Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Art of Loafing

"From the Chinese point of view, the man who is wisely idle is the most cultured man. For there seems to be a philosophic contradiction between being busy and being wise. Those who are wise won't be busy, and those who are too busy can't be wise. The wisest man is therefore he who loafs most gracefully."

--- Lin Yutang "The Importance of Living" 

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Beauty of Order

"To live within a just order is to live within a pattern that has beauty. The individual finds purpose within an order, and security - whether it is the order of the soul or the order of the community. Without order, indeed the life of man is poor, nasty, brutish, and short." 
--- Russell Kirk

Highlights of the Metropolitan Opera's 2009-2010 Season

The 2009-10 season at the Metropolitan Opera promises great things.
After a hiatus, the Met is again performing a German-language version of The Magic Flute, re-using Julie Taymor's production. I've only seen the production on the computer screen, but what I saw impressed me. The Magic Flute, with its improbably fantastic plot and its ethereal music, offers the gifted producer an opportunity to explore new scenic possibilities and remain faithful to the letter and spirit of Emanuel Schikaneder's libretto.

In a similarly whimsical but eminently musical vein, the Met offers again its English-language production of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. 

Last year's production was my first time hearing and seeing Humperdinck's minor masterpiece, and I was pleasantly surprised by the real musical virtues of this fairy tale opera. I was, however, non-plussed by the production; it certainly compares unfavorably with Taymor's Magic Flute

Exaggeratedly grotesque, the production lacks the essential faerie quality that inspires Humperdinck's lyrical music. All in all, it seemed a missed opportunity to create a production as stunning and faithfully original as Taymor's Magic Flute. The Met also intends to reprise what I deemed a serious artistic mistake: the use of a tenor, rather than a soprano, for the role of the Witch. Philip Langridge, an otherwise talented singer, seemed uncomfortable in the role. And if the Met intended the production as child- and family-friendly, the mistake seems all the more unfortunate.

Despite these reservations, I cannot recommend the opera itself highly enough. It's too easy to assume a haughty attitude to works as whimsical as Humperdinck's fairy tale, but it would be a serious mistake to do so. 

The Met is also staging Richard Wagner's Der Fliegende Hollander, with Deborah Voigt singing the role of Senta. The first of Wagner's operas to lodge itself in the canon, Der Fliegende Hollander is famously difficult to stage, so I look forward to seeing how the Met's creative team resolves the difficulties. With Voigt at the helm, we can confidently expect a stunning musical performance.

The last production I'd like to highlight is the Met staging of Leos Janacek's From the House of the Dead. I've never heard the opera, but in preparation for hearing it at the Met, I've ordered a copy from the New York Public Library. I am cautiously pessimistic about the production itself, if only because it is the work of the iconoclast Patrice Chereau, designer of the infamous Bayreuth Ring cycle of 1976. 

Janacek is a favorite of my favorite contemporary philosopher, Roger Scruton, and so I anticipate hearing something quite marvelous.

Dvorak and the Stabat Mater

The next two weeks in the liturgical calendar contain feasts common both to East and West: the Nativity of the Virgin Mary on the 8th and the Exaltation of the Cross on the 14th, but the day following Holy Cross Day, the 15th, commemorates the Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, a feast peculiar to the Catholic Church. 

The Tridentine rite of the Catholic Church, now commonly known as the Extraordinary form of the Roman Mass, contains a variable part known as the Sequence: largely disused and abandoned in the modern rite, the Sequence was a poetic hymn inserted between the reading of the Epistle and the Gospel. Perhaps the most famous Sequence is the Dies Irae, one of the signature elements of the Requiem Mass: Mozart and Verdi, inter alia, composed justly famous versions.

The Sequence for the the feast of the Seven Sorrows (Sept. 15th) is Jacopone da Todi's Stabat Mater. Like the Dies Irae, the Stabat Mater is a fine example of medieval Latin poetry. The Sequence, as a portion of the Mass, had both a didactic and devotional purpose: its ejection (or attempted ejection) from the modern rite is one of only many flaws in the contemporary Roman liturgy. 

As a devotional hymn, the Stabat Mater is surely meant to evoke an attitude of contrition in the listener: the poetry itself pictures the distressed Mother of God witnessing the agonies of her son's death. This kind of dramatic imagery' was doubtless intended to summon similar feelings 

The Flemish Josquin des Prez and the Italian Palestrina both wrote polyphonic versions of the Stabat Mater, but my personal favorite is Antonin Dvorak's, the Czech composer of the late 19th century. Composed after the unsettling deaths of two of his children, the work is suffused with an intense feeling of fellow suffering, the subject matter by no means remote to the grief-stricken father and family man. 

The extract below, Quando Corpus Morietur, is the last stanza of the Stabat Mater:

Quando corpus morietur,
Fac, ut animæ donetur
Paradisi Gloria.
When my body dies
Grant that to my soul is given
The glory of paradise.

I'd urge the would-be listener to acquire another version, if possible, of this fine piece: the above example is insufficient to the task. And if Dvorak's Stabat Mater piques your interest, do listen to his unfortunately little known Requiem.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Newman on the Gentleman

"It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast; — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blunder."
--- The Idea of a University

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?

Monday, August 24, 2009

John Constable and the Enchantment of England

I'm a devoted reader of the English conservative philosopher and writer, Roger Scruton. England: An Elegy was his first book I encountered, and I've never stopped thinking about it. As a fervent Anglophile, I can't help but wonder at the systematic destruction of English culture by Englishmen, a problem that clearly perplexes Scruton and that prompted him to write his book.

Not unnaturally, Scruton the arch-conservative is an impassioned defender of the English countryside, its traditions, and its role in English society. In his book, he makes an interesting observation about 19th and 20th century English literature: its reliance on enchantment, a spiritualization of the English countryside. The English tradition, Scruton says, does not grieve "over a Merrie England that had never existed, but [re-enchants] the landscape, as Hardy and Hopkins did, as Lawrence did and as Eliot did in Four Quartets. Those writers turned to the landscape not in order to sentimentalise it, but in order to discover another order, a hidden order, which had been overlayed by history but which was, nevertheless, the true meaning of that history and the deep-down explanation of our being here." Scruton here reveals something very intriguing about the English soul: its attachment to English soil. He uses as evidence some of the greatest authors and poets of the last century and a half, T.S. Eliot, Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, D.H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy, but there are others he doesn't mention, Vita Sackville-West in The Land, J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited. All of these writers used the English countryside as a tapestry upon which they wove their own works. For Eliot, The Four Quartets was his love song to England and its Anglican belief. For Hopkins, England was a microcosm of the grandeur of God's creation, and Tolkien consciously created a mythology for his beloved England, a deliberately spiritual and enchanting act.

But poetry was not the only medium through which the English have re-enchanted their land; it should come as no surprise that England's greatest artists were painters of landscapes, namely J.M.W. Turner and of John Constable. The artwork of both men hangs prominently in our house, and while I find Turner's style stirring and work often numinous, my particular reverence is reserved for Constable. Constable's life and his work are nearer and dearer to my heart than Turner, who often perplexes me with his radicalism and his vulgarity.

But Constable, a man reared in the countryside, who never faltered in his love for his cherished Dedham Vale, his resolute Christian belief, his loyalty to his wife, his one true beloved. Here is a man I can sympathize with and respect. And his artwork is, of course, stunningly original. He is the artistic equivalent of Hopkins and Eliot; his artwork is an attempt to preserve the beauty of rural Suffolk. (This was the age of the Industrial Revolution.) . Unlike the continual migrations of Turner, Constable was a localist---he chose to concentrate his powers on Dedham, his birthplace and scene of his contented childhood and adolescence. That little spot of England is now known as "Constable country."

Constable has predictably been criticized by modern critics for his political conservatism and the reflection of that conservatism in his art. He was a frequent painter of both aristocratic patrons and of country estates, subjects unpalatable to the egalitarian. His paintings are really idealized portraits of the landscape; few, and these are generally late, are dark or morose. His landscapes are characterized by a lightness and colorfulness uncommon in his day, with greens and blues abounding. Constable's England is an Arcadian landscape, lovingly detailed and richly imagined. Like Willa Cather's vision of paradise, Constable's is also a well-tended garden, an Englishman's Eden.

One of my favorite Constable paintings is the lesser-known Wivenhoe Park, 1816 (below). In the background is the stately countryhouse, in the foreground the estate's pond . Fishermen haul in their catch, while a pair of swans swim close by and a herd of cattle graze. This is a scene brimming with life, human and animal. It is a place eminently suited to happiness and contentment, and it is at such an estate that one must imagine the fictional abodes of Jane Austen's characters, Mansfield Park, or Kellynch Hall, or Longbourn. (It is a striking characteristic of her protagonists that they all have a deep affection for their families' seats.)Few families can have been more content than the one residing at Wivenhoe.

A Meditation on Joseph Epstein's "A Literary Education"

One of the prouder moments of my brief and ignominious teaching career was a lecture I gave on Penelope: it was given entirely ex tempore and was inspired by the insipid whining of a student. Accustomed as I was to the lack of curiosity shown by even my most gifted students, I was undone by a malevolent remark about the irrelevancy of Homer by a less than gifted student. What started as a tirade ended as what the students called the best class of the year. (Lest anyone condemn me for snobbery, imagine the ludicrous situation in which a mediocre student condescends to dismiss Homer.)

What made the lecture stimulating to the students was not substantially anything I had to say about Homer or in this particular case, Penelope. I claim no especial knowledge of the Odyssey other than as an interested reader, but in this case, I presented the Odyssey, uniquely (to my students, at least), as a source of human wisdom. I used the example of Penelope because my class, an Honors class, was overwhelmingly female but also because she served as an excellent example of the kind of moral and philosophical wisdom that most students learn from revelation: I wanted to demonstrate to my students that Homer, like St. Paul or Socrates, could teach them something about what it means to live a life of meaning. That the virtues of the Odyssey are counter to the gravity of our own society made the task more difficult but not impossible: the virtues of loyalty, of honor, of familial attachment, of patriotism are not entirely extinguished. I too labored under a providential dispensation: my students were generally catechized Christians and their religious upbringing and education had accustomed them, if only subliminally, to the philosophical ideal of truth-seeking and right-living.
As I said, Penelope offered me a useful and in this instance successful example of literature's utility (which in no way do I interpret as profitability). Literature, like philosophy, is a source, a far more universal source, of human wisdom: its purpose is surely to delight (and that is no mean end) but as a confirmed believer in reason and tradition, the best literature serves equally to adumbrate the wisdom and folly of human endeavor: human creativity, the best that it is thought and said, painted and composed, offers a vision of the good life that is the counterpoint of modernity's fixation on the ugly, the unreasoned, the bureaucratic. The determinism of the pedagogical elites, whether scientific or economic, leaves no room for the redemptive role of education: literacy or numeracy are ends to be pursued either for their own sake or in service to abstractions, such as "democracy" or "equality." For the educational determinist, Penelope is not the portrait of feminine virtue; neither is she a heroine to be emulated. Her story, in a generous reading (the reading likely to be found at the secondary level), is a collection of terms and facts to be memorized and regurgitated, or in a less generous reading (more common to the university), a misleading caricature sketched by the first chauvinist (or any other maledictory misnomer common in contemporary academic "discourse.") Neither reading offers the student an opportunity to experience the text as a living experience: the first is the product of a narrow preoccupation with facts and statistics, the second with ideology. Both deny, in unequal measure (I find the second far more noxious), the transcendence of human creativity and its questing after an ideal type of man. Penelope's loom might be the preoccupation in the first reading (as a symbol, say), and Penelope's "household status" in the second.

By argument and demonstration, I was able to show to my students both the wisdom and justice of Homer's depiction of Penelope: not unnaturally, the students responded enthusiastically to Homer's endorsement of fidelity. In their own lives, the students could contrast the relative merits and depredations of fidelity and its opposite. Unfortunately, this lecture came near the conclusion of the year, and unafraid as I was to challenge the boundaries and limits of the curriculum, it was the only lecture of its kind.
It was my brief foray into the realm of "literary education," the subject of Joseph Epstein's fine essay in the New Criterion. Epstein's "education" is equally one of the mind and soul: it is not religious or dependent on revelation, though it does appeal to the higher spiritual faculties. However, it is not narrow moral didacticism, nor is it shallow aestheticism. It is an education both in truth, goodness, and beauty but also an education in delight. Too much modern literature is neither delightful nor true, either to higher ideals or to life. By teaching the best literature to young minds, it is possible to simultaneously teach them the highest things and to impart to them an incipient capacity to be intrigued, deeply moved, delighted by a work of art. I end with a quote from Epstein's essay:

"For the thirty years that I taught literature courses at Northwestern University, I preferred to think that I was a better teacher than I was a student. (I also came to believe that a better education is to be had through teaching than through listening to teachers—and if that ain’t the sound of one hand clapping, then I don’t know what is.) In this teaching, I made no attempt to turn my undergraduate students into imitation or apprentice scholars, but instead I wanted them to acquire, as best they were able, what a small number of great writers thought was useful knowledge in this mystery-laden life."

"I wanted my students to come away from their reading learning, for example, from Charles Dickens the importance of friendship, loyalty, and kindness in a hard world; from Joseph Conrad the central place of fulfilling one’s duty in a life dominated by spiritual solitude; from Willa Cather, the dignity that patient suffering and resignation can bring; from Tolstoy, the divinity that the most ordinary moments can provide—kissing a child in her bed goodnight, working in a field, greeting a son returned home from war; and from Henry James, I wanted them to learn that it is the obligation of every sentient human being to stay perpetually on the qui vive and become a man or woman on whom nothing is lost, and never to forget, as James puts in his novel The Princess Casamassima, that 'the figures on the chessboard [are] still the passions and the jealousies and superstitions of man.' ”

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Age of Mephistopheles

"The mutilation of the operatic state has been one of the most significant triumphs of the 'culture of repudiation': the culture of Mephistopheles, which finds its meaning in denial. I remain convinced, despite all the alienation, nihilism and existential despair that have come to perch in the rafters, that high culture is a monument to ideals, part of the attempt - always necessary, and never successful - to make us at home in the world and to affirm our moral right to it. Myths, stories, dramas, music, painting - all have lent themselves to the proof that life is worthwhile, that we are something more than animals, and that our suffering is not the meaningless thing that it might sometime seem to be, but one stage on the path to redemption. High culture has in this respect been the handmaiden of religion, and because he saw this and made the insight explicit in his music dramas, Wagner has been the principal target of the vandals. Their philosophy stems from a nihilism born of distrust, from a desire to 'ruin the sacred truths' that ask for their credence. It seems to me that they are in the business of destroying consolation, not because they have anything to put in the place of it, but because the consolations of other people are a reproach to their own moral emptiness." ---Roger Scruton

What is the "age of Mephistopheles"? It is the era of the demon-clown who fiddles while Rome burns, who gleefully contemplates the destruction of the edifice of Western civilization, its aristocratic high culture. Its chief representatives, Sartre and Foucault, were ungrateful but opportunistic beneficiaries of its greatness; that their ideas have achieved not only academic but popular currency is all the more distressing, with Foucault's posthumous 'canonization' (see James Miller's "The Passion of Michel Foucault") serving as a particularly baneful portent of the times. Their work gives impetus and inspiration to the congeries of directors and bien-pensants who rule over the world of art like the senile dictator of a banana republic. Their acolytes in the academy, comfortable in well-endowed chairs of 'philosophy', deconstruct their student's upbringing, seeking to excise whatever providential attachments to morality and religion have lodged themselves in the students' brains. Their anti-culture worships at the altar of the ugly (beauty having long been discredited as kitsch): their goal is a mass proletarization of society, the eradication of the best (the aristoi). The dissolution of all ties, complete liberation from the immemorial mores, particularly those that concern marriage and sex, destruction. Foucault's own predilection for sado-masochism and the unresolved debate about his guilt in the deliberate spreading of AIDS betoken a nihilism sui generis. Is the West so enervated that it cannot mount a defense against such a figure?