Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Last year we discussed in a pair of essays works of art which we said created the experience they depicted. We saw some which pulled the viewer into the experience. In our discussions regular reader Tom suggested Macbeth as a candidate for this unique group of works. Having finally revisited the play I say: indeed!

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Macbeth: She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word:
To morrow, and to morrow, and to morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last Syllable of Recorded time:
And all our yesterdays, have lighted Fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief Candle,
Life's but a walking Shadow, a poor Player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the Stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a Tale
Told by an Idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
This is just an extraordinary passage, how Shakespeare manipulates time and weaves everyone who partakes in the play together.

There is no more time for tomorrow, for she is dead. There are no more tomorrows. Shakespeare draws us in to the day-to-day-to-day drudgery and then thrusts us, literally, to the end of time. How cruelly effective a way to recreate the feeling that life is simply such a damn repetition forever. So too with his use of the word "yesterdays," which encourages us to think not of the past as a monolith but of all the specific past days of our own, days he asks us to recall only to remind us they carry us to the same end. Shakespeare does not say "all candles will go out" or something similar but rather "Out, out, brief Candle," because the candle will go out. It has to, so it might as well. A "walking shadow." Something of illusory permanence, illusory agency.

Shakespeare weaves us all into this tragedy. First, "all our yesterdays." Then not just Macbeth but "the poor player," the actor himself. At last the teller of the tale, the author himself. (Though this could rightly include both the player and Macbeth.) Who would bother to tell such a futile tale?

No one escapes.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Eliot on Education

Modern Education and the Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Anathema, 2011

As regular readers may be aware, every Thanksgiving here at APLV we compile a list of music, paintings, et cetera, we are especially grateful for. Last year the theme was Sacred Music. That was six months ago. Now as you might well imagine, in a sense that list generates its antithesis and it seems fitting that the antithetical list make its appearance now.

Henceforth and forthwith the "Anathema List" will appear this time of year and serve as a foil for our Thanksgiving list.


The theme of this list, then, is still sacred music. This music, though, is thought to be poorly written regarding competent composition, written without attention to style, or without attention to the ideas they are attempting to express.

Some are indecorous, undignified, or simply ugly. Some are clearly in the wrong style altogether, but they are also simply bad. The words and music are, at times, incomprehensible. Jingly-jangly, sing-songy, insipid. . . you get the idea.
Elsewhere we have praised music which perfectly complemented the ideas or even created the idea and hence the relative poverty of the forthcoming songs which either poorly express or are at odds with the ideas.
Of course I am not condemning any of the performers. Too, I realize many will have sentimental attachments to some of these songs.

Anathema, 2011

10. I Am the Bread of Life, by Suzanne Toolan [YouTube]

9. Send Us Your Spirit, by David Haas [YouTube]

8. Blest Are They, by David Haas [YouTube]

7. City of God, by Dan Schutte [YouTube]

6. I Am the Living Bread, by David Haas [Amazon Preview]

5. Center of My Life, by Paul Inwood [YouTube]

4. TIE: In the Breaking of the Bread & A New Commandment by Michael Ward [YouTube]
[Amazon Preview]

3. River of Glory, by Dan Schutte [YouTube]

2. Gather Us In, by Marty Haugen [YouTube]

1. Send Down the Fire, by Marty Haugen [YouTube]

Honorable Mention:
  • We Remember, by Marty Haugen [YouTube]

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mini-Review: In Search of Mozart

Directed by Philip Grabsky. 2006.

Phil Grabsky's In Seach of Mozart is probably a satisfactory movie. I offer such oblique praise because while I cannot say I enjoyed the film, In Search of Mozart clearly has something to offer. (What that is and for what audience. . .) There are numerous interviews with today's foremost scholars of Mozart, talented musicians passionate about Mozart's music, copious clips of performances, and a grand tour through Mozart's world and life. Yet the experience of watching In Seach of Mozart left me surprisingly unmoved. No, nothing feels out of place and nothing is essentially wrong with the film but I grew bored not too long in. Why? I think it is because the film feels so much like a summary. Now such is not the worst that can happen to a documentary: describing something. The problem is that the essence of Mozart never jumped out at me. In Search of Mozart feels more like a tour or report rather than an experience of Mozart. Let me try to explain why this is so.

The main problem is in fact two intertwined: they keep interrupting the music with so-so discussions about the music. In writing Amadeus, which of course receives a few broadsides in this documentary, Peter Shaffer remarked how you could only use so much music before people would grow to loathe the return to the talking bits. The observation applies to film documentaries as well. Regarding the second half of the film's problem, I was quite surprised at the middling quality of musical discussions. The discussions of the music in the film fall into two distinct categories: the outright shallow and the merely mediocre. Discussions with the performers fall almost exclusively into the former category. We hear that this piece has energy, that one has depth, opera is about the human condition. Yikes. Only pianists Imogen Cooper and Ronald Brautigam shed any light on Mozart's style. Lang Lang makes the classic point about the essentially dramatic nature of all Mozart's work.

Of the mediocre one might admit that they are in fact explanations, but never the explanations. They are never articulated finely enough to be memorable or specifically enough to be meaningful. On occasion they are confusing. One might consider them, at best, "truthful but unenlightening" and this feels a particular weakness given the wealth of illuminating writing on Mozart. Pick up any random sentence of Tovey on Mozart to see the poverty of these explanations. Cliff Eisen, probably the foremost Mozart authority today, and Volkmar Braunbehrens alternate between myth-busting and what feels like answering review questions from the end of a text book chapter. Only opera director Jonathan Miller and Stanley Sadie, interviewed shortly before his untimely 2005 death amidst a massive scholarly project, manage to speak both intelligently and extemporaneously as they elevate the discussion to more interesting issues of style and philosophy.

The chronological framework of the film suffices, following the standard breakdown into 1) the early travels, 2) the return to Salzburg, 3) the Paris and Vienna trips, 4) the return to Salzburg, Idomeneo, and the break with the archbishop, and 5) the Vienna years. Present are the usual quotes, letters, anecdotes, people, pictures (including spurious and inauthentic portraits of the composer), and pieces. The pacing is good but one never feels like anything is actually happening before you. Rather one feels told over and over "he wrote this in this place, here is sample, this is why its good." Such, coupled with the fact that the interviews are often shot in extreme close up, makes the film seem a sequence of talking heads. To be fair the heads are interspersed with pans over the same few photos and footage of random people walking through modern European cities. There is certainly not enough focus on the places Mozart lived and visited. While the beginning of the film explores the place of his birth and they certainly seem to have been driving somewhere, most of the outdoor footage consists of wide-shots of cities and medium-range shots of random people walking around.

It is hard to recommend In Search of Mozart without considering its audience. It is of insufficient depth and polish to please a scholar or aficionado. It might, by exposing to Mozart's music, spur someone who likes classical music but not Mozart to listen, but it's not electrifying enough to snare someone opposed or indifferent.

The film has a strong cast of experts, few of whom are at their best here. One would benefit from seeking them elsewhere in their scholarship and performances. Overall, In Search of Mozart feels like a so-so academic paper whose author, because he did a lot of research and was writing about an important person, didn't think he needed to make any particular point.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

An Unexpected Fugue

With a hat tip to Jeffrey Tucker at Chant Café for video no. 1, I point to the videos below and observe that
  1. You can turn a slight, even silly, theme into something interesting or at least entertaining when you actually develop it. (Video 1) Indeed, without a glitzy video to accompany it, actual musical development is required.
  2. A pop theme sounds far more natural, somehow more "human-friendly," when played on traditional, non-synthesized instruments. (Video 2)
  3. Theory can be entertaining as well as informative. (Video 3)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Law and Custom

A sequel of sorts to Manners, Duties, and Society.

Bill McGurn has a noteworthy piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal in which he treads into a thorny thicket of issues all centering on how colleges deal with sex crimes. He concedes that a collapse of traditional morality has a part to play but his argument is this:
[the] real threat to civility and common decency is this: the substitution of codes and committees for responsible adults exercising humanity and judgment.
Now this observation may sound wise and true enough, perhaps even self-evident, but it seems to me to raise a challenging political science question when applied to life outside a university campus. First, a little backtracking:

We must back track a little and ask, "What is a law for?" There are to this question two common answers: A) to punish criminals and achieve justice, B) to deter a particular act. We then may ask "How does it come about" to which we can reply that a law comes about when a group of people perceive some wrong and seize the moral authority to rectify the wrong by punishing the offender.

Now we must distinguish in a society between laws and customs, the former being compulsory and the violation of which is punishable, and the latter which is preferred and rewarded but not mandated. We could sensibly propose a hierarchy between the two, laws being thought to preserve more important (or at least more pragmatically important) values than customs.

In a free society, though, those two categories are always going to be in some tension. What ought to be a law and what ought to be left to the freedom of the individual? Clearly the more that is mandated the less liberal the society. Similarly, people have different ideas as to what the government ought to do, though but that is not my concern in this post. Nor is my question here whether universities or societies ought to legislate morality. My questions is this: when customs pass out of tradition and into obscurity can a minority of people rejuvenate the customs by enforcing them upon the people, i.e. by turning the customs into laws?

While voluntary conviction is clearly preferable to force for the purpose of establishing order (or anything), is it more or less reliable for preserving what it wants to protect than force (i.e. law and government)? And as a corollary, does forcing something via law makeless likely to be preserved because its care and administration has been taken (or delegated) from the people? (Bill's hypothesis seems to fall squarely in one of these camps.) We might, more radically, ask: to what degree does any law really work, i.e. to what degree is a law itself (and/or its enforcement) the prime cause of a given situation. After passing a law do we often, ever, bother to see if it actually changed anything? Does anyone care whether it does, or is the attempt enough to satisfy people's desire to bring about the good.

For conservatives these political science questions center around two pragmatic political topics. First, we must consider that while we want to "conserve" something that the government should not be the default tool for conserving. The government is not the proper, or perhaps even a possible, tool of conservation. Second, we should be aware that conserving something via government intervention or monopolization might have the opposite effect, even on liberty itself (c.f. Jefferson, "The people are the only safe depositories of their own liberty.") (from a letter to L.W. Tazewell, 1805.)

Perhaps the conservative rule should be simply "to do good" in contrast to the "I want good to be done" (i.e. by the government) attitude of state-centered modern liberalism.  People produce a culture and a society, and the society creates the government. Not the other way around.

To pose a final more philosophical question, I would borrow from de Tocqueville and ask: does equality under law beget (or encourage) a desire for total equality? Does then that desire, or the sating of it, make centralization of law easier by 1) shrinking the individual in relation to the state by making all individuals equal and thus equally small and interchangeable relative to it, and 2) making a law easier and more appealing to pass because of the reasoning that, "if it affects everyone it must be fair?" Does (or may), then, Liberalism, somehow contain the seeds of or propensity for illiberalism?

Perhaps either way the best defense against this infantalization, whether from "tyrannical ambition" or "servile temptation" (to borrow a pair of phrases from Paul Rahe's Soft Despotism) is a belief in liberty and not a contentment with servility in the hearts of the American people and a specific, limited body of laws. (Again, it seems always to be the lack of specifics, the lack of limits or finite ends, of the progressives which causes concern amongst conservatives and Classical Liberals.) A return to limits, liberty, and diffusion, not centralization, of responsibility amongst us is needed, lest the growing state slowly, imperceptibly render us as Tacitus said the rule of Augustus left the Romans, "capable neither of complete servitude nor of complete freedom."

Monday, April 25, 2011

Liebst du mich?

Schubert. Schwanengesang - Ständchen (Rellstab)

Mozart. Das Veilchen, KV.476 (Goethe)

Mahler. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen: Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (Mahler)

Bernstein on Beethoven, Mozart, and Music

From the Unanswered Questions Norton series of talks at Harvard, given in 1973. The series, happily, is available in paperback and on DVD.

On Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 18, op. 31, in E-flat major
and Musical Semantics

On Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor, op. 550
Part I | Part II | Part III

A Terrifying Rhetorician?

Martin Amis has a column in yesterday's Guardian in which he puts contemporary intellectual, author, and famed debated Christopher Hitchens on par with Cicero and Demosthenes. Now first please try to understand how difficult it was for me to write that. It is nearly inconceivable for anyone who has in fact read Demosthenes and Cicero in Greek and Latin to compare anyone to them. Yet in this case I think they are merely invoked as totems of excellence rather than set up as examples for comparison. That this is not a scholarly article and there are, in fact, no meaningful comparisons, or comparisons of any kind, supports this statement. In fact were not for the amiable tone of the piece I would be tempted to borrow a phrase I used last week to describe Terry Eagleton's piece on Marx: embarrassing encomium. Yet this essay, from its prefatory picture of the two boozily unkempt friends to its apostrophe to Mr. Hitchens himself, resists such an evaluation. It does not, however, resist some scrutiny.

Actually I don't so much care to evaluate the accuracy of Amis' assertion than I want like to unpack the implications of his praise. Of course I balk at the comparison itself, more than I would at referring to Patrick Henry as the "Cicero of Virginia" but less than referring to President Obama's speeches as "worthy of marble." Perhaps one day we will examine some of Mr. Hitchen's writing against Demosthenes but right now I'm simply concerned with the analogy Amis uses to describe Hitchen's rhetorical ability, which is to the supercomputer Deep Blue, which defeated several chess grandmasters, both of whom described the encounter thus: It's like a wall coming at you.

In contrast I call to mind the timeless statement about Demosthenes, that he was δεινὸς λέγειν (deinos legein) a phrase which unfortunately requires a little explanation in itself. On the one hand it can simply mean a "clever speaker" and indeed it means this and such is how it is most often translated from Greek. The first word, though, δεινὸς, has more associations, namely with the seemingly contrasting pair of ideas, "terrible" (or fearful, dangerous) and "wondrous" (or marvelous.) Yes, to be called δεινὸς λέγειν might simply mean you were a clever speaker, a speaker clever with your tongue who, like Odysseus, could beguile and outwit an opponent. (It may be of interest to recall Dante in Canto XXVI of the Inferno has Odysseus in in the Eighth Circle (with Diomedes) for his trickery (agguato, arte.)) Too Socrates begins his famous defense by addressing the accusation that he is a clever speaker, asserting that he is not clever unless by clever you mean truthful. 

That distinction, I think, is essentially the one Amis is making. (Unless he is making the unexpectedly banal assertion (i.e. not an argument) that Hitchens is a good rhetor "because he makes good arguments quickly.") For while the descriptions of Demosthenes and Amis' of Hitchens share a common theme of power, the Greek is tinged with many subtler ideas. Amis means Mr. Hitchens is a great speaker not because he is artful or clever or because his prose is beautiful, his images vivid or because he uses figurative language and paints a persuasive picture, but because he is truthful. Hitchens' argumentation is a wall of truth coming at you. Thus Amis is essentially saying that truth is persuasive. This statement, put clearly by Aristotle as, "what aims at truth is better than what aims at appearances" (paraphrased, see Rh. I.vii, 1365a) and beautifully by Keats, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty–" poses a serious question: is what is true naturally more appealing or easier to prove? It might seem so today of certain facts, but in many cases "facts" to a great deal of time to be considered so. One could undoubtedly come up with simpler, wrong, explanations of physics than those of quantum mechanics.

To digress once more, it might make an interesting exercise, dear reader, to read a work of fiction, something presenting a complete world view like the works we discussed in reviewing Santayana's "Three Poets" or at least something a clear single concept that is explored. Then consider whether you find it beautiful: is that world a beautiful one. Then, consider whether you find it more or less beautiful and truthful than the world in which you live. Are they the same?

Is there truth in fiction? Is truth the source of beauty in fiction? Aristotle considered fiction (ποίησις, (poieisis) from ποιέω (poieo) to make) more philosophical because it deals in absolutes whereas history, which seemingly is more scientific and truth-seeking because it deals with facts and things which have actually happened, deals only with specific things which have happened and not universal truths about what must happen.

I would call attention to the fact that Amis goes on to praise Hitchens' "crystallizations," i.e. aphorisms. This is odd in contrast to his opening in which he essentially praises Hitchens' rationality as being persuasive, because of course aphorisms are not arguments. Maybe Amis just means that being persuasive can take many forms, both through rigorous argumentation and through indivisible aphorisms. Perhaps, but I'm not sure.

Let us revisit, though, his actual argument for Hitchens as rhetor. Can it really be called an argument?
. . . his judgments are far more instinctive and moral-visceral than they seem, and are animated by a child's eager apprehension of what feels just and true); he writes like a distinguished author; and he speaks like a genius. As a result, Christopher is one of the most terrifying rhetoricians that the world has yet seen.
What does that mean? How does that make him persuasive? The phrase "as a result" implies some kind of causality, some argument, that has not been introduced. Perhaps he is a great rhetor because he thinks in paragraphs and does not get bogged down in "a mess of expletives, subordinate clauses, and finely turned tautologies. . . " What? He is persuasive because he makes good arguments? This is simply, and ironically, not enough of an argument comment on. Perhaps we might say that persuading consists not simply in constructing a rational argument, but making use of all the means of persuasion, as Aristotle says. Such a definition would necessitate a significantly more elaborate argument from Amis. We could belabor the point that the word "rhetorician" implies much not addressed here, in part and separate from "an argument," small-scale and large-scale structure, diction, imagery, figurative language and rhetorical devices, different types of argumentation, moving the emotions, and using the right combination on the particular audience at the particular time you must speak. Yet such would be a mere list against such a lack of formal argument.

In fact this his lack of argument for Hitchens as rhetor, this insistence that he is one, and the thread of "persuasion" throughout the essay, suggest he feels that because he agrees with Hitchens, that Hitchens must be a good rhetor, which is not quite right. Someone has persuaded you if he has changed your mind to agree with his, hence the Greek fear of a clever speaker who could "put a thought in your head."

If I may offer a conjecture, Amis is not confused. He has simply been persuaded by Hitchens the man, in toto. He praises Hitchens as charismatic and highly thought of qua author by other authors. Clearly he has some sense of the Aristotelian definition of rhetoric as utilizing all means of persuasion and he has been persuaded, but Cicero and Demosthenes are the wrong analogues. He has seen and known Hitchens throughout many years and today he sees all of the books deeds amounting to something significant to him, "Christopher's most memorable rejoinders, I have found, linger, and reverberate, and eventually combine, as chess moves combine." Amis being persuaded by Hitchens is not so different from being persuaded by a great rhetor, the essential difference being the means of persuasion are spread out over many times, means, and places, the only common thread being the man himself. Yet all of these talents and occasions are not rolled up into one speech or performance which can be sensibly be compared to a speech by Cicero or Demosthenes in any meaningful way. Too the differences in occasion and debate structure between Demosthenes' and Hitchens' venues make the comparison even more off-the-mark. These things being so, Amis' comment is sincere but little-considered praise.

In all, Amis has not persuaded me Hitchens is a "terrifying orator" or that he is correct (or incorrect) about anything in particular. He has, though, persuaded me that he loves his exceptional friend. Unfortunately the hyperbolic title (probably not Amis' own) is misleading and will probably do more to increase the blind adulation of Hitchens the intellectual than it will to put the reader in the proper frame of mind to appreciate Amis' happy recollection of his life with his dear friend.

Saturday, April 23, 2011