity it has to the technical work and talent of its director who must have labored enormously to tie together the film with visual language. For him and his considerable work and talent I wish a much better script.

A Note on the Poster

I much like the movie poster to the right, unfortunately it doesn't make any sense. First, if the planet was a military installation and the black goo in the jars was hazardous biological breeding gel, why are they stacked like that around a giant face, especially when the jars are stacked on shelves elsewhere in the facility? Second, the aliens were apparently planning on coming to wipe us out (I forget how we reached that conclusion, but I'll take it), but there was an accident on the planet that killed them and prevented them. So were they they only ones planning on killing us? Were there no other aliens who checked up on them? Did they die to? Were the surviving aliens still coming?

Anyway, it's a nice poster.