Wednesday, January 30, 2013

On Muscles

At some point this morning between lapping the last loop of my Windsor and putting on my blazer, I hurt my neck. Twisted, wrenched, pinched, or strained I can't say, but some heretofore unknown and unloved muscle, after decades of flawless service, gave out. And when it did, rest assured I at last noticed it. Now it might have been the searing pain I noticed first, but hot on pain's heels set in my newfound incapacity. I was downright shocked: I can't move.

I'd never noticed just how much I could articulate this ten-pound cranium of bone, blood, and tissue until its range was reduced to about one degree in every direction. So as I leaned prone into the pile of blankets on my bed, the one painless position I quickly found, I remembered happier times: looking to my left, looking up and down. How full of agency, how free life used to be. How my muscles used to carry me carefree through life, upstairs, downstairs, over grass and through water. Heedless of their interconnected flexion and tension I ran for busses and unfurled boat sheets. I shimmied once or twice, I think. I also sat parked in front of my computer, which now seems a gross waste in this respect. (But how else to write?)

So what in return did they ask of me? Only energy, which I could supply in gleeful titillation of my palate and satiety of appetite. Not a bad deal. They even get stronger as necessary and heal themselves. What an ordinary wonder. One can surely see why great minds from Renaissance sculptors to enlightenment physicians marveled at the body's form and exercise.Take David, to the left. Look how weighty, how vital and full of  in he seems in his near stillness. How the slightest suggestion of movement, his contraposto position, suggests a symphony of activity, both actual and potential.

It's a glorious and ennobling potential, the agency of an intellect. So from now on the Half-Windsor, just in case.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Reading Bad Writing

It may come as no surprise that President Obama's recent inaugural effusions set your humble blogger on a tirade. You may, however, be pleased to know this tirade was strictly apolitical. In fact, the speech simply iced a cake which had been rising, layer by layer, for several months. The particular bugaboo this time was mine against bad writing. Now mind you there exist many shades on literature's spectrum and everyone has bad days and deadlines, but I'm noticing a downward trend. Maybe I'm just growing old and grumpy.

For my part, I am grateful to readers.  I assume that no content is ever so enthralling or persona magnetic that you can get away with a slight or cheap shot. I strive to please and thank all for coming back despite my literary mishaps. Every essay calls for a little persuasion, seduction even.

In fact, absent some linguistic enticement, writing takes on a strident tone. "You'll read me because I'm brilliant!" it insists. Salon seems to specialize in cultivating this self-important tone. You suffer through line after line of the author's indifference to clarity and style until you realize you labor more in trying to comprehend than the author did in conceiving. I find myself more and more often throwing my hands up and moving on. Unfortunately, I'm probably missing out on some good ideas which makes me even more surly.

So bad writing is ticking me off and it's everywhere. Let's look at a few ire-inducing examples.

1) Defective Cadence
"citizens who want to come to watch the state senate do things like" -Esquire
One wonders whether the author noticed the heavily iambic meter of this line, and how he builds up energy which crashes, without purpose, into the conclusion. Does he realize it reads like this:

"citizens who want to come to watch the state senate do things LIKE"

Of course one learns rhythm and meter in high school, but I first became aware of the need to avoid rhythms with unwanted effects or associations when I studied the prose rhythms of Cicero's Second Philippic.

2) What does it all means?
"He spoke in a soft voice, in an otherwise silent room." -Salon
You see how it's not really clear what's important in that sentence? Is it the softness, or the silence? After all, any sound would have shattered the silence. Also, isn't the construction sloppy? We want to make the two phrases with "in" parallel, especially because they're both indicating location, but the comma throws off the parallelism. The comma also puts the weight on soft, which as we established doesn't make any sense.

3) We Talk Like Dis

Another Silmaril from Salon:
"It’s like when you’re trying to decide on a restaurant with a new friend." -Salon
Choose, madam, the word you are looking for is choose.

4) Indirect Misstatement
even those for whom it is right can benefit from talking honestly about it. -Salon
On the one hand "for whom" is the indirect object of "it is right" and the subject of "benefit." Rectitude aside, don't Frankenstein your sentences. It is too easy in the name of efficiency to try to join clauses by any means possible. Sometimes, just make a compound: Even those who x, can y. Yay.

Similarly, from an opera blog:
[Her] unusual voice and compelling presence made Magda more interesting to me than I've found her in the past.
"More interesting" is shared between two verbs as the predicate of "made" and the direct object of "found." The result is an awkward shift in sense.

5) Participial Maze
by saying “these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” he took a decided shot at Paul Ryan, || doubling down on Mitt Romney by adding in the next breath. . . -Vanity Fair
First, note how the ideas before and after my red break are unrelated and lay listlessly against one another. The participle doubling links the two phrases, however the speaker (President Obama) did not "take a shot" by doubling down, or at the same time as doubling down. The ideas are related forcibly by proximity, not logic. If you strip out the extraneous you see how disjointed the sentence is:

"He took a shot a Paul Ryan, doubling down on Mitt Romney."

That the author thought to squeeze in another quote at the end. . .

6) Chopped Up
"They spoke audibly enough that I had to work very hard to not hear them." -WQXR
  1. Too many short words makes a soupy sentence where nothing stands out, unless you make something stand out.
  2. The use of "that" to indicate the result that is logically unnecessary.
  3. There's too much junk cluttering the parallelism between to work/not to hear, which is why one does not feel the parallelism, which I believe is the point of the sentence.
Hence a broken sentence.

Perhaps instead, "They spoke so loudly [that] I strained. . ."

7) Apposedly Bad
"have shifted from youthful nihilism to pessimism to a less totalizing pessimism, one that leaves room for something approaching or at least nodding toward hope, change, possibility." -NY Times
This sentences loses momentum and grinds to a halt. Why?
  1. The phrase beginning "one that leaves" is simply in apposition to the previous sentence, mooching off of its energy.
  2. The phrases "something approaching" and "at least nodding toward" are too long. Also, they're too similar, only one is necessary. The author clearly couldn't find the word she was looking for,  meaning "acknowledges and leaves room for"
  3. The concluding asyndeton lets the sentence drip dry.
Instead: "have shifted from nihilism to total pessimism to a pessimism which admits some hope, change, or possibility."

8) It Burns!
"In my writing and podcasts, I’ve expressed my hatred of breastfeeding Nazis, my love of boxing, and my bafflement at arduinos. I have lots of opinions, but I’m not all that ideological, and my favorite stories I’ve written are the ones with the least bombast." -Hannah Rosin, Reddit AMA
  1. Syntactical Ambiguity: Does she hate [non-Nazis] breastfeeding Nazis or Nazis breastfeeding each other?
  2. She's not expressing emotion at the arduinos as in I'm angry at you, she's baffled because of them.
  3. "lots of" is not colloquial, like "a lot of," it's just wrong. Unless perhaps she has multiple lots full of opinions.
The boldface line is a doozy. She starts with the direct object, gives us the main verb and subject, then a predicate of the subject. The result is that:
  1. The "my" and "I" jockey for prominence to the confusion of the sense. Also, one of them provides redundant possessive information.
  2. The separation we noted above means she has to duplicate the sense of "my favorite stories" again after the verb with "are those with."
  3. After we're confused and exhausted, we finally get to the point at the end.
Instead: The least bombastic of my stories are the most dear to me.

In conclusion, bad writing is unpleasant reading and fruitlessly effortful work. I don't recall which pianist once said how much more difficult it is to play a bad piece of technically easy music than an excellent piece of challenging music. The same is true of reading. Write well, for the sake of your ideas and your readers.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A 21st Century Mozart

". . . in modern conditions Mozart would make a fortune with the products of one side of his genius which he would lose in performances of works of the other side." 
–A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Arthur Hutchings, p. 160.

Arthur Hutchings' companion to the Mozart concerti is one of those densely perspicacious books in which one can find insight at every page and line. The one-off line I quoted above is one of many you could profitably unfold into a long essay.  At first look it seems a throwaway what-if to tantalize historians: What if Alexander the Great had lived, what if Cicero debated Demosthenes, and so forth. Yet the question is a little deeper, methinks.

You see, Mozart has rather unwisely been made the patron saint of starving artists, especially musicians. In truth, he wasn't the best servant to the Archbishop in Salzburg and afterward he made tidy sums throughout his ten years in Vienna. At the time of his death he was poised to explode on the opera world. So while we may be wrong to see in Mozart the subject of grievous injustice, we can't help and I don't think we're wrong to feel that he was let down. We who greedily lap up the masterpieces he produced-week by-week find unbearable the autocratic constrictions and lowbrow tastes with which he contended. Why should such a rare genius answer to anyone? Yet Mozart, very much the first freelance musician, responded to the demand and especially in the concerti and operas produced works both finely-crafted and appealing.

We should realize instead, from Mozart's experience, that ours is a liberated time. A 21st century Mozart wouldn't have to cater to the whims of a handful of rich patrons or the citizens of one city because the transportation and information revolutions have given every artist a global audience. Can you imagine the demand for Mozart's prolific universal genius? He'd have an opera premiering in New York, a new movie he scored opening every few months, he'd be on tour performing concerti and symphonies, and his serenades would dominate the Top 40. He would have commissions lined up for years and pupils lined up around the corner. Imagine a Mozart masterclass, and a Mozart not wasted teaching Franz "shithead" Sussmayr.

With his popular success Mozart would fund the projects of his heart. No more dense pupils and comissions for mechanical organ. What would we see? What would a mature, unfettered Mozart produce? Would he glory in the esoteric or elevate the everyday? Both, probably. What intimate chamber worlds and celestial symphonies might be. Surely he'd still be outraging the conservatives with his daring harmonies and befuddling the avant-garde with his knowledge of the old ways. I'm sure he'd still be giving cutting criticism of his contemporaries, and I can just see him walking Bimperl along Central Park on the way home to a private chamber recital with family and friends.

I would worry about his education, though. Would Mozart's father have been able to remain his private tutor? Could he have afforded to? Would Leopold have been dragged through the tabloids for exploiting his son? What scandals would have been cooked up in a media frenzy?  We should probably spare ourselves the thought of young Wolferl in a government school classroom of 30.

Aside from the fact that no musical education could replace that from his father, young Wolfgang's interest was almost exclusively musical. Would it have profited him, his family, or anyone, to have dragged him though a "Core Curriculum?" Yuck. Is not the disconnect between the thoughts downright offensive: Mozart and Core Curriculum. How different the associations. If the young Mozart was as attention-deficient as many of his sonatas, might he have been medicated dull as so many other spunky, innocent boys today? We rightly noted the virtues of our liberated culture, but it seems clear the young Mozart was a freer boy and the Mozart family a closer, freer family than most today. What Wolfgang might have gained in the technological revolution from looking at digitized scores of Bach he might have lost early in other ways and early on.

Of lessons we should be wary of drawing too many. It's all too easy to start pointing and wagging fingers at the alleged causes of the artistic lacuna in our society. The solution, however, is no political or social prescription, but the personal one to cultivate him in our lives through his music. Toward this end Mozart can have done no more, having left us his most perfect, universal art. The only appropriate responses, I think, are love and gratitude.

And more music. Especially opera.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Amarcord: Ten Frames

click to enlarge

Music of Middle Earth: The March of the Ents

If the success of a romance like The Lord of the Rings in the postmodern 20th century is not surprising enough, consider the love of Tolkien's songs and poems therein. Beloved by Tolkien and Middle Earth aficionados, the songs showcase not only the author's wordsmith craft but also his affection for words. Yet they're no artist's conceit because they add veracity and authenticity to the larger narrative, enshrining the deeds of Middle Earth not just in history but in lore.

Many of Tolkien's songs have been set to music and in this series I would like to compare some interpretations. So to start, The March of the Ents, from The Two Towers.

We come, we come with roll of drum: ta-runda runda runda rom!
We come, we come with horn and drum: ta-runa runa runa rom!
To Isengard! Though Isengard be ringed and barred with doors of stone;
Though Isengard be stong and hard, as cold as stone and bare as bone,
We go, we go, we go to war, to hew the stone and break the door;
For bole and bough are burning now, the furnace roars - we go to war!
To land of gloom with tramp of doom, with roll of drum, we come, we come;
To Isengard with doom we come!
With doom we come, with doom we come!
The Two Towers. Ch. Treebeard

The March of the Ents. Stephen Olivier. 1981.

Here we have the whole of Tolkien's Entish war song thrummed out by a chorus of basses over a walking bass line. Probably the most faithful to the simple spirit of the story, this version itself derives its considerable effect from simple means.  The deep, earthy basses are a natural fit for the Ents and the bass line, aside from mirroring the march of the Ents, provides a sense of motion under the strophic, hymn-like phrases of the text. The syllabic and almost staccato treatment of the words brings out the hard-hitting consonants of Tolkien's thumping battle hymn. Lastly, the dynamics give a terrible urgency to the fury of the Ents:
For bole and bough are burning now,
the furnace roars - we go to war!
The Ents' Marching Song. The Tolkien Ensemble. 2006.

Here, the drums with their wild rhythms create a scene of primeval danger. The ensemble here remains quite faithful to the text, deriving the rhythms from Tolkien's words. They do, however, insert a dramatic scene voiced by beloved Tolkien enthusiast and performer Christopher Lee in which Sir Christopher, presumably as Treebeard, shouts rousing commands to the marching Ents. This trick opens up the music from a simple song to a scene of action. The following brassy fanfares play up the martial theme until the bass voices return with the text. The opening and Sir Christopher's monologue are the highlights.

Isengard Unleashed. Howard Shore. 2002.

Consistent with the Wagnerian dimensions of Shore's score, the war song of the Ents is nested within the Battle of Helms Deep. Like Olivier's piece, Shore begins with bass rumblings, however he quickly builds to a small rhythmic figure which, in contrast to a simple walking bass, creates a more specifically martial theme. Next, however, Shore makes a radical departure from Tolkien and Olivier and, with both text and music, paints the scene from a third person perspective. No longer do we hear the Ents themselves sing of their tale in the making, no longer a muscular war song, rather we hear high soft voices narrate in the Elvish tongue. Shore paints the image of a people rising from an ancient slumber with a long, melismatic, conjunct line culminating in a crescendo and the entry of a solo boy soprano high above, fulfilling and releasing the musical tension and completing the narrative of the Ents' attack.

Lastly, let us hear from The Professor himself.

Shore's interpretation stands out certain for complexity and for its departure from the text, but I would argue it is quite successful. The version from Olivier and The Tolkien Ensemble are admirably faithful but still vivid and engaging interpretations. Are there any other noteworthy versions or performances we overlooked?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Top Ten: Things Which Annoy Classicists

Classicists are a curious bunch. We come in all shapes and sizes and with all manner of creeds, but generally it's a smart and elitist crowd. We're also rather. . . picky.

Most of us find the following vexing. Utter these at the risk of being denounced on an epic scale. I tried to keep the list focused on the discipline and not academia.

10. "I know Italian/Modern Greek. . .

. . . can't I just pronounce/read it like that?" It's not the ignorance of the cradle of Western Civilization here that galls so much as the unwillingness to invest in learning about it.

9. Fouling up quotations

Quote foreign languages at your own risk. "Arma virumque cana" is an epic fail.

8. Duckworth, Balchazy-Carducci, and Cambridge

Aside from the varying quality of the commentaries, the first two fall apart about an hour into reading and there is no force in the universe which can keep a new Cambridge propped open.

7. Random Translations

It's admirable that you added the $4.99 bargain edition of The Odyssey at checkout, but the Derpy McDerperson translation is not helping anyone or anything. Ask for assistance.

6. Lack of an Apparatus Criticus

You mean we don't have perfect original manuscripts? What?!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Review: Girls [TV]

Directed by Lena Dunham. Episode, "I Get Ideas." 2013.

I'm sick again, and you know what that means: television. I have to admit I did not intend to watch HBO's critic fave Girls, rather I was watching a documentary on WWII when I sat on the remote and flashed the channel to HBO. Well, why not?

I have no recollection of the first thirteen minutes of the show except for some desperately scrawled profanity on my pad. At that point, things got interesting.

Title character Hannah is dating a republican and after much pestering he reads one of her essays. . . and doesn't like it. She can't quite accept this and the problem quickly shifts from her essay to his social political views, which he refuses to discuss. He starts to explain that she doesn't really understand him and when, after their argument, she asks him if he still wants to have sex and he turns her down, we sense he is right. We star to see that Hannah understands neither her boyfriend nor even what she likes about him. Still, it is not Hannah's inability to understand others which seems to form the crux of the show, but her lack of self-understanding.

Indeed it is rather shocking to see such ignorance on display, to hear someone speak with a vocabulary of cliches such a litany of excuses, rationalizations, and diversions. Yet Hannah's delusions do not generate any concrete reactions to her. We don't feel pity because she deserves what she gets, we don't experience fear because her woes seem so easy to fix. Nor does Hannah possess any great charm or quality, like literature's great rogues from Richard III to Alex Delarge, to sweep us off our feet. Hannah is someone you simply want to get it together or go away. Yet she doesn't and in contrast just meanders around engaging in circular conversations which reinforce her self-deception.

An example is also of the most amusing scenes precedes Hannah's breakup when she discusses her boyfriend with a girlfriend. Her friend responds with the advice that as long as their "rising signs are compatible," "the sex is decent," and that he "supports you creatively," all will be well. She adds that republicans and democrats are equally bad and even Bill Clinton ruined our economy by repealing the Glass-Steagall Act. I'm not sure what amused me more, Hannah's befuddled reaction to her friend's apparent erudition or that someone whose intellectual progenitors are Paul Krugman and Miss Cleo is the most informed person on the screen. Humor aside, I felt a tad bad for Hannah here: if only she had a wiser friend.

Unfortunately, the B-stories about her friends don't stand up well on their own, although they do shed more unflattering light on Hannah. Her gay male friend is worried about telling Hannah that he might be straight because she's self-centered enough to ask why he isn't attracted to her. Hannah's other girlfriend gets a job as a hostess and Hannah refuses to admit she couldn't have gotten she same job because she's not pretty or congenial enough. That Hannah's many flaws all center around her lack of self-understanding is significant, but there needs to be a glimmer of recognition or at least a denouement to the plot. As it happens, we may say of this episode what Hannah's boyfriend says of her essay, "Nothing happens. It's just a bunch of stuf that occurs to you."

No conservative could have written a finale more full of liberal stereotypes. An old boyfriend visits Hannah during the night and when he refuses to leave, she responds by calling, albeit hanging up on, 911 services. The police show up anyway and proceed to bring in both the boyfriend to file a report and her for and a previous charge of public urination.

Overall, there's some but not much to recommend Girls. The writers nail the urban hipsterese dialect, an authentic but frustrating touch. Isn't listening to navel-gazing twenty-somethings tiresome enough? The plotting is amateurish and the writers need to work on establishing tone, purpose, and a sense of motion through an economy of dialogue. They also need to integrate the peripheral characters either into the main plot or into an independent B-plot. Of course, I'm judging based on this episode alone, so that might not be a pattern.

There's been much talk about the talent of creator-writer-director Lena Dunham and indeed one wonders whether the unlikeable Hannah Horvath is a work of creation or exhibition. Either way, Girls is the television equivalent of Tracey Emin's My Bed and my reaction is much the same: in the absence not just of purpose but of craft, one can but reply: it's ugly, so what?

Undoubtedly fans of the show will counter, "That's the point." And I shall reply, "Indeed." and wish them well down the existentialist rabbit hole.

Presidential Rhetoric: Grading the Graders

I don't care to read about politics before breakfast, let alone before my tea and shower, but today I stepped out onto the ice and fired up Twitter early in the morn. Naturally, right up in my face popped this Reason blurb of an article in which "experts" graded President Obama's recent inaugural address. I couldn't resist, not only because both alleged experts and laymen habitually overestimate this president's rhetoric, but because any easy praise irks me. It is no small matter to put an idea into someone's head, thus it is no small slight to the craft and its masters to heap undeserved praise on. . . let us say, the inexpert. I'm also in the middle of reading a book on Cicero's Against Verres and thus at this moment not particularly forgiving. So what did I do first?

First, I tried to find out a little about our experts and turned to their bio pages at their respective universities or personal sites, if possible.
  1. William Brown, chair of the department of strategic communication and journalism at Regent University
  2. Stephen J. Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington
  3. Kathleen E. Kendall, research professor of communication at the University of Maryland at College Park
  4. Mitchell S. McKinney, professor of communication and director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri at Columbia
  5. Martin J. Medhurst, professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor University
  6. Theodore F. Sheckels, professor of English and communication studies at Randolph-Macon College [No Faculty Bio Available]
  7. Gerald R. Shuster, professor of communication at University of Pittsburgh
  8. Mary E. Stuckey, professor of communications and political science at Georgia State University
  9. Ronald C. White Jr.
Alas, none of this research turned up any clear experts on rhetoric and oratory. There's plenty of writing about politics and "communication" and history, but scarcely any on, well, rhetoric. Forget about brass tacks talk of Greek, Latin, Demosthenes, Cicero, Aristotle, Quintilian. . .

Based on what we can see, these professors do not seem the experts to whom we should turn for a full, systematic, rhetorical analysis. Their views are surely relevant, but hardly definitive.

Only two professors, Martin Medhurst and Gerald R. Schuster, mention on their pages anything which remotely sounds like scholarly discussion of rhetoric. Of these two only Mr. Medhurst has his course descriptions online (It's 2013: Get with the program, universities!) and his course on Presidential Rhetoric seems credible though not necessarily rooted in the fundamentals.

Professor Medhurst seems to bear the most relevant expertise in having edited, "Presidential Speechwriting: From the New Deal to the Reagan Revolution and Beyond," and "Critical Reflections on the Cold War: Linking Rhetoric and History," volumes of mixed quality and relevance to our discussion here. These volumes both focus more on intersection of speech-writing, politics, and policy than fundamental rhetorical analyses. The contributing authors talk the talk of rhetorical analysis, throwing around deliberative and partitio, but there is precious little extended, systematic analysis. The criteria are thrown out and then not followed up. Some articles even betray a clear blindness to the Classics. How can one cite a modern author's view of, "rhetoric as epistemic" without at least a nod to Plato and Gorgias?

Maybe, though, these scholars possess the appropriate expertise by their training even if their scholarly careers are not perfectly attuned to the needs of our present discussion. Alas, their faculty bios do not list their courses and grades.

We have only left to judge them, then, by their contributions to this Inside Higher Ed article.

Second, the professors' own writing is abysmal. Their remarks seem improvised, as if the professors were interviewed, but should we give experts on communication a pass for that? Take a gander at some of these gag-inducing clunkers:
  • where citizens are bound to each other as a way of protecting (Farnsworth)
  • President Obama’s second inaugural had moments of greatness, on this date of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, as when he tied his speech closely to King’s "I Have a Dream" speech, both in parallel language and in his theme of equality. (Kendall)
  • seemed more confident with a sense of urgency (McKinney)
  • signaled that he intends to pursue (Medhurst)
  • what Obama hopes will be a sizable majority to pursue (Scheckels)
  • balanced persuasion with direction, and hope. (Shuster)
  • with and without adherence to focusing (Shuster)
  • the overall speech was gracefully done (Stuckey) (N.B. Beware non-adverbial uses of overall. The adjectival use will sink your noun like a stone and the noun makes the reader think of overalls.)
  • What makes us exceptional, he told us -- from Seneca Falls, to Selma, to Stonewall, will be an inclusive nation where everyone enjoys (White)
Editor on aisle five! It's a shame one could spill so much red in grading the graders.

Speaking of red, a note to the one at Inside Higher Ed: what Professor Brown gave you was not a rubric.

Lastly, these paragraphs are useless without analysis and examples. I expect, and hope, there exist detailed analyses behind them, but in the absence of such, what good are cliches and summaries? What are we supposed to make of statements like, "the energy seemed lower," or that the speech, "was better," "had references," and was "interesting" and "optimistic." These meaningless phrases are as useless as those other remarks which are mere summaries. 

I did not intend to analyze the president's second inaugural the way I did his first, but let's take a little look for fun. [Full Transcript]
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. Vice President Biden, Mr. Chief Justice, members of the United States Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens, each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
What stands out most is the definition of his own inauguration not only as the fulfillment of the promise of democracy, but also as the source of national unity. He is the first idea in his speech.

A few grammatical observations:
  • bear witness is a meaningless archaism to lend dignity to the speech. 
  • that what is a relative clause fumble. 
  • articulated in a declaration made more than is a giant brick
  • made more than two centuries ago would be better supplanted by one vivid adjective
A few logical observations:
  • A promise is something is a declaration that something will be done. What is the, "promise of our democracy?" It cannot be that all men are created equal because that is a premise, an assertion, not an activity. This statement is just a pleasantry thrown out there. 
  • How does the election of the president recall that all men are created equal? This is not official "question begging" (petitio principii) but some attempt at logic would be, well, persuasive. 
As with his first inaugural, the rhythmic gesture is ponderous and the effect is a leaden opening. There is no manipulation of periodic length to create an ebb and flow of tension. The vocabulary is dull and the verbs are limp and not consistently utilized to energize the speech. 

I would just like to add a few observations about the subsequent paragraphs:
  • The beginning of the second paragraph is a most peculiar place to slip into the third person.
  • This is not the place for a history lesson.
  • How on earth could anyone have chosen the word noted in the following:
Through blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword, we noted that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half slave, and half free.
Through repeated bloody violence, we noted

Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie Review: Amarcord

Directed by Federico Fellini. 1973.

Perhaps with the exception of Mr. Hulot's Holiday, there is no film more effortless to watch than Amarcord. This is all the more striking because Amarcord lacks a traditional plot with conventional scenes and dialogue to move it along. In contrast, the narrative of Amarcord is conveyed through the film's musical and visual rhythms, through a sense of the passage of time. It is an ease of motion, the imperceptibility of its connective tissue, which makes Amarcord a dreamlike whole out of the film's motley bits. This dreamlike passage of time universalizes the film's rich visuals into an overwhelming sense of a sumptuous, joyous, loved life.

In fact the larger-than-life visuals of the film would surely overwhelm a dialogue-heavy, plotted film, distracting with their absurdity. The dreamlike mood liberates the visuals which one can experience as ones own dream. Fellini's great contemporary Andrey Tarkovsy explored similar tone and structure, additionally commenting in his book "Sculpting in Time," that
It is above all through sense of time, through rhythm, that the director reveals his individuality. Rhythm colours a work with stylistic marks. It is not thought up, not composed on an arbitrary, theoretical basis, but comes into being spontaneously in a film, in response to the director's innate awareness of life, his "search for time." –Andrey Tarkovsky [1]
Amarcord's dreamlike sense not just of sight and sound but of motion which makes the Felliniesque style so natural and appealing.

Yet Amarcord still has a nominal narrative: a year in the life of a teenage boy in his coastal Italian hometown. Here too, though, Amarcord is larger than life and though we see the daily goings on of Titta, his family, and the townspeople, it is memory filtered through the gauze of Fellini's own waltzing, voluptuous sense of the world. School, then, consists not in homework and rote drills but in the lioness teaching arithmetic, the flame-haired headmaster, and one of the most ingenious pranks you'll ever see. And in girls. Grossing out, pining after, and lusting at girls.

Politics is the grandiose absurdities of the fascist regime with all of its uniforms, gun-twirling, and stomping around town. One of the film's best moments comes during a party parade when a giant paper mache likeness of Il Duce is raised as the party boys twirl their guns in demonstration of their health and commitment. The scene shifts from the comic proportions of the giant red face to the absurd as without warning one of the boys is being married to his beloved Aldina. . . by the giant face! Again the memories freely coalesce here, the sights, sounds, and emotions blending together into a tide you cannot help be swept up in.

The town too becomes iconic with its square, sight of the annual torching of the winter-witch, and the boulevard down which the town beauties strut and a lone motor-biker sweeps. Then there's the movie theater, sight of many hoped-for encounters, and the storefront of the massively proportioned tobacconist (and a hilariously-placed portrait of Dante.) One of the best moments in town comes when the boys stand outside one of the stores and press their faces to the glass as the owner bemoans that he couldn't get away with offing them once and for all. It's a brief scene but it establishes the town not just as a place but in time. They boys surely must do that every week and, we get the sense, so must have boys for many years, and so they'll continue to.

Yet Amarcord is not about growth or coming of age, but of the ebb and flow of people in life. It's also about remembering, people, places, feelings, with intensity and affection. The film is bookended by scenes of the arrival in town of the "puffballs" which signal the end of winter. This device, as well as Nino Rota's waltzing theme, give Amarcord a rondo-like sense of departure and return. To quote Tarkovsky again, we fall into Fellini's rhythm and become his ally. We eagerly follow him through the vast ivory hotel and we wait for the Rex to pass by the shore. So sure is he of the truth of these fables and so beautifully does he tell them that the fabulous, like a wintertide peacock, ceases to be the impossible and becomes a marvel.

[1] Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art. 1986. p.120

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Heretical Mind

T. S. Eliot famously observed the nature of the heretic as, "a person who seizes upon a truth and pushes it to the point at which it becomes a falsehood." This generalization strikes me as especially perspicacious and indeed indicative of a particular mode of thinking in which one observes events and attributes them all to one, or even a few, central causes. This cause-seeking reasoning is of course useful and fundamental to understanding the natural world, yet it is a potentially myopic approach.

Dr. Jeroen Vanheste in his study of classicism similarly observed that
Theories that consider everything to be a construction or a convention or the expression of a specific ideology, are a radicalization of an intuition that in itself obviously contains some truth. [1]
We are all liable to such a preoccupation and we see the generalizations everywhere when we read the
philosophically-untrained simplifying the world for us. We read of historical slights like "the essence of Greek culture" and political drivel about "the three ways to fix. . ." We see scientists struggle with  what occurred before time and anthropologists and now neuroscientists trying to make sense of human action. The fruits of such thinking often seem to come in the form of prescriptions, and Dom Prosper Guéranger, speaking about antipathy toward the Roman liturgy, observed:
All heretics without exception start out by wishing to return to the customs of the early Church... they prune, they efface, they suppress–everything falls under their hatchet–and while we await a vision of our religion in its pristine purity, we find ourselves encumbered with new formulations, fresh off the press, and incontestably human, for the men who created them are still alive. [2]
All other values, principles, and accidentals are stripped away and replaced by those of the observer, which are usually invisible to him and those of his age. The whole has been destroyed, but what has been revealed and what has simply been lost?

It seems, perhaps, that while both are necessary, learning by observation and learning by deconstruction (all too often "murdering to dissect"), are the lesser and lower, or better, preliminary, forms of learning. The ideal, then, would be learning by creation, no longer looking or digging but learning about the nature of things by purposeful making and being.

Now the creative act surely seems the most radical for it is no small matter to change the world, let alone make one, yet all three approaches change or make, yet only the creative admits to its purpose. Too it is just as systematic, built on rules and laws, and as well fuses past, present, and future just as the overtly fact-seeking sciences seek to contribute to one true knowledge.

The heretical mind is the philosopher as hunter-gatherer. The creative mind is the philosopher as man.

[1]Vanheste, Jeroen. Guardians of the Humanist Legacy: The Classicism of T.S. Eliot's Criterion Network and Its Relevance to Our Postmodern World. Brill Academic Pub. 2007. p. 437
[2] Institutions Liturgiques 1.399

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Visit to Strand

I was walking uptown to my bus stop the other day when I realized how much time remained to spare. Happily, I stood not only in the vicinity of but in front of Strand and so I entered. I hadn't been inside for a while and upon realizing this I made haste to the music section. Craning my neck up toward the rafters I began scan the shelves. Nothing new for Mozart. Ooh, something on the Missa Solemnis? Definitely. A whole book on parody in Bach? Gold! So I troubled the clerk for a ladder and making my way up I noticed a serendipitously placed misfile: a book of concerto themes. Not necessary, but charming: mine now.

This went on for some time until I brought my hefty pile toward the register. I plopped it on the counter, beaming with pride as the cashier began to ring up my books. Bloop. Bloop. "Yes, yes, keep blooping!" I greedily chirped to myself. Now I thought I had shopped with great prudence but my purchase qualified me for a free tote. The icing.

Now short on time, I hustled toward the bus stop and on the journey I became aware of the social dimensions of my purchase. From the moment I had stepped outside the bibliophile's enclave of Strand, my bag had identified me as a book man. This experience surprised your humble blogger, who generally endeavors not to serve as a bipedal billboard. Yet there I walked, telling all how I loved books. The bag didn't have a sports team logo or a pricy brand name stenciled on the side, but it said, "Strand," that is, "books." What a powerful statement the word book still makes. I was also seized several times with the urge to strike several specimens of the chattering couture masses with my sack, but that might have been unrelated.

At home I spent a few hours rearranging my bookshelves to accomodate my new wards, embossing them and introducing them to the fold.  I may get a little carried away playing the librarian, entering the titles into a catalogue as I do, but I can't help feeling a custodian to these books and the ideas within.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Movie Review: Metropolitan

Directed by Whit Stillman. 1990.

How easily one can miss the beginning of Metropolitan. Not the first scene, mind you, but the beginning at the credits. Before we meet anyone or see anything at all, we hear with no repeats or emphasis the chorale tune Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott. It's a warm and hopeful but lonely little theme here, undeveloped and unaccompanied, and it's followed up by this jaunty, jazzy tune. The contrast and the transition, or lack thereof, mirror those of Metropolitan's main character, Tom Townsend.

Tom's been an outsider to the Upper Haute Bourgeoisie world since his parents divorced, but one night during the debutante ball season he takes up an invitation to a party. Redheaded, thin, and quiet, he doesn't last long before getting singled out from the chatty and well-fed upper crusters for some questions. It turns out Tom is a bright young man. Exceedingly so, in fact. He's articulate about his radical political ideas and literary tastes, adding to the party's facile chatter with his thoughts on Veblen and Austen, and he's a hit with everyone, if a bit of a sphinx.

The curtain is pulled back on Tom for us in the next scene at his home, a far cry from the capacious, opulent apartment at which he just partied, where in his mismatched skivvies he pours some coffee  with his cereal. He doesn't fit in with his newfound friends and partiers, for sure, but more importantly he doesn't want to. We grow to learn that Tom's more comfortable looking in than living with, but he has to keep going to the deb parties now because the ladies, especially Audrey, are counting on him as an escort. So with a loan from his mother he gets himself a secondhand tux and suits up for the balls.

As her official escort Tom naturally gets to know Audrey and their conversations throw the two into  sharp relief. She answers from the heart, he from the head. She empathizes with Austen's heroines, he thinks they're inauthentic. Tom in fact is taken aback by her empathy for the character and we don't know what to make of his surprise until he admits he hasn't read the book. He prefers criticism to novels, he says. Again, Tom prefers thinking to feeling, looking in over sharing with. Shortly after their conversation, Audrey, fishing for some feedback on Tom, is happy to learn from her friend that he mentioned her. He said she was well-read. Not witty or kind or pretty, or even silly, but well-read, as if he had no opinion of her character at all but only of what she knew. This conversation is mirrored later on when Audrey admits she likes Tom, but in explaining why she describes what he thinks, not who he is.

What is it exactly, then, that keeps bringing Tom and Audrey together? His sociological interest in the goings on of the, "Rat Pack," some sense of duty to escort Audrey, or his obsessive interest in an old flame who frequents the group? As his motive shifts through all three we learn that Audrey has had a crush of her own since college: Tom. Yet Audrey and her escort seem to be drifting apart as Tom reconnects with the college infatuation who inexplicably cut him off. In a moment all the more gutting for its simplicity and subtlety Audrey walks past a bookstore before Christmas and in the window glimpses a set of Jane Austen novels.

Yet Tom can't seem to rekindle his romance with Serena. The deal-breaker falls when Serena admits she didn't save their correspondence. Tom is completely galled by her indifference to having thrown away his letters, clearly feeling that he himself was thrown away. Not quite thrown away, Serena explains, because some girl wanted them: Audrey. What Tom gave away in love Serena tossed aside with indifference and Audrey collected in secret and distant longing.

At last we see in full the many symmetries between Tom and Audrey. Like their taste in books, her evasion of reality is essentially imaginative whereas Tom's is analytical. Audrey prefers the idealized fictions of the author whereas Tom prefers clarifying criticism. She ignores Tom's coldness and imagines feelings for her whereas Tom ignores Serena's coldness and tries to understand why she broke off communication. Her obsession with Tom is positive whereas his with Serena is negative.

Yet there are cracks in Tom's facade. Austen has replaced Spengler on his night table and in a passing moment he wonders whether his idol Fourier wasn't full of it. The guy's ideas didn't work, after all. Tom's learning that his own studied persona of studying others, his radical politics, overall his analytical distance, isn't so satisfying as being with Audrey.

Metropolitan ends with a buddy sojourn in which Tom and the last remaining member of the Rat Pack, now dissolved in the post debs remainder of their lives, journey out to the Hamptons to rescue Audrey from rivalrous rake Rick Von Sloneker. This is handled with good humor and affection for the characters, but one notices as much the absence of the supporting cast. Gone is the pretender, the actor, the leader, the hostess. There's no more bitchy chatter about who's who or endless commentary on the nature of society. There are three friends. Especially for Tom and Audrey, in discovering each other they've discovered themselves and now, debutante balls aside, they really are ready to step out onto life's stage, together.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Sacred Music VII: Canons and Constraints

At the heart of our various essays on the liturgy and musical style has been my argument that certain musical procedures, namely polyphonic ones, are by nature the most appropriate for liturgical music.

To further this point I would like to compare two contrasting developments of a theme from Johann Pachelbel. The first is the composer's own, the famous Canon/Chaconne in D, and the second is a contemporary arrangement by pianist George Winston. Please note that I'm not suggest Pachelbel's piece is by any means the ideal liturgical piece, but rather that his technique creates a far different effect with the theme than Winston's, and that effect is more amenable to the liturgy's needs.

Studying Pachelbel's work we observe two features at work: a canon in the violins over the ground bass in the cello.

These two procedures will provide an overarching sense of stability throughout, the counterpoint of the canon constraining the elements and weaving them into a texture and the ground bass serving as a rhythmic and harmonic touchstone. None of the variations steals the show. All of the energy is focused and balanced.

The effect is in great contrast to that of Winston's set of variations, which feels like a series of riffs and subdivisions rather than a cohesive whole with a sense of direction. Here the rhythms are unchecked and we are jerked by the variations rather then embedded in the texture. The result is a profoundly more free-wheeling feel, despite, incredibly, the presence of Pachelbel's ground bass.

Again, this comparison is not qualitative by a study in contrasts. How much more contemplative is Pachelbel's piece with it's Baroque aesthetic of constrained expressivity than the contemporary variations which seem to seize at you with every jingle and jangle. Pachelbel's rhythm's are vigorous, yet it is a fire refined by an aesthetic of balance, of harmony in the non-musical sense of conformity and congruity.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Movie Review: Lincoln

Directed by Steven Spielberg. 2012.

Just behind my seat at the 7:10 showing of Lincoln sat a couple. The man, a tall and lanky fellow himself, laughed uproariously at the jokes director Steven Spielberg generously sprinkled throughout his picture. His lady companion, it is safe to say, enjoyed it even more, chortling, sighing, oohing, and ahhing, I kid you not, every other of Lincoln's 150 minutes. The couple exiting down the escalator were surprised how much they liked it given how much talking it contained. I myself left reasonably pleased, and it has been this favorable consensus amongst dissimilar moviegoers that has made Spielberg such a crowd favorite. The consensus among critics owes itself, I think, to that Spielberg specialty of uniting disparate, conventional, and often only moderately well-executed, elements into a palatable whole.

Take the main elements of Lincoln: the president talking politics with various appointees, particularly Secretary of State Seward, the president talking family matters with his wife, a bumbling trio of political lackeys sent by Lincoln to cajole, intimidate, buy, or otherwise persuade congressmen to vote for the 13th Amendment, and congressional debate. Not one of these elements is especially remarkable.

The scenes in congress take up the lion's share of the movie and they'll delight the largest share of Lincoln's viewers with the quick wits and funny faces of the congressmen. Yet these scenes run too long and the center of the movie becomes a 19th century C-SPAN. Spielberg offsets this with the trio of W. N. Bilbo and company running around gaining votes. Such scenes are both entertaining and practical, the now classic Spielbergian ability to move the plot with action. Yet they are overplayed in both quantity and their comic factor to balance out the Congressional scenes which will dull some of the audience. Still, the characters are a hoot and their scenes not only give more detailed looks, however fleeting, at the congressmen, but also move the plot along by showing us the increasing support for the Amendment. Rather impressive in terms of plotting, really.

The scenes between Abraham and Mary Todd, however, are likely the most honest in the film. When he scolds her for indulging her grief for her dead child while he had to forebear, we feel honest and plain pity for the man. This in contrast to the admiration Spielberg tries to coax from us on account of Lincoln's political woes, woes he twice campaigned to undertake. Yet the political scenes are not unmoving and in the most genuine of them Lincoln makes the case for his political maneuvers to his cabinet. With a troubled, weary smile from Daniel Day Lewis' brilliant performance, he refers to those measures as, "not legal but not criminal." Reactions to these scenes and ideas will likely align with reactions to the Lincoln himself.

Another scene reinforces this split. Here Lincoln pauses in his deliberation over whether to tell the Confederate delegates to proceed North to discuss peace, potentially scuttling his Amendment plans, or deliberately to stall them, prolonging the war but winning the Amendment, and he begins to talk to the two telegraph clerks who will send his message. He asks them if they think they are meant to live in their age. Lincoln is of course asking the question of himself, and the director of us. Should we be grateful to, or for, Lincoln? Those generally optimistic about the possibilities of politics, who think big in terms of plans and progress, or who more easily weigh ends and means, will find sympathy with Lincoln for his extraordinary efforts and forgive him his transgressions. Those more skeptical will see an ideologue for one cause who, despite the righteousness of that cause, violated other principles and perhaps broke a system in attempting to fix a problem when and how he saw fit.

Yet such quality, in some cases excellent, elements coalesce in Lincoln by means of cheaper ones such as jokes, quirky characters, and articulate and but incontinent speech. Such is not to say the main plot of Lincoln, the passage of the amendment, is poor. It speeds along for a while but starts to sag about halfway through because we never feel the amendment is truly in jeopardy, and we never feel the amendment is in jeopardy because despite the sour faces and relentless fretting of those around him, Lincoln himself never seems to doubt its passage himself. This certainty robs the film of tension because the opinion of Lincoln and our own hindsight outweigh all of the congressional flapping. Moreover we get the sense that the amendment is inevitable because it is naturally right, reinforcing expectations of its success and diminishing the tension.

In fact after the passage of the amendment, at which most of the tension dissipates, Lincoln starts to fall apart. Despite the fact that the passage of the Amendment in the House (January, 1865), Lee's surrender at the Appomattox courthouse (April 9, 1865), and Lincoln's death (April 15, 1865), occurred near in time, they feel stitched together in the film. We suddenly feel like the director is simply hitting requisite marks and we pause for the credits after every portentous piece of dialogue. Worse, though, are the scenes after his death in which Spielberg flashes back to yet another speech, at which point we feel like we're on a track of Lincoln's Greatest Hits. This conclusion dragged not only interminably but needlessly because Spielberg already had the perfect ending built in. The movie should have ended when Lincoln heads out to the theater, his lanky frame trudging off alone under the arcades of the White House corridors, and says, "I must go, though I wish I could stay." This would have been superior in terms of visuals, pacing, tone, and plot, to another hoary speech.

Of performances, Daniel Day Lewis' is so good it is easy to take for granted. The elements Lincoln's gait and drawl are more properly those of impression than projection, nonetheless they are part of the performance and they convince. Anyway, the acting is more than fine, with a consistent thread of frustration and exhaustion running under Lincoln. You can see the stiffness and tension behind the calm and every time he pulls out one of his many stories, we sense it is as much to quell his own nerves as to assure those around him. Lewis' fine performance is built upon the script's equally fine characterization of Lincoln. We grow to understand that he is drawing on every source he knows, from political allies to enemies, from Euclid to scripture, and turning to every tool he knows from humor to solemnity, not just to win his cause, but simply to carry on.

The supporting cast is generally only successful because they look quirky and speak more finely than we are accustomed. They're effective but not exceptional. When the movie relies on Tommy Lee Jones' grizzled visage for effect we know it's not trying hard enough. Most of what we get to know about the politicians comes from an undeveloped blurb or two about why they do or don't support the Amendment.  Had these characters brought more and better articulation of the arguments for and against Lincoln's maneuvers in conducting the war and passing the Amendment, the the film would have been the richer.

Yet there is much to enjoy in Lincoln, chiefly the dialogue with its rich expression and circumlocutory insults.  On the other hand there is much entertaining talking in Lincoln, but surprisingly little dialogue in which an idea is developed. That Lincoln presents ideas but doesn't really argue them, giving the viewer the false impression that he has been educated an edified, is probably its greatest flaw. Still, there's a good deal here, but Lincoln's not more than the sum of its parts.