Showing posts with label T. S. Eliot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label T. S. Eliot. Show all posts

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Short Books, Long on Wisdom: II

Your esteemed blogger Mr. Northcutt recently composed a short list which only someone with his erudite catholicity could have assembled. It's theme is "short and insightful" and soon I am sure you will be spurred on by the exciting contents of his admirable collection.

In the meanwhile please settle for my imitation. My brief captions are, I hope, the essence of each, but at least what I learned (or learned to ask.) I would add but one observation, one only apparent to me after grouping these books together: they all possess an aesthetic dimension. They all suggest that to think, or write, or be so, is not just good, but beautiful, and in being so, necessary.

1. Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations/Exhortations [To Myself]
  • Work hard at who you are.
2. Moorman, George J. The Mass Explained
  • The Mass in black and white. Period.
3. Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Laelius: On Friendship
  • You need a friend and you need to be one.
4. Clor, Harry. On Moderation
  • See as much as you can and find you way through. 
5. Eliot, T.S. Selected Essays
  • What is a poem? A poet?
6. Feynman, Richard. Character of Physical Law
  • The world works. 
7. Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos
  1. How a great artist handles ideas.
  2. You should expect that they do it well.
8. Lewis, C. S. Studies in Words
  • Words matter. Use with caution, knowledge, and affection.
9. Newman, John Henry. Meditations and Devotions
  • Pray!
10. Santayana, George. Three Philosophical Poets
  • What does your world look like?
11. Tolkien, J. R. R. On Fairy-Stories
  • Why tell a story?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Notable Conservatives: A Crossword

More fun! Again, I think I made it moderately difficult. All answers are last names. Click to enlarge. It's an 8.5x11 image if you want to print it out. As usual please post any questions, comments, or corrections in the comments section below. Have fun and good luck!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bach, Eliot

– J. S. Bach. Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV.582

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.
– T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Taste, Character

One of the many throw-away jewels in T. S. Eliot's 1961 essay To Criticize the Critic is a distinguishing between fashion and taste. The point is worth developing particularly because of the trope that "taste varies." Let us begin as Eliot does, distinguishes between fashion, "the love of change for its own sake" and taste, which "springs from a deeper source." The former seems a sensible definition since fashion varies according to life's many vicissitudes. Fashion trends and without any regard for anything. To be fashionable one must simply change from something to something else. Before tackling taste I would posit another category, style. Style rather simply is some particular convention, but in particular it exists without any special regard for the reason behind the convention. It is simply a protocol, of greater or lesser specificity. Thus with this definition one does not have style per se but rather uses a particular style. This may seem an arbitrarily limited usage of the term but it leaves a some necessary room for defining taste.

Indeed taste springs from a deeper source, but more importantly I would suggest taste is unique insofar as it springs from any source at all, because in contrast to fashion and style as we have defined them, taste is a personal attribute. Taste is the reason for some style or blend of styles. Taste requires the active choosing and rejecting of certain styles according to some principles. Whereas style may be principled, accidental, or incidental, taste is always chosen. Taste is always cultivated, that is, taste requires character. To have a particular taste requires an awareness of possibilities and a preference for one way of thinking, of doing, of being. It is unique to the curious blend of influences upon a particular person and the way in which the individual synthesizes them. One might, for example, write in the style of, say Bach or Shakespeare, but one cannot in fact write actual Bach or Shakespeare. Taste then is in fact a component of character, themselves both essentially creative acts though admitting certain variables, namely that does not have control over what he is exposed to.

One is, as we have mentioned before, by nature, of a certain place and time and passing through. By our definition of taste then, to possess taste requires a sense of time and place, of one's tradition, of combining influences in the present, and all towards some future state of being.

To possess taste then is no small feat, requiring as it does a sense of self and other, of principled preference, and of tradition.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Eliot on. . . the iPad?

Mini-Review of "The Waste Land" App for iPad

Title Page (click to enlarge)
No, not quite, but a new iPad app is dedicated wholly to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land has arrived. Unlike simple digital versions like .txt files, more elaborately formatted .pdfs, and even indexed and hyper-linked eBooks this app achieves more than providing a digitized version of the text. Yes, you can perform all of the convenient zooming and searching you can on an eBook, but the Waste land app pulls together a variety of resources and bundles them into a polished unified interface through which to study and experience Eliot's masterpiece.

With one touch or swipe you can bring up notes on the text, switch to a look at the original manuscript, or even listen to a reading, including recitations from Eliot himself, Alec Guinness, Viggo Mortensen, and Fiona Shaw.

The ability to tap a line to highlight it blue is a surprisingly useful touch: sometimes it is helpful and simply pleasant to bring out one line and reflect on it. While there are many notes and other resources to bring up as you read, unfortunately there is no built in dictionary and you cannot add your own notes, though you can copy text from the poem. There are also previous few text-rendering options, in fact you can only change the size. As an e-reader it is far short of the wonderful Stanza, Stanza with its bookmarks, annotation, dictionary, and adjustable backgrounds, font style, font size, text color, themes, and night-mode. Too it lacks in-depth scholarship on the work and a bibliography pointing toward any. Lastly, like any convenient companion it risks becoming a crutch, without which one cannot read the text. As it may become a reflex to look up words, refer to notes, or refer to footnotes without first thinking about the text, the convenience here merely intensifies the temptation.

Original Manuscript
These are all relatively minor quibbles about a nonetheless polished app which brings many valuable resources together around this landmark poem. For such I do not consider the $13.99 at all unreasonable. One could easily spend much time and more money trying to pull all of this together. Too, there is no reason the authors of this app cannot update it. As it is, though, it makes a fine addition to one's Eliot library both for the notes and performances and for the convenience of having it available on the go (and in better formatting than a simple text file.) It also makes a respectable introduction to the poem and I certainly hope its attention in the iTunes store brings it to the attention of a more technologically-centered generation who might not be willing to pick up an un-annotated, non-zooming, static, silent, dead tree version.  Hopefully its success will help bring about more, and more variety, of this new type of dedicated application. I certainly hope it does not usher in a spate of "consolidated study" versions with synopses and multiple choice questions geared toward helping students pass tests on the poem rather than understand and enjoy it.

On a personal note, how refreshing to see Eliot in the iTunes store. What a treat to see something rarified amongst clutter, something that instead of pandering to the fickle, and frivolous instinct that craves plants vs. zombies, challenges you. Something that engages rather than pacifies, that rewards with ideas instead of points, and that you can revisit forever, not just use for the next five minutes waiting for your flight. It's a taste of the timeless in the perhaps the most dynamic of spaces.

A few images:
(click to enlarge
Copious notes; less-than-attractive rendering of the Greek.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Three Portraits

How do you capture an individual? How do you condense an essence into an expression? Not over the course of a novel or film but in as short a time as possible? What medium do you choose: word, image, or sound? Are they all even possibilities? Perhaps I have made the task sound unduly difficult for surely we all have favorite photographs of ourselves and others. How often, though, are these images mere captures, mere documentations. Usually one can simply say, "He looks happy," or "she looks pretty." Quite difficult it is to suggest that the state in the photograph is the character of the person. We might think of a particular picture as being a "classic" or "typical" look of someone we know, but how do you suggest that in just one viewing?

With those questions in mind, let us take a look at how three masters did it in three different mediums.

Sargent, Nancy Astor

The painting is probably the form most associated with the notion of a portrait. Maybe such is so because the medium is especially suited to a balance of both the literal and figurative. Here Sargent balances just those choices, capturing the decisive character of the viscountess with that so bold line down the left of her figure. The shimmering sash is a splash of flair and serves to lead one's eye back up and left to her face. Inclined forward and turned to you, one feels as if she's deigned to look at you for a moment before moving on. Indeed she is the woman who, as the story goes, told Winston Churchill, "If you were my husband, I'd poison your tea."

Catullus, 41 & 43

Ameana puella defututa
tota milia me decem poposcit,
ista turpiculo puella naso,
decoctoris amica Formiani.
propinqui, quibus est puella curae,
amicos medicosque convocate:
non est sana puella, nec rogare
qualis sit solet aes imaginosum.
Salve, nec minimo puella naso
nec bello pede nec nigris ocellis
nec longis digitis nec ore sicco
nec sane nimis elegante lingua,
decoctoris amica Formiani.
ten provincia narrat esse bellam?
tecum Lesbia nostra comparatur?
o saeclum insapiens et infacetum!

Catullus' colorful vocabulary is a wonderful counterpart to Sargent's palette.  This pair of poems forms an indirect attack on a certain Mamurra, a Roman prefect under Caesar and well-known profligate, by way of his girlfriend. Here Catullus lets it rip from line 1 with defututa (you'll have to look that one up yourselves, dear readers) and follows it up with her fee. Catullus caps off the first salvo with the delicious little phrase, "turpiculo naso," a "somewhat ugly" nose. So call together her relatives to come take care of her, because with her looks she must be quite out of her head to charge that price. Certainly she's not used to consulting the mirror.

43 is a catalog of the defects of this Ameana, with her perfectly awful features. Her nose is of not minimum size, her feet are not pretty (perhaps too big), her fingers are too short, and her mouth is, we might say, too runny. Just what Catullus means by lingua, whether speech or actual tongue, is not specified but she's not very refined with it.

Mozart, Sonata for piano in C, KV.309 (284b)

Mozart wrote this movement for Rosa Cannabich, the daughter of Christian C., director of the court orchestra at Munich. Mlle. Cannabich was Mozart's pupil while he wrote this musical portrait of her in the autumn of 1777, when the composer was 21 and Rosa 16. In a letter to his father Mozart reports his student was "a very pretty and charming girl. She is very intelligent and steady for her age. She is serious, does not say much, but when she does speak, she is pleasant and amiable." He goes on, "She is exactly like the Andante. . ."

II. Andante un poco adagio, in F

Standing out foremost in this sonata are the sarabande-like rhythm and continuous variations between forte and piano. Mozart emphasized this andante "must not be taken too quickly" and indeed to do so would be to disrupt the genteel pace and motion which unifies the expressive contrasts. Could Mlle. Cannabich have been, or anyone be, as charming as this sonata, so expressive yet gracious, and growing lovelier still in each variation?

While we see these are each brilliant portraits, it is hard to say whether their success owes to some separate skill for portraiture. These artists all demonstrate a talent for color and a command of large and small scale structure elsewhere. Is it some balance of a keen perception and skill in the medium? One might suggest they are simply works of exaggeration, but I would propose a turn of thought from T. S. Eliot, the "working up of the ordinary into poetry," and "expressing feelings which are not in actual emotions at all." Hence the difference between an accurate depiction and a living portrait.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Eliot on Education

Modern Education and the Classics

These ten pages of excellent and admirable reflection on the ends of education are so filled full with throw-away insight one wishes on every page Eliot had elaborated. It ought to be much longer. Cutting to the quick of the multitudinous debates on education Eliot states the overlooked obvious: to know what an education must be one must know what it ought to do. To know what we want to do, we must know what we want from life. "Ultimately, then, the problem is a religious one." Let us discuss.

Eliot discerns a number of confusions which plague those seeking an education and in particular he notes a contrasting pair of missteps, the notions of education for getting on and education for leisure. The first problem might be rephrased as education toward getting more. Getting more money, more possessions, more power or agency, rising in social respectability, and so forth. Not just more, mind you, but specifically more than others. Now Eliot's examination of this position is quite unexpected. One might have predicted the commonplace defense of "education for its own sake" or for "self-betterment" or some such similar apologia. Yet his critique is more oblique and, in fact, timely. With this justification,
Education becomes something to which everybody has a "right," even irrespective  of his capacity; and when everyone gets it–by that time, of course, in a diluted and adulterated form–then we naturally discover that education is no longer an infallible means of getting on. . .
Readers who recall our discussions of the Founding Fathers' thoughts on education will sense my imminent accord. Dispensing with yet another discussion of what a "right" can and cannot be, we recall that Jefferson's education plan for Virginia would have offered someone as much education as he was able to make use of, i.e. as much as he could actually comprehend. As we said, though, Eliot's criticism is more subtle and in fact roots itself in the observation that such a justification for education is in fact relative: by not specifying what education is actually for, simply making one-upmanship the end, if you give it away to everyone you foil your plan. The result of education for everyone irrespective of capacity and irrespective of end is merely to wade into the quagmire of mediocrity we sop in today.

The other half of this pair of fallacies is the notion of education for leisure. Of this apparently highbrow claim we may simply ask: what is leisure for? Why ought one devote himself to laboring Aristotle and Homer, and the unavoidable drudgery required by serious study? Cannot recreation and entertainment sufficiently pass the time and provide relief from life's cares? Why exactly ought one study?

One might imagine a rejoinder from proponents of either position: "surely more education cannot be a bad thing?" they may say. Once again we say: why do you call it a good if you don't know what it is for? Saying such of course passes over the unintended consequences of incentivizing education, or particular disciplines, without attention to what people can do, want to do, what needs to be done, and how these variables change, onsequences like thousands of students learning the same amount of material, or slightly more or less, over a greater period of time and at greater expense. Students spend more time, parents more money, but no one focuses on what anyone hopes to accomplish other than to get on, to get ahead of the other students, a fashion perfectly captured in the gross and absurd process of applying to universities.

This "education inflation" is difficult to reverse first because when you allocate resources such as building a campus and hiring large faculties, it is difficult to shrink them without losing much money re-allocating the resources and second because you turn out students trained to be teachers in other universities. The whole scheme is set up to expand without purpose or end.

Such prescient observations but set the stage for Eliot's point about the philosophy of education, of which he identifies three: the liberal, the radical, and the orthodox. The central fallacy of the liberal program of education is that it passes no judgment on the discipline. The student ought to study what he wants at the exclusion of what he dislikes and what he is good at instead of what is challenging. Such is a recipe for a most distasteful and parochial education. Toward the end of understanding, who would not be disappointed by the mathematician who cannot see his discipline's relation to music, and vice versa? As Eliot notes in the most disarmingly everyday way, "those who have more lively and curious minds will tend to smatter."

Now whereas liberalism does not know what it wants of education, radicalism knows and wants the wrong thing. Radicalism shuns the classics as deprecated or simply wrong. All that remains is, as one might expect, Eliot's position of an orthodox education. An education distinguished from its rivals by placing specific and finite ends toward education and the classics. The importance of Greek and Latin is not the pragmatic end of improving one's English or employing it to invoke some esteemed past, but as an integral part of a living Christian tradition. "A professedly Christian people should have a Christian education."

This may sound a cheat the to Classicist, but why read Homer? It's a beautiful poem, but why should you be glad about what it glorifies and condemns? You may learn from it, but what will you do with what you learn? Or if you simply wish to know, why? I'm not saying any of these reasons are unsatisfactory but whatever they are, you need values of your own to make use of an education. Art may hold the mirror up to nature and education may reveal its causes, but to what end? The philosophy of education flows from one's philosophy of life.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Primitive Romance

A preliminary excursion to the crossroads of individual taste, society, culture, and art.

We'll look at these ideas in greater detail and with other examples in the future. Again, this is just a first look at the complex crossroads of many other ideas and problems. Comments, questions, and animadversions are welcome as usual.

It is not my custom here to reflect on things I dislike. I mostly only deviate from this rule to examine novel arguments but when it comes to art I'm particularly reluctant to discuss what I don't like. Such is because, first, that I do not want to endure the displeasure of experiencing bad art. Second is because such negative discussion serves less the purpose of persuading those who disagree than does praising what one sees to be good. This second reason is also more amicable to a gentlemanly disposition. Every so often, though, there is a piece of art which is very well made but not to my taste and such does have an interest for me. In those works are expressions by talented or intelligent, if not inspired or ingenious, individuals who simply have different taste than myself. That fact inspires inquiry: that reasonable people have different values. Also, such an inquiry might be reveal interesting aspects of culture.

The following work I am about to explore will likely be outside the taste of many readers. Feel free not to read the middle part of this essay: I won't take it personally! I have too much appreciation for what art can mean and be to an individual to blame someone for not wanting to see something they don't like. (Though I can blame them for their taste.)

Yet this piece has two additional interesting aspects which I would present in the light of statements from two different authors.

First from Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind"
Plato's teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror. Nietzsche, who in large measure agreed with Plato's analysis, says in The Birth of Tragedy (not to be forgotten is the rest of the title, Out of the Spirit of Music) that a mixture of cruelty and coarse sensuality characterized this state, which of course was religious, in the service of gods. Music is the soul's primitive and primary speech and it is alogon, without articular speech or reason.  It is not only unreasonable, it is hostile to reason. Even when articular speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses. [Bloom, 71]

To Plato and Nietzsche, the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul–to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man's duties a fullness. . . Hence, for those who are interested in psychological health, music is at the center of education, both for giving the passions their due and for preparing the soul for the unhampered use of reason. [Bloom, 72]

Nietzsche, particularly, sought to tap again the irrational sources of vitality, to replenish our dried-up stream from barbaric sources, and thus encouraged the Dionysian and the music derivative from it. . . This is the significance of rock music. I do not suggest that it has any high intellectual sources. But it has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere where there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions. . . The irrationalists are all for it. . . But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire–not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. [Bloom, 73]
Please pardon the length of the quote from the late Professor Bloom, but I think he puts the situation, noticed long ago by Plato, particularly well. We do not quite, or perhaps at all, know why music moves us the way it does, but we know that it is powerful. We may also say rather safely, I think, that art is important to people. It gives life and expression to the innermost emotions. One's taste in art, and thus what it unlocks in you and what it vivifies, suggests what one likes having unlocked. The unique blend of emotions brought out by each artist and each work gives the artist and the work its unique character, and sometimes one may find it corresponds with his own to remarkable degree. Ayn Rand was right to say that when one finds such a work, one ought not say that "I like this work, but I am this work" [1]

Music and society are intimately related too. Adopting the positions from above, one can only imagine the significance of being able to play music. I reflected on a fugue from Bach's Art of Fugue a few weeks ago. [2] Consider that fugue, and then add the dimension of being part of it. Music is unique amongst the arts in that it requires a human to make it again and again. The composer brings it into existence, but it must be kept alive by others. Music is not the note on the page but the note as it is played; it exists only for a time and requires a human to give it pattern and, rather literally, life. Aside from solo works, music is uniquely collaborative too: music with multiple parts requires a particular degree of communication, affection, and unity amongst the players. It is by its nature a unifying, harmonizing, of individual parts. It is no wonder thinkers from Aristotle to Emerson have used musical analogies to describe the ideal natures of human relations.

Again, there is considerable mystery here. Why do certain cadences and intervals seem to have the characters they do? Why does one march to a march and waltz to a waltz? Many forms are of course formal inventions and conventions, but they are rooted in something natural to us. To return to Bloom and Nietzsche, the elemental power of music is undeniable. This is not a new discovery. Countesses swooned for Beethoven's sonatas and the Greeks certainly knew the strength of music. One is unsure whether Bach's audience knew to what heights they were being called or if Mozart's Vienna knew what he had gotten away with in Don Giovanni. We recently discussed two takes on Wagner's overwhelming scene in Act II of Tristan und Isolde [3]

All of the art we have discussed on this blog has used a sophisticated, traditional yet evolving, musical language to apply power toward different ends. Some composers were more conservative than others and some had varying ideas on when passion passed the point of being pleasing or elucidating. In September 1781 Mozart wrote his father to discuss Wolfgang's upcoming Opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
A person who gets into such a violent rage transgresses himself every order, moderation, and limit; he no longer knows himself.–In the same way the Music must no longer know itself-but because passions, violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of disgust, and Music must never offend the ear, even in the most horrendous situations, but must always be pleasing, in other words always remain music. [4]
Art then is not simply realism, but a particular representation of life. Such requires shaping, restraint, and taste, and there are as many variations as artists, as we said above.

Yet some music, it sounds curmudgeonly and passé to say 'rock and roll' as Bloom did and besides I don't really know what that genre is, either in essence or practice, so I'll just say "some music," and art does not utilize sophisticated and intellectual means of expression. It does not require appreciation of subtleties of structure or symbolism. It needs no "pattern." You need not bring anything to it. In discussing Dante and his travail in the underworld we saw the case of Paolo and Francesca and said "It is the vulgar moment that knows only itself." [5] To expand that, we might say the vulgar individual is who does not know the culture from whence he has sprung, his place in it, and the fact that he is contributing to create a new one. We may say precisely the same of art.

Such brings us to our second point, which we see in T. S. Eliot's 1948 essay, "Notes Toward the Definition of Culture." This is in fact a corollary of our definition of vulgarity, which is that culture requires participation and an overlapping of shared interests. [Eliot, 27] Both such interests but also conflicts must have meaning before they can be dramatized and perceived as significant as an audience. As such, individual, culture, and art are all inextricably linked. (This line of thinking has interesting implications for the nature of pluralistic societies, but we will discuss them, and the rest of Eliot's essay, at another date.)

One might even propose a "cultural way of thinking." Such may sound contrived or perhaps indistinguishable from being simply intellectual yet I believe the distinction is worth considering. Eliot wisely noted [Eliot, 22] that artists are frequently insensitive to other arts and that who contributes to culture is not necessarily cultured. Additionally, consider that humans are uniquely able to pass on their knowledge and experiences which crystallize into a larger conception of the past. Such "pasts" vary locally, regionally, nationally, and so forth. Thus a great deal of simply and strictly "intellectual" knowledge in fact has a tradition. For example, it is no simple act of endearment to write a sonnet for someone since a sonnet has a long and rich history. Names too have cultural histories, and even the most culturally insensitive person chooses the name of his child with care. (The invention of "new" names here is significant, I think.) This sense of cultural thinking is closely related to the importance of storytelling in a culture. [6] Words too, and many of them, have particularly interesting and significant histories, and though it sounds trivial to say it, to use a particular one means something. Using our definitions of culture and vulgarity, imagine a "vulgar" sentence: you wouldn't know what any of the words meant. It would be a different language.

What kind of "art" would result in the absence of culture? We'll revisit this questions after we look at a particular piece, but for now consider two possibilities: it would either be wholly new and so lacking a past would require one to learn it as a new language or it would be consciously primitive, using only the most fundamental means of communication to get its point across. I propose to examine such a piece now, with your indulgence.

Looking at
Bad Romance
by Lady Gaga

[see the music video on YouTube]

N.B. It was my original intent to make this a video review, but I didn't feel like wrangling with issues of copyright for posting my commentary over the whole video on YouTube. In this written form, though, it is impractical to add so many pictures so I suggest you keep the video open in another window and manually scroll it along as we look at it.

N.B. Certain words have been translated into Latin for courtesy and decorum.

The opening is surprising. It in fact begins with a canon [7] on a sort of harpsichord-sounding instrument. I don't suspect many people have noticed this, and such is significant in consideration of our discussion of culture. Significantly, she's playing the music from a recorder, which she shuts off. The canon and the language and world they represent are not the world of this video. Such is consistent with the title, Bad Romance. Putting aside the history of the word romance and its despoiling, we may take it at the obvious face value and say it simply refers to relations between men and women. Bad, usually a useless and generic word, is in fact significant and enough here. She's seeking out a bad romance, clearly indicating she knows not what the good is, but that something better is possible. (That these are relative terms here is not significant.) This is, then, at least a somewhat consciously primitive expression. Yet is expression the proper word. The title and opening suggests some (however general or peripheral, one cannot say) awareness of the cultural contrast we are discussing, and thus a deliberateness in construction. Such of course does not preclude drawing conclusions about the significance of its popularity.

Notice the visceral nature of the opening frame: the feline postures of the women and the aggressive postures of the men. Notice how offensive the back-lighting is, how the dog is pretty much on par with everyone else. Notice her baroque clothes and shoes in contrast to the poor dress of the others and the starkness of the room.

The first music is the video's only music, the vocal "oh" theme, the "caught in a bad romance" theme, and the thumping bass. Could it get any more "barbaric?" The lens flare in the dark evokes a vague sense of the cosmic. Notice I say, "evoke" since there is no significance of the cosmic here. There is merely effect and an appeal to the emotions evoked by the image of colored spheres against blackness. No relationship is suggested.

The title in the next scene, "Bath Haus of Gaga" is too an evocation: an appeal to, for Americans, the foreign and exotic. Surely something exotic happens in a bath haus, far away, no? Consider the dialogue:
Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah
Roma, roma, ma
Gaga, ooh, la, la
Want your bad romance

Essentially nonverbal grunting, again against the throbbing bass. When the characters come out of their cases, they introduce what becomes a motif throughout the video: the curled, claw-like hand gestures and the staccato swiping gestures. It is as if they are being born: they are blind and swiping about, and all they know is "want." Now the motion of the characters becomes synchronized to the beat, a feature which will remain throughout. Again, this synchronization is an old trick: anyone who has set slides to music knows the ease with which one may synchronize the two. This synchronization, here, fosters the frenetic mood of the video. To, say, syncopate the movements would have made a statement of contrast. Not to have synchronized anything, a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, would invite contemplation. This is a simple, primal, thumping: the libidinous rhythm.

Note the cacophonous and negative vocabulary:
I want your ugly, I want your disease
I want your everything as long as it's free
"Free" as in disconnected, without asking for anything in return, without bounds.

I want your drama, the touch of your hand
I want your leather studded kiss in the sand
Look at the contrast there: a pleasant image, a very human one, of the hand contrasted against "leather studded kiss in the sand," a nonsense phrase used for contrast and to evoke the primitive as she grasps her ilum. She proceeds to make a gun gesture with her hand, pointing up, a gesture simultaneously phallic and adversarial. Now this pink-tressed version of her takes the stage, in a gesture rolling her eyes back and partially sticking her tongue out, suggesting an ecstasy of abandon. Also, note the disproportionately large eyes. Human eyes being unique in size, proportion, et cetera, they are enlarged here to more strongly suggest humanity and innocence, since otherwise we would grow disconnected and disenchanted. We will see scenes of a far more pure version of her, clad in white and with white hair, inter-cut toward the same purpose. Yet she chants, "bad, bad, bad."
The following scene and dialogue again is all effect, with no particular connection or conceptualizations. It includes the taped papillae, (of course drawing more, not less, attention to them), the forced bathing, forced drinking, the spitting, the crying; none of this has any meaning other than the crudeness of it, to be associated with the baseness of the urge.

Consider more of the words and note their adversarial nature:

I want your love, and all your love is revenge
I want your horror, I want your design
'Cause you're a criminal as long as you're mine

Now we shift to two new scenes which will alternate. Starting with the second: she's in a sort of cylindrical semi-cage in a room with white tiled-walls and lit with white light from above. It's an antiseptic environment, essentially a sterile torture chamber. She's tortured by the urge. Again, realize all the images are deliberately evoked and consistent. See her protruding spine and the bald bat on her head. She looks like an animal in a cage.

To the return of the "gah gah" theme and thumping, she's stripped by the women down to what looks like an ancient ecdysiast's outfit, something worn long ago to please a far away potentate.

I shrink from the task of interpreting the following:
I want your psycho, your vertical stick
Want you in my rear window, baby, you're sick
Now we see the male figure. He is presented as the superior: seated, with a brass jawpiece, (emphasizing his jawline and thus masculinity and also his superior status by its artifice), drinking out of a glass. She, in her outfit, crawls towards him on all fours and the camera shot is from between his legs. The words illustrate a contradiction: "You know that I want you. . . Cause I'm a free canicula, baby!" More words, not reproduced here, escalate the innuendo.

Now she takes the stage. Even more scantily clad, she stands amidst clear jewels suspended in the air, as if a constellation revolves around her. A scene where she is adorned by a series of hoops follows, again another image of her centrality. These are both more cosmic invocations. Also, now she is the center of attention, encircled by men instead of having to approach them.

Rosary beads are draped around her and a clear crucifix is draped over her ilum. She proceeds to make the sign of the crucifix. Why? She is not using the rosary (i.e. praying the rosary) or venerating the crucifix. Such would in fact draw on cultural notions. It is invoked as a totem, perhaps even in a sense an example of sympathetic magic, wherein by having this object and making this gesture, what they stand for is hoped to be brought about. But what do they stand for? Merely, "something significant."

Now she chants mostly meaningless phrases as she walks about, adorned with colorfully studded costumes. This scene is redundant as it merely emphasizes her new success.
Walk, walk, fashion, baby
Work it, move that thing, crazy
Walk, walk, fashion, baby
Work it, move that thing, crazy
The coda is redundant. The final scene however, begins with another animal: a bearskin costume (with head) which she disrobes from, revealing her derriere. The bed, on which the man sits, is flanked by animal heads on the walls. She repeats the main phrase, only now in French, again only a gesture of exoticism (and euphony, here.) The bed bursts into flames and the final shot is of a charred mattress, her lover's charred skeleton, and her sparking mamillae. The "harpsichord-theme" plays but this is only to create a sense of symmetry with the beginning.

The release of her desire is of consumption and destruction, instead of consummation. There is release and destruction. Again, this is consistent: what else could there be? Using our earlier defined sense, this is vulgar, it is disconnected from a culture of ideas. The primitive music and symbols could appeal to the most undeveloped individual. I would suggest only in the actual absence of culture could this video be so popular as it is. What could the video mean to someone with a culture, with a way of relating to the world, a way both inherited and created? This video speaks no language. It is either acultural or a subculture of barbarism. In the absence of a shared culture, shared language and conceptions, we get the primitive.

To speak of the matter in the reverse: in the absence of inherited forms, i.e. mainly symbols and structures, a work is left either so that it can be understandable only on its own terms or appeals only to the basest experience of life. In the former case the work speaks only its own language, putting it at great distance. In the latter case, the work feels primal, without any layer of removal. Such art may have great power and indeed it is possible to have the forms without the sense of the fire and depths below. The use of a particular body of forms, though, creates a particular cultural identity, one inherited, added to, and passed on. When forms die they become relics, which are used without any sense of the intense connection to the concepts with which they were associated. One might argue they when that connection is lost they ought not to be used. Perhaps, but their passing should be noted.
In this respect it is possible to speak of a culture as alive, one which accepts its inherited forms and with enthusiasm reworks and modifies them. For such to happen the connection to the original concept, the passion for it, must endure, in the context of whatever emotion in particular.

This new acultural art would be desperate to re-kindle feeling and significance. Bad art, perhaps it might be, but it would represent a cultural bottoming-out and an attempt to start anew. (If not in the intent of its creation, then so if it is popularly well-received.) It would be primitive, consciously or not, because of the absence of the old, archaic, forms which have lost the power to communicate.

Instead of shared concepts we see invocations of items: images to bring about feelings but not ideas. None of the animals depicted (or mimicked) are symbolic, they are simply present as animals to evoke a sense of savageness. There are no symbols of sexuality, like the snake or a brace of hares (a Late Gothic symbol.) The functions of the imagery is not dissimilar from that of the roots of animistic cultures and those associated with fertility rites. Yet in the West those roots grew into structures and culture. Here we have the raw forces with no interpretive layer between us and those forces. There is simply yielding to the force and no conceptualization of it. There is only the rawness of the desire, no suggestion of what the human reaction ought to be. There is no attempt to understand the force as part of something larger. There is no sense of binding with or understanding the nature of things, of religio and reason. We have the the "dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul" but no attempt to make them "serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man's duties a fullness," by use of form and beauty. There is also, then, no elevation of such to the realm of the transcendent.

The following comparison is made not to contrast the quality of the music, but because the following is the perfect opposite of the aforementioned. Consider the final opera of Wolfgang Mozart, Die Zauberflöte.[8] In it he uses a wealth of language to elevate the opera's themes (love, the relation of men and women, knowledge, the good) to the level of the sacred. He uses all manner of symbols, instrumentation, cadences, harmonies, words, et cetera, to elevate the ideas to sacredness. Discussing Nietzsche, Bloom wrote, "a shared sense of the sacred is the surest way to recognize a culture. . . What a people bows before tells us what it is." [Bloom, 204]

Love proclaims the nobility of man and woman and together they reach toward the divine.

Act I: Dutet, Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen

Not only the moral world but the mood of The Magic Flute is the opposite of the music video we discussed. Here one does not yield to desires but channels them in particular expressions, sometimes the opposite of the emotion: to achieve knowledge you must go by the way of unknowing, to achieve unity you must go by the way of separation.

What ended in destruction, base release, and vulgarity above, ends in sacred, harmonious, unity in Mozart. He uses and builds on an inherited tradition and culture his audience knew to say to them, "See, see how glorious these things, our things, are!"

Act II, Finale.

[1] Citation needed. I'll provide it soon.
[4] Letter of W. A. Mozart to his father, in Salzburg. September 26, 1781 See, Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life. Edited by Robert Spaethling. W. W. Norton and Company. New York. 2000. (p. 286)
[7] for a primer on counterpoint, see introduction here:
[8] It is worth noting the trend of increasingly elaborate opera stagings, i.e. attempts to add easily-understandable spectacle and effects to make the opera more exciting, appealing, et cetera, instead of relying on the music to do such. Karajan's 1987 production is a great exception: see the "simplicity" of the cosmic dimension:

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind:  How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. Simon and Schuster, New York. 1987.

Eliot, T. S. Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. Harcourt, Brace, and Company. New York. 1949.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Last week at The Hannibal Blog, Andreas Kluth put the question, "Greatest thinkers: Greeks or Germans?" Of course the challenge is a bit of a joke of the fact so many great thinkers were Greek or German. I did begin to consider though, "what do you mean by great?" Do you mean "profound" or "original?" Many great ideas were first considered by a Greek thinker of the ancient world, but found their perfect expression later. By this I mean that many artists put ideas more clearly, succinctly, and beautifully than the philosophers who first thought of them did. Surely some philosophers were great authors and stylists, namely Plato and Nietzsche. Aristotle's prose is remarkable for its clarity and succinctness, but it is still dense and technical. Some philosophers, like Kant, were abysmal prose stylists and their work is excruciating to read.  

Thus I thought, which works of art gave a philosophical idea, or even more specifically a metaphysical idea, its most clear, beautiful, and succinct expression? Of course all art is about some idea, but I was considering particularly abstract or philosophical ideas or ideas expressed in their most abstract or "pure" form. For example, I excluded expressions of a dramatic, descriptive, or pictorial nature. Likewise I considered whether the form of expression was appropriate, particularly appropriate, or most appropriate, for the idea. In the examples I selected I believe the form is ideal for the idea.

I also did consider mean statements simply well-said like, "the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others (Socrates) and "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." (Aristotle) Rather my thinking was to find an expression of an idea so extraordinary as to be a perfect expression of its essence, and one which invites the reader into an experience of it. Philosophers sometimes succeed here, for example, Nietzsche's statement, "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you" is no mere assertion but an aphorism fraught with portent.

Thus we might say what I was looking for were expressions not about an idea, but which themselves constituted the idea. For example, Nietzsche's statement draws you into the question and makes the experience it is about and draws you into it.

The following were the first to my mind, though I welcome suggestions and there will likely be a Part II at some point. Music being the most abstract of expressive forms I am sure could predominate. I'm sure Beethoven ought to figure more prominently and one might consider the Mozartian overture in general as a fine example of what I am considering. I have discussed them here.

I have refrained from commenting where possible, since these works by nature are highly condensed, expressing much with little. Where necessary I offered some explication just to get the ball of inquiry rolling. In my experience starting to think about any of these pieces takes you down many and long roads.

Part I. Being, Non-Being, and Becoming

i. Overture to Don Giovanni, KV.521 (W.A. Mozart)

". . . the work is not about guilt and retribution but simply about being and non-being, and the overwhelming tragedy of the conclusion rests on the grandeur and terror of the action as such, not on the triumph of moral laws over the world of appearances." [Abert, 1050.]

James Levine, conducting.

ii. Piano Concerto 21, KV.467. Andante. (W. A. Mozart)
. . . the form is "a becoming." In it we may be aware of phrases, of sequences which show metabolism. . . but the main principle of its form is the approach to and decline from climax. . . we imagine ourselves to be the performer; if we do not live along its line, we are not fulfilling the composer's demands of us. [Hutchings, 139.]

iii. Hamlet, Act III, Scene I. (William Shakespeare)

– "To be, or not to be. . ."

iv. Das Rheingold - Scene 1: Prelude (Richard Wagner)
. . . It symbolizes the primitive element, water, in state of repose; the water from which, according to the teaching of mythology, life springs complete with all its struggles and passions. During this long sustained note we hear the beginnings of life; but those are things which are outside the province of words, and which music alone, speaking without an intermediary to the intelligence, can hope to make us comprehend. [Lavignac, 343.]
Georg Solti conducting The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

v. Fragments (Heraclitus)
  • X: Nature loves to hide.
  • L: As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them.
  • CIII: The way up and down is one and the same.

    Part II. The Problem of Knowledge

    Items i-iii cannot be adequately shared here. Their length and nature is such that to divide them is to destroy their messages. I have, though, written on 2001 and Solaris.

    i. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

    ii. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)

    iii. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)

    Briefly to comment: Rashomon is a sort of hermeneutic riddle. What happened, and how do we interpret these descriptions of the events?

    iv. Claude Monet: Haystacks

    See the variations at Wikipedia.

    v. Four Quartets, II. East Coker. iii. (T. S. Eliot)

    You say I am repeating
    Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
    Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
    To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
    In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
    In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
    In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
    And what you do not know is the only thing you know
    And what you own is what you do not own
    And where you are is where you are not.

    vi. The School of Athens (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino)

    Causarum Cognitio, but how do we get it? The full painting is a sort of galaxy of philosophy, with other philosophers as constellations around the fundamental, intertwined, and yet opposing figures of Plato and Aristotle.

    See whole image at Wikipedia.

    Part III. The Divine Mystery

    i. Mass in B minor - Gloria - Duet: Domine Deus (J. S. Bach)

    The  canon "'neither confounds the Persons nor divides the substance', for the figure that is detached in one voice is slurred in the other." [Tovey, V. 38.]

    IV. Love

    i. Prelude to Tristan und Isolde

    An unfolding of themes, ceaselessly modulating. . . "the tension growing towards, and relaxing from, a climax of passion; and the passion is the love of Tristan and Isolde." [Tovey, IV. 125.)

    Zubin Mehta conducting Bayerische Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester


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

    Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Oxford University Press. New York. 1948.

    Lavignac, Albert. The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner and His Festival Theatre in Bayreuth. Dodd, Mead, and Company. New York. 1898. 

    Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume IV. Illustrative Music. "Tristan und Isolde. Prelude." Oxford University Press. 1965.

    Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume V. Vocal Music. "Bach. B Minor Mass." Oxford University Press. 1965.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009

    The Four Arts of the Chinese Literatus

    The title of the blog, Apologia pro Literati Vita, has two sources. One is Cardinal Newman's memoirs, Apologia pro Vita Sua; I merely subtracted the pronoun and added the genitive form of literatus, the word generally used to describe the Chinese gentry scholar. Cultivating the virtues and arts of the literatus, the rediscovery of leisure, and the role, attitude and responsibility of the gentlemen towards his cultural patrimony are precepts inspired by my reading in Chinese philosophy, though the essential elements are no less present in the ancient Western philosophers.

    The Chinese literatus was trained from childhood in the Chinese classics, the Confucian Analects, Mencius, The Doctrine of the Mean, the Taoist scriptures, particularly the Tao Te Ching and the works of Chuang Tzu, and the more catholic-minded, studied the Ch'an Buddhist scriptures. But above all, it was the works of Confucius and his followers that pre-occupied the minds of Song, Ming, and Q'ing literati. Men, young and old, read and re-read the Confucian classics in the hopes of obtaining the coveted jinshi degree. It was not uncommon for men in middle-age to devote their time and energy to obtaining the degree, perhaps studying with young sons or kinsmen who, half their age, also hoped to pass the Imperial exams.
    If the Chinese literatus passed the exam, he could hope for a governmental job that would provide a lucrative income for his family. And when the literatus had successfully secured himself and his family an income and property and after he discharged his duties, he devoted himself to the art of leisure.

    “Happiness is thought to depend on leisure, for we are busy so that we may have leisure, as we make war so that we may have peace," writes Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics. Leisure is the prerequisite for philosophy: the search for wisdom requires freedom, a freedom that can only come when one's own basic needs, for shelter or food, are satisfied.

    The Chinese literatus, by virtue of his governmental provision, enjoyed a life of comfort and ease: his material wants were amply provided for and he enjoyed the respect of his colleagues and inferiors. He maintained this respect by a constant cultivation of the scholarly arts. He discharged his own official duties; he continued his study of the philosophical and religious classics of ancient China; he provided for his own sons' educations, and he practiced the Four Arts:
    I hope in the future to enlarge on the theme of 'leisure', what I mean by the word, and its role in the most important cultural developments: philosophy, art, religion, literature. What's important about the Chinese literati tradition is the presence of a canon of philosophy and of artistic technique. Contrary to the Modernist sturm und drang, tradition does not mean cliches and kitsch. One need only study the history of Chinese landscape painting to see the work of millenia being distilled to a purer and higher degree, through a conscious use and adaptation of traditional techniques and through individual innovation. At present, there is no class in contemporary society trained in a widely accepted canon of philosophy or artistic technique.  T.S. Eliot, in his classic Christianity and Culture, writes:

    "You cannot expect continuity and coherence in literature and the arts, unless you have a certain uniformity of culture, expressed in education by a settled, though not rigid agreement as to what everyone should know to some degree, and a positive distinction--however undemocratic it may sound--between the educated and the uneducated. I observed in America, that with a very high level of intelligence among undergraduates, progress was impeded by the fact that one could never assume that any two, unless they had been at the same school ... had studied the same subjects or read the same books, though the number of subjects in which they had been instructed was surprising ... In a negative liberal society you have no agreement as to there being any body of knowledge which any educated person should have acquired at any particular stage: the idea of wisdom disappears, and you get sporadic and unrelated experimentation."
    Would that we had a class of individuals, educated to an exemplary degree, trained in music and the arts, philosophical in outlook. It seems impossible to imagine a happy future without some such class coming into its own. What will the modern American literatus look and what will his Four Arts be?