Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Top Ten: Depictions of the Harpies

Greek mythology is filled with storied horrors of punishment. Ixion spins eternally on his infernal wheel for his attempted rape of Zeus' Queen. The Furies pursue in relentless furor the accursed breakers of oaths. None, however, seems so terrifying to me as the attack of the Harpies, creatures half-woman, half-bird. They are the snatchers. What could be more frightening than the sudden rush of wings blotting out the sky and thrashing up the dust as they swoop in on their helpless terrestrial prey. (I've always thought them ideal for an operatic treatment, envisioning a dark, sinister counterpart to the grand, swooping wings Handel bestowed upon Gabriel in his Messiah.) The Harpies prey always upon man's ancient fear of being snatched away by forces beyond his control, an origin we find in Hesiod and Homer's identification of them with the winds.

There is often much confusion between them and the Sirens, likewise described as parts woman and bird, but while the Sirens seduced, the Harpies pursued with violence. Here are my top ten depictions, ancient and modern.

10. Aeneas and the Harpies, by François Perrier, 1646-1647

One of the twelve founders of the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, Perrier captures the terror of the sudden onrush of the wicked creatures. The white, muscular lines of the men all push against the curved shield at which the Harpies tug. In opposition we see one of Aeneas' followers tries to grab it from the sky, revealing the creature's meaty leg. Even a felled Harpy on the ground gnaws at the hand of his captor, who prepares to run it through. Amidst the attack to the right and the wailing women to the left, Aeneas stands front-and-center, unflappable. His sword is not even drawn and he does not even look at the beasts, but rather pauses to comfort a woman. Amid the glorious battle and intricate web of Perrier's lines, Aeneas stands firm.

9. Hell XIII, by William Blake, 1800s

Best known today for his poetry, William Blake captured in one of his last watercolors the vile squalor of the Harpies, whom he depicts here perched atop the trees of the underworld in a scene from Dante, whose cues you sense throughout the picture. Here we feel not the rush of the creatures, but their sad, sinister brooding. You can almost hear their sickly coo, an announcement of doom (con tristo annunzio) and see how their overstuffed plumpness and claws curved round the tree limbs (piè con artigli, e pennuto ’l gran ventre) suggests the ease of their next meal: the trees themselves. Inside the trees lie the bodies of the suicides, prey for the endless rending of the Harpies.

8. Landscape with the Expulsion of the Harpies

by Paolo Fiammingo c. 1590

Unlike Perrier, Fiammingo has centered the action not around Aeneas's encounter with the Harpies, but that of the sons of Boreas. The two demigods, among the Argonauts on their journey east for the Golden Fleece, chase away the Harpies for the blind Thracian King Phineas, whom the dread beasts torment by perpetually fouling his food. Here we see Calais and Zetes, winged sons of the North Wind, pursuing the creatures–here dragon-like–into the background. The action is neatly framed by the peripheral foliage, and so we peer in as if through a scope, eagerly hoping to glimpse the heroic struggle as it recedes from sight. The faintly-visible harbor, minuscule human characters, and the lone nude pointing toward the action, all emphasize the superhuman forces of the lofty battle, beyond the human influence.

7.  Phineas and the Sons of Boreas, by Sebastiano Ricci, c.1695

Ricci's action is brilliant but all in potentio: look how the Harpies cower even as Calais and Zetes merely draw their swords. Our eyes are neatly led through the action from the swords to the blind Phineas to the shrieking Harpies, who here seem not to bring their zephyrous destruction but rather to be blown away by the billowing wings of the Boreades.

6. Phineas and the Harpies, Greek Hydria, c. 480 BC

Attributed to the Kleophrades Painter, the genius of the scene on this Attic water jar is the vivid sense of suspension. The Harpies, stealing the food of Phineas, really do seem born aloft by their vast wings. Look at the intricate interlacing of their vast wings and the delicate way their feet pause, hovering in midair.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Where's the Eloquence?

In the wake of the attacks in Paris, there have been many conservative complaints about the Western response. We are not angry enough. We are not agressive enough. I would like to observe, with regret, that we are not eloquent enough. Can no one muster some well-shaped speech to rouse the hearts and minds of the free peoples? 

Take French President Francois Hollande's words, formless, shapeless, mush:
What the terrorists want is to scare us and fill us with dread. There is indeed reason to be afraid. There is dread, but in the face of this dread, there is a nation that knows how to defend itself, that knows how to mobilize its forces and, once again, will defeat the terrorists. [Source]
President Obama's response is a C-grade effort. There is no attention to any aspect of style whatsoever, but it's uncharacteristically comprehensible:
Paris itself represents the timeless values of human progress.  Those who think that they can terrorize the people of France or the values that they stand for are wrong.  The American people draw strength from the French people’s commitment to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.  We are reminded in this time of tragedy that the bonds of liberté and égalité and fraternité are not only values that the French people care so deeply about, but they are values that we share.  And those values are going to endure far beyond any act of terrorism or the hateful vision of those who perpetrated the crimes this evening. [Source]
Perhaps the creative class will have a more shapely response. 

Comic John Oliver:
"As of now, we know this attack was carried out by gigantic f—ing assholes," Oliver said. "Unconscionable flaming assholes, possibly, possibly working with other f—ing assholes, definitely working in service of an ideology of pure assholery."He continued. "Second, and this goes almost without saying, f— these assholes. F— them, if I may say, sideways," he said. "And third, it is important to remember that nothing about what these assholes are trying to do is going to work." [Source]
French director Michel Hazanavicius:
Here in France, what we love is life. And the pleasures that go with it," he wrote. "For us, between being born and dying as late as possible, the main idea is to f––, laugh, eat, play, f––, drink, read, take a nap, f––, talk, eat, argue, paint, f––, take a walk, do some gardening, read, f––, give, f––, sleep, watch movies, scratch our balls, fart to make our friends laugh, but above all to f––, and eventually get a nice little handjob. We are the nation of pleasure, more than one of morals. One day, we may even name a plaza after Monica Lewinsky, and that will make us laugh. [Source]
Terrible attacks and this is the most elevated, impassioned speech we can muster? Fratboy level pottymouth and a limp ode to hedonism? I'm speechless.

Oldest Footage of NYC

Art, Vomit, and Being Forgotten

Oh the unpredictable, discursive paths of the internet. I was searching for a particular picture of the Harpies, the mythological creatures not those running for the presidency, and I naturally came upon the image to the right of Lady Gaga as, presumably, a siren. After my momentary amusement–the internet specialty–I of course wondered what had happened to her. After the noise of her meteoric rise I couldn't seem to recall anything of her. So I clicked on and to my surprise found an article discussing her present irrelevancy.

On the one hand this surprises, because who expects in the world of pop culture zombies any of the walking dead to pronounce another defunct? On the other hand, the observation is frustrating because there was never anything to celebrate in the first place. Shocking is only shocking for a brief moment, or maybe the span of a double-take, but as the urinals turn into preserved sharks and the sharks into crystal skulls and the skulls into balloon statues, at some point there are no more envelopes to push or notions to challenge. Then there is only cultivated talent, patient study, and creativity within tradition. Even modern audiences intuitively understand this in their limited way, though lacking any consent to the forces of conservatism on which their judgment rests.

Amusingly, the author of the article chides Gaga for declaring herself atop the pecking order. How lacking in egalitarian kindness. Yet this is precisely how traditionalists feel about much of modern life. How dare we pronounce anything–any piece of art, style, philosophy, or individual–which has not stood the test of time and been measured against its predecessors, with the honor of excellence. In my weaker moments I like to chide people by asking them about, "that thing they were really into ten years ago." They usually laugh, but I mean it as a serious indictment of tastelessness and soullessness. Horace and Mozart are waiting patiently at Parnassus if we are willing in humility to make the trek.

The alternative is all temporary titillation. It's all rah-rah ooh-la-la until someone is vomiting on you on stage.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Roger Scruton on Being a Conservative Today

Don't Be A Grinning Idiot

Via Engadget, the MIT Technology Review has a. . . review of a revealing study in which researchers applied data-mining techniques to yearbook photographs from as far back as the early 1900s. Isolating the frontal portraits, the researchers:
...grouped the portraits by decade and superimposed the images to produce an 'average' face for each period. This process revealed other 'average features for each period such as hairstyle, clothing, style of glasses, and even average facial expressions. The image above shows these averages for each decade for men and women.
The researchers gloss over–and fairly enough, they're only collecting data–what seems to me the most interesting part of the study: people didn't smile in pictures so much back then. Maybe it was more than just "etiquette," though, which curtailed photographed joviality at the turn of that century. Maybe, just maybe, people didn't want to be remembered like grinning idiots.

Looking at those composites, just maybe Mr. Smith of the class of '05 was a predominately serious fellow because his parents taught him that life is tough and that you need to cultivate some serious virtues and talents to withstand the storm and prosper. Perhaps he laughed–even often–but felt that such a look was perhaps not the most representative of his life. The result? He–aka the men which that composite represents–are remembered as serious men. Not a bad way to go.

Now let's isolate the first and last composites:

Mr. Smith looks like he blistered his fingers writing out Latin and got bruised playing football without cushy helmets and pads. He looks like he could have gone on to run a steel mill, teach at Cambridge, and fly bombing missions.

On the other side, the ridiculous rictus of hilarity ironed onto Ms. Madison Kaylee Rainbows inspires no such confidence and admiration. She looks like she just walked out of the Vagina Monologues and instagramed a picture of her latte. After another ten years in school, she'll use her degree in human resources to increase the workplace diversity of a major charitable organization dedicated to providing accessibility ramps for disabled pets.

Let's complete the picture with a look at the 1900s woman composite and that of the modern male graduate:

She'd have him for breakfast.

Naturally, these speculations about lives antique and modern are just that, speculations, but my conjectures stem from the pictures themselves, for those idealized portraits represent an ideal of man. The antique of a sober adult, the modern of an untested adolescent. Maybe neither of these groups were serious adults when their pictures were taken, but if you start acting like an adult, you might just become one. Life will still hit you like a ton of bricks, but at least you'll be able to get up and start swinging back.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving, 2015

The art of celebration is one part tradition, one part separation from the utilitarian world of daily life, and one part gratitude. The three parts, I think, are rather equal, although gratitude is perhaps the chief component. Especially in a liberal, intellectual society infused with daily scrutiny of the status quo, where every practice is subject to speculation, revision, and reform, we need time to celebrate things as they are, blemishes and all. There is room for criticism, but not all the time. Too in a world of utility that constantly seeks to produce for use, there needs to be a time set aside to give thanks for blessing. Finally, what is thanks without love for both ancestors and posterity?

Though beloved of many, Thanksgiving seems to me the most conservative of holidays, a break from world-weariness where we expend our resources not on gain but gratitude, not on effort but affirmation. It is the hope of bridging past, present, and future, not with commerce or industry, but love.

And now our annual Thanksgiving List. This year, my top ten Classical Music in Cartoons:

10. A Corny Concerto

9. Bugs Bunny Conducts

8. Pigs in a Polka

7. Magical Maestro

6. The Band Concert

Monday, November 16, 2015

Movie Review: Spectre

Directed by Sam Mendes. 2015.

spoiler alert

Wit, dapper charm, and furious bravado do not endear everyone to the world's most famous spy. Where we see sophistication they see urbanity, where we roguish independence they see a cold, callous heart. While we thrill in Bond's brass and effrontery, another mind sees no more than reckless aggression. In short, to some Bond is a mere adolescent. Their reservations are not unwarranted, and this a Bond for them. In every way Spectre is the most mature Bond.

This is not a radical revision, though, but a careful cultivation of significance and omission of frivolous showiness. Mendes has not rebooted or reinvented Bond, but refined him from a freewheeling id whom we look at with excitement but not concern, into a full-blooded, and still hot-blooded, man. Bond is no longer an archetype, but a character, who persuades, deliberates, and even, shockingly, abstains. Not new, Bond has been pruned from the preposterous down to the plausible.

Take one staple of the franchise, the fact that Bond is indomitable. In other movies he blows up ships, mows down legions of enemies, and flies space shuttles. Entertaining, but outrageous. Mendes retains the theme, though, in one brilliant, small moment. In a daring escape–another franchise essential–Bond brutally disarms and incapacitates a guard, but instead of proceeding to a full-blown melee, he turns to the other guard and pointing like a master to a dog, Bond barks, "Stay!" Cowed by Bond's mastery of the situation, the guard backs down. One moment like this, and not a swath of destruction, is all we need to be reminded that Bond is bigger than normal men.

The contrast is amplified by the comparison between Bond and the Spectre assassin dogging him. The tradition of colorful mid-level Bond baddies is long and esteemed: Odd Job, Jaws, Xenia Onatopp are just the most famous and flamboyant. So what's the trademark of Spectre's Mr. Hinx? He is silent and brutal. That's all. A perfectly brilliant contrast. Whereas Bond is witty, Hinx is silent. Bond is agile, Hinx cumbersome. Hinx brutal and cruel, Bond precise and controlled. Two contrasting scenes masterfully reveal the difference. In one, at a Spectre meeting, Mr. Hinx violently gouges the eyes of an assassin whom he intends to replace as the world-dominating organization's go-to killer. He then kills the man as the rest of the Spectre pack passively watches the fitter man move up the hierarchy. On the other hand, after Bond has tracked down ex-Spectre Mr. White and learned of his imminent, poisoned demise, Bond offers to succeed him in protecting White's daughter. He then hands White his pistol, a gesture of trust and mercy. After White ends his suffering and takes up 007's offer, Bond gently closes his eyes. Hinx brutally murders his way to claim authority, but Bond undertakes responsibility with trust, risk, and mercy. There is a lot more significance in Hinx being different from Bond than Jaws trying to bite his face off or Xenia trying to hump him to death.

Speaking of which, 007's relationship with the opposite sex is perhaps the most matured of his traits. Gone is the witty persiflage and coy innuendo of days past which reached its ridiculous, Freudian apex when Halley Berry said to Pierce Brosnan, who was chuffing a cigar, "Now there's a mouthful." Specter brings a tad more decorum to the courting ritual as Bond meets Dr. Madeleine Swann, White's daughter whom Bond must protect and who holds the key to the deceased man's last intelligence on Spectre. At their first encounter, Bond is posing as a patient at Swann's spa-clinic in the mountains, and when Swann lowers the blinds to block the spectacular view of the mountains behind her because they "distract patients," Bond replies, "I hadn't noticed." Now that's smooth.

Swann isn't your typical Bond girl, either. She's not a fighter or a scientist or a programmer, because she's not in the movie to fulfill the stock element of completing the vital task at the crucial moment. Nor is she, despite the negligees and flowing dresses, there as eye candy or fodder for Bond's libido. In fact, she puts Bond out the first night, forcing him to watch over her as she drowses off under the gauzy bed canopy, undressed and tipsy with wine. Yet this is not impotence or emasculation for Bond, for he chose to protect her, which is more of a claim on him than his sexual urge. The contrast is smartly captured when, shutting her eyes, Madeleine says to James, "I see two of you." In vino veritas, we see the two Bonds: the protector and the lover. Still more meaning reveals itself when, before she passes out, Madeleine mutters about "liars and killers, liars and killers." She is reflecting on her father, the liar and killer Spectre assassin, but the comparison is unavoidable: Bond is the killer, but is he the liar? Must he be either?

All of this character contrast stands against a political thriller in which MI6 and the whole 00-program face extinction and incorporation into a global surveillance company. No longer will Bond and the 00 Agents of Her Majesty's Secret Service protect the realm and spearhead justice throughout the world, but the wold will find stability through omnipresent observation and data collection in the hands of experts–unelected, M reminds us. The world order is shifting, a fate and theme foreshadowed by a dusty, unplayed chessboard between 007 and Mr. White, who wistfully remembers when the game of world domination had its rules. Now Spectre stages bombings, even of women and children, to get nations to sign onto its security-surveillance front of a company.

With MI6 in tatters and Bond on his way to his last lead to Spectre, Moneypenny pleads with M to send Bond some help, to which he responds, "No. We'll only make him weaker." That one line, with all the weight of British sovereignty on his lone, broad, shoulders, makes his actions more of an ode to liberty and country than, say, a stunt like skiing off a cliff and landing with a giant Union Jack on his parachute.

The plot reaches its apex when Bond at last confronts the head of Spectre, whose fluffy white cat precedes his introduction as 007's perennial nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. As with the rest of Spectre, nothing could be more traditional and yet more unexpected. Unexpected because their exchange is no droll conversation over a pool of sharks, but a slow, tense, contest of wills and recognition. The two meet in a languorous reveal inside an observatory that houses a meteorite. The two tangle over a dilemma: whether the meteorite had a choice to fall, whether it had the choice to stop and think. Both men have invented themselves, but from what?

When we learn the final secret, everything falls into place: when Blofeld was still the happy youth Franz, his father adopted a young boy named James and told him to embrace the orphan as a brother. The father took to his foster son more, though, until young Franz righted that wrong. We see the two brothers fully opposed: Bond is orphaned and takes to his adopted father while becoming a patriotic 00-Agent, and Franz turns to patricide and treason. Bond chooses service to Her Majesty and Franz domination by means of Spectre. They are the brothers contending for the identity of the father as, in Skyfall, Bond and Silva contented for the affection of the mother, M.

The masses will overlook the meaning and balk at the length. They will see the refinements as mere repetitions. They will see pastiche and not unified plot. They will doze. Let them. For the rest of us, tempus fugit. Spectre doesn't glory in over the top explosions, but luxuriates in symmetries and subtlety, in shadows and slow reveals. It has the smarts, in the escape finale, not only to follow its fleeing heroes out a building by a cheekily slow turn of the camera, but the wit after that to reveal not the characters but an arrow pointing off screen to the path they took. Spectre has the respect for its audience to leave a story–Dr. Swann's about her hatred of guns–half-told so we can think it through ourselves. Finally, it has the confidence to twist 007's most famous trademark, his Martini, and in doing so manages one of the great creative feats: surprising us with the expected.

No, Daniel Craig's final performance of James Bond is not of the globe-trotting playboy, but of a driven, deliberate man. He doesn't have jetpacks and laser beams, but he can still take out a caravan of cars with a half-destroyed airplane. He's not invulnerable, but he is indefatigable. James' struggle means something, and having found someone who means something to him, when the two walk off in a shot mirroring the first, he leaves a different man, but still Bond.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Things I Don't Get #12: Taking Up Two Spots

No one gets to take up two parking spaces. No one gets special parking privileges just because he values his mechanical substitute for meaning more than social propriety. The most galling aspect of such Neanderthal behavior is of course not the resulting inefficiency, but the effrontery, the heinous temerity of the individual who, deluded and swimming in self-importance, thinks that his possession is so valuable that the general population should bow down in obeisance before his four-wheeled pride and joy.

This shameless act of self-regard betokens nothing less than pathological disregard for the gentleman's regard for others as social equals. Not intellectual or moral equals, of course, but as equal fellow citizens whom we do not provoke or encroach upon without grave cause. The taker of two spots, this self-knighted primus inter pares, is but an unmannered philistine, the least of citizens and free men, but not because of his odious, obnoxious, temerity, rather because of his presumption that he cares more for his possessions than we law-abiding chumps do. His willingness to violate social norms and respect for others is in fact, to this deranged, disordered, malcontent, a sign of his superiority.

An outcast be he and a thousand dings upon his vehicle! Fiat! Fiat! Fiat!

Things I Don't Get #11: Alex Trebek as Pagliaccio

For their 2015 Halloween episode, Jeopardy featured a category of opera-inspired clues with Alex Trebek donning authentic Metropolitan Opera attire and accoutrement. Hence the unexpected: Alex Trebek in costume as Pagliaccio, the clown persona of the cuckolded Canio from Leoncavallo's 1892 opera Pagliacci.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Salami Tactics and "Challenging the Notion..."

I was just reading a blurb about Spike Lee's upcoming, Chiraq, and a cliche jumped off the page and poked me in the eye, namely the advertisement that Mr. Lee's movie, "challenges the nature of race, sex and violence in America and around the world." That innocent Hollywood spin translates into, "These things aren't what you think they are. Here is what race, sex, and violence really are." It looks like a typical movie teaser, and it is certainly the most common way liberals signify and advertise their art. Their pieces are always "transgressing bounds" and "defying conventions" and "redefining concepts."It's usually just marketing hype, but their intent is serious because the act of definition, having boundaries, and using conventions and concepts are processes of defining the world. To change the former is to change the latter.

Such is why some conservatives have been so wrong to ignore culture and why others so stern deciding on what and in what culture they will raise their children. What we see informs our sense of life, i.e. the way the world seems to work. What isn't glorified, isn't glorious, but more so, what isn't depicted, isn't.

By the salami tactics of the left–one slice at a time–every tenet is challenged until it is meaningless. One by one the values are sliced away. Duchamp challenged beauty in sculpture, Buñuel narrative in film, Marcuse sexual morality, Zinn facts in history, and Derrida reason itself. The result has been the shredding of common culture both by the challenging of form–that is, traditional patterns of invention–and concept, especially burying or by teaching and criticizing into oblivion the old works which affirmed the culture from which they came.

Such doesn't mean that art is propaganda, but that it should with love, vitality, and enthusiasm affirm life. Sometimes the path is tortuous and violent, but it is, art tells us, a path worth the struggle. Perhaps the concern for conservatives then, is not the challenge, but the response.

Great art requires civilization: tradition, training, discipline, reflection, philosophy. Do we have those things in sufficient degree today to expect a renaissance?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Extra, Extra

Without fail, at the close of every quarter and semester comes to the teacher the question, "Is there extra credit?" To this inquiry I answer an affirmative, "no." The credit for the class is the coursework for the class. The time for that work was the last few months. The coursework is not fluffy extra credit assignments designed to make up for the fact that students have not done the work. The obvious problem with extra credit is that it removes incentive to do the work of learning the material for class. The more insidious issue is that too many students, and adults, learn to expect a way out of their errors.

In the ancient world, a man did not simply atone for his crime and move on with life. The shame and implications were borne out generation after generation until the stain of the crime had faded. Far from this today, it seems more and more people don't want to deal with the implications of their actions.

If you are promiscuous and contract a disease, there is a cure. If you bring a life into the world, but realize you don't want it, you end it. If you borrow but cannot pay back the loan, you are exonerated. If you fail your tests, you get additional opportunity for credit. If you fall into dishonor, just wait until people forget. Should you commit a crime, you can get off early for good behavior or cooperating with police. A few short years ago the height of Clintonian diplomacy was the "Russian Reset," as if the memories of foreign powers would be wiped clean.

Technology only amplifies our expectation of being able to erase our mistakes. If you misspeak, delete the post. If you take a poor picture, delete the picture. If you mistype... Since all of our mistakes can be erased, what cannot be must be the fault of some one else. The gap in logic only puzzles those who insist that man is always, or predominately, rational. Such systematic expectation that all undesirable results of our actions are the result of injustice bears with it the aforementioned result of incentivizing vice, but three worse.

First, it turns the stoic, who elects to endure his burdens, into a chump. The stoic student who put in his time holds the same diploma as the student who dozed through class. The free man who lives as a virtuous citizen holds his head high and just as free as shameless criminals.

Second and as we see, the virtues are themselves debased, for more are thought to possess them than actually do. The virtue of clemency is meaningless, for if there is no fault, there is nothing to forgive. So to with failure, for if one cannot fail, for what excellence is there to aspire?

Finally, when we don't reflect on our mistakes, when we don't bear their burden, we don't learn from them. No longer will men undertake the pains of pruning their wayward branches if there is an easy alternative. We buy into our appearance, which is that of a faultless, blameless paragon of excellence.

It is perhaps the case, then, that we should be skeptical of anyone whose ideology excuses or justifies everything he does. Alas, that includes most of us much of the time, and some of us all of the time. More trustworthy and honorable is the man who labors to live his ideas and in failure and success is worthy of clemency and excellence.

Smith: When Everything Is Anything

Gregory B. Smith. Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Transition to Postmodernity. p. 9-10
It is asserted that all 'difference' is a phenomenon of the surface, which continually reconstitutes itself in an endless and arbitrary process, beyond the control of any individual or group. There is no natural ground for difference; all difference is relational. This understanding leads to an ironic attitude toward life that inevitably transforms itself into a form of cynicism–a tendency to give in to a mocking superiority, the sense that nothing is worthy of passion or commitment because everything solid dissolves upon one's approach. An attitude of indifference, weariness, and exhaustion is often the result. All of this leads one to suspect a form of evasion, an attitude of avoidance, a blasé, unshakeable refusal to face up to the terrors and general groundless of late-modern life (a groundlessness that is blithely admitted and celebrated.) Only through such avoidance does nihilism cease to be a problem that needs to be confronted.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Normalcy

Ah, the joy of Halloween. Spooky decorations, turning leaves, and everyone walking around a bit, or more, off their usual selves. Halloween is the one day of the year when we don't bat an eyelash at the sight of bizarre behavior, but it certainly isn't the only day when people are bizarre. In fact it seems pretty often that I have a day where no one seems normal, where no one is playing by the usual rules. My default inquiry, the rhetorical question I bellow in vain, is always: is everyone on something? I wonder.
  1. Eleven percent of Americans aged 12 years and over take antidepressant medication.
  2. 22 million Americans take illegal drugs.
  3. 16.6 million adults ages 18 and older had an Alcohol Use Disorder in 2013.
  4. Using 2004 Census numbers, 57.7 million people 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
Now add to those hard statistics some general considerations, such as the quantity of people who are:
  1. not diagnosed with the above, but exhibit the symptoms.
  2. pathologically modern (i.e. raised wholly or mostly on pop culture.)
  3. wee-weed up because of media and political hype.
  4. jerks and idiots.
  5. chronically unable to deal with their lives.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that as a whole, there are a lot of people who don't fall into what once was a meaningful category: normal people. You know, people without major vices, and perhaps without major virtues either, but fulfill their duties to man, country, and God with minimal fuss. Who deal with problems quietly and privately. Who don't draw attention to themselves. Who do their job well, but with the humility of a professional. Who are reasonably polite, even if cranky.

There is inevitably the push back against normal, with some in contrast crying that normalcy is stifling to the individual, who should be able to express himself. There is as in all things a balance between extremes, between being belittled by the majority and unabashed exhibitionism. There exists today both extremes: those who follow every trend and the trend of anti-normalcy, that all choices and varieties of lifestyle are equal. Against the onslaught of democratic, multiculturalist, egalitarian variety, with all pleasures on an equal footing, the normal man:
has watched the frenzy of the multitude and seen that there is no soundness in the conduct of public life, nowhere an ally at whose side a champion of justice could hope to escape destruction; but that, like a man fallen among wild beasts, if he should refuse to take part in their misdeeds and could not hold out alone against the fury of all, he would be destined, before he could be of any service to his country or his friends, to perish, having done no good to himself or to anyone else–one who has weighed all this keeps quiet and goes his own way, like the traveller who takes shelter under a wall from a driving storm of dust and hail; and seeing lawlessness spreading on all sides, is content if he can keep his hands clean from iniquity while this life lasts, and when the end comes take his departure, with good hopes, in serenity and peace. –Plato. Republic 6.496cde. Trans. F. M. Cornford
Normal people are fewer, but out there. If that is to be their end, maybe we should have a day to celebrate them since the rest of the year belongs to everyone else.

Friday, October 30, 2015

An Article Awry

aka a dialogue with myself ending in aporia

I admire people who can write the same thing over and over again without stress or dissatisfaction. I have thought more than a few times what popularity I might garner if, for example, I could like so many conservatives, simply rail against liberals and President Obama day after day, or libertarians, be satisfied to remark incessantly about the evils of the government. It is my weakness, though, and my refusal to flim-flam my kind readers, that I try somehow always to say something new. It happens many times, then, that as I write I find I've made the remark before. So went the first article I attempted today. Sometimes, however, what I attempt spirals into something much newer, or at least discursive and convoluted, than I expected. Take today's second attempt.

I started writing about how exasperating it is that liberals always co-opt terminology and re-appropriate definitions. They seem to delight in blurring lines and distinctions, an observation which set me thinking about the literal definitions of the words discriminate and judgment, and how the critical faculties of differentiation (discriminare, to separate) and discernment (discerno, to distinguish) are essential acts of defining the world, and that the act of judgment  (iudex, judge) is essential as an affirmation of that definition.

My mind then took a different direction, namely the Aristotelian direction, when I recalled how in the opening of the Metaphysics Aristotle describes how man delights in the use of his senses and that man's reaction to the sense of wonder which the world kindles in him is uniquely human because he can react by forming concepts and growing to know the whole, partaking in some small way of the divine mind which created it all.

Such consideration I applied to the liberal mind which constantly embraces variation in definition, which thinks that objective reality or truth is a moralizing or controlling fiction and that everyone should do what's right for him. What kind of mind is that of the deconstructionist which sets out to prove the world unknowable? What to him is knowing? It struck me what contradiction there is between liberal faith in reason when we apply to it the blanket label of "science," and how weak that faith when the wheels of reason drive to a point contrary to their beliefs.

Then I began to wonder whether that position can be justifiably called liberal. Is it not right-wing, traditionalist, or at least willful in the Nietzschean sense, simply to plant one's flag in the ground and defend it, irrespective of rational, empirical underpinnings? On the other hand I question their commitments to the totems of the day and wonder whether they would truly fight for them if they didn't have the machinery of bureaucracy already churning and lacking only well-placed clerks. Is that the blood and guts of building a culture? Likewise, maybe their convictions are just reactions against their upbringing? I suspect much political liberalism is in fact personal revenge on past and parents.

So then they don't really believe in anything. They're like Nietzsche's last man, enervated into nihilism, only occasionally animated to life by the promise of bourgeois comforts. Can they live with this skepticism at the end of philosophy, history, and culture? Can any society be fully skeptical? How many people can cope with the variety and uncertainty of the modern world? Can any be fully traditionalist?

To that question I do not know the answer, except to propose moderation between a progressive society which is at liberty wholly to reinvent itself and a traditional one which is wholly beholden to the past. If such a path is the ideal, and if being moderate is aiming for the small center between extremes, then it is no surprise the world so often waxes wantonly from one end to the other. One wonders whether once you let skepticism out of the box, the end is inevitable despite the high points on the way there. Can a society tolerate reserved inquiry in the service of reserved truths, or will one predominate? Will the tense contradiction yield a civil war and rebirth? Reconciliation?

Is this contradiction simply part of man's nature or a problem unleashed by intellectuals?

Finally, the issue is unresolved and I am tired. I don't know whether I have argued both sides well and therefore have arrived at an impasse–a sort of Protagorean irresolution–or in the Platonic sense have missed some essential truth. Therefore, sad Keanu.

Jaeger on Aristocracy and Civilization

From Werner Jaeger in Vol. I Ch. 1 of Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture.

It is a fundamental fact in the history of culture that all higher civilisation springs from the differentiation of social classes–a differentiation which is created by natural variations in physical and mental capacity between man and man. Even when such social differentiations lead to the creation of a rigid and privileged class, the hereditary principle which rules it is counterbalanced by the new supplies of strength which pour in from the lower classes. And even if the ruling caste is  deprived of all its rights, or destroyed, through some violent change, the new leaders rapidly and inevitably become an aristocracy in their turn. The nobility is the prime mover in forming a nation's culture. The history of Greek culture–that universally important aspect of the formation of the Greek national character–actually begins in the aristocratic world of early Greece, with the creation of a definite ideal of human perfection, an ideal towards which the élite of the race was constantly trained. . . Culture is simply the aristocratic ideal of a nation, increasingly intellectualized. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cicero, Frightful Reactionary

You know an academic just finished a book and is ready to start hocking it when they start publishing a lot of fun, fluffy articles that people will actually read. Enter Mary Beard's "10 Best Ancient Romans." We'll of course ignore the ridiculous title, which we assume was written by an editor, and won't castigate the author for applying such a ridiculous criterion of "best" to the category of Romans. Whatever that means, she wrote 10 blurbs, one about Cicero.

The whole list vexes me, especially that of Cicero, whose description especially irks me for three reasons.

First, saying that you have many reasons but not articulating them makes that pronouncement of them a dishonest qualifier. Obviously there is no space there for lengthy explication and evidence, but the ambiguity is misleading and confusing: is she emphasizing that Cicero was predominately reactionary or that he wasn't wholly reactionary? I guess everyone can think what he wants. The fact that she subsequently refers to the events of Catiline's conspiracy as a low point invites someone to interpret that as evidence of Cicero's reactionary views, although I fail to see how it does.

Second, the word frightful is a cheap shot. It's the kind of word people casually toss in when they want to let you know that someone doesn't hold the approved opinions. I guess Cicero wasn't a LibDem. Who knew?

Third, she mentions that Cicero was exiled for the summary execution of Catiline's conspirators as if it was justice, when in fact Cicero's exile was simply what suited the advancement of Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar and provided Clodius an opportunity to take revenge on Cicero. In February of 58BC Clodius as tribune proposed a law which would exile anyone who did or had executed a citizen without due process. While a redundant law, it would exact revenge on Cicero and distract the optimates. It is telling that, when Clodius passed a law which further punished Cicero, forbidding him from living within 400 miles of Rome and forbidding anyone from giving him aid, Cicero didn't have trouble finding people to put him up.

As for the conspiracy itself, it is unclear whether the found arms sufficiently demonstrate intent to betray the fatherland and thus condemn Catiline's conspirators. If it was, then one could argue they had by taking up arms against Rome relinquished their citizenship.

I'm not exonerating Cicero here, and I'm not doing justice to the intricacies of the conspiracy either. I guess the situation deserves a little more than a glib remark.

Fourth, what of such forthright criticism and disdain for being a reactionary when others get a pass in the very same article? Ovid gets a pass for being subversive and opposed to Augustus' moral regime, the wife of that same emperor gets a pass for no other reason, it seems, than she was female, and Caligula of all people gets a pass after brushing off "most" allegations as "invented or embroidered." I'm not condemning Ovid, Augustus, or even Caligula, but why is Cicero held to a completely different standard. Usurers, corrupt emperors, provocative poets–everyone gets a pass and Cicero slammed in this list of favorite people? I guess it's still better than being compared to Obama.

I realize Beard wasn't out to pick out the most moral and upright Romans. (Who would do such a terrible thing like that nowadays?) Her selections are all colorful characters, but alas, bias has to enter. Perhaps less bias than insecurity, for her criticism reminds me of when someone qualifies their agreement with someone by adding, "Not that I agree with everything he says," as if anyone would assume such a thing. As if, though, I would assume anyone of notoriety today would approve of Cicero. As an aside, though, how typically liberal is this list??

A hypocritical conservative white man is in charge, women are oppressed, evil men are victims of bad press, and a cool hip author write about sex. Reaction and conservatism are out, opposition to traditional power is in. Worst: Caelius est in horto needs to be translated. O temp–oh never mind.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Top Ten: Latin Proficiency Impediments

Latin has a bad rap nowadays. Actually it's had a bad rap for a while. It is stuffy. Archaic. Blah blah blah. I won't take aim at those paltry objections here, since I pity–and endure–modern man's alienation from his past. To one accusation, however, I strenuously object, and that accusation is of Latin's peculiar difficulty. Yes, the process of learning Latin has challenges, but far fewer than of learning languages like Greek or English, and no more than many other endeavors. Unlike the problem of learning the subtleties and seemingly endless variations of English, the difficulties in learning Latin, at least for the native speaker of English, are few and predictable. In my years teaching, they are the ten which follow. Additions welcome.

10. Ignoring the Part of Speech

One of the struggles I least expected was how unfamiliar some students are with the parts of speech: noun, verb, adverb, et cetera. Even having overcome this difficulty, I still have ripped hairs from my head trying to help students limit the function of words to what they are categorically able to do. Chiefly, this problem applies to comprehending verbs. For example, many times students define vultis, as "wish," which is all well and good excepting that in English, wish can be a noun or a verb. Similarly, many students try to determine case and use of adverbs, such as paulisper, "for a short time," since they seem often to conform to the case uses, ignoring that their part of speech makes such unnecessary and impossible. The problem is harder to overcome when explaining compound forms such as infinitives, participles, and gerunds.

9. Vocabulary and Broad Meanings

While every Latin teacher has to cope with students who don't diligently study vocabulary, more challenging is getting them to memorize the fully entry, and harder still to use that information. It is one thing to know that manus means "hand," another thing to realize it uses fourth declension endings, and still another to know its gender is feminine and therefore must agree with a feminine adjective. Likewise it is easier to know that pono means "put" than it is to know all of its principal parts by which to conjugate and recognize its forms in all tenses, persons, numbers, and voices. Even students who memorize their vocabulary, though, often struggle at calling them to mind as they read and using the information of the entry to identify the form in from of them.

At the upper levels, though, with the essentials mastered, the definition again becomes a challenge. No longer is it acceptable to know the most famous definition of condo "build," or even that it can also mean to bury, store, or hide, but the student must understand that its most essential, literal definition is "to put into," and that by extension it can mean "to found" (i.e. to put a foundation in the ground), "to save" (i.e. to put in a container for future use) and "to hide" (e.g. put in something out of sight.) I encounter the problem most prominently when I first teach Tibullus 1.1, where among many examples, lustro means not "shine" but "purify," lacus not "lake" but "trough," and levo not "lift" but "comfort," among others. The issue, though, is best exemplified by line 40 from Horace Ode 3.1:

Post equitem sedet atra cura.
Horace's line has been infamously mistranslated by Latin neophytes as, "The black lady sits cautiously behind the horseman," instead of "Black care sits behind the rider."

8. Brute Force Memorization

I have a passable memory, and I find it as often works to my disadvantage as to my benefit. For students with the gift of recall, the temptation is to memorize rather than comprehend. I have have seen students convince themselves, and others, that they can read Latin when they are in fact merely regurgitating. Sometimes the problem is obvious, as when a student vomits out a translation–how confused the look of a student whom I asked why he translated a phrase with "hath" and "doth"–but sometimes the error is concealed. Even students who don't memorize translations often simply remember the gist from the first read-through and use that as a tool by which to piece together what they missed. Other students, while they don't recall full translations, are apt at recognizing patterns, which is in some respects a virtue. (See #7) Other times, though, it can stunt their growth.

For example, it is one thing to remember that nomine may mean "named," because it is commonly seen as such, at least in some text books, but another to realize it is used in the ablative case to mean "with respect to name." This recall may simply look like experience, and it is in fact useful and as far as some students get in their understanding, but it is not proficiency. Such recall is commendable if it proceeds along with and feeds grammatical understanding, but alone is illusory understanding.

7. Heuristics

Similarly, one does want students to cultivate experience into rules which narrow down probabilities. It is reasonable, for example, to gravitate toward taking Marco as dative when the verb is one of giving, showing, or telling. I have seen many students struggle because they are unable to rule out what is improbable and they attempt every conceivable solution to a problem. On the other hand I have had difficulty restraining students from jumping the gun and getting them to explore the less obvious solution.

6. The Inflection Hump

A common situation: a student can perfectly write out all the forms of qui, quae, quod, but not translate it in a sentence. Likewise, a student translates all forms of the verb as if they were in the same tense. It's simply very hard for some students to break the habit, acquired by their familiarity with English, of taking words next to each other as related.

You can put a subject and object next to one another as in Marcus manum and you'll get "Marcus' hand." Likewise some students default to making proper nouns the subject, so if you put lupus Marcum terret, you will most certainly get as a translation, "Marcus scares the wolf."

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Things I Don't Get #10: Jeopardy Shenanigans and the Cult of Personality

I like Jeopardy, always have, and for the same reason everybody who does, does: I like to think I'm a lot smarter than I am. Trivia, aka random facts, are neither knowledge nor wisdom, and small cause of celebration. Still, the questions are the appeal of the show, that and Alex Trebek's awkward questions and segues. You know what isn't the appeal, though? The contestants. Pace The Trebek himself, the show is not about rooting for anyone, at least not for viewers who themselves can answer the questions. Most other game shows delight in their contestants. Spastics bounder up the aisle on The Price is Right and kooks guess off-the-wall answers on Family Feud, and on and on in the circle of television antics. Jeopardy doesn't encourage wrong or silly or creative answers. We don't get to know the contestants. They are there to bludgeon their competitors. The end.

Lately there has been a trend toward making celebrities of contestants though, perhaps triggered by the ratings garnered when certain players won much money or consecutive games. The trend is worsening and more often contestants are letting their precious foibles and ever-so-fascinating identities bleed over into the show. One has to make a little joke when he answers, another does a little dance during her opening introduction, another has to explain the whole thought process of his wager.

Must everything be personalized? Does everything have to center around people? We ought to be content with being ball players, actors, contestants, doctors, librarians–with being good at our job and station in life. Yet you can discuss nothing–sports, politics, movies, anything–without leaving the world of ideas for that of gossip. It's not a good turn for Jeopardy.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Walk in the Park

At 2,772 acres, Pelham Bay Park is the largest in NYC. Its name derives from that of Thomas Pell, who bought the land in 1654 and ham, the Old English for home. Presently home to tracks, trails, and trees–as well as the Robert Moses-finagled Orchard Beach–Pelham Bay Park is best known to posterity as the sight of the Battle of Pell's Point, in which American Colonel John Glover by a brilliant series of ambush, holding, and withdrawal, delayed General Howe's British forces long enough for Washington to lead the Continental Army safely north. Allegedly the stone walls behind which Glover and his men withstood the canon fire remain, now subject to golf instead of cannon balls. Some day I'll see if I can get on the course to find them, without having to pay for tee-off.

At the war memorial–optimistically called the World War Memorial–someone made an additional inscription. There's a lesson in it, though: if you are literally going to put something in stone, be sure about it.

Sorry for the quality there, but I didn't bring a zoom lens.

Of course sureness is no guarantee of wisdom. Take the plaque below another statue, that of a youth.

I've often said to those despairing of today's progressivism to imagine the shock of the days when it was in full flower. It's fitting to remember that bloom on a cloudy autumnal day like today. Of course I can't resist a little of the deconstruction of which the left is usually so fond. (Hey, turnabout is fair play.)

First, either the engraver missed a period on the first line or the author missed punctuation day at his progressive school. Speaking of which, exactly why is the period of youth entitled to freedom and untrammelled happiness? Who has less freedom and children, who must be constrained as they learn the ways of the world? Who is often less happy than children, who don't even know what happiness is, and how it is distinct from whim? Third, what does the author mean by "stultified happiness?" How can you render happiness futile? Fourth, how is it possible that "the proper spirit of play... is the natural instinct of the young?" That's mighty convenient. Born just perfect for play, are we?

Finally, was this translated? Because it doesn't really read so much like...English.

Healthy clean mind in a strong clean body is the idea for which we should strive.
It reads like the label on a bottle of Chinese laxative. Is this really engraved on an American monument?

Seemingly like all progressive documents, this inscription could be interpreted moderately, but it is so vague that you could easily drive a society-steamrolling truck of change right through its hazy, lazy, feel-good sentiments.

Still, a splendid afternoon walk in the park, untrammeled by progressive gobbledygook.

Things I Don't Get #9: Guessing Accents

I was born in the Bronx and I've lived here for thirty years. While my interests in language and music have muddled my accent into something which has variously been identified as English and "European," in moments of unguarded anger and enthusiasm–driving and teaching Cicero, inter alia–I can cut ehhhs and awwws that slice granite. Now I don't mind this, and in fact I relish my ability to pierce the human ear and scare animals and pedestrians at whim. Why, though, does identifying the accents of others seem to amuse people?

As a relatively untraveled man, I've spent most of my time in NYC its surrounds, and so few have ever commented on my accent. My wife, however, is from Kentucky, and it seems every time we meet someone here, they get this little glint in eye and, smirking and tilting their heads, ask, "Do I detect an accent? Now where are you from?" Why does everyone who can spot an accent different from his own think he's Henry Higgins? As if an ear that can distinguish something heard constantly, daily, and for decades from something slightly different–my wife's accent is gentle and mild–is a heaven-sent gift of observation.

Now some people like to show off, that I understand. Yet is seems to me that the moment when you meet someone is a particularly inappropriate time at which to put someone on the spot and make them feel that they don't belong, that the inquirer is in charge. Such is in fact the root of this phenomenon, that some people cannot approach others as confident and amicable equals, but need immediately to establish hierarchy. People who ask such questions like to establish themselves either as natives, which they take to be the same as superiors, or as experts, and of course expertise makes someone superior, right?

I take such a dim view of the question because in an allegedly liberal and egalitarian society as New York, I assume people are beyond tribal bonds. In the Old World it made sense to ask an outsider, "Who are you and from where have you come?" The outsider needs to establish himself as trustworthy and with good intentions. Today, at what we are constantly assured is the apex of modernity, what else could be the cause of such a shakedown? Certainly not that we are less modern than we fancy.

A Poll For Readers (Bumped)

I'm just trying to get a feel for reader and Twitter-follower interest and I would appreciate if you share you thoughts. As the poll is a crude gauge, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. Gratias vobis ago.

Of what would you like more on this blog?

Music Analysis
Short Reflections on Life
An Existing Series (Leave in comment)
Blistering Invective
Miscellaneous Life (Pictures, observations…)
Miscellaneous Fun (Videos, links…)
A Podcast
Richard Simmons
Other (Leave in Comment)
Poll Maker

Monday, October 19, 2015

Blog Encephalitis

Dear Fellow Blogger,

I like your blog. Really. Sure, you might be more neo-conservative or liberal and I more traditionalist, you Chicago econ and I Austrian, you Protestant and I Catholic, but I think there's some good feeling between us. Unfortunately, we have a problem. It's also very difficult to talk about because really I do like your blog. Here it goes.

Your header is too big.  Way too big. Disproportionately, improbably, embarrassingly large. Look, I appreciate that you're in love with the Parthenon and The School of Athens. I too realize that you just might be a fresco kind of gal. But you can't put the whole picture as your header. We just can't do that. No one can. I'm sorry. It won't fit.

It also makes you look ridiculous. You could have written an eight-voice fugue on a line of Heraclitus, but if your header is 900 pixels high, no one will take you seriously. No one would have heeded Cicero had he delivered the Catilinarians wearing a big foam finger, and that's what an oversize header is: an indication that you're on a different page. Of a different book. The header isn't just an image you like, but rather a header, a visual precis of your blog, if you will. Think small.

Just one more thing. You also have text above the header. Surrounded by blank white space. We can't do that either.

Because I care, I'll make you a deal: I'll write more, and with fewer typos, if you please shrink your header.

Thank you.