Saturday, September 26, 2020

Movie Review: Peter Pan (1953)


Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske

After nearly 100 years, Disney movies have many reputations, most of them mostly wrong. I should know, as I harbored them until getting the opportunity to watch the classics with my own children. 

The first, that they're cheap knockoffs of classic literature and fairytale, is flat wrong. Books and stories were edited, generally sensibly, to make characters and arcs necessary for 70-80 minute animated films. That's perfectly fair, even if the movie turns out to be about something else and someone else entirely.

The second, that Disney movies always have tacked-on happy endings, is not generally true. Where an ending is glaringly different—like in The Little Mermaid—the new ending is suitable to the new character and essentially new story. It is at any rate more important that the ending is proper to the story and its characters.

There is in fact only one movie where the ending is plainly wrong for that reason, and that movie is 1953's Peter Pan. The mismatch of story and ending is all the more frustrating because the plot so perfectly paves the way for its proper ending and the film is animated with marvelous technical artistry.

That plot—that Wending Darling is whisked away to Neverland by Peter Pan, the boy who will never grow up, to play mother to Peter's Lost Boys—can be completed by one of two endings: Wendy decides she is ready to grow up and leave the nursery, as her father has promised she must, or she is not ready, and she begs her father to remain a child. Wendy's Neverland adventure is a playground in which she'll decide whether she's ready to grow up and the development is structured around three events in which she has the opportunity to be initiated into the tribes of Peter's eternal playground, or return home essentially grown up.

In the first, Peter brings Wendy to meet the mermaids of Neverland, among whom Wendy expects preferential, or at least equal or civil, treatment as Peter's special guest on the island. Peter, however, immediately forgets about Wendy and straightaway falls into his role of playing Big Man On Campus to the doting mermaids, who breathlessly hang on his every word as he repeats his oft-told tale of feeding Captain Hook's hand to the crocodile. When Wendy yoo-hoos for Peter's attention, the mermaids fly into a fit of jealousy and mercilessly tease poor Wendy with tugs and splashes until she lifts a conch to defend herself. Worse, Peter in response delegitimizes Wendy's outrage by telling her to calm down, even when the envious creatures admit they "were just trying to drown her."

Peter's forgetfulness and indifference is not senility or insanity, of course, but youthful impetuousness and the child's inability to recall and apply what is not in front of him. It's what most clearly characterizes Peter as a boy and what makes him a no-go as romantic interest and a just plan bad leader. 

We see this first when Peter exiles Tinker Bell on the spot and forever for trying to get Wendy shot out of the sky, even when we can plainly see Tink is jealous. Peter, though, doesn't read Tink's emotions and sees only her immediate transgression against Wendy. Yet a moment later he'll be ditching Wendy for the mermaids, and after that ditching the Mermaids to save Tiger Lily. Then he gets so caught up gloating over defeating Captain Hook that he nearly forgets about Tiger Lily, who is about to drown. When he finally flies Tiger Lily home, poor Wendy is is now totally forgotten and left to flap along behind.

The ensuing ceremony, in which the island natives make Peter an honorary member of the tribe for saving Princess Tiger Lily, is Wendy's second chance at being initiated into her place on the island.

In this, the set piece of the movie, the Lost Boys and even Wendy's little brothers join in a celebration of ecstatic dances and flailing fanfares. . . while Wendy is forced to gather firewood with the other women. When Wendy sees Peter rubbing noses with Tiger Lily, she's finally had enough of her second class status and throws down her firewood to go home.

Back at Peter's hideout, Hangman's Tree, Wendy sings a soft lullaby to the boys about the love and gentle beauty of mothers—whom they don't have in Neverland—so tenderly that they burst into tears and all agree, except Peter, to return to London with her. Even the pirates eavesdropping outside are moved to tears before they snag everyone, again except Peter, for whom they lay a trap.

At the Jolly Roger Wendy is tempted one last time to find her place in Neverland when Hook and his men promise a place for them on the Jolly Roger—and a free tattoo—by means of a funny and too brief shanty about the joys of working for Captain Hook. Wendy not only answers, and not only answers for all the boys, but is prepared to be the first to walk the plank to pay the penalty.

Alas, this is where the movie's trajectory begins to run awry. Wendy, who is prepared for independence, who has realized she has no place on Neverland, who has repeatedly been left behind by her flighty former infatuation, is ultimately rescued by her inconstant guardian. Worse still, she's rescued not only in-the-nick-of-time, but so nearly because Peter was busy rescuing someone else: Tinkerbell, who saved him from Hook's explosive trick and whom he calls "more important to me than anything in the world." To be rescued by Peter is what kind of ending for a girl on the cusp of adulthood?

Worse again, when Peter defeats Hook and flies Wendy back to her window, she tells her father that she's ready to leave the nursery, which feeling is totally incongruous with what has happened in Neverland. In a final frustrating moment, Mr. Darling sees the Jolly Roger sailing across the sky as a cloud and adds that he feels he's seen such before a long time ago, to which I add: so what? Isn't this movie about Wendy?

Certainly it would be welcome for Wendy's father to show the tragic aspect of growing up, in contrast to her newfound enthusiasm for it and Hook and Peter's denial of it, but it's a little late to shoehorn that in to the movie. That detail we would have welcomed in the opening act, not now.

The conclusion is such a frustrating ending, though, because the perfect ending is so obvious: Wendy takes charge of the Lost Boys and her brothers, commandeers the ship, and sails it and herself back to London without help, without pixie dust, and without Peter Pan, who again in childlike distraction forgets Wendy and flits off fighting Captain Hook once more. The two foes, locked in their perpetual struggle, illustrate the folly of fighting time. Back at home, Wendy tells her father, who is about to withdraw his threat that she must leave the nursery to grow up, that she is indeed ready to leave the nursery, and she does. 

Now that might not precisely be Barrie's ending to his play, but it feels like the ending for which this movie has prepared us. I would love to see it attached to this marvelous classic, instead of seeing the story slowly go off the rails in its finale. Every time I watch the end of Disney's Peter Pan I'm disappointed anew, because with its beautiful artwork and animation and clearly-delineated coming-of-age initiation scenes, it's otherwise quite compelling. 

It does have some technical issues too, though. It feels very choppy and the scenes don't flow into each other so well. Peter's impish, off-putting, somewhat threatening face—perfectly captured in the first shot of him—is gradually lost for a more boyish look. His arch foe, Hook, is inconsistent in his presentation: his voice is outright terrifying but he's constantly the subject of low-brow Flinstones-like gags that undermine him as a villain and don't fit with the tone of the movie.

And the tone is the best part of the movie and really its substance. It's built up through wondrous visuals like flights past Big Ben, cannonballs ripping through clouds, flirting with mermaids, hook-and-dagger duels, and marches through the jungle. The tone is that eager feeling, amidst all the fantasy and play, that you're ready for some real danger around the next corner, and you're kind of hoping to find it. 

Returning to the safety of the nursery is exactly opposite this, but the famous song which bookends Wendy's journey to and from Neverland would work with an appropriate ending as well, and perfectly so: what at the beginning referred to escapism and leaving fears of growing up now means, though the words are unchanged, using your new success and growth to leave your pretend world behind and take flight for the awfully big adventure that is life:

When there's a smile in your heart

There's no better time to start.

Think of all the joy you'll find,

when you leave the world behind

and bid your cares goodbye

you can fly, you can fly, you can fly!

Monday, September 21, 2020

A Hero's Philosophizing

 

I saw re-tweeted the other day the following assessment of President Trump—possibly a fragment as I did not follow up and read the article but merely snipped this section—by former Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who famously landed his disabled aircraft in the Hudson River, off NYC. Of Trump he said:

He cannot understand selflessness because he is selfish. He cannot conceive of courage because he is a coward. He cannot feel duty because he is disloyal. . .

Before assessing these things I would note that they were re-tweeted, presumably with approbation, by someone I like and whom I think is pleasant and highly intelligent. I would also say that Trump may indeed be all selfish, cowardly, and disloyal, at least enough but perhaps only just enough to say he is mostly so. Finally, I add that Captain Sully's act of landing his aircraft that day was indeed heroic, more specifically he behaved steadfastly and altruistically. 

That said, on philosophical grounds, what he said is gobbledygook. They are statements of the kind which may be true by definition, that is, if you define a term to mean precisely and only what you want it to mean, but logically and technically speaking his statement demonstrates a serious confusion of terms.

Most painfully, notice the layman's mistake of using terms for stylistic variety without regard for differences in meaning. Specifically here, look at the verbs: understand, conceive, feel. We have to ask whether he really means to differentiate between understand (that is, to comprehend) and conceive (i.e. to form a concept of.) We also have to ask why one would understand selflessness but conceive of courage and feel loyalty. Can you conceive of selflessness, or feel courageous?

Worse that this inattention to meaning is the rather obvious fact it is all patently wrong. Whenever one gives, one is aware that he could give more or less, and insofar as giving is unavoidable to some degree, it's hard to imagine a person who could be unable even to understand selflessness. 

Now let's say somehow someone is selfish and so habituated to it and enculturated in it that he is as unware of it as he is of the air he breathes, that lack of awareness still has nothing to do with selfishness ipso facto. For example, if someone were indeed so selfish as we have just proposed, why would he be unable to understand selflessness if he were suddenly to see it. It might very well appear as obvious a contrast as stepping from a dark room into a light one, or from a cold place to a hot one.

Similarly, on courage, if a man knows he is a coward, does he not also know what is courage at least by knowing its opposite? 

Of duty—I won't ask whether he intends duty and loyalty to be opposites—it seems to me that one can indeed feel a sense of duty and simply not act on it, perhaps in the unfortunate case of a moral dilemma in which one feels a higher duty to something else. In such a case it is not the feeling which is in question.

It's not my wish to besmirch the reputation of a hero by picking on his argument, but this pop philosophizing smacks of an attempt not merely to point out the vices of a bad man, but to paint that man as vile on account of it being impossible for him to be good. Worse it's an inept job of slapping terms together into a specious, profound-sounding denunciation that's nothing more than an argument from authority.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Old Dies and the New Cannot Be Born

 

 

I had the opportunity this week to revisit the first version of Don Giovanni I ever saw, Joseph Losey's 1979 filmed production, with Loren Maazel conducting the orchestra and chorus of the Opéra de Paris and Ruggero Raimondi as the infamous seducer. 

I hope to reflect on the production later and at length, but I couldn't help notice now what I surely did not notice 20+ years ago, the quote from the 19th century Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci that opens the film:

il vecchio muore e il nuovo non può nascere: in questo interregno si verificano i fenomeni morbosi più svariati. 

What a quote to set the stage. "The old dies and the new is not able to be born: in this interregnum occur phenomena morbid and most various."

First, it plain old sets a spooky, ominous tone: that there is a lapse in the order of things and the natural order has given way to perversion and decay. This element is picked up visually by the title cards, designed by Frantz Salieri (aka Francis Savel aka Dietrich de Velsa), which reek of pestilence and decay:

Second, Gramsci's quote plays neatly to the philosophical dimensions that have haunted viewers and listeners for hundreds of years. Chiefly: there is an ineffable sense of instability to Don Giovanni, that it takes place tremulously, dangerously at a crossroads, at a crossing of worlds that must be kept brief. Don Giovanni is the crossroads of so many opposites: love and hate, life and death, fear and boldness, aristocrat and peasant, of lust and purity... that when Mozart's music cuts so deeply to our hearts as it does, and fills us with all these varied forms, we're overwhelmed beyond intensity to ecstasy, taken to our darkest depths and stretched to the edges of being. 

Beyond any conductor, Maazel here captures the precariousness of that dangerous crossroads.

Finally, Gramsci's line, from the notebooks he kept during his imprisonment by the Italian fascists from 1929-1935, also sets the tone for the theme of class struggle that pervades the visuals of Losey's version. 

Don Giovanni enters clad (ironically) in white, imperiously passing the camera—which is just under eye level—as if not to take notice of us, and the camera pans across the halls of his mansion from which pour his aristocratic guests, all oblivious to our presence, save Zerlina (whom Don Giovanni has already seduced and who seeks justice from him.) 

The technique—the eye-level pan—is opposite in effect to the more famous example used at the opening of The Godfather, in which the camera brings us dancing into the wedding of the Corleone family as one of the guests. Another famous example puts us as prisoners in a camp, watching the famously strident entry of Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) in Bridge on the River Kwai, on which Don Giovanni cinematographer Gerry Fisher worked as cameraman 20 years prior.

Anyway, here we are rebuffed by the stolid aristocrats, who pour out of his castle into their host's yacht and then out again on the mainland where they tour a glass-works.  

There Don Giovanni overlooks the fire of the works and the singed workers, picking up the class theme as well as foreshadowing his fate. You don't have to be a Marxist to admire how well this is done.

You also don't have to be a Marxist to find Gramsci's statements that preceded the above quote prescient and perceptive:

L’aspetto della crisi moderna che viene lamentato come "ondata di materialismo" è collegato con ciò che si chiama "crisi di autorità." Se la classe dominante ha perduto il consenso, cioè non è più "dirigente," ma unicamente "dominante." detentrice della pura forza coercitiva, ciò appunto significa che le grandi masse si sono staccate dalle ideologie tradizionali, non credono più a ciò in cui prima credevano ecc.

The aspect of the modern crisis that comes lamented as a "wave of materialism" is connected with that which is called a "crisis of authority". If the ruling class has lost the consensus, that is, it is no longer "directing/managing", but only "dominant/controlling", holder/possessor (translation note: i.e. of illegal things) of the pure coercive force, this exactly means that the great masses are detaching themselves from traditional ideologies, no longer believing in what they once believed etc.

There is a palpable sense now that the old order has passed, its credibility spent as we have watched its lies, incompetence, and overriding self-preservation unraveled in real time during the McCarrick and Epstein scandals, the COVID-19 crisis, and the BLM riots, and that it rules by fiat. It's hard not to see all that as morbosi and svariati.

And the masses indeed no longer believe laws are passed and people are governed by consent and objective law, but by capriciousness and the self interest of the rulers. People no longer believe in the wars, in the schools, in the news... and yet new institutions, networks, and beliefs have not fallen into place quite yet. 

And so in the vacuum of the interregnum we're confronted not just with frightening external phenomena but the need to stand on our own premises, and like the visit of the Commendatore for Don Giovanni, it's an opportunity for penitence.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

All Aboard!

I'm fairly sure that—in America in July 2020—few if any people are vehemently opposed to federal government financial bailouts. We've been acclimated to it fairly well, every few years, since the airline and steel bailouts from the early G.W. Bush years after 9/11, and more memorably The Great 2008 Bailout of financial and automotive corporations, but regular people then felt, rightly, scammed by congress and the fed. Corporate losses are socialized but their profits kept, whereas regular folks are left to shoulder not only their burden but the risks of the rich as well. 

Regular people have now, I think, come round fully on the bailouts, now that they get their share. People have been forced out of work so, it is thought, they ought to be helped out in the same way the big companies are. Fair enough, really.

So Summer 2020 I'm fairly sure that most Americans essentially support Social Democracy, that is, government paying for, or providing for, all citizens' essential needs. The Left, to its credit, has increasingly become upfront about this. The right still dances around the issue of its socialism with euphemisms like "safety net."

 Peter Schiff summed the contradiction perfectly on Twitter recently, writing that "Democrats make government bigger and pretend the rich will pay for it. Republicans make government bigger and pretend no one has to pay for it."

The problem is that we the people are rather confused about what we have, what other countries have, and what we want and can have. 

What we have is a crony-capitalist cartel that uses borrowed and fiat money to efficiently and mostly imperceptibly indemnify the rich from losses and an inefficient welfare state that incompetently assists unfortunate regular folks. We also have:
  1. a gigantic and profitable private sector where intelligent and capable people prefer to go to make a lot of money
  2. a vast, expensive military, the function and utility of which is not known to anyone
  3. complex regulations and convoluted regulatory agencies
  4. many, expensive layers of coordinating bureaucracy to liaison between large departments of lawyers and insurers.
We also have no real desire to have equality of essential services. Sympathetic types on both the left and right may vote for social democratic safety nets, but they still want the best services for themselves. Not only do we Americans want robust, efficient, inexpensive social services for all and the best private services money can buy, but we also want the latter not to harm the former, and still more to have plenty of money left over to live however we want. 

So everybody out of work gets free money, more or less. It doesn't matter whether you're using your stimulus check to put beans on the table or make payments on your BMW. It doesn't matter whether you've thousands saved or none. It doesn't matter whether your business is a barely-profitable startup or you're paying yourself a six figure salary. 

That's why, I think, people are really loving the current stimulus checks: it's free money by which you can live as you see fit and without all the attached social democratic strings, like taxes, egalitarianism, and the belief that the state is a large, powerful, authoritative, binding force of our society. 

This social democracy without the discipline, creates a lot of resentment for people trying to live honestly and independently. It's hard not to feel like a schmuck when you're fellow citizens are blatantly cashing in. 

There's no smooth transition from this incoherent mess of systems and beliefs to either a free market or a social democracy. Simply too many people benefit from this scheme in the short run, and so we're going to ride out the gravy train until it crashes. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The POTUS Legitimacy Crisis


In my article last month The Great Epi-Twitter Meltdown I touched on the origin of the recent riots and the recent years of intense liberal unrest finding root in the fundamental belief for many on the left that Donald Trump is not the legitimate President of the United States. I'd like to expand on this observation which in my estimates goes back at least a couple of decades.

Starting in the present, Trump is perceived by the left as illegitimate for two reasons. First, they believe—regardless of the conclusions of official investigations—that Trump was aided by Russian malefactors in his ascent to the White House. They regard, therefore, his actions as inherently treasonous and the election of 2016 as null. Second, they categorically cannot process the fact that someone they so intensely find repulsive occupies the highest political office in the United States. It cannot compute and so at some deep level must not be possible for such an object of their disgust to in any way represent, let alone govern, them.

The left's refusal to accept Trump is amusing since Trump himself fomented the birther movement against his predecessor in an attempt to garner attention for himself in preparation for his own presidential run. Trump's strategy to play upon the right's strings of distrust was effective at making him appear tough and persistent, with him constantly jibing at Obama to produce his birth certificate. Even when Obama did just that, Trump had the temerity to boast that he gets results, which was curiously true—though not relevant—as others had attempted ineffectually to goad the president into showing his birth certificate. 

Of course others on the right never accepted Obama for other reasons, different but as absurd as questioning his citizenship. Some right-wingers really thought he was a Muslim, others delegitimized him because he was not white, others thought the 2008 election was stolen in ballot shenanigans. Some people just couldn't reconcile that someone with such a leftwing agenda could be president; he must be un-American. Some people simply didn't take him seriously on account of his youth and inexperience. Whatever the reason, Obama was illegitimate in the eyes of many right-wingers from the get-go, just like his predecessor, G. W. Bush.

The ballot shenanigans of the 2000 election certainly dwarfed anything that happened in 2008, with weeks of recounting and reexamining Florida's ballots until the issue of the recount was settled by the United States Supreme Court, who allowed an accounting of the ballots that resulted in a Bush victory. From the beginning, then, G.W. Bush was "selected not elected" in the eyes of many liberals. 

(So illegitimate and hated was Bush that it became not uncommon to hear liberals wishing he would just die, and such was even publicly depicted, paving the way for Kathy Griffin's infamous cover of her holding Trump's severed head.)

In the 2000 election the U.S. Supreme Court was seen widely by the left to have acted in blatantly partisan, inherently anti-democratic bias, an outrage the left took badly after seeing their previous guy, Bill Clinton, was dogged for years by accusations of sexual harassment for years, humiliated in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and then ultimately hauled into impeachment hearings. The left perceived that onslaught, which ended only in February of 1999 with Bill Clinton's acquittal, as instigated, fomented, and perpetuated by right wing partisans and a self-declared moral majority of self-righteous religious fundamentalist crusaders, all out to destroy their guy. This sentiment, infamously promoted by Hilary Clinton during the "Year of Monica" as a "vast right wing conspiracy," though not universally accepted even among the left the time, has become liberal dogma.

The scandal also set the left rather firmly opposed to the religious, and the left is not entirely wrong in feeling so opposed, I think, as some of the right-wing reaction against Bill Clinton was indeed driven in part by religious women's disgust at the sexual nature of the charges which they found impossible to reconcile with the dignity of the office. As such, the left remembers chiefly that disgust felt toward their guy, and many to this day will tell you with intense resentment that he was "impeached for a blow job," saying and thinking nothing of the charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power. 

Fast forward and escalate that resentment for twenty years—through the indignity of enduring the Bush "I'm the decider" years, the seemingly final victory of the left under Obama vanishing in 2016 with the rise of Trump and the fall of the corporate press—and it's not hard to understand the animus driving their hostility toward Trump, whom many on the left, even moderates, want to see not only defeated, not only disgraced, but punished. 

Trump's presidency is itself, and mostly I think, the right's vote of no confidence in the pre-2016 political status quo, in which they realized no principled republican could ever win: they brought Trump in precisely to give the left a bloody nose. 

That blow having been dealt—socially if not in policy—it seems now that many on both sides are unable or unwilling to consider any representative of the other side as a legitimate chief executive and representative of popular will, despite the promises or processes that bring the candidate to the office. Whether this is peak POTUS legitimacy crisis and people will moderate, or it will continue to escalate, we will see. 


Sunday, July 5, 2020

YouTube Highlight: AuthenticSound


Authentic Sound is a delightful channel run by Belgian musician Wim Winters. Besides his marvelous playing he discusses musicology, history, instruments, and performance practice. 

He raises matters that performers often don't want to dwell on because they require a lot of work to sort out before you can settle on a reasonable reading of the score, and that non-performers (like me) just won't think of.

Here he is on a passage of Beethoven:


There's so much fun and insight here to dig into, you can disappear if you have the time.

You can also find Mr. Winters at his site https://www.authenticsound.org/

A Theory on Social Media Stress


1. Social Media attracts dissatisfied people.
2. Dissatisfied people are often emotionally immature.
3. The traits of emotionally immature people, particularly
  • lack of empathy
  • avoiding anything that causes anxiety
  • luring/antagonizing people into role-relationships and enmeshment
  • fussing to get attention
  • logical reasoning disappears under stress of criticism
create a backlash of blocking/ignoring from mature people and a firestorm of intensifying reaction from other emotionally immature people.
4. Mature people self-segregate into communities and immature people grow resentful until the tenor of the site is so stressful it's not enjoyable for anyone.

Some Site News


1. Optics Tech Solutions

I took a long break from writing since Summer 2018, more or less right as I started my IT business. As such I haven't yet mentioned my business here on the blog. 

I'll work on finding a suitable place here for a little advertisement for it, but if you are interested in my tech services, you can find my business website at


I'd very much like to help you, dear readers, but I won't bother you by hocking my work here left and right. You can email me regarding any tech business-related inquiries— should you have any—at nick@opticstechsolutions.com 

2. Blog Email Address

The official email for the blog is aplvblog@gmail.com

3. YourITStartup

If you scroll way down on this page and look at the left sidebar, you'll find an ad for youritstartup.com, which is a guide that I put together for starting your own IT business. It's my humble attempt to pull together my experience and expertise and make what didn't exist when I needed it: a guide to get your IT business of the ground. It's all free but unlike this blog, ad-supported. 

I hope it may be of use to you or perhaps someone you know.

4. Comments

Finally, I'm aware there is a backlog of un-posted comments. Please accept my apologies. For some reason there was no longer any email listed for Blogger to send me notices about comments, so I had no idea any were posted. I'm slowly sifting through them to delete the spam comments. I'll post a notice when I'm through all of them and have made my replies. Thanks to all of you taking the time to post and again: my apologies.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Thought, Heraclitus and Paul Klee's Cat and Bird


I picked up by chance a children's book one fine art, on the cover of which is Paul Klee's 1928 Cat and Bird. At once I was taken in by the ingenious picture. It reads precisely like a child's drawing—the bird is one the mind of the cat—with all of the simplicity and immediacy you see in what children draw. 

On the other hand there is something philosophical about it: we're not only seeing what the cat is thinking, but as such we're also seeing him thinking. Considering such and in addition the extreme close up of the face with the eyes, ears, and nose converging on the object of thought, the painting seems to be about thinking itself. 

And maybe that's what thinking is: this burning rough image in the head that's kindled by our senses—by our lusty sense of smell and our wide greedy eyes and our perked up ears—that take the world in and set it aflame in our minds. 

I also find my own mind brought to several lines of Heraclitus by this little cat. 

I recall Fragment 10* that nature (φύσις) likes to hide. Indeed there is something fugitive about nature suggested by this picture, namely in the fact that we don't see the objects perceived by the cat, only the bird on the mind of the cat. (Maybe he smells a nearby bird, maybe a smell reminds him of a bird, maybe the thought is exciting him to sniff... so maybe there is no bird, and yet there is this thing in the mind of the cat that seems to be a bird. Or perhaps there is no bird and we have (or the cat has) concocted the image of the bird. Or is the image implanted?

But what does a cat know? Maybe he's mistaken. Or are we? Is it not a bird? Or is this inquiry backwards: is the bird the nature of the cat? Is thinking our nature? 

In any case our inquiries seem constantly to dance around the issue, with nature ever retreating from our invitation.

From Fragment 31 I recall that "thinking is shared by all," on account of the strange sense of fellowship in thought I feel with this cat. There is something both grand and sad in this shared cogitation, grand in its universality and sad in its limitations. It's the same mix of sadness and grandeur I feel looking at the famous paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, of which Klee's bird too reminds me.

The wideness of the eyes and fixity bird make me think the cat's gaze and thought are permanent, and I'm reminded of Fragment 122, "How will one hide from that which never sets." 

Perhaps our gaze and thought are permanent too, but if we return to Fragment 10—that nature likes to hide—we are locked in an eternal dance of hide and think with the world. And Klee's Cat and Bird in its playfulness and profundity not only captures just that, but creates it.

*Following Kahn's numbers and translations from "The Art and Thought of Heraclitus." 1979.



Friday, June 19, 2020

The Great Epi-Twitter Meltdown


Doctors were probably the last group of professionals broadly trusted across all stripes of society. Now, there seems to be no group whom everyone trusts. We have to thank for the destruction of that last bastion of trust the doctors, many of them epidemiologists, who first vehemently clamored for an urgent nationwide shelter-in-place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, only to make exceptions to those restrictions for the nationwide protests and riots following George Floyd's death. So abrupt was their change of mind that one can't help doubt either their intelligence or integrity. Even the most moderate of doctors danced delicately around the issue, refusing categorically to say that protests were as bad an idea as many other activities which were effectively banned and that they too should be at least discouraged.

This hypocrisy I mention for the sake of a complete preface, though I confess it is not surprising to observers of leftist reasoning. More interesting by far, though, is the logic by which many doctors justified their authority to prognosticate on matters non medical: all matters are medical.  That is in effect the reasoning behind their self-authorized declaration that "racism (and white supremacy are a public health crisis."

This is a very bold statement that represents a very serious problem: doctors and scientists don't know what science is. 

Worse than that, they have taken a partial explanation of scientific process, usually referred to by text books as "the scientific method," to be a full definition of science, scientific paradigms, and the philosophy of science. This preposterous notion of the "scientific method" is one of the 20th century's most pernicious myths.

It is a myth that has found its absurd conclusion in "the scientific method" becoming the only means of inquiry and admitting no bounds or rules. Further it is thought since science tests observable phenomena, observable phenomena must be all there is to test. Any discipline of learning that does not operate by analyzing data and any premise not residing in a materialist understanding of the world is inherently invalid and less important than even the worst scientifically-arrived at conclusion.

By varying types and degrees of this absurd reasoning, doctors and scientists have created a monopoly for themselves on everything, which has led to the recent and inevitable public declarations of excommunicating conservatives from political discourse and of the all-reaching authority of doctors and scientists. 

There is also the personal and political angle to all of this, which is that doctors and scientists, who  not only politically trend to the left but also were the left's last reserve of authority that could be brought into the battle against Trump, really enjoyed the COVID limelight and flexing their muscles against Trump, the right, conservatives, republicans, and the religious, whom they see as having usurped and brought down America from the pinnacle of reason-governed utopia that Obama raised out of the wreckage of the Bush administration. 

It was in fact during the Bush era that I remember scientists inveighing with increasing regularity about "the people in charge of this country" with reference to the administration's positions on global warming, as it was still called then, and stem cells, in particular. Doctors too weighed in on Bush's personality—he could utter nothing without evidencing his duncitude—gleefully pschologizing him as they have done with Trump with predictable verdicts. Most recently of all, doctors have begun publicly  to weigh in on Trump's physical health—which they say is ailing—making diagnoses about the president via videos of him.

They have obviously overreached, but I do understand their frustration and desperation to assert themselves, partially because I agree that many and large segments of the right are opposed to science. Conservatives too often: lean on tradition even when good science (and history and theology) contradict it (i.e. on circumcision), use bad arguments (i.e. against climate change), use of common sense not only beyond its limits but overtly instead of logic, repeat conspiracy theories (too many to count, but recently: pizzagate and former President Obama being a Muslim), argue from authority, misquote or selectively quote sources, especially the Bible. . . and on and on and I completely understand why liberals think the right has run amok with unreason. It has.

However, look at the writing not of the fanatical, but of even moderate, progressive, even-tempered folks of the sane leftwing-scientist-doctor-atheist mold, and their works—works of prominent and highly intelligent people—are not only riddled with but founded on errors of history and philosophy. 

Left and right the liberal tradition has been run into the ground, which is why the ground troops of the illiberal right and illiberal left are now in a hot war. Meanwhile, the illiberal intellectuals on the right and left are both arguing, very differently of course, that it is the intrinsic problems and contradictions of the classical liberalism that have led to the current crisis, which is now observed to be a full-blown crisis of both politics and, more gravely, philosophy.


Monday, June 15, 2020

POTUS 45



The endless cavalcade of fulminations to the contrary, Donald Trump, his rise to the presidency, and his presidency are not separately or altogether complicated or inexplicable matters.

My thoughts about him are twofold, one positive—that is to say, something that I know about him—and one negative—that is to say something that I believe is unknown and potentially unknowable. 

First, Donald Trump is a canny opportunist

Canny derives—so the Oxford English Dictionary tells—either from English's can "to be able" or from the Scotch can "knowledge, skill," but more precisely to my point here is the OED's brilliantly precise definition of, "having a constant eye to the main chance." Equally relevant is the entry's reference to canny having been used as an insult by English writers against the Scottish and connoting, "a low prudence or roguish sagacity."

That is Donald Trump to a t.

He is also a master of duplicity, that is to say, of deliberately giving two impressions. More particularly, he gives two impressions knowing which people will believe which impression and knowing in what moral, political, or practical position those people will be after taking that position. It is in this manner that he forces confusion, by forcing positions as a magician forces a card, as well as conflict, by making statements that he knows will pit certain people or groups against each other, leaving him the better off.

In addition to that talent for direction and misdirection is Trump's unpredictability. In conversation he could reply to virtually any statement or question with a fact or with something completely made up, with an insult or with a laugh. Then he might follow up by doubling-down or changing his response entirely. He might do something on the spur of the moment or wait many months. He might praise someone, then fire him, or vice versa. No one knows whether he'll put up a fight or compromise, or both, or whether he'll change his mind after. 

Moreover, no one knows which of those three positions—the fight, the compromise, or the change of mind—is his actual one, so no one knows what to expect either from future statements or policy. This unpredictability has neutered his opponents, who still struggle to predict, let alone pin him. 

Besides, by now he has made so many such statements that it's possible to connect the dots in virtually any way, and thus in no especially persuasive way in particular, rendering even reference to his own words a hopeless game of gotcha! 

Second, I have little clue as to his principles, purposes, premises, or goals. I'm sure he has them, but I don't know what they are. I've only heard two people fruitfully speculate on this matter: first, Michael Malice pointed out that Trump only ever seemed rattled by the suggestion that he wasn't as reach as he boasted, and second Kanye West proffered that Trump is a good bet to be successful because he has an ego and so wants at least to be perceived as successful. 

Beyond that to policy, I don't know whether the flurry of confusion and conflict that is the facade of his administration conceal policy goals, and whether those goals are particularly conservative, or whether policy is merely a shell game of maximizing momentary advantage. (Yet, to me, so poor is the mechanism of government that in any case differences of result might be hard to discern.)

Combine these things—that Trump can force the hands of his opponents while concealing his intents—and you have someone in many ways impervious, especially cloaked in the powers of the Chief Executive.

Of course it doesn't hurt Trump's position one bit that his detractors have spent their credibility in pursuit of his destruction and humiliation. Trump thrives on the spasms of frustration, the staged contempt, and the null self-aggrandizement by which his frenzied critics—democratic politicians of all levels, members of the press, partisans, and antique republicans—have demonstrated that their massive coordinated years-long all-hands-on-deck all-stops-pulled-out attempt to take him down has led only to their sudden extinction. An extinction that has culminated in plain, undisguised, enthusiastic support for coast-to-coast riots of destruction, violence, and civil disturbance. It's painfully plain that support of the riots is code for, at a minimum, declaring Trump's illegitimacy as POTUS, and at a maximum, support of an insurrection.

That sudden revelation about the left is likely to be Trump's lasting legacy. The left liked having righties it could kick around while still extracting civil compliments and compromises from them, but now we see what the left is willing to do when threatened not with aggressively right-wing policies, but with uncertainty about the future of its dominance. Trump sidelining them—gleefully, lustily, and via one of their own vaunted platforms, Twitter—was more than it could bear, and while Trump has them tangled up for now, whether after him the deluge, I do not know.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Lorin Hollander w/ Fred Rogers


Pianist Lorin Hollander in conversation with Fred Rogers, from Rogers' Old Friends...New Friends (1978)



Sundered Boughs



The LarchI don’t know if you have had the same experience, but I can never decide how best to get rid of a weed.  Should I spray it with some chemicals and patiently wait for it to expire in a few days, or carpe the diem and pop it out of its cozy wormy earth spit spot? Or maybe just slice through with the weed-eater, knowing they’ll grow back but guiltily satisfied with the newly and neatly buzzed surface of the grass? What I seldom settle to do, however, is rip them out of the ground with a sudden clenched reflex of terror, which is what I did when a branch fell from my tree as I was weeding the nearby florae. 

As is widely known, branches fall when they are cut, and as is widely expected, the public utility contracts arborists to cut branches so the boughs do not grow to interfere with their power lines. What is not expected is that a branch should be partially cut by said arborist and left to snap off suddenly, and fall of course, at the provocation of only the gentlest puff of breeze that would have hardly spread a dandelion seed. 

So naturally after the aforementioned demonstration of Newtonian physics I released from my grip the mustard flower that I had unintentionally squeezed into a verdant pulp and, wiping my hand clean on my shirt, I inspected the branch and the other sawing and scissoring done by the expert team. 

Well it turns out they spiked their way up the tree, which came as a surprise to me because it’s widely known, to trees as well as people, that such spiky ascents damage trees and expose them to disease. So little did I expect when I saw the feller chivvying up my maple that he was impaling it and chipping off bits of its protective bark. And to think not a drop of honey out of the thing.

To share this recollection with you is, however, to give short shrift to the tale of when they the week before drove a cherry-picker through part of my property, without notification, leaving a particularly sad-looking welt upon the lawn and upon which my mower bounces each time I go over it. I’ll completely pass over all tales of damage done to others related to me, as hearsay, though I daresay there are a few known to me, and to trees of course.

What is unknown to me, however, is whether this shoddy arbory is the result of incompetence or indifference. I of course consider that the contractor is perhaps ill-compensated by the public  utility for what is surely a large task needing to be done in a relatively short season. Maybe the contractor is simply not paid enough to send out enough crews to get the job done more professionally in the same span of time. Perhaps, though, the contract is a lucrative one, and perhaps the contractor perpetrates this ramshackle job with impunity knowing that few citizens will notice, fewer will complain, and none will pursue the matter to the uttermost end of squeezing restitution from the municipal lemon.

In either case it seems I ought to be prepared to pony up more money, either to the public utility to better compensate or compensate better arborists, or to arborists directly in the hope that they, responsible for their mistakes, will do both a good job and a good enough job that the city contractors will stay far afield from my trees. Those are reasonable alternatives, though they won’t protect from crews passing through to get to adjacent properties. For my part though the boughs now break, I’ll be not afraid of death and bane, till maple wood clocks me on the brain.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Movie Review: Mary Poppins


Directed by Robert Stevenson (1964)

The quintessential Disney classic, Mary Poppins is best remembered for its spectacle of dance, animation, and music, most loved for the inimitable prim cheekiness of Julie Andrews, and most praised for the ingenious special effects that blended its many parts together into a marvelous whole. It's not really thought of as an especially well-plotted movie or a movie fraught with meaning, but it is. 

There's a purpose to the splendid gaiety, to the jolly holidays that stretch out from walks in the park and to tea parties that bubble up to the ceiling, and it's all smartly set up with a carefully constructed opening as clear or clearer than that of any high-minded drama.

When Mrs. Banks upon entering her stately Edwardian residence conscripts her housekeeping staff into singing an anthem to female suffrage–Sister Suffragette, which few seem to realize is played as satire–and has to be forcefully reminded about the well-being and whereabouts of her children by her exasperated, quitting nanny, we get the gist.

When Mr. Banks, after unwittingly helping his children's recently former nanny into a cab, enters his regal domicile and does not inquire about his children but rather sings a haughty paean to patriarchal grandeur, we know him. And knowing the parents, we know the plight of little Jane and Michael Banks.

When their new nanny, Mary Poppins, enters from the sky via umbrella, primped and proper, neat as a pin, Jane and Michael know new things will be afoot with their pert and perky nanny. Who doesn't sense that change is in the air is Mr. Banks, whose hardheadedness is foreshadowed in his very first appearance when, walking past the house of his neighbor the retired Admiral Boom, who has a massive ship's rostrum affixed to the top of his house, Banks responds to the Admiral's meteorological warning that Banks might be steering into a bit of bad weather, with an oblivious smile. The proud banker knows that the British pound is the envy of the world but not much else.

So while Jane and Michael follow Mary Poppins' prescription of both fun and discipline, of learning to get your feet wet and to take your medicine, and when they sing and dance and smile past the breakfast table, Mr. Banks balks at the unseemly hullabaloo. He doesn't like the chipper staff and cheery kids and even the chirping birds, for they have disrupted his stern ordering of the household with their lightheartedness. His reaction is epitomized in my favorite moment in the movie wherein Banks, fuming to his wife about the disruptive house-wide uproar unleashed by the new nanny, blurts out in exasperated exclamation, "And when I sit down at a piano, I like to have it in tune!" and his wife replies, "But George, you don't play." Banks enjoys the peace of mind that his domestic order brings him and thus he enjoys his family insofar as they participate in and reflect that order, but the order is all for its own sake and not for the people who make it.

This theme of rejecting order for order's sake and work for work's sake is also the subtle subject of the film's famous fantasy scenes with Mary and the kids, in which everyone enjoys leisure and diversion with no purpose besides itself. We see it in the carousel-ride-turned-derby, in Mary and Bert's tea-and-cakes lunch served by penguins (a marvel of animation), and in the kids' visit to Mary's Uncle Albert, who is liberated from his earthly confines by irrepressible laughter. Each adventure lifts the spirits and imaginations of the kids, a fact which continues to elude Mr. Banks, who just can't see past the nose on his face to put down work for some play. 

Banks' obtuse preoccupation with work comes to a head at the bank when little Michael doesn't want to deposit his tuppence to fund railways in Africa, but wants to feed the birds in front of St. Paul's. Michael wants to do a simple thing, a kind thing, for its own sake, not make a practical investment in future profits, which frustrates his father, infuriates the board of directors, and precipitates the most unexpected bank run in history.

At this point in the movie, though, we're fairly wondering about the logic of Mary Poppins' plan to save Mr. Banks. After all, she has no reason to the think at any point that he's realizing the winds have changed, that his children are happy and growing, and that he has remained the same. She even has to trick him into taking the children to the bank with him, an outing she must know is going to be a fiasco. The reason for Mary Poppins' indirect method of saving Banks is that she knows his change must come from within and must come from his choice to embrace his children over his work. A stern talking-to and a serious discourse will not persuade him. He needs to see the choice before him, a choice that will need to be made once the incompatible elements—the kids and the bank—are brought together. 

With such purpose, Bert's scene with Mr. Banks, in which the chimney sweep more or less explains everything, is terribly out of place. First, we didn't need the first two hours of the movie if someone is just going to explain everything to the protagonist at the end. Second, we're not really sure whether Bert is getting through to Banks or Banks is coming to his senses or whether he's just confused. The scene is played rather cagily, on purpose I think, because they wanted to explain a little but didn't want to end the movie at this point. Third, why is Banks listening to the chimney sweep, whom he doesn't know and who doesn't know him? 

It's an unnecessary exchange too, because the scene would have played brilliantly as a monologue, in which Banks reminisces about his old life amidst its symbols: his pipes, his fireplace, and his chair. Then when the children come in as before with their tender, honest apologies—and return the tuppence—but this time break his heart, it would be clear that he is coming around and we would be prepared for movie's masterful finale, in which Banks makes a last journey to the job to which he has dedicated his life and from which he knows he will be fired. As he retraces his steps we read Banks' long-awaited self-examination through the film's music, the Feed the Birds tune. What song was once tender and nurturing from the lips of Mary Poppins is now melancholic as Banks passes through the park where his children have played not with him but with their countless nannies, and when at last he finally diverts course—a recollection of Admiral Boom's advice—and approaches the the steps of St. Paul's, Feed the Birds has become a mournful dirge. We are struck by the gravity of what will pass: his pride and former life and self-image, or his family.

Banks has not made up his mind quite yet, though, and his coming catharsis is not destined to be a tragic one. When he enters the bank and is summarily fired and stripped of his symbols of power—his hat, red carnation, and umbrella—he finally realizes the absurdity of his intense commitment to his job and responds to his humiliating sacking not with spirited self-defense or recrimination, but with Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! The whimsical refutation shows that Banks has finally given up his forceful molding of the breed and let his children reform him. Banks is embracing his firing with joy over his newfound freedom, freedom with which he rededicates himself to his family. 

Finally returning home, he patches his children's long-broken kite with newspaper (a symbol of his former preoccupation, his work) and as a perfecting touch, his wife follows suit and adds to the kite a proper tail, her suffragette ribbon (a symbol of her former preoccupation, her political cause.) At last the mended family together dances off down Cherry Tree Lane arm-in-arm and the kite takes flight, a symbol of their restored unity. 

All of that to the tune of the Sherman Brothers' Let's Go Fly A Kite, the use of which song integrates the film's theme of laying down purposeful work for purposeless, even frivolous leisure, with what that reorienting ultimately brings about: the salvation of Mr. Banks and the restoration of his family. And what better phrase epitomizes frivolity than "Go fly a kite!" which in this marvelous, ebullient finale is raised from a slur of abuse to a jolly exhortation to lay down your labors, embrace your family, and celebrate life.