Saturday, January 30, 2010

Roger Scruton on Beauty

Our need for beauty is not, I believe,a redundant addition to the list of human interests. It is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition, as free individuals, seeking our place in a shared and objective world. We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us. But beings like us become at home in the world only by paying tribute to our ‘fallen’ condition. Hence the experience of beauty also points us beyond this world, to a ‘kingdom of ends’ in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered. As Plato and Kant both saw, therefore, the feeling for beauty is proximate to the religious frame of mind, arising from a humble sense of harmony between the world around us and the needs within, and aspiring towards the highest unity with the transcendental...
We can, at any moment, turn away from desecration and ask ourselves instead what inspires us and what we should revere. We can set ourselves on a path along which the light of beauty shines – as we do when we listen to Mozart’s opera in the quiet of our home, so rescuing it from the grip of those who would despoil it. We can turn our attention to things we love – the woods and streams of our native country, friends and family, the ‘starry heavens above’ – and ask ourselves what they tell us about our life on earth, and how that life should be lived. And then we can look on the world of art, poetry and music and know that there is a real difference between the sacrilegious, with which we are alone and troubled, and the beautiful, with which we are in company, and at home.
fr. 'The Flight from Beauty'

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On the Overture to Idomeneo

Overture to Idomeneo
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (KV.366)

Idomeneo was commissioned in 1780 by Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria, and premiered at the Cuvilliés Theatre of the Munich Residenz January 29, 1781.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets (autograph reads: clarin trumpets), timpani, strings (2 violins, 2 violas, cello, bass.)

The score is available via the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe.

Incipit. 1st violin.

John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists.

". . . magnificent in terms of both its design and its execution, a piece aglow from first to last with supremely tragic emotion." [1]

"The overture is the score and the drama in microcosm: grand but ominous, driven forward relentlessly as though by the surge and sweep of the sea felt both as physical presence and as the angry Neptune, a symbol of the power of malignant fate over human affairs. . . This is the pattern of the overture: authority threatened by forces beyond its control." [2]

In their observations quoted above, Abert and Cairns capture the essence of Mozart’s overture for Idomeneo. As such I hope simply to elaborate on why and how the piece, in all of its terrifying splendor, is so effective.

The overture opens with a fanfare-like tune in D major for the whole orchestra. Yet like the final piano sonata KV.576, this festive opening quickly gives way to something altogether different. Where the sonata continued into whimsy, though, Idomeneo plunges into strife. In the 7th measure the 2nd violins give way to a series of half-note tremolos as the rest of the strings yield to a menacing motive, amplified by a like response in the woodwinds:

8m. Strings.
9m. Woodwinds.

The contest is repeated two times until the 1st violins break out into a dotted crotchet figure repeated against a persistent, agitating quaver figure in the 2nd violins, one we will hear incessantly through the rest of the piece.

mm. 14-15

The descending figure in the 1st violins is played and then repeated twice, though the third time in abbreviated form with only the descending element. Shortened, as if struggling and weakening against immovable forces, it falls into a skittish crescendo of tremolo crotchets. At m. 23 we have a forte chord with the basses then thrice launching the violins into an ascending passage. The violins then give up a lovely little secondary theme, (perhaps a cousin of the theme from mm. 57-61 of the Sinfonia Concertante, KV.364, written not long before Idomeneo), which is then taken up by the basses before a descending scalar passage leads into that little theme’s full flowering. Yet this glorious blossoming is against that persistent agitating figure in the 2nd violins again. The theme is then taken up in part by the violas and basses as if in support. At bar 41 the little theme, as if deflated and exhausted, falls piano in a little chromatic descent.

The descent leads into a tremolo, out of which the 2nd violins grow into another incessant and agitating quaver figure, now dotted, and against which the first violins cautiously press on:

mm. 49-53

The little theme in the first violins continues on, sighing and meandering until at last the winds take it over and into another forte chord, after which another series of rising passages driven on and up by the timpani follow. The horn and trombone then take up our little theme from mm. 14-15 against the persistent violins, a contest which ends with a slightly innocent little descending dotted passage and little sighs before a forte unison.

We return to a variant of our first two themes, the chromatic crescendo in the strings and the woodwind reply. It is played and then repeated three times, escalating in intensity each, but descends not into a fury but a fortissimo dotted rhythm and another forte unison.

After the recapitulation of the major themes in which the woodwinds see an increased role trading the material with the strings, the movement draws down to an ominous close. At m. 137 we get a rising scale piano in the oboes and clarinets followed by a descending chromatic figure in the flute, cut off by a harsh chord. The pattern repeats, with the woodwinds a tone or semitone lower each time. Eventually just the flute repeats its little figure against the pedal points:

m. 152

Cairns is quite right to note how “the tonality is a chromatically inflected D minor; the grand D major of the opening seems far away.” Both Cairns and Abert have noted the similarity between Mozart’s closing figure here and one from the opening of Gluck’s overture to his Iphigénie en Tauride.


The quotation is both a fitting homage toward the great Gluck and his masterpiece and an appropriately somber place at which to introduce us to Illia, who we find lamenting the destruction of her Trojan home and longing for Idamante, her rescuer, who is in love Argive princess.

Idomeneo’s overture is an ingenious balance between the sinfonia and the overture, functioning both to set the mood of the opening scene and to introduce the essential theme of the whole opera, the grand tragic struggle.

[1] Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007. (p. 613)
[2] Cairns, David. Mozart and His Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 2006. (pp. 54-55)

- Sheet music to Mozart's Idomeneo via the Neue Mozart Ausgabe.
- Sheet music to Gluck's Iphigénie en Auride via the Petrucci Music Library. [PDF]

Happy Birthday Mozart

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart was born today, the 27th of January, in the year 1756.

Posthumous painting by Barbara Krafft in 1819.

Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat. KV.364

Issac Stern (Violin), Pinchas Zukerman (Viola), and 
Zubin Mehta conducting The New York Philharmonic Orchestra. 1980 . 
Part I | Part II

Three Quotations via  
Phil. G. Goulding's "Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers"

"No instrumentation over-refined or over-laden; no development too complex or too slight. Everything is in perfect proportion to everything else–everything is just as it should be. . . For Mozart, besides having genius, had talent; he is one of the few composers in the world who had both, and that one reason is why he is unique."
- a 19th century music critic

"Before God, and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me, either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition."
- Joseph Haydn

"A phenomenon like Mozart is an explicable thing."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"Mozart's abnormal receptiveness gave him the most complete grasp that has yet been known of that diatonic system which is the basis of European musical training. This may seem an extravagant claim, but we can explain many a Mozartian tour de force only by recognizing that the man could cary in his head not just chords, their inversions, and  few "stock" contrapuntal gambits–for these served all musicians of talent–but the discords, suspensions, and contrapuntal ornaments most of us, even to-day, have to work out, as we do a mathematical problem.

[This passage from the D major Quintet], not a particularly ambitious work, could have been written by no other composer, ancient or modern. Yet its movement opens tamely and serenely and is not disturbed by the writing itself. To hear the passage without seeing it on the score paper, is to be unaware of its astounding technical virtuosity. Thus easily does Mozart seem to have acquired the style; this is a measure of his superb taste."
- Arthur Hutchings, in his "Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos"

An insightful discussion of Mozart and Così fan tutte with classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz from 2006, the 250th anniversary the composer's birth. (A discussion brought to my attention just today by my esteemed co-blogger Mr. Northcutt.)

Other Mozartiana here at APLV:

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Common Knowledge

The Young Cicero Reading. Vincenzo Foppa. Fresco, 1464.

 A selection from David McCullough's John Adams:
"You are now at a university where many of the greatest men have received their education," Adams reminded him. He must attend all the lectures possible, in law, medicine, chemistry, and philosophy. . . [Adams] sent a gift of several volumes of Pope, and a fine edition of a favorite Roman author, Terence, in both Latin and French. "Terence is remarkable, for good morals, good taste, and good Latin," Adams advised. "His language has simplicity and an elegance that make him proper to be accurately studied as a model." On hearing that John Quincy's course studies did not include Cicero and Demosthenes, Adams could hardly contain his indignation. John Quincy must begin upon them at once, he declared, "I absolutely insist upon it."

Latin and Greek were not all that mattered. John Quincy must neither forget nor fail to enjoy the great works of his own "mother tongue," and especially those of the poets. It was his happiness, too, that mattered.
"Read somewhat in the English poets every day. You will find them elegant, entertaining, and constructive companions through your whole life. In all the disquisitions you have heard concerning the happiness of life, has it ever been recommended to you to read poetry?"

". . .You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket. You will never have an idle hour."

"You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen." [1]

What might Mr. Adams make then of the college student today, not only unable to quote Shakespeare, but unable to recognize him? Of one who reads neither the Greek nor Roman languages and cannot recall the histories of either? What of a woman, B.A. in hand, who would not know what to make of being called a Porphyria, a Portia, or a Penelope? What should we make of a graduate who knows not a whit of Keats or a phrase of Mozart?

We might say that when such a person reads, he has nothing to compare it to. When he writes, he has no model for elegance. When he hears music, he cannot say whether it is more harmonious or rhythmic than anything else. When he sees an item in the newspaper, he cannot say whether, one time ago, a similar event happened with a similar cause. What one might most generally say is that this individual lacks the ability to make an analogy, perhaps by lack of intellect but at least by lack of information. We might say that lacking any knowledge of what has happened, exists, or is possible, this individual cannot assess the significance of what he perceives. Is is rare, commonplace, ugly, beautiful, dangerous?

One of Adams' points developed above is the need for a model against which to compare both one's work and the work of others. Usually works thought to exemplify a particular idea or ideal are held up as models, ones studied, imitated, and perhaps surpassed after one's education. There exist models of every archetype, the hero, villain, genius, fool, gentleman, rake, statesman, tyrant, et cetera. What of these, though, constitutes an education? As often is the case we come now to a definitional issue: what is an education? Let us take a simple definition and see what it suggests:
  1. the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.
  2. the act or process of imparting or acquiring particular knowledge or skills, as for a profession. [2]
We immediately see a bifurcation between general knowledge (1) and specialized, vocational knowledge (2). The former is what presently concerns us, though I would preface by noting vocational education should succeed that which is defined in part one, i.e. reason and judgment should precede all other study, be it of the law, medicine, farming, et cetera.

For part one (1) of our definition I first draw your attention to the concept of "developing the powers of reasoning and judgment." One recalls the tired teachers' platitude that they, "do not teach you x, y, or z, but rather teach you to think." Do they, in fact? Are students taught principles of "thinking," about concepts, precepts, first principles, causality, epistemology, dialectic, or logic? Even in philosophy courses these issues take a back seat to the more appealing ones. Who wants to grind through formal logic and Aristotle's Physics when you can read Socrates being clever in The Republic. And when one reads The Republic, what is easier to focus on: whether the state should ban bad books, or whether dialectic is itself a valuable epistemological tool?  Issues of morality and ethics are more fun to debate because everyone has an opinion of them, though to be taken seriously they must stand on epistemological and metaphysical foundations. Understanding of such principles requires time and patience. The worksis inglorious, and the rewards may seem always far off, though "it is wonderful how might may be done if we are always doing." [2] How many people can claim to have been taught these principles?

The are usually only two systematized approaches to thinking offered students, broadly referred to as "the scientific method" and the "geometric proof." Sadly, both are explained without a philosophical context and only applied within their respective realms. It is as if to say to the student, "in these two fields, (or even more specifically, "in these two classes") we have strict methodologies about making, testing and substantiating claims about the world. Outside of these fields, good luck!"

Of course the positive significance of teaching these two rational methods must not be overlooked. Consider the great technological achievements achieved in spite of a lack of overt training in "thinking". Yet one need only listen to a scientist, even a fine and successful one, even perhaps the greatest of his era, express his views on something outside his field to learn that philosophical poverty (and its dangers) may be the concomitants of this selectively-applied, strictly "scientific" reason.

To quote economist Thomas Sowell, "The problem isn't that Johnny can't think, it's that Johnny doesn't know what thinking is." Indeed. Students are not taught any systematized way of making sense of the world thus they do not in fact know what it means to "think" about something.

Before continuing we must make a few concessions regarding our statements and their implications:
  1. We must be wary in judging a culture by its art. True, art can be considered a barometer for values, yet we must consider whether art that is famous or, even art that is excellent, whether or not it necessarily reflects the values of the people of the society that produced it.
  2. We must consider a culture's best and brightest independently from the hoi polloi, not necessarily because their values differ but because the latter group lacks the resources (leisure or intellect) to appreciate some art.
Such is why I have confined this discussion to college-educated people and thus is why when we speak of "a society" we are in fact only speaking of a certain group within that society. Yet those we speak of we expect to be the best and brightest, those most capable of receiving and carrying on the best of the culture into which they were born. I also consider that which is passed on to be significant:
A liberal humanist education is underpinned by the assumption that children are rightful heirs to the legacy of the past. It takes responsibility for ensuring this inheritance is handed over to the young. It is because education gives meaning to human experience that it needs to be valued in its own right. One of the key characteristics of education is its lack of interest in an ulterior purpose. That does not mean it is uninterested in developments affecting children and society; it means that it regards the transmission of cultural and intellectual achievements of humanity to children as its defining mission. [5]

Continuing, part two (2) of our definition concerns "general knowledge." What a society considers "general knowledge" defines its ethos and character, i.e. its heroes, villains, its stories, music, literature; even sayings, euphemisms, superstitions, myths, et cetera. With our earlier observations in mind, what can we say is "common knowledge" for "educated," i.e. college-educated, people? One might say, that which is taught to everyone in college, i.e. the baseline college education; in other words, that which today constitutes a Bachelor of Arts degree or a liberal education. As far as I can tell, the meaning of the BA is indiscernible, suggesting neither a particular body nor degree of knowledge.

Charles Murray describes the ridiculousness of the current "BA System":
Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:
First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn't meet the goal. We will call the goal a "BA."
You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that's the system we have in place. [4]
We have a curriculum watered down in the hopes of making it within reach of people who cannot otherwise understand it. First, this curriculum naturally hurts those capable or seeking a full liberal arts education and second, when those the curriculum was watered down for fail, it benefits no one. (No one, except perhaps high schools who get to boast that their students went on to college, testing services, and the colleges' coffers.)

Culturally, though, what is the impact? A culture where you cannot discuss Shakespeare or Mozart with a college graduate. One where a single chord that should wring the heart and would have set a scholar from generations ago to exclaim, "Beethoven!" goes unrecognized. Perhaps most conspicuously absent, so conspicuously on account of its long history and esteem, is Classical knowledge. Stories, myths to some cultures and simply examples to others, that have bound and permeated Western Civilization for the last 2,500 years and more are now not part of the common cultural ethos. Who would be touched to be called a Pylades or a Hypermnestra? Does invoking the name "Hecate" conjure up the thoughts for people today as it did for past readers? Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, amidst the burgeoning of science and the enlightenment, Greek and Roman stories flourished in art. One could fill pages listing merely the operas based on Classical themes and characters. The people of those eras had no pretense such stories told happened, i.e. the stories were not myths to these people, but they retold them because those stories said something important, about the world, about man, his nature, strengths, weaknesses and so on. I would theorize also because these stories were theirs as Westerners. It was their inherited tradition, the Western way of understanding the world and how they thought man should live in it, and it was their gift to enjoy, their challenge to increase, and their duty to pass on. 

Without the same body of stories, historical or mythical, how to understand Mozart recalling Shakespeare, Shakespeare evoking the name of a Roman king, or Gluck quoting Tasso quoting Homer? More practically, who would know the difference if you called the president a Honorius or a Cincinnatus, called a battle a Cannae or a Zama?

I am reminded of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Captain Picard has to communicate with an alien who communicates strictly by metaphor, for example instead of saying "he is alone" he would say he is "on the ocean" and to express a great struggle, he would mention the names of two famous people who struggled. The alien, dying, asks Picard to tell him one of his Earth stories and Picard tells him the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu:

The difficulty of course was that the characters had different stories and different traditions, but what if Picard had none? The episode concludes with Picard reading the Homeric hymns and familiarizing himself with "our stories." What story would you, could you, tell? Of Ceyx and Alcymone, Achilles versus Hector, of the labors of Hercules or the crimes of Heliogabulus?

What is the alternative to investing some portion of society with its historic culture? For the West, perhaps it is a hopelessly literal society that forgoes artistic, metaphorical expression and chooses to express an emotion clinically or with vulgarity instead of with beauty. Perhaps it is an arrogant one writing heedless of Cicero or Demosthenes, or a cowardly one that prefers to medicalize parts the human condition instead of embracing or at least pondering them. (On that note, consider Adams' suggesting to his son that a poet be a companion and poetry a source of happiness.) It is generally, though, an ungrateful one that treats tradition as a burden instead of as an inheritance.

In his essay The New Learning That Failed Victor Davis Hanson accurately describes the decline of the Classical core of liberal education. I have been concerned more with the effect, which I see most of all to be a decline of communication, a decline: of capacity to  communicate at all (lack of intellect and reason), of desire to communicate with grace, sophistication, and depth (lack of models), and ability to draw on universal, significant, elements (lack of stories); all components of a Classical education. Yet Hanson points out what is perhaps modernity's worst crime against its Western heritage:
The West, alone of world cultures, was self-critical and introspective, curious about other civilizations, ready to turn its own empirical standards on itself, always attempting to match its idealism with actual fact—Socrates teaching about the vanities of the wealthy, Antigone the bias of the male chauvinist, Aristophanes the contradiction of democratic egalitarianism, or Tacitus and Sallust the use of Western military power for nefarious purposes. Indeed, professors and students are now denouncing perceived Western pathologies only through a tradition of Western empiricism and free expression of thought, unavailable elsewhere. [6]
The turning of Western tradition's virtue of self-criticism into self-immolation and self-repudiation is the heart of the loss of our stories. I believe Dr. Hanson has answered the why of it in his essay, so now we may ask: what have we in their stead?

[1] McCullough, David. John Adams. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. New York. 2001. (pp. 259-260)
[2] Education.
[3] Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the Virginian. Little, Brown and Company. Boston. 1948. (pp. 57)
[4] Murray, Charles. For Most People, College is a Waste of Time.WSJ.August 13, 2008.
[5] Furedi, Frank. Let's give children the 'store of human knowledge.' Spiked Online. November 18, 2009.
[6] Hanson, Victor Davis. The New Learning That Failed. The New Criterion. May 2008.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Two Takes on Alexander Hamilton

I. Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution's Uncommon Knowledge interviews Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton (2004.)


II. Thomas DiLorenzo speaks at the Mises Lecture event Depression, Monetary Destruction, and the Path to Sound Money on his book, Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Arch Enemy Betrayed the American Revolution--and What It Means for Americans Today (2008.)


Friday, January 22, 2010

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, January 16 through Friday, January 22.

1) In Forbes, Trevor Butterworth on What We Can Learn From Cicero.

. . . even in the practical-minded, forward-looking America on the 19th century, Cicero was seen as the most eloquent and inspiring guide to eloquence. It is only as that century turned into the 20th that the classics were attacked for lacking relevance in a new science-driven age, much as the classical language of architecture was dismissed by the fierce, unadorned geometries of Bauhaus. Indeed, Columbia's journalism school was conceived as a temple of science rather than one devoted to the art of writing.
2) Richard M. Reinsch reviews James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government, by Colleen A. Sheehan for City-Journal.

In exploring the commitment Madison made to this “empire of reason,” Sheehan also shows how the Virginian Lycurgus drew on the thought of Aristotle, particularly his idea of regime stability. From a close reading of Aristotle’s Politics, Madison discerned lessons strikingly opposed to John Adams’s own classical studies on the stability of regimes. . .

In his essay “The Spirit of Governments,” Madison argued that majority rule must be a moral rule that secured persons in their property and their consciences from faction and tyranny. The tutored majority must govern according to natural justice. This could only happen if citizens’ political choices were the product of a civic education that stressed free government through the norms of man’s natural and political being.

The modern political project too easily dismisses the ends and purposes of constitutionalism. Such purposes provide final meaning and compel our admiration and consent to the republican project. While never denying the importance of constitutional structure, Madison understood that such order was not self-executing. A constitution can set political actors and institutions at variance with one another, thus preventing a unity of unlawful power, but these same parties can also decide to collude and drain the system of its life. The order of the American republic—its conservation and, if necessary, reform—was to be found, finally, in the souls of its citizens, who must be formed in the spirit of constitutional liberty. This is Madison’s gift to America.
3) On the Mises Blog, Stephen Mauzy on Bernie Madoff, FDR, 'Ponzi Schemes,' and who is really to blame:

Given the Sword of Damocles hanging overhead, the younger generation should have reason to pause. But they don't pause. In fact, they've done past generations one better by voting for supporters of the mother of all Ponzi schemes — a Trojan horse single-payer healthcare system, delivered on the improbable slats of efficient government oversight, onerous penalties for noncompliance, and, as far as I can tell, more taxes on the rich and tanning salons. Thank you, public education.

Victims of micro-level Ponzi schemes are only greedy; they don't infringe upon others' freedom. The same can't be said of those who demand that we all participate in these macro-level Ponzi schemes.
 4) In the WSJ, Lee Lawrence takes a look at the Rubin Museum of Art's exhibition, Visions of the Cosmos, running through May 10 in NYC.

5) The Scholar's Life, at Laudator Temporis Acti.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Movie Review: Barry Lyndon

Directed by Stanley Kubrick. 1975.

"How did they make a movie of Lolita?"

Kubrick might have adapted Lolita's tagline for his 1975 film, perhaps something like, "Why make a movie about Barry Lyndon?" The director could not say then, in 1975, what drew him to Thackery's upstart ("It's like trying to say why you fell in love with your wife–it's meaningless." [1]) and I cannot say now. Indeed out of the film's great menagerie Barry is one of the less appealing characters, drawing less attention than the buffoon Captain Quin, the portly and avuncular Grogan, the genteel Chevalier, the cynical Sir Charles Lyndon, or even the highwayman with his baleful glare. Barry, on the other hand. . . he's just there. Kubrick surely was on to something, though, when he said, "People like Barry are successful because  they are not obvious–they don't announce themselves." [1] Verily, and how often are events simply happening when Barry is coming through as opposed to Barry seeking any one goal in particular?

Take the first issue, that of his cousin's engagement to Captain Quin. Having never announced his feelings for her and having turned down her scrumptious, and unqualified, challenge to find exactly where she hid her ribbon, she accepts the proposal of Captain Quin.  Incensed, Barry (still Redmond Barry of Barryton) challenges Quin to a duel. Victorious, he sets out for Dublin to hide out for a time and avoid the authorities. Why did he undertake the risk in the first place? After all, he did not even hint at, let alone announce, let alone attempt to court Nora, and he risks a duel, endangering two lives and the money the marriage would bring to his teetering family. We learn later the duel was set up, sans bullets, by his family to get rid of Barry since Quin was too scared to marry Nora while Barry was there. So it is that Barry's vapid valiance ended up setting him on his way from home.

Consider the next happenstances, such as Barry getting robbed on the road to Dublin, necessitating him joining the army to improve his rank and funds. In the army he happens to meet old friend Captain Grogan, who happens to get killed when his regiment tries to clear a road otherwise meaningless except for the need of the main army to pass near. Shortly later, having survived the engagement but jolted by Grogan's death, Barry happens upon two soldiers who have left their horses and gear to bathe and overhears one discussing his orders to deliver letters. Seizing the opportunity, Barry steals the soldier's orders, identity, and horse, and deserts. Thus for nor reason in particular, 55-minutes in to the film, we find Redmond Barry of Barryville taking up with a beautiful woman somewhere in central Europe.

After being caught in a series of preposterous lies while traveling through Prussian-occupied Europe Barry is forced to enlist again, this time for the Prussians. While defending a fort, a tale he will later wildly embellish in telling his son, he rescues his captain and during the commendation ceremony we get a truly frank description of Barry from a higher-up:
Corporal Barry, you're a gallant soldier and have evidently come of good stock, but you're idle, dissolute, and unprincipled. You've done a great deal of harm to the men. And for all your talents and bravery I am sure you will come to no good.
This is quite accurate. Indeed Barry is gallant, having challenged Quin to a duel, having boxed a British serviceman who insulted him, pulled an injured Captain Grogan off the field, and having rescued Captain Potzdorf at the fort. Let us consider Barry's reply before analyzing the situation:
I hope the Colonel is mistaken. I have fallen into bad company, but I've only done as other soldiers do. I've never had a friend or protector before. . . to show that I was worthy of better things. The Colonel may say I'm ruined, and send me to the Devil. But, I would go to the Devil to serve the Regiment.

His first recourse is to relativism. The second statement is interesting insofar as it denies both the goodwill and guidance of his uncle and Captain Grogan and implies if he had such a protector, he would prosper. Yet when Potzdorf steps into the role, Barry betrays reward him with betrayal.  What of Barry's feats, then? They add up to practically nothing: Quin marries Nora, Grogan dies anyway, and he betrays Potzdorf. Without any underlying principles Barry's "feats" are just one thing after another. There is no "why" of them. Actually the assessment is more damning when we recall we were told the Prussian army at the time was made up "of men from the lowest levels of humanity" and according to the colonel, Barry was a bad influence on them!

Richard Schickel makes the critical observation about Barry's great flaw:
In the novel, Thackeray used a torrent of words to demonstrate Barry's lack of self-knowledge. . . Daringly, Kubrick uses silence to make the same point. . . So it is mainly by the look of Ran O'Neal's eyes–a sharp glint when he spies the main chance, a gaze of hurt befuddlement when things go awry–that we understand Barry's motives. And since she cannot see his own face, we can be certain he is not aware of these self-betrayals.  According to Kubrick, Barry's silence also implies that "he is not very bright" he is an overreacher who "gets in over his head in situations he doesn't fully understand." [1]
Even Lord Bullingdon, Lady Lyndon's son not yet a teenager, pegs Barry and the situation to a tee: "He seems to me little more than a common opportunist. I don't think he loves my mother at all. And it hurts me very much to see her make such a fool of herself." In the absence of any concept of what he wants for himself or what he wants to be, he just sees and reacts. Though he does not love Nora, or does not understand that he does, he despises Quin for proposing to her. He simply "grew tired" of the military life and thought nothing of deserting the British army. Potzdorf outlived his usefulness and Barry went to follow someone else. He sought to mimic the distingué of the chevalier. He saw Lady Lyndon and decided to marry her and part company with the chevalier. Then Barry grew tired of her company and lived apart from her. His mother said he needed a title for security so he sought one.

Indeed Barry's one significant attribute, his love of his son, is somewhat of an aberration. It occurs not upon the boy's birth and in fact he continues to ignore his son, Bryan, and his wife, living separately from and cheating on her while Bryan is an infant. Quite spontaneously he walks over to his wife one afternoon, apologizes, and becomes a doting father. Yet this seemingly laudable attribute has a curious lack of weight as it is just another happenstance. We think no more highly of Barry now that love of his son proceeds alongside his rank opportunism. We can simply say it is "not bad" just like not shooting Lord Bullingdon in the duel. After all, why does he refuse to shoot? Because of something vaguely to do with his wife or the death of his son? There is no way of knowing, it's just another one of those things along Barry's way.

The only constants for Barry are his character and his thinking, i.e. his dashing and his dimness. His son's death, the ensuing misery of his wife, and the duel do not provide for any recognition for Barry, i.e. any recognition of his mistakes, faults, or situation. When the narrator makes the last comments about Barry and his tale, Barry is described not just as "beaten" but "baffled." Whence comes, then, the pleasure of watching Barry Lyndon? Is there some curiosity satisfied by watching this fool, by taking in this curious observation, beautifully told? Why does Lady Lyndon, when signing her bills and going to sign Barry's annuity, become excited and short of breath? Is it with thoughts of Barry himself, or just the flood of emotions from recalling tumultuous times?

The concept of telling an epic tale about a non-heroic character is telling itself. Against a backdrop of clashing empires, scorched battlefields, sumptuous villas, and curious characters. . . there's Barry just wandering through, insignificant yet curious. 

It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.


[1] Phillips, Gene D. (ed.) Stanley Kubrick Interviews. (Conversations with Filmmakers series. Essay and interview by Richard Schickel. 1975. pp. 162-163.) 2001. University Press of Mississippi.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Smashing Myths and Restoring Sound Money

Lecture from the Mises Institute

Presented by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. at "Depression, Monetary Destruction, and the Path to Sound Money": the Mises Circle in Greenville, South Carolina, 3 October 2009. Sponsored by Atlantic Bullion and Coin, and Professional Planning of Easley, LLC

A selection from the lecture:

Problems with fiat money: It's hard to save for the future.
It's hard to save for the future under a fiat system where the government can create all this money. It was the case in the 19th century that to save for the future you could simply acquire precious metal coins. Just acquire them. Now of course you could invest them, that's true, but the point is you didn't have to. You didn't have to be a speculator. You didn't have to go into the stock market. You didn't have to say, "Where can I put my money so that it will at least hold onto its value?" You didn't have to worry about the because it held its value. When these metals served as money they held their value or increased their value over time and any graph you look at and any set of statistics you look at will bear this out.

Whereas today, only a fool would save for the future by piling up federal reserve notes. You would have to factor in a depreciation factor of at least three. So, in other words, it makes it harder to save because just to hold onto the purchasing power you have earned you have to become a speculator and most people, myself included, are not fit to be speculators. We don't belong in the stock market, we don't belong in some of these financial instruments. But we feel like we have to do that as a self-defense mechanism. And that was not the as under hard money.

On the same topic, a story from Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal: Inflation's Moral Hazard

A Selection:
Yet this was a crude way of looking at things, as my father’s fate should have instructed me. He sold his business in the sixties, at the end of the period of price stability that had reigned throughout his life, for what then seemed a large amount of money. He was a man who, for both temperamental and ideological reasons, held a deep contempt for financial speculation and wheeling and dealing, with the result that he did nothing as inflation inexorably eroded his savings. He grew poorer and poorer through the remaining 30 years of his life, and might have sunk into poverty had he not moved into a house that I owned. And this after reaching a level of wealth that, relatively speaking, was greater than I shall probably ever know.

For a while, I was angry about what seemed my father’s improvidence and lack of foresight. As the current financial crisis has conclusively demonstrated, however, not everyone is blessed with foresight, not even those whose livelihood depends primarily on the claim of possessing it. My father was born of a generation that saw money as a store of value, a far from dishonorable notion—and one that, when it reflected reality, helped give a lot of people peace of mind. And as I reach the age when inflation might cause me some embarrassment, even hardship, my sympathy with my father’s plight has grown. I am no longer young enough to fight another day, economically speaking: the destruction of my wealth by inflation would be final. In an aging population, more and more people are in my position, which helps explain why an age of prosperity can be an age of anxiety, even without a financial crisis.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Movie Review: Bottle Shock

Directed by Randall Miller. 2008.

In the absence of flashiness and spectacle and without technical polish and narrative novelty Bottle Shock is left to rise or fall by its ideas. It is appropriate, though, that this film should be so modest in presentation since its characters too are so. Bottle Shock quite simply tells the story of Jim Barrett in 1976 Napa Valley, California struggling to perfect his Chardonnay and make his business fly. Struggle he does, with the Franco-centric wine world and prejudices against American wine, with the need to pay back the debt he has accumulated in his risky venture, with embarrassment in the face of those who thought his endeavor foolish, and with the sheer difficulty of his task.

Jim has one philosophy for growing grapes and it is a tough one:
Jim: The vineyard's best fertilizer is the owner's footsteps. . . its eluvial volcanic soil. . . you want to limit the irrigation because it makes the vines struggle, intensifies the flavor. A comfortable grape, well-watered, well-fertilized grape grows into a lazy ingredient of a lousy wine.

Sam: So from hardship comes enlightenment.

Jim: For a grape.
His philosophy, peppered with references to struggling and being stronger where one has been hurt, rather seems not to have been working in his personal life. His struggles have not brought success to his business. His hippie son, Bo, is neither employed nor educated and without prospects for either. Perhaps his son, Jim thinks, has simply had it too easy to want to reach out and struggle for something. In addition to his entrepreneurial spirit and stoic take on suffering, Jim is characterized by his insistence that he himself succeed and without charity. When Bo borrows money from his mother, who has left Jim and re-married his law partner from his old firm, for some needed casks, Jim is outraged and unwilling even to consider it a gift,  "a gift like that costs more than money. . . I don't want to owe anybody." It's his land, his grapes, his wine, his toil, and it has it be his success.

Jim is particularly suspicious of Steven Spurrier, a British sommelier on his own entrepreneurial quest selecting Napa wines for a competitive taste-testing against French ones. Jim suspects a plot to embarrass the Americans on the bicentennial with a rigged competition and refuses to give Spurrier the wines for testing. His son, though, once again in secret, gives Spurrier the wines and. . . well the rest is history.

The mix-up about the wine's color is successful in adding some dynamism and tension to the end of the movie, but that it feels slightly contrived is perhaps a triumph and not a failing. You see, there are really no villains in the movie. The French wine snobs are characterized as such, but they figure only slightly into the story. The movie is not about whether Jim defeats his rivals, indeed all the Napa viticulturists realize if any ones of them wins the new Napa reputation will benefit them all. Bottle Shock is likewise not about Jim overcoming the contrivances, crimes, or machinations of someone, but whether he has it within himself to succeed unaided. In fact Jim's success party comes not when he wins the competition, but when he opens his bottle of perfect, clear Chardonnay in his old office and stands there in the triumph of his challenge.

Perhaps it was this success that motivated Bo to follow in his father's footsteps. Perhaps at last he glimpsed the connections among a person, one's work and the intensely personal joy of achievement and was inspired to take on a struggle for himself.

Vergil. Georgics II.
O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint, [458]
agricolas! quibus ipsa procul discordibus armis
fundit humo facilem victum iustissima tellus.
Si non ingentem foribus domus alta superbis
mane salutantum totis vomit aedibus undam,
nec varios inhiant pulchra testudine postis
inlusasque auro vestes Ephyreiaque aera,
alba neque Assyrio fucatur lana veneno
nec casia liquidi corrumpitur usus olivi:
at secura quies et nescia fallere vita,
dives opum variarum, at latis otia fundis—
speluncae vivique lacus et frigida Tempe
mugitusque boum mollesque sub arbore somni—
non absunt; illic saltus ac lustra ferarum
et patiens operum exiguoque adsueta iuventus,
sacra deum sanctique patres; extrema per illos
iustitia excedens terris vestigia fecit.

Translation I. | Translation II.