Friday, December 18, 2009

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, December 12 through Friday, December 18.

1)  At the WSJ, Stuart Isacoff on music and the brain.

2) James Gardner at the WSJ reviews the James Tissot exhibition, "The Life of Christ," now on view at the Brooklyn Museum through January 17th.

3) David Mermelstein interivews mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe for the WSJ. 

4) At Laudator Temporis Acti, on trees and the nicknames of Samuel Johnson.

5) And now for something completely different: Tim Madigan of Philosophy Now watches Nietzsche clash with Wagner.

6) Geoffrey Robertson at Standpoint makes the case for a British Bill of Rights.

7) Director of The Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional Studies, Roger Pilon on "the modern executive state" in the National Review:
. . .the tale of how so powerful an executive arose is not really complicated: Congress and the Supreme Court conspired to create it. A century ago, progressives began viewing the Constitution’s checks and balances not as protections against overweening power but as impediments to enlightened government — the kind of government that would one day be used to “save the planet.” Since the New Deal, Congress has delegated ever more powers to the executive branch without much guidance as to how they are to be used. And a supine Court, cowed originally by Franklin Roosevelt’s threat to add six new members, has gone along, in the name of “democracy” and judicial modesty, even as the expanding government has looked less and less democratic.
8) Now available at the British Library's Online Gallery: pages from the score of Handel's Messiah.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Movie Review: Solaris

Solaris. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. 1972.

When film is not a document, it is dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn't explain. What should he explain anyhow?

Film as dream, film as music. No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul. –Ingmar Bergman

I. Film as Dream

The reverie passages of Solaris are perhaps the film’s signature feature, but what to make of them? And what to make of Bergman’s quote above, for that matter? What is the significance of experiencing a film like a dream? While I do not assume Bergman and Tarkovsky were of one mind on the matter, I believe there is some common understanding of films as dreams. For the viewer, the most fundamental aspect of films as dreams is the manner in which we understand them, an aspect expressed in the second quote of Bergman’s above: that we experience the movie emotionally first, like music. It is then in our subsequent reflections of why we experienced the feelings we did that we understand the movie and perhaps, and hopefully to a greater extent, ourselves.

II. Self-Reflection

The theme of self-reflection and self-understanding is the central moral issue of Solaris. Each scientist on the station has journeyed there to study the planet, but the nature of the entity on Solaris forces them to study themselves. For example, Dr. Kelvin, himself a psychologist, is forced to confront deep-seated feelings about his late wife and father. First, the entity on Solaris recreates his late wife from his memories. Unable to rid himself of this hallucination, he gradually grows attached to Hari, even confessing that while he left the real Hari on earth years ago, he loves the recreated one now. Yet when he relates this to the recreated Hari, and also the fact that his real wife killed herself when he left her, she too kills herself. Though once again resurrected, she asks the other doctors to terminate her with a device they have constructed. When Kelvin is informed of this, and that “she did it for him” Kelvin says, “things weren’t working out between us towards the end.” Is he talking about the real Hari or the hallucination? Did he drive one to death by loving her too little, and another by loving too much? Kelvin goes on to ask, “Why are we being tortured like this?” Does he mean generally or is he specifically referring to “being tortured. . . by the entity on Solaris?” Dr. Snaut replies as if it were the former, “In my opinion we have lost our sense of the cosmic. The ancients understood this perfectly. They would never have asked why or what for. Remember the myth of Sisyphus.”

Is not understanding oneself what foils attempts peacefully to interact with others. It is simply in man’s nature, then, to be contesting with struggle of self in relation to others. It is perhaps, as Nietzsche said, that life is itself the price of living?

Let us look at some more of the closing dialogue:

SNART: When man is happy, the meaning of life and other eternal themes rarely interest him. These questions should be asked at the end of one’s life.

KELVIN: But we don’t know when life will end. That’s why we’re in such a hurry.

SNART: Don’t rush. The happiest people are those who are not interested in these cursed questions.

KELVIN: To ask is always the desire to know. Yet the preservation of simple human truths requires mystery. The mysteries of happiness, death, and love.

SNART: Maybe you’re right, but try not to think about all that now.

KELVIN: To think about it is to know the day of one’s death. Not knowing that day makes us practically immortal.

As Dr. Snart says, what dire questions. Is there no chance of objectivity, of an answer to such questions? Kelvin’s dissatisfaction implies he seeks some non-materialistic metaphysical answer. Kelvin’s statement about mystery is like Snart’s about Sisyphus above: our situation is simply the nature of things, and it is our lack of knowledge about our ends that forces us to make use of what we have. But does it really make us practically immortal?

Why does Kelvin stay on Solaris? Is it for the hope of seeing Hari again? To experience the reunification (however artificial) with his father? To interact with the entity? He says he could return to Earth, “But I won’t be able to give myself to them fully. Never.” Why is that?

III. Many Questions

Interaction with the alien entity is an even greater source of questions in Solaris. Are we really capable of understanding with it? Clearly scientific testing has failed to provide any insight. It certainly has some basic understanding of us, yet it does not (at first) understand that the hallucinations it is conjuring are unasked for and painful, and it does not recreate the images perfectly (e.g. the solid lake and indoor rain.) Are the scientists' interactions with the hallucinations (“guests” as they refer to them) interactions with the Solaris entity or are they solely experiences between the scientists and their own consciousness? Are we capable of understanding the Solaris entity on its own terms or only when it creates something from our body of preconceptions about the universe?

Early in the film, a scientist says, “But what we’re talking about is far more serious than just the study of Solaristics. We’re talking about the boundaries of human knowledge. Don’t [you] think by establishing artificial barriers we deliver a blow to the idea of limitless thought? By limiting our movement forward, we facilitate moving backwards.” Is it inherently limitless, or limited? Some phenomena correspond to predictions, others do not. What are the tools of predicting?

What of how technology is portrayed in the film? On the one hand man’s technical abilities have brought him the ability to travel far from home. Yet in Solaris man’s technical skill has clearly outpaced his philosophical comprehension, evidenced by the scientists’ extremely limited approaches toward understanding the entity on the planet. Is technology helping, hindering, neutral? Has it brought the scientists to this great challenge, is it what is now holding them back (compare their distance on the space station to Dr. Kelvin finally going down to the planet at the end), is it incidental?

The final scene generates perhaps the most questions of all. Does Dr. Kelvin choosing to remain on Solaris represent a tragic inability to embrace reality? Or is it a spiritual communion between man and the entity? Is it an act of supplication of man toward a being of far higher understanding or an instance of imperfectly rationalizing phenomena and ignoring the inconsistencies?

Should we infer that Dr. Kelvin may one day come to understand the entity, is it simply beyond human understanding, are we limited to understanding it only in a certain, limited, way? If it is wholly, or partially, unknowable, is the notion of the incomprehensible foolish, awe-inspiring, or terrifying? Is there a middle ground between positions of conceiving of our surroundings as inherently unknowable or inherently knowable? Does the final scene suggest a dialectical or phenomenological method of inquiry? How do all of these metaphysical questions affect the issue of self-reflection discussed above?

IV. Conclusion

I suspect for many viewers Solaris will appear an impenetrable mass of questions and vagaries, useless perhaps for suggesting both nothing and everything. I hope it is evident, though, the film raises many important questions. Indeed in raising so many questions and presenting them in a manner inviting, indeed requiring, repeated consideration, Solaris achieves what few films do, being about the questioning itself. As such, it is the philosophically-minded film goer that will get the most from Solaris, and it is the individual for whom philosophy is a necessary part of life that it should most affect.

- Quotations from the film taken from the English subtitles of the November 2002 Criterion Edition DVD of Solaris.

Other writing on Solaris:

Friday, December 11, 2009

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, December 5 through Friday, December 11.

1) On Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor (and the issue of orchestration) at Peter Gutmann's Classical Notes.

2) On the constitutionality of a personal mandate to buy health insurance, from Randy Barnett at The Volokh Conspiracy

3) Ilya Shapiro and Travis Cushman at The American look at the constitutionality of the "Public Company Accounting Oversight Board."

4) At Big Hollywood, Mark Tapson's, "ZINN 101: A Radical’s History of the United States."

5) Carolyn See at The Washington Post reviews, "The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English from Shakespeare to 'South Park'" by Jack Lynch.

6) In the WSJ, Robert Greskovic on George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker" at The New York City Ballet.

7) At Slate, Witold Rybczynski on the "enduring influence of architect Christopher Alexander, author of 'A Pattern of Language.'"
Alexander argued that the standardized, mass-produced way in which buildings are designed and built today is wrongheaded, and to demonstrate an alternative he started to build himself. . .
Alexander's ideas have taken root in unexpected places. His early books, especially Notes on the Synthesis of Form and A Pattern Language, influenced computer scientists, who found useful parallels between building design and software design. The New Urbanism movement also owes him a debt, as a new book by Andres Duany and Jeff Speck makes clear. The Smart Growth Manual consists of 148 principles—patterns, really—that add up to a language for community design, from entire regions to neighborhood streets. "We believe that new places should be designed in the manner of existing places that work," the authors write, a concept straight out of Alexander. Curiously, the one place that Alexander, a lifelong professor, has had the least influence is in academia. The theories that are taught in architecture schools today are of a different sort, and in the belief that the field of architecture should be grounded in intellectual speculation, rather than pragmatic observation, students are more likely to be assigned French post-structuralist texts than A Pattern Language. Which is a shame.
8) "I.M. Pei's National Gallery of Art East Building: An Ultramodern Building Shows Signs of Age" by Catesby Leigh in the WSJ. (from the article, "It seems pretty clear that the architect's 'technological breakthrough in the construction of masonry walls' was more of an experiment than he realized.")

9) In City Journal, Michael Knox Beran reviews, "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science" by Richard Holmes.
But Holmes is concerned less with particular discoveries than with the mentality of the discoverers. The wonder revealed by science is not, finally, severable from the mind of the wonderer. Holmes cites Richard Feynman’s belief that science is “driven by a continual dialogue between skeptical enquiry and the sense of inexplicable mystery,” and that if either is permitted to get the upper hand, “true science” will be “destroyed.”

Even as he studies the outer world, the Romantic scientist is preoccupied with the secret of his inward existence. Banks observing the customs of the Tahitians, Davy on laughing gas, Mary Shelley wondering “in what sense Frankenstein’s ‘Creature’ would be human”: all remained perplexed by the mysteriousness of man. What laws govern his being? How do changing conditions affect his nature? Is he a creature created on purpose or a mere material accident?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Solzhenitsyn's Warning to the West

A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course there are many courageous individuals but they have no determining influence on public life. Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity and perplexity in their actions and in their statements and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable as well as intellectually and even morally warranted it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and weak countries, not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.
Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?...

But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just mentioned are extremely saddening.
A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life's complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper and more interesting characters than those produced by standardized Western well-being. Therefore if our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some particularly significant scores. It is true, no doubt, that a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case in our country. But it is also demeaning for it to elect such mechanical legalistic smoothness as you have. After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today's mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Schall on Culture

Fr. James Schall, SJ: Culture is Never Neutral

Fr. Schall, in this ISI lecture, gives an excellent account of the Catholic theological attitude towards culture.

Here's the text, though apparently, Fr. Schall was only working from the text, not following it verbatim.

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, November 28 through Friday, November 4.

1) In Standpoint Magazine, a shallow discussion of the staging of oratorios.

2) In The Washington Post a shallow review of, "The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy" by Adrienne Mayor.

3) At The Hoover Institution, Liam Julian on "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage" by H.W. Fowler and edited by David Crystal

4) In City Journal, Michael Knox Beran asks "Can the polis live again?"
It was left to Thomas Jefferson to show that it was possible to preserve the public virtues within a nation-state. To protect civic artistry in a changing America, Jefferson sought to re-create the civic life he had known in his youth. As a college student in colonial Williamsburg, he had been drawn into little communities of sympathetic scholarship that he would always characterize in Athenian terms: “They were truly Attic societies.” It was in communities of this kind, he believed, that men’s civic impulses could flourish as they could not in a larger space.

“A great deal of love given to a few,” he wrote, “is better than a little to many.” Jefferson’s University of Virginia reflected this ideal: he intended it to be an “academical village,” and in designing its Lawn, he made ingenious use of the classical arts to frame one of America’s most beguiling public spaces.

Arendt didn’t heed Jefferson in this, and she offers little prescriptive guidance for those seeking to reclaim public space today. Yet her work remains a useful statement of the part that such spaces might play in resisting the social revolution, if only a way could be found to salvage them. A new generation of civic artists is seeking to revive the old public spaces. “New Urbanist” architects, among them Léon Krier, Andrés Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, want to restore the town square to its old pride of public place. Their effort is noble, but Arendt showed just how fierce the opposition is.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Political Theology: A Beginning (I)

As part of my interest in anti-liberal political philosophies, I'd like to draw the reader's attention to this BBC Radio 4 Beyond Belief program on Christian Socialism. The program features Dr. John Milbank, founding member of the Radical Orthodoxy movement. After listening to the program, I concluded that Milbank, while professing himself an English Christian Socialist, has more in common with European Christian democrats than with conventional socialists or even Christian socialists.(1) 

What are the sources of Christian democracy? This is not an easy question to answer: Christian democracy, like any political ideology, is diverse, with different and competing views. At its best, Christian democracy is rooted in the social encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII and Pius XI, Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. At its worst, it's indistinguishable from left-wing liberalism (2), supportive of a central, bureaucratic state and none too sound on social questions, such as marriage, the family, and the dignity of the person. But what of the more acceptable version? Where are its roots located? What direction is it headed? What does it get right? What does it get wrong? And what lessons might it offer for American Christians? 

These are questions I'd like to consider and will do so by taking a closer look in future posts at some important texts from the Christian democratic tradition: the papal social documents, Radical Orthodox, Distributist and Catholic Worker texts, and the work of recent anti-liberal thinkers such as George Parkin Grant, David Schindler, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. If time permits, I may broaden my topic to include economic thinkers who are within the Christian democratic tradition, including Wilhelm Ropke and E.F. Schumacher. With the possible exception of Ropke, all of these thinkers and movements are fundamentally anti-liberal in outlook, preferring to locate the dignity of man not in Enlightenment views of individual autonomy but in man as the Imago Dei. Because American political philosophy and practice is rooted in the language of the Enlightenment, I shall, I suspect, have to devote some time and energy to adumbrating a Christian critique of classical liberalism. 

(1) For instance, the moderator of Beyond Belief calls Tony Blair a Christian socialist, an appellation that Milbank contests, and oddly, Wikipedia even lists the wildly anti-clerical Hugo Chavez as a Christian socialist.
(2) I hope it's become obvious that I'm not using the term 'liberal' in typical American fashion to necessarily denote a left-wing statist.

Russia & the Family

From Taki's Magazine:

'Love for the Motherland begins with family’—F. Bacon.

'Family is one of nature’s masterpieces'—Philosopher George Santayana
The most distinct feature of both ads is the fact that they don’t simply depict happy nuclear families, but, rather, emphasize genetic and historic continuity through multi-generational family “clans.”
Whether this country’s current pro-natalist experiment, in conjunction with the recent anti-alcohol and anti-smoking campaigns, achieves significant results remains to be seen. But for those concerned with the “Death of West,” some comfort can be found in the fact that what is taboo in western Europe and America is a national priority in the Motherland.

von Balthasar on Beauty

In a world without beauty --- even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it --- in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil. For this, too, is a possibility, and even the more exciting one: Why not investigate Satan's depths? In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency... And if this how the transcendentals fare because one of them has been banished, what will happen with Being itself? Thomas described Being (das Sein) as a 'sure light' for that which exists (das Seiende). Will this light not necessarily die out where the very language of light has been forgotten and the mystery of Being is no longer allowed to express itself? What remains is then a mere lump of existence which, even if it claims for itself the freedom proper to spirits, nevertheless remains totally dark and incomprehensible even to itself. The witness borne by Being becomes untrustworthy for the person who can no longer read the language of beauty.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, "The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics: I. Seeing the Form"

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Return of the King?

Phil Lawler at Catholic Culture reports:

Today the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI met with "His Royal Imperial Highness Otto von Hapsburg, archduke of Austria." The Vatican protocol office thereby conferred upon the Austrian visitor a title that he himself had renounced.

The heir to the storied Hapsburg dynasty, Otto von Hapsburg is the son of Blessed Karl, the last acknowledged ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Although he was forced from the throne and died in exile, Karl I never abdicated. Otto did renounce his claim to the Austrian throne, as a condition for being allowed to return to his native land. He has been prominent in European politics for decades. Now approaching his 100th birthday, he has stepped away from public life, and in more candid moments has admitted that he regrets renouncing his claims-- even though he made it quite clear that he was renouncing only his own personal claims, not those of his heirs.