Friday, November 13, 2009

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, November 7 through Friday, November 13.

1) At Classical Notes, Peter Gutmann discusses Schumann's 4th Symphony.

2) At the WSJ, Peter Stothard reviews Donald Kagan's "Thucydides: The Reinvention of History."

3) Sandra Stotsky at City Journal asks, "Who Needs Mathematicians for Math, Anyway?"
As part of his education-reform plan, President Obama wants to “make math and science education a top priority” and ensure that children have access to strong math and science curricula “at all grade levels.” But the president’s worthy aims won’t be reached so long as assessment experts, technology salesmen, and math educators—the professors, usually with education degrees, who teach prospective teachers of math from K–12—dominate the development of the content of school curricula and determine the pedagogy used, into which they’ve brought theories lacking any evidence of success and that emphasize political and social ends, not mastery of mathematics.
4) At Standpoint, Piers Paul Read and David Heathcoat-Amory discuss, "How European Are the British?"

5) The ISI "Cicero’s Podium Debate Series" in Boulder, CO on the Anti-Federalists and the ratification of the United States Constitution.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day, 2009


Also, J.D. "Illiad" Frazer, author of the wonderful web comic User Friendly, always has something especially poignant to say on Veteran's Day. This year is no exception:

Movie Review: Amadeus (Part I)

Directed by Milos Forman. 1984.

Amadeus is about emotions, swirling, fiery, and consuming emotions. Amadeus is about how one man fused his passion with his genius and is remembered as one of the greatest artists of all time while another man, in the face of such brilliance, went mad. The central conflict of Amadeus is simple and profound: Antonio Salieri, esteemed Court Composer to Emperor Joseph II, must contend with a young new composer who arrives on the scene in Austria, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Before discussing the plot and characters we must note the majority of the events are recounted in retrospect by Salieri in his old age, years later. For the purposes of analysis, I will refer to events in chronological order.

What about these emotions is so significant, though? Before we can answer that question we need to know two facts, what the emotions are, and how are they related.

i. Friendship to Enmity

Salieri’s relationship with Mozart begins as friendly affection and admiration. As a child Salieri worshiped the young Mozart who toured Italy playing music for kings while he himself was playing childish games in his backwoods town. This amity-from-afar gives way to rivalry when Mozart takes up residence in Vienna. In the span of just a few minutes, Mozart slights not one, but two, of Salieri’s pieces, first by calling one a “funny little tune” and another by transforming Salieri’s gawky little march into a charming tune while everyone watches in amazement. Mozart’s liberality wins the heart of the Emperor, who he proceeds to impress along with the entire court by demonstrating his virtuosity and talent for improvisation. As icing on the cake Mozart proceeds to debut a brilliant new opera and, as Salieri insists, bed the leading lady.

There are two scenes, though, which push Salieri over the threshold from disdain to outright anger. First, Salieri glimpses at a portfolio of Mozart’s sheet music and not only sees page after page of brilliant music but learns that these sheets are his first copies. The music is not edited or refined or redesigned, but merely laid down, already perfected. To Salieri, Mozart did not slave over every note like he did even for his paltry little march, but rather just wrote down music once he had worked out the details in his head. There was absolutely no apparent effort by Mozart. The second scene is when Mozart’s wife, Constanze, shows up at Salieri’s residence and condescends to his bribe whereby if she were to bed him, Salieri would effectively give Mozart the royal appointment he so desperately needed. Salieri, shocked as Constanze denudes for him, sends her away. What did Mozart do to deserve a wife that would endure such embarrassment for him? Why did Mozart get this pretty wife willing to sacrifice herself for him, while Salieri had to be content with sucking down sweets and fondling the palms of sopranos? Worst of all, why was Mozart endowed with the greater genius? Why does he get to enjoy the worldly pleasures Salieri renounced and also artistic superiority?

Yet it is the facility with which Mozart appears to act that enrages Salieri. Where he is bound by chastity, Mozart enjoys a sexy wife. Where he is bound to humility, Mozart is free to boast. Where he must slave away even for a trifle, Mozart dashes off brilliant music as easily as he breathes. However, the transformation is not yet complete. When Salieri resolves to harm and block Mozart, Salieri is still only angry. He has been repeatedly slighted by Mozart and he wants some revenge. Salieri is still a relatively sympathetic character at this point. He is a respected composer, he sits on councils for poor musicians, teaches (often for free), is content merely to flirt with his leading ladies, he walks with gravitas and confidence amongst the regular folk, with humility before the emperor, and with great piety before God, and he even writes a friendly little march to welcome Mozart to Vienna. Mozart is an affront to all of this. While Salieri would have been content for Mozart simply to go away, now he wishes Mozart to remain so he may suffer.

During the performance of Don Giovanni, though, Salieri crosses the threshold from anger to enmity. Mozart ceases to be the object of Salieri’s anger and becomes the tool of his hatred, a tool for depriving God of the joy of His creation. Salieri’s motivation is no longer retribution for the slings and arrows of Mozart’s affronts, but a retribution for the injustice of his existence. Mozart is no longer to be made to suffer, but to be erased. Salieri is no longer pained, but mad. We lose all sympathy for Salieri, now the villain, no longer pitiable and impotent but moving deftly and purposefully to achieve his goal.

ii. Emulation to Envy

Mozart started out as Salieri’s idol. Salieri began his career in emulation of Mozart’s, which he heard of in stories about Mozart’s European Tour, in which he played for kings, queens and the pope, organized by his father and impresario, Leopold. But what ultimately undoes Salieri? It is not just his mediocrity, since even amateur musicians can appreciate works of genius. Nor is it simply his ambition, for even determined upstarts look to successful people as heroes to imitate. The unique combination of these two traits destroys Salieri. Since falling short by just a little breeds more envy of success than a complete failure, Mozart’s victory is not only a triumph but also a reproach to Salieri. Worse, Salieri is just talented enough to see the success and see the difference between Mozart’s genius and his own mediocrity. There is no hiding it. Thus as much as Salieri adores every perfect note that Mozart writes, each is also a dagger that pains him by its very perfection. Salieri’s mediocrity and ambition coalesce into envy, turning what he loves most (beautiful music) into a symbol of his imperfection and impotence. Likewise, the medallion the Emperor rewards him with for his musical contributions becomes the omnipresent symbol of his mediocrity.

Part IPart II | Part III

Monday, November 9, 2009

Movie Review: The Seventh Seal

Directed by Ingmar Bergman. 1957.

I must confess a great gratitude toward Bergman for making The Seventh Seal. What a deeply personal movie this is, and what courage it took to put it out there for others to judge. What a risk to address such weighty and timeless questions, not glibly or insincerely, but thoughtfully and with unflinching honesty. He also directly addresses the matter, portraying death and a vision of the Virgin Mary and asking, "Is it so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses? Why should He hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles?" Bergman's films have obviously acquired a reputation for being grave and depressing works. Grave, yes. Depressing, no. Not The Seventh Seal, anyway. It is certainly unsettling in the way it probes questions about God and life, but it has a certain cathartic power, forcing a release of the viewer's feelings on the issues and while it refuses us any easy answers, the film is a sort of palliative treatment for the most burning questions.

One may of course choose practically any line from The Seventh Seal and analyze it at great length. Likewise one may choose any given scene, shot even, and find a wealth to consider. Yet as customary at APLV we are concerned with the ideas themselves and such is what we will explore here.

The first question is, why are we so obsessed about God in the first place? The Knight asks:
Why can't I kill God within me? Why does He live on in this painful and humiliating way
even though I curse Him and want to tear Him out of my heart? Why, in spite of everything, is He a baffling reality that I can't shake off? Do you hear me?
Uncomfortably direct, do not you think so? Yet a fair question. After all, why should we be so driven to God, His existence, His nature, His will? Why should this question be so central to man? Why is it so hard simply to affirm, "no?" The shot itself, with death lurking in the background, provides the answer and a reminder of our finite existence in this world. The Knight cannot imagine a world without God. Without Him, ". . . life is an outrageous horror. No one can live in the face of death, knowing that all is nothingness." This then is our dilemma and the film's too: reconciling uncertainty about God and how we choose to live our lives.

One scene illustrates the problem. The comic trio performs a silly pantomime onstage but the townspeople are not amused and throw a tomato at the main performer, Skat. In mock indignation, he sneaks out the back for a romp with the village smithy's wife. Mia and Jof (diminutives of Mary and Joseph) follow by singing a nonsense song on stage. With passing references to the plague, the song is an attempt to provide a little relief by suggesting that all is not horror, but folly. With drum and lute and in jester costumes Mia and Jof sing hop about on stage. With Skat fooling around behind the bushes and the couple entertaining the townspeople, we feel somewhat lightened or rather. . . distracted. Yet the respite is brief. Their song is cut off by the sound of the Dies Irae being chanted by monks entering the town. Defiantly, Bergman holds the shot of the characters' reactions. He finally cuts to the monks who enter chanting and surrounded by people flagellating and torturing themselves in repentance.

Yet is is the characters' reactions to this horrific sight I find most relevant. Many of the townspeople unconsciously drop to their knees, the knights kneel with their swords in customary fashion, a woman bursts into tears, a child obliviously looks on, Mia and Jof look on with a mixture of awe and deference, and the Knight, his Squire, and the girl look on with blank faces.

Again, though, this scene is so brilliant not simply because it asks a question about God, but because it also asks the question about the question. The main characters look on and consider the actions of the people as much as they consider the issue of God through the problem of the plague. As the Knight says earlier,
What is going to happen to those of us who want to believe but aren't able to? And what is to become of those who neither want to nor are capable of believing?
How do we react to the faiths of others? Will the monk's vows and asceticism help him? Is their self-inflicted suffering going to help these people? The Squire certainly does not think so, referring to the stories of Jesus Christ, God, and The Holy Spirit as "ghost stories." The voice of a-theism (i.e. lack of belief in a god) throughout the film, this is not surprising. More interesting is what the simple Smithy says to him, when the Squire offers him some sophistical advice about love:
You're happy, you with your oily words, and, besides, you believe your own drivel.
The educated man and the fool have come to the same conclusion: there is no satisfactory answer. Similarly, when the Knight confesses to Mia he is tired and bored of his own company, she responds in understanding, asking "Why do people always torment themselves?" This reinforces the film's main theme, "why the question [in the first place]?"

What is the answer then? Earlier the Knight, in contemplating it, said:
This is my hand. I can move it, feel the blood pulsing through it. The sun is still high in
the sky and I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with Death.
In defiance of death he had learned to relish his existence as the opportunity to struggle. Yet Later, sharing a sweet moment with Mia, Jof, Mikael, his Squire, and the girl, he says:
Faith is a torment, did you know that? It is like loving someone who is out there in the
darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.

Everything I've said seems meaningless and unreal while I sit here with you and your
husband. How unimportant it all becomes suddenly.

I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and milk, your faces in the evening light. Mikael sleeping, Jof with his lyre. I'll try to remember what we have talked about. I'll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk.

And it will be an adequate sign -- it will be enough for me.
How exactly do these two scenes differ? What makes the Knight now ready to continue his chess game with Death with such confidence? Perhaps he has learned to relish his existence itself, learned to treasure moments with friends, moments in peace, moments of beauty.

Yet they all die whether or not they come to this realization, the smith and Lisa, the Knight, Raval, the Squire, and Skat. The smith and Lisa die as simpletons, Raval as a scoundrel, the Squire as a cynic, Skat as a coward (taken by surprise), and the Knight with his memories.

Amongst many good observations, film historian Peter Cowie makes several especially good ones toward the end of The Seventh Seal. The first is of the Knight's line, "It's over now, and I'm a little tired" noting[1] how it became the journey that mattered, not the final destination. Indeed this is the tone that prevails in the scene of reconciliation with his wife, which does not fulfill. He has all the memories he will make and death now awaits.

The emotions we expected between the Knight and his wife actually come from the unnamed girl, who only now speaks, looking eagerly toward death, "as though for a lover." Heretofore silent, Cowie says, "she begins to realize the moment she has longed for, the moment of fulfillment, is at hand. She waits for death as though for a lover, with all the eagerness and expectancy that one associates not with death but with life. Death will open a door, not close it: provide some passage to a brighter world." [1]

Cowie's last point is that in the "last supper composition" of the dinner scene, Bergman has not deliberately seated people or created a hierarchy in the shot. Indeed. Who is best off? Which one are you?

The final scene has a certain mystical quality and sense of reverie. The storm has passed and the family stands outside bathed in sunlight. Why do they endure? In spite of the obvious symbolism of them as The Holy Family, I think they are more symbolic of communion, specifically communion in love. Such is what they shared with the Knight, and love is what they carry on.

[1] Cowie, Peter. Commentary on The Seventh Seal. DVD. 1987.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, October 31 through Friday, November 6.

1) Reflections on the fall of the Berlin Wall at The New Criterion, with essays by: Roger Kimball, Anthony Daniels, and Donald Kagan.

2) At City Journal, reflections on the fall from Claire Berlinski, Daniel Flynn, Judith Miller, Roger Scruton, and Guy Sorman. From Scruton's essay:
It is true that a suspicion of Communism remains, and that young people from Eastern Europe have internalized, to a great extent, the experiences of deprivation and fear that their parents still recount to them. Hence they are more open to conservative ideas than their Western contemporaries; they have a vestigial sense of the seriousness of politics and the real cost of putting fanatics and nihilists in charge. They at least have learned this lesson; many of my colleagues have not. From Horkheimer and Adorno to Foucault, Deleuze, and Badiou, fanatics and nihilists continue to dominate the university curriculum, and there prevails in our universities today the same suspicion of power, property, hierarchy, and liberty that was in the ascendant twenty years ago, when my colleagues called an emergency meeting in order to keep the official illusions in place. And when, ten years ago, the Queen made Hobsbawm a “Companion of Honour” at Tony Blair’s request, I was forced to recognize that, as far as history goes, he, and not I, was on the winning side.
3) James Bowman at The New Criterion notes:
Take that wonderfully and hilariously nonsensical bumper sticker, "God bless the whole world — no exceptions." Grammatically and historically, the "God bless" formula is an example of the "optative," a sub-class of the subjunctive. What it really means is "May God bless. . ." and, therefore, "I hope that God blesses. . ." It is a polite way of expressing a wish that someone — or, in this case, Someone — will do something. Today in French you would use the conditional. But without the knowledge of the English optative, the bumper-sticker’s writer supposes it to be an imperative. The speaker is not humbly supplicating God but imperiously ordering Him, which is ridiculous. For the writer, this is probably a matter of no great moment. Like the rest of the culture, he will long since have grown used to the idea that God, if He exists at all, is only there to be bullied by his creatures and told what he can and cannot do with His world. But that is itself both cause and consequence of the death of the optative. . .
Prayer itself is a function of the optative, and a recognition that man proposes but God disposes. Without this very basic cultural knowledge, we are led into a wilderness of absurdity from which a right understanding of our own language and its potentialities, if not of religious truth itself, might have saved us.

4) At The Scientist, Stuart Blackman discusses how, "Ill-judged predictions and projections can be embarrassing at best and, at worst, damaging to the authority of science and science policy."
Scientists have been making predictions for as long as there have been scientists. Indeed, without speculating about the future, it would be impossible to make decisions about how best to proceed. But there is reason to believe that promises are becoming more central to the scientific process.
Sir Ian Wilmut, leader of the Roslin Institute team that cloned Dolly the sheep, says that a “soundbite” media culture that demands uncomplicated, definitive, and sensational statements plays a significant role. “It’s [the media] who put the most pressure on scientists to make predictions,” he says. And in a radio or TV interview that allows perhaps only 10 or 20 seconds for an answer, “it’s very easy then to inadvertently mislead.”

But it might also pay scientists—financially and politically—to go along with such demands, and to indulge in what Joan Haran, Cesagen Research Fellow at Cardiff University, UK, diplomatically calls “discursive overbidding,” whereby they talk up the potential value of work for which they seek the support of funds, changes in legislation or public approval.

“Since the late 20th century, scientists no longer quite have that quality that we used to speak of as scientists being disinterested. They are now very interested,” says Hilary Rose, professor emerita of the sociology of science at the University of Bradford, UK and Gresham College London. “Many clearly manage to rise above this, but the basic culture of science has changed.”
5) Nick Gillespie at Reason reviews two new books on Sarah Palin and the 2008 election, discussing the "oversize" reaction to her.

6) At the WSJ, Terry Teachout celebrates the 40th anniversary of "Civilisation:"
By "civilisation" Clark meant Western civilization, and the first episode, "The Skin of Our Teeth," made it clear that he was no less firm a believer in the primacy of high culture and the genius of great men. In the opening sequence, an unseen organist thunders out a toccata as the camera pans across the face of Michelangelo's David, the façade of Chartres Cathedral and other icons of Western art. Then Clark reads the stately words of John Ruskin: "Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last." From there he embarks on a discursive tour d'horizon devoted solely to the doings of dead white giants: Charlemagne, Raphael, Bach, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, Byron, Rodin. If you think Michael Jackson was a musical master, you've come to the wrong shop.
7) At Poliwood, Roger L. Simon and Lionel Chetwynd Discuss NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman's claim that President Obama is the "most power writer since Julius Caesar." (Kudos to Chetwynd for shouting, "They are ignorant of Latin!")

8) More brilliance from Mr. Landesman. (WSJ)

9) At The Times Online (UK): The internet is killing storytelling!
Addicted to the BlackBerry, hectored and heckled by the next blog alert, web link or text message, we are in state of Continual Partial Attention, too bombarded by snippets and gobbets of information to focus on anything for very long. Microsoft researchers have found that someone distracted by an e-mail message alert takes an average of 24 minutes to return to the same level of concentration. . .
Storytelling is the bedrock of civilisation. From the moment we become aware of others, we demand to be told stories that allow us to make sense of the world, to inhabit the mind of someone else. In old age we tell stories to make small museums of memory. It matters not whether the stories are true or imaginary.
The narrative, whether oral or written, is a staple of every culture the world over. But stories demand time and concentration; the narrative does not simply transmit information, but invites the reader or listener to witness the unfolding of events.
Stories introduce us to situations, people and dilemmas beyond our experience, in a way that is contemplative and gradual: it is the oldest and best form of virtual reality.
The internet, while it communicates so much information so very effectively, does not really “do” narrative. The blog is a soap box, not a story. Facebook is a place for tell-tales perhaps, but not for telling tales. The long-form narrative still does sit easily on the screen, although the e-reader is slowly edging into the mainstream. Very few stories of more than 1,000 words achieve viral status on the internet.
Meanwhile, a generation is tuned, increasingly and sometimes exclusively, to the cacophony of interactive chatter and noise, exciting and fast moving but plethoric and ephemeral. The internet is there for snacking, grazing and tasting, not for the full, six-course feast that is nourishing narrative. The consequence is an anorexic form of culture.
10) At the WSJ, "Children's books that might help repel the armies of electronic distraction."

11) At the WSJ, an interview with conductor David Robertson, now in his fifth season as music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Next week here at APLV:
Mozart, Haydn, Aristotle, Bergman.
Join us.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What's Going On?

I had planned a little political essay for today, as it is once again election time. Despite that it is finished, instead of sharing it with you I thought I would share some political thinking of a more timeless quality. All that remains of my original essay is the title of this post, which duly conveys my current sentiments if not my specific concerns, which nonetheless can be found below in the works I decided to highlight.

There are three sections to this post:
I. Demosthenes
II. Links
III. Yes, Prime Minister

I. Demosthenes

I have excerpted the speech known as the Third Olynthiac, the Olynthiacs being a series of three speeches Demosthenes delivered to the Athenians in 349BC, urging them to help the citizens of their ally to the north, Olynthus, who were threatened by Philip II of Macedon.
  • The full speech is available in Greek and English at The Perseus Project.
  • Versions in print are also available in Greek and English.
  • Please see below for other texts on Demosthenes and his time.
  • The boldface sections below are my emphases.
Selections from Demosthenes' 3rd Olynthiac

English translation by J. H. Vince, M.A. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1930. via The Perseus Project.

[3] Never was there a crisis that demanded more careful handling than the present. But the difficulty lies, I think, not in proposing a plan to meet the case: what puzzles me, men of Athens, is how to put it before you. For what I have seen and heard convinces me that most of your chances have escaped us rather from a disinclination to do our duty than from a failure to understand it. I must ask you to bear with me if I speak frankly, considering only whether I am speaking the truth, and speaking with the object that things may go better in the future; for you see how the popularity-hunting of some of our orators has led us into this desperate predicament.

[6] Well, what is done cannot be undone; but now comes the opportunity of another war. That was why I have referred to the past, that you may not make the same mistake again. What use, men of Athens, are we to make of our opportunity? For if you do not send help “in full muster, whereto your power shall extend,” observe how all your generalship will make for Philip's success.

[8] What remains then, men of Athens, but to help them with all your power and energy? I see no alternative. For, quite apart from the disgrace that we should incur if we shirk our responsibilities, I see not a little danger, men of Athens, for the future, if the Thebans maintain their present attitude towards us, and the Phocians have come to the end of their money, and there is nothing to hinder Philip, when he has crushed his present foe, from turning his arms against Attica.
[9] But surely if anyone of you would postpone the necessary action till then, he must prefer to see danger at his very doors, rather than hear of it far away, and to beg help for himself, when he might be lending help to others now; for I suppose we all realize that that is what it will come to, if we throw away our present chances.

[10] Perhaps you will say, “Of course we all know that we must send an expedition, and we are willing to do so; but tell us how.” Then do not be surprised, Athenians, if my answer comes as a shock to most of you. Appoint a legislative commission. Do not use it to frame new laws—you have laws enough for your purpose—but repeal those which hamper us in the present crisis.

[11] In plain language I mean the laws for administering the Theoric Fund, and also some of the service regulations. The former distribute the military funds as theatre-money among those who remain in the city; the latter give impunity to deserters and in consequence discourage those willing to serve. When you have repealed these laws and made the way safe for wise counsel, then look round for someone who will propose what you all know to be salutary measures. But until you have done this, do not expect to find a statesman who will propose measures for your benefit, only to be ruined by you for his pains.

[12] You will never find one, especially as the only result would be that the proposer would get into trouble without improving the situation, and his fate would also make good advice more dangerous for the future. Yes, men of Athens, and you ought to insist that those who made these laws should also repeal them.

[13] It is not fair that those legislators should enjoy a popularity which has cost the community dear, but that the patriotic reformer should be penalized by the odium of proposals by which we may all be benefited. Until you have set this right, Athenians, do not expect to find anyone so influential among you that he can break these laws with impunity, or so wanting in discretion as to run open-eyed into danger.

[14]  At the same time, Athenians, you must not forget this, that a mere decree is worthless without a willingness on your part to put your resolutions into practice. If decrees could automatically compel you to do your duty, or could accomplish the objects for which they were proposed, you would not have passed such an array of them with little or no result, and Philip would not have had such a long career of insolent triumph. Long ago, if decrees counted for anything, he would have suffered for his sins.

[15] But that is not so. For in order of time action is subsequent to speaking and voting, but in importance it comes first and ranks higher. It is action, then, that must be added: of all else we have enough. You have among you, Athenians, men competent to say the right thing, no nation is quicker-witted to grasp the meaning of speech, and you will at once be able to translate it into action, if only you do your duty.

[17] But, in the name of the gods, when we have abandoned all these places and almost helped Philip to gain them, shall we then ask who is to blame? For I am sure we shall never admit that it is ourselves. In the panic of battle the runaway never blames himself; it is always his general's fault, or his comrades', anyone's rather than his own. Yet surely to the runaways collectively the defeat is due; for he might have stood firm who now blames the others, and if every man had stood, the battle would have been won.

[21] I am not talking for the idle purpose of quarrelling with anyone here. I am not such a misguided fool as to pick a quarrel deliberately when I see no advantage from it. But I consider it right as a citizen to set the welfare of the state above the popularity of an orator. Indeed I am given to understand—and so perhaps are you—that the orators of past generations, always praised but not always imitated by those who address you, adopted this very standard and principle of statesmanship. I refer to the famous Aristides, to Nicias, to my own namesake, and to Pericles.

[22] But ever since this breed of orators appeared who ply you with such questions as “What would you like? What shall I propose? How can I oblige you?” the interests of the state have been frittered away for a momentary popularity. The natural consequences follow, and the orators profit by your disgrace.

[24] Now your ancestors, whom their orators, unlike ours today, did not caress or flatter, for five and forty years* commanded the willing obedience of the Greeks; more than ten thousand talents did they accumulate in our Acropolis; the then king of Macedonia was their subject, even as a barbarian ought to be subject to Greeks; many honorable trophies for victory on sea and land did they erect, themselves serving in the field; and they alone of mankind left behind them by their deeds a renown greater than all detraction.

[25] Such was their rank in the world of Hellas: what manner of men they were at home, in public or in private life, look round you and see. Out of the wealth of the state they set up for our delight so many fair buildings and things of beauty, temples and offerings to the gods, that we who come after must despair of ever surpassing them; yet in private they were so modest, so careful to obey the spirit of the constitution,

[26] that the houses of their famous men, of Aristides or of Miltiades, as any of you can see that knows them, are not a whit more splendid than those of their neighbors. For selfish greed had no place in their statesmanship, but each thought it his duty to further the common weal. And so by their good faith towards their fellow Greeks, their piety towards the gods, and their equality among themselves, they deserved and won a great prosperity.

[27] Such was their condition in those days under the leaders I have named; and what is our condition today, thanks to our worthy statesmen? Is it the same or anything like the same? Why, we—I pass over much that I might mention, but you all see what a clear field we had got, with the Lacedaemonians crushed, the Thebans fully occupied, and no other city fit to dispute the supremacy with us, while we might have been both the vindicators of our own rights and the umpires of the rights of others;

[28] and yet we have been robbed of our own soil, we have wasted on unnecessary objects more than fifteen hundred talents, our statesmen in peace have lost us the allies we gained in war, and we have provided a training-ground for this formidable rival. If not, let someone come forward and tell me who but ourselves has made Philip powerful.

[29] “But,” says an objector, “if our foreign policy has failed, there is great improvement in domestic affairs.” And to what can you point in proof? To the walls we are whitewashing, the streets we are paving, the water-works, and the balderdash? Look rather at the men whose statesmanship has produced these results; some of them were poor and now are rich, some were obscure and now are eminent, some have reared private houses more stately than our public buildings, while the lower the fortunes of the city have sunk, the higher have their fortunes soared.

[30] What is the cause of all this, and why, pray, did everything go well then that now goes amiss? Because then the people, having the courage to act and to fight, controlled the politicians and were themselves the dispensers of all favors; the rest were well content to accept at the people's hand honor and authority and reward.

[31] Now, on the contrary, the politicians hold the purse-strings and manage everything, while you, the people, robbed of nerve and sinew, stripped of wealth and of allies, have sunk to the level of lackeys and hangers-on, content if the politicians gratify you with a dole from the Theoric Fund or a procession at the Boëdromia, and your manliness reaches its climax when you add your thanks for what is your own. They have mewed you up in the city and entice you with these baits, that they may keep you tame and subservient to the whip.

[32] You cannot, I suppose, have a proud and chivalrous spirit, if your conduct is mean and paltry; for whatever a man's actions are, such must be his spirit. By our Lady, I should not wonder if I got rougher treatment from you for pointing out these faults than the men who are responsible for them. For you do not allow liberty of speech on every subject, and indeed I am surprised that you have allowed it now.

[33] If, therefore, even at the eleventh hour, you can shake off these habits, and consent to fight and act as becomes Athenians and to devote the abundant resources that you have at home to the attainment of success abroad, perhaps, men of Athens, perhaps you may gain some important and unqualified advantage and may be quit of these paltry perquisites. Like the diet prescribed by doctors, which neither restores the strength of the patient nor allows him to succumb, so these doles that you are now distributing neither suffice to ensure your safety nor allow you to renounce them and try something else; they only confirm each citizen in his apathy.

[36] I am not indeed blaming the man who does your duty for you, but I call on you to do that for yourselves which you reward others for doing, and not to desert that post of honor, men of Athens, which your ancestors through many glorious hazards won and bequeathed to you.

I have now said almost all that I consider suitable. It is for you to choose what is likely to benefit the city and all of you.

* The interval between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.

Works on Demosthnes and His Time 

On the Style of Demosthenes. Dionysius of Halicarnassus. (In the Loeb edition, titled Dionysius of Halicarnassus: Critical Essays, Volume I.)

II. Links

I keep track of:
  1. the October 2008 "Bailout" at ProPublica.
  2. the February, 2009 "Stimulus" at ProPublica.
  3. "earmarks" on federal legislation at Washington Watch.
  4. bills in Congress at GovTrack.
  5. State legislation at FindLaw. 
  6. Supreme Court Decisions at The Cornell University Legal Information Institute.
  7. my representatives at Vote Smart.
  8. lobbying funds at Open Secrets. 
III. Yes, Prime Minister (ep. A Conflict of Interest)

Part I - Part II - Part III

N.B. I realize much of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister is available on YouTube. Such clips are, in fact, what introduced me to this fine show. Should you enjoy it too, the shows are available on DVD and Netflix (discs and streaming.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Movie Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Directed by Robert Wiene. 1920.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a frightening movie. I just wanted to get that out quickly and clearly, as something about silent films entices critics to take readers on a journey through time, paging through the fascinating jargon-laden annals of film history. Such is all well and good, but such a trip should not come at the expense of discussing the essence of a film. Caligari is often remembered as "the first true horror movie," as being highly influential, a classic example of German expressionism, as starring Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt, for having a "twist" ending, being very good, very old, very short, et cetera. As frightening, not so much. Why is that?

The reason is twofold, on the one hand the reasons listed above simply obscure the scariness and on the other the fright is a philosophical one and thus requires a modicum of consideration for its effect. Take the ending, for example, which is remembered for its novelty. We thought that Francis was relating a terrible tale to the man sitting next to him, a tale in which Francis was pursuing a strange doctor, Dr. Caligari, who was using a somnambulist to carry out murders. We discover, though, that Francis is a patient at the asylum in his own story, and that the characters from his story are the people at the asylum. This is of course a surprise, but why is it significant? Perhaps because he is crazy. Well, so what if he is crazy? Why is that significant?

It is significant because it asks the following question: how terrifying would it be to become divorced from reality, to be trapped in a world you cannot understand? How could you live without being able to say what anything is with the slightest bit of certainty? Also, consider the final scene of the inmates in the courtyard: how horrible would it be if we all entertained competing versions of reality, with Princess Jane, Cesare with his flowers, and Francis with his murder conspiracy? With everyone's whims vying for dominance, it would be a nightmare.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, October 24 through Friday, October, 30.

1) In the WSJ, Tunku Varadarajan reviews "The Great Cities in History" edited, by John Julius Norwich.

2) From, "The Pursuit of Wisdom in the Age of the Internet" by James Bowman (at The New Criterion):
As a professional critic, I notice that criticism itself is changing. I’m old enough to have been trained up to the job in the days when it was still thought by most if not all people that the object of criticism was, to use the title of our conference this weekend, the pursuit of truth.
Not definitive truth, not conclusive truth, not truth that left no room for other truths, but still truth — truth, perhaps, even as beauty, as Keats saw it, which I disagree with Peter Wood, who spoke this morning, in thinking not a lie but a poetic truth. In any case, truth certainly as something distinguishable from error. Now that a generation has grown up believing that that kind of truth is invidious, or "privileged" or authoritarian or hierarchical or, God help us, "patriarchal," and that everybody has a right to his or her own truth, what we have instead of truth as the purpose of criticism— where it is not simply Marxist political analysis — is "intertextuality." That is, we harvest as many points of connection as we can think of between King Lear and Batman and between both of them and the universe of texts awaiting us out there on the Internet — and then we put in the links between them.
It’s a highly idiosyncratic exercise, since there are an infinite number of texts and an infinite number of possible connections. That’s how you end up with that grab-bag as outlined by Professor Cowen, "a joke from YouTube, a terrifying scene from a Japanese slasher movie, a melody from iTunes," and so forth. The only real connection between them is in the fancy of the critic, who thus steps forward as the real hero of the critical enterprise whose only aim is to enhance his own "rich and varied inner experience."
3) After posting my review on Monday, I stumbled upon this excellent article: Beyond Zarathustra: Nietzsche and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

4) Monsters and the Moral Imagination by by Stephen T. Asma (At the Chronicle of Higher Education)
In a significant sense, monsters are a part of our attempt to envision the good life or at least the secure life. Our ethical convictions do not spring fully grown from our heads but must be developed in the context of real and imagined challenges. In order to discover our values, we have to face trials and tribulation, and monsters help us imaginatively rehearse. Imagining how we will face an unstoppable, powerful, and inhuman threat is an illuminating exercise in hypothetical reasoning and hypothetical feeling. . .
 People frequently underestimate the role of art and imagery in their own moral convictions. Through art (e.g., Shelley's Frankenstein, Hitchcock's Psycho, King's and Kubrick's The Shining), artists convey moral visions. Audiences can reflect on them, reject or embrace them, take inspiration from them, and otherwise be enriched beyond the entertainment aspect. Good monster stories can transmit moral truths to us by showing us examples of dignity and depravity without preaching or proselytizing.
5 ) The Manhattan Institute's Howard Hussock discusses the implications of a "to quietly raise additional billions in taxes by limiting the value of itemized deductions—such as contributions to charity."
The proposal would hold steady the deductions’ value (at 35 cents on a dollar) even as the top tax rate rises in 2011 to more than 39 percent (as the Bush tax cuts expire). When a similar proposal was advanced early this year by President Obama, the long-time head of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Martin Feldstein, estimated it would lead to a $7 billion drop in charitable giving. Such a fall would compound big losses that have already hit charities; the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that six of 10 United Way chapters saw a decline in giving last year, totaling $4 billion. Although Americans donate about $300 billion in total annually to charity, these sorts of hits are not small change. As a coalition of 15 major charitable organizations put it in a letter Finance Committee chairman Senator Baucus, “Charities have seen an increased demand for their services as individuals and families struggle with financial uncertainty.”

The implicit assumption of the proposed change: that government will do better things with that money than will philanthropy.
6) In the WSJ, Barbara Jepson asks of the new wave of young conductors. . .
Is this just the latest changing of the guard, as middle-age maestros move up the ladder and eminent conductors in their 80s—such as Sir Colin Davis, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel and Sir Charles Mackerras—shed important posts? Or are the latest crop of baton-wielders, like tennis phenoms, obtaining expert training and top talent agents earlier than before?
7) In the WSJ, Robert Greskovic reviews "Ancient Paths, Modern Voices," a festival of Chinese arts in NYC.

8) Shiller's Poetics of Freedom by Rüdiger Görner (at Standpoint.)

9) At City Journal, Adam D. Thierer reviews, "A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution" by Dennis Baron.

10) In the context of the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, in the WSJ, Daniel Akst discusses Vienna's Ringstrasse.
not just a landmark in the history of human freedom but a masterpiece of urban design, one that, in the words of historian Carl Schorske, "surpassed in visual impact any urban reconstruction of the nineteenth century—even that of Paris."
11) At Foreign Affairs, Jon B. Alterman reviews, "Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean For Our World" by Vali Nasr.

12) Pop Quiz: Mozart or Salieri?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Homeric Recitation

The Opera of All Operas

222 years ago today Don Giovanni premiered at the Estates Theater in Prague. We will come to a discussion of the opera in due time here, but for now enjoy a few selections of fine performances.

James Levine, conducting

Act I: Notte giorno faticar
Lorenzo Regazzo as Leporello. Madrid Teatro Real. 2005.

Act I: Madamina, il catalogo è questo
José van Dam (Leporello) and Kiri Te Kanawa (Donna Elvira). 
Don Giovanni (film) dir. Joseph Losey. 1979.

Act I: La ci darem la mano
Rodney Gilfry (Don Giovanni), Liliana Nikiteanu (Zerlina.) 
 Zürich. 2001.

Act II: Il mio tesoro intanto
Luigi Alva as Ottavio. 
Don Giovanni (film) dir. Teresa Stich-Randall. 1960.

Act II: Don Giovanni, a cenar teco
Samuel Ramey, Kurt Moll, and Ferruccio Furlanetto. 
The Metropolitan Opera. 1990.

A Few Recommendations

Productions available on DVD
  1. Herbert von Karajan conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. 1987.
  2. Victor Pablo Pérez conducting the Madrid Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. 2005.
  1. Mozart and His Operas by David Cairns (Chapter, Don Giovanni)
  2. The Classical Style by Charles Rosen (Chapter, Serious Opera)