Monday, March 26, 2012

Causa Pulchritudinis

"At any time between 1750 and 1930 if you had asked educated people to describe the aim of poetry, art, or music, they would have replied: beauty."

So says philosopher and author Roger Scruton in his 2007 documentary Why Beauty Matters. The radical purpose to Scruton's work is the classical notion that beauty matters, that, contra postmodern cacophilia, beauty is a value in itself as much as truth or goodness. He makes an honest and convincing case for beauty while tracing its genealogy from Plato through its banishment in the 20th century.

I would like, however, to trace and amplify a point slightly glossed over in the documentary. Scruton calls up Wilde's phrase that, "All art is absolutely useless," by which Wilde meant that art is more than useful. Scruton continues, applying Wilde's pointed compliment to mean that today we suffer under the "tyranny of the useful." We have more than utilitarian needs and suffer in not fulfilling them, he argues. I would like to return to Wilde, though, and ask: is all art absolutely useless?

Yes, and I would add that it is even more obviously useless than it might seem.

Let us begin by looking at the famous work of Hamlet since it seems to have a point. For our purposes permit a gross, obscene even, simplification: that the moral of the story is that indecisiveness and delay are bad. (Gasp! Alack! if you must, but stay with me, I beg.) If that is your goal, to demonstrate that indecisiveness is bad, why would you fulfill that goal by writing a four-hour play filled with complicated dialogue? It would be much easier, much clearer and more apparent, to write a simple morality story. What is gained by pages of complicated dialogue, shades of meaning, and a complex plot? Let me put it this way, why is:
To be, or not to be,--that is the question:--Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?
so much more full of meaning and portent than
He screwed me! Should I suck it up or kick his ass?
Well, Shakespeare's verse is more meaningful because it is more persuasive and it is more persuasive because it is more beautiful. The logic is the same, but the structure, diction, imagery, syntax, and figurative language of Shakespeare make it seem more important. The ideas take on greater scale and meaning when they are beautiful.

Let us look at another example in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. We must first observe that the entire fourth act is unnecessary to the plot since Figaro and Susanna are married at the conclusion of the third. Why conclude the opera titled The Marriage of Figaro with the Count being forgiven by his wife, then? Because all of the distrust and running around of the first three acts is well and good, but it only adds up to the rather uninspiring fact that everyone outwitted the Count. We want a bit more.

Unfortunately, the final scene of forgiveness has only a tenuous element of contrast to tie it to the plot. After all of the intrigues and fits of anger and distrust, even by Susanna and  Figaro, the Countess' act seems different, but why does it seem important somehow? Susanna and Figaro aren't villains, and neither are Bartolo and Marcellina, so why is this contrast necessary? Besides, everyone's mistrust is more heated than malicious. This simple element of contrast, then, is a relatively thin thread with which to conclude a three-hour endeavor whose main plot is already resolved. Mozart makes this finale relevant, to the plot and to us, by making it beautiful. This brief moment of sublime beauty takes on extraordinary dimensions and significance far disproportionate to the plot. This scene does not demonstrate that the Countess does the moral or just thing or that the Count will reform and be a better man or that Susanna and Figaro learn a lesson about marriage. The opera simply says that forgiveness is beautiful and the scene says this by being beautiful.

In the above examples we look at beauty acting as the element of persuasion in art which attempts to make some other point. Beauty persuades us that Hamlet's dilemma is grand and that the Countess' deed is good, but what about art which exists purely to be beautiful?

Take the fifth fugue from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Why is that string of thirty-second notes followed by the dotted figures so full of meaning? More importantly, why does it take on so much more when developed? In fact, why should any figure played in canon, or augmented or what have you, be meaningful? Who cares if something is in inversion? Because the symmetries, rhythmic and harmonic, are beautiful.

Below Botticelli's point is not to describe the birth of Venus or even to show it, but to show beauty. Do we actually care about Venus or her birth?

Why are such symmetries and consonances pleasing to man? Why is, as Marcus Aurelius observed, the cracking of bread and the bursting of a fig a pleasing sight? Marcus' answer was the classical one that such things are naturally beautiful. I'm not sure what scientists hope to discover in asking that question today but is it likely to result in more beauty? The more experiments confirm that people prefer certain shapes and ratios the more the findings, oddly, are interpreted to mean that the pleasure we derive from contemplating and seeing beauty is meaningless. The more some preference is thought to be evolved the more one hear that we "only" prefer it because of such and such.  Yet in truth little seems to hinge on the question. Beauty by nature cannot be made vulgar, unnecessary, or undesirable. Because of its "uselessness" it can never be replaced or outdated. Fragile though it is in our hands, in this respect beauty is indestructible.

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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Musical Forms from the Middle Ages to Beethoven

I assembled the following to be a pleasing and perhaps instructive journey through music history and because we all know people who refer to "Classical" music.

Sacred Music IV: An Unfair Comparison

Gloria de Angelis vs. Gloria Bossa Nova

Is it fair to compare the ancient Missa de Angelis with the Missa Bossa Nova, circa 1966? Nope. Yet I make it to provoke a question in those who are not onboard the chant express.
  1. If you don't like the 1966 piece but do like other non-chant music at mass, what's the difference between the Bossa Nova and what you do like?
  2. Your answer to #1 has established has established a criterion for sacred music. What are its implications?
My Point

I would guess most people don't like the Bossa Nova mass and with good reason. It's hokey and lacks expressivity. It lacks anything of musical or structural interest. It's jingly and irreverent. These observations are all criteria for sacred music, criteria I think many people have. When one compares most popular liturgical music to the Bossa Nova I think most people will consider the Bossa Nova worse. Yet if this criteria exists then one most compare the music one does like to the same standards. One must ask, "If the Bossa Nova is less reverent than what I like, is there anything more reverent than what I like?" The answer I'm trying to suggest is of course, "chant." The next question I'm trying to suggest is of course, "then why not sing it?" Can it be too reverent, too expressive, too interesting, too good? Again, I think most people would say, "surely not," so I ask again, why not chant?

Friday, March 2, 2012

On Gratitude

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought;  and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. – G. K. Chesterton

Achilles tends to Patroclus
By what quirk of fate I know not but the quote above fortuitously percolated its way to my attention in my Twitter feed this afternoon. I say fortuitous because of the wonderful counterpoint it plays to a short story about gratitude I came upon this morning, also by chance, via a friend. From him I read a brief expression of love from a woman, now passed, for her grandson. "What a joy you are to me," she wrote. Now I did just say the letter expressed love but truly the first word that occurred to me was thanks. We of course will not indulge that facile tendency to say that two things are the same but there is of course much of thanks in love. A specific kind of thanks, mind you. 

It is not the thanks for equitable exchange or thanks for justice. It is not even strictly thanks for kindness since the kind act, for all its good, can be done simply for the sake of kindness and not the individual. It is not even thanks for emulating, that is to say, thanks to someone for providing a good example. Why? All of these forms of thanks imply some kind of utility, ulterior gain, or adherence to some other principal to which the deed is ancillary. As The Philosopher instructs us, friendships of utility love not for themselves but some good gained, that is, some good for you, be it pleasure or convenience. These relationships are facile and feeble. Often they are not even mutual but when such utilitarian friendships are mutual it is best when each gets the same from each.

We may observe in the above examples there is indeed, though, some element of thanks, of gladness at the happy accident, the fortunate turn of events, a kindness, an obliged return and so forth. Yet from any of the Latin forms, grates and gratus, it is hard to tease out from the quotidian sentiments any pure sense of unobliged, useless thankfulness, what I propose to call gratitude. Useless, I say?

Yes, useless, though it may sound a strange thing. We scarcely realize it but we are trained to use things, all things. Commerce, rather reasonably, trains us to use things. Today art trains us to use it and it is indeed use because without any sense of purpose such as religiosity or beauty it can only be used, to rouse and pleasure or relax and mollify, even to conjure an image or emotion. Such works, even great ones, exist to do and do for you or even to you, rather than simply be. Education too teaches us to use. Science teaches us to use nature only to manipulate it and to gain knowledge to get a job. English teaches us to write just to learn about ourselves. Economics teaches us to work only so we may spend. Even philosophy itself is abused to the point of utility today because without some view of man's nature and his good, whether it be Aristotle's contemplative life or some other, without true philo-sophia, it is simply a tool of breaking down, of de-struction. 

The love of someone or something for its own sake then is something quite special. To have gratitude not toward but for someone and not because of any qualities but for the sum of that person, to have gratitude for a work of art not because of what it does but what it is, is to have gratitude for that which makes up an important part of living. To know such gratitude, in giving or receiving, is to make a joy of being in the world, and thus "that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder."

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Friday, February 24, 2012

In Praise of the Copier

So at work I have access to this amazing device. It's nothing short of extraordinary, I assure you. What does it do, you ask? Well let's say you have a brilliant essay you want to share with someone but you need it for yourself also. Clearly you need a copy. What do you do? Are you going to copy it by hand? Are you going to have the type set in metal in a printing press? Surely not. Well that's where this machine comes in. You put your document in the top and it spits out an identical copy in about five seconds. Really! I kid you not. In fact that's just the tip of the iceberg.

I can put in a pile of documents and get as many copies as I want. I can put in a pile of papers with writing on only one side and it'll copy them back to back and use half the paper. It'll even staple it! That's right, I can put 50 single-sided documents in and in about 30 seconds I'll have the same document, stapled, in 25 two-sided pages. I can make the page darker or lighter or bigger or smaller and any combination thereof. It will collate them any way I want so I can get all my 1st pages grouped together and my second pages grouped together and so forth, or it can print the document sequentially. It works with letter-sized, legal-sized, thick, thin, and any color of course. It even has separate drawers for different types of paper so I don't have to be bothered swapping.

Now surely you must be thinking that this incredible device carries a princely price tag, that only the wealthy can afford such speedy and accommodating copying. Nope. It costs but a few thousand dollars for the machine and a few pennies per page in supplies. If that sounds pricey ask yourself: how else are you going to get fifty copies of something? Try making one copy of that fifty page paper. Aside from doing it yourself your choices are a room of monks or one of these.

You don't want the machine, you say, but just the copies? Well I have good news for you because at office supply stores they have these very same machines. The store buys the machine and pays for paper, ink, and maintenance. You walk in and make your copies at five cents a page and you walk out. Some stores will even make the copies for you if you can believe that.

Now I would be remiss if I left out one crucial piece of information: these machines are fun to use. Trust me, trust me they are. You place your sheet or sheets in the tray at the top and slide the little guide rails into place. How perfectly shaped they are to hold the paper! Then you get to finger at this svelte, colorful touch screen for a while. Just poke at what you want. Back and front? Yep. Bloop! Stapled? Please. Bloop! Quantity? 25. Bloop! Bloop! Finally, Go! No sooner have you clicked than a thousand unique parts whirr into motion. You hear the fans humming, the drum spinning, and the stapler clanking. A symphony of specialization has begun to make you your copies, and you're conducting. That's why using a copier is such a satisfying experience, because it does precisely what you want. How great is that?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Crazy Ludwig, a meme

In which we get unusually pop-culturey in order to shed a little human light on this musical Olympian (and to have a little laugh.)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Short Books, Long on Wisdom: II

Your esteemed blogger Mr. Northcutt recently composed a short list which only someone with his erudite catholicity could have assembled. It's theme is "short and insightful" and soon I am sure you will be spurred on by the exciting contents of his admirable collection.

In the meanwhile please settle for my imitation. My brief captions are, I hope, the essence of each, but at least what I learned (or learned to ask.) I would add but one observation, one only apparent to me after grouping these books together: they all possess an aesthetic dimension. They all suggest that to think, or write, or be so, is not just good, but beautiful, and in being so, necessary.

1. Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations/Exhortations [To Myself]
  • Work hard at who you are.
2. Moorman, George J. The Mass Explained
  • The Mass in black and white. Period.
3. Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Laelius: On Friendship
  • You need a friend and you need to be one.
4. Clor, Harry. On Moderation
  • See as much as you can and find you way through. 
5. Eliot, T.S. Selected Essays
  • What is a poem? A poet?
6. Feynman, Richard. Character of Physical Law
  • The world works. 
7. Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos
  1. How a great artist handles ideas.
  2. You should expect that they do it well.
8. Lewis, C. S. Studies in Words
  • Words matter. Use with caution, knowledge, and affection.
9. Newman, John Henry. Meditations and Devotions
  • Pray!
10. Santayana, George. Three Philosophical Poets
  • What does your world look like?
11. Tolkien, J. R. R. On Fairy-Stories
  • Why tell a story?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Notable Conservatives: A Crossword

More fun! Again, I think I made it moderately difficult. All answers are last names. Click to enlarge. It's an 8.5x11 image if you want to print it out. As usual please post any questions, comments, or corrections in the comments section below. Have fun and good luck!

Calvin Coolidge on Classics

Is 1921 really so long ago? It doesn't seem so. They had motorcars and electricity, indoor plumbing and pantaloons. Alright, clearly much has changed but so much so that a speech given 90 years ago would be shocking today? Apparently.

There is little in Calvin Coolidge's 1921 speech at the Second Annual meeting of the American Classical League at the University of Pennsylvania that wouldn't create a stir today. The first surprise is undoubtedly the thought of a classicist politician in the 20th century. I must admit I am quite skeptical of, and generally concerned about the competence of, presidents without a classical education. The thought of making political judgments without having read Thucydides, moral judgments without having read Plato, and just plain thinking without having read Aristotle makes me wince. Magnify that concern by the authority vested, wisely or not, in the office of the president and you have an uneasy citizen. This is not to say a classical education is a prescription for virtue or ability. In my own life study of the classics has led primarily to gratitude, humility, conservation, and moderation, but it might just as easily lead one to hubris and grandiosity. That too might not be all for ill. The classically-trained Founding Fathers certainly took a big, liberal step. In either case though, one acts informed. Not to see the modern world in the light of the world from whence it came is quite simply not to see it. We may then safely say that a classical education is at least a prerequisite for prudence.

Returning to "Silent Cal," how surprising it is to see a politician so lovingly and earnestly speak about the classics.  More noteworthy is how forcefully he recommends.
For many centuries, in education, the classics have meant Greek and Latin literature. It does not need much argument to demonstrate that in the western world society can have little liberal culture which is not based on these. Without them there could be no interpretation of language and literature, no adequate comprehension of history, no understanding of the foundations of philosophy and law.
Coolidge is not at all at pains to speak of the necessity of the classics.
No question can be adequately comprehended without knowing its historical background. Modern civilization dates from Greece and Rome. The world was not new in their day. They were the inheritors of a civilization which-had gone before, but what they had inherited they recast, enlarged and intensified and made their own. . .
Here Coolidge is tying self-knowledge to learning and that's when we realize something unusual: he's talking about actual ideas. Not the flapping platitudes and political pablum we are used to, but actual ideas. Ideas worth exploring, I think, at least because it is hard to imagine any politician saying them today. Consider the following passage:
The present age has been marked by science and commercialism. In its primary purpose it reveals mankind undertaking to overcome their physical limitations. This is being accomplished by wonderful discoveries which have given the race dominion over new powers. The chief demand of all the world has seemed to be for new increases in these directions. There has been a great impatience with everything which did not appear to minister to this requirement.
Can you imagine any politician making such a defense of a liberal education? Defending "impractical" education? What about suggesting there is more to life than physical, material concerns? What about the following, a legitimate swipe at commercialism?
The age of science and commercialism is here. There is no sound reason for wishing it otherwise. The wise desire is not to destroy it, but to use it and direct it rather than to be used and directed by it, that it may be as it should be. not the master but the servant, that the physical forces may not prevail over the moral forces and that the rule of life may not be expediency but righteousness.
Now Coolidge doesn't deride commercialism but he does knock it down a few pegs, suggesting it is of less importance and moreover that it can be a danger, and still more that it can be a consuming danger. The phrase, "that it may be as it should be" would probably not go over well today. First, it is compact and requires one to unpack it and think on it. Second, it implies there is a natural order, that commercialism simply occupies a lower rung in the hierarchy of man's goods. "Expediency," that is, convenience, is not man's greatest need. Could George W. Bush, who told Americans after 9/11 to go out and shop, or President Obama, whose economic plan is spending for the sake of spending, have made these remarks?

Coolidge continues to make some genuinely conservative comments which would be alien and tendentious to current crop of "conservative" politicians.
It is impossible for society to break with its past. It is the product of all which has gone before. We could not cut ourselves off from all influences which existed prior to the Declaration of Independence and expect any success by undertaking to ignore all that happened before that date. The development of society is a gradual accomplishment. Culture is the product of a continuing effort. The education of the race is never accomplished. It must be gone over with each individual and it must continue from the beginning to the ending of life. Society cannot say it has attained culture and can therefore rest from its labors. All that it can say is that it has learned the method and process by which culture is secured and go on applying such method and process.
There can be no city on a hill, no new era or order or deal. Every society and every man has both an inheritance and a burden. No new plan will remedy all or forever rather it is the duty of each generation and each person to learn, do, and pass on. Culture and education are not objects to be acquired but processes. What a conservative and even elegant thought that puts to shame, to scandalous shame, the "spend more money on education" policy we endure today. How inestimably impoverished the latter! Coolidge continues on education.
Education is primarily a means of establishing ideals. Its first great duty is the formation of character, which is the result of heredity and training. This by no means excludes the desirability of an education in the utilities, but is a statement of what education must include if it meet with any success. It is not only because the classical method has been followed in our evolution of culture, but because the study of Greek and Latin is unsurpassed as a method of discipline. Their mastery requires an effort and an application which must be both intense and prolonged. They bring into action all the faculties of observation, understanding and reason. To become proficient in them is to become possessed of self control and of intelligence, which are the foundations of all character.
The first end of education is not fame and profit? No, but Coolidge does not dismiss the need of profit to support oneself. Again he simply rearranges the hierarchy: the first goal of education is to develop character. Working, then, becomes a subset of who you are, not all you are. Faculties then have two goals also, utility and self-control. Self-control, a virtue? Good heavens! Notice also how Coolidge has managed to make some significant claims here without actually waxing philosophical.

How unusual, too, for a politician ever to use the word culture. When was the last time one acknowledged the existence of culture, of looking at people through a lens not political or social per se, but for the whence and wherefore of their world.

Coolidge now asks a penetrating question, "How are we to justify the existing form of government in our Republic?" which he thusly answers, "The beginnings of modern democracy were in Athens and Sparta. That form of human relationship can neither be explained nor defended, except by reference to these examples and a restatement of the principles in which their government rested." What a far cry from the mindless endorsements of democracy without reference to any value which democracy is supposed to further. Speaking of the loss of those values,
Both of these nations speak to us eloquently of the progress they made so long as their citizens held to these ideals, and they admonish us with an eloquence even more convincing of the decay and ruin which comes to any people when it falls away from these ideals. There is no surer road to destruction than prosperity without character.
With this reference to character Coolidge has linked his political philosophy to his philosophy of education and the lynch pin to both of these is classics. Only a classical education can show you the ideas which justify or condemn. Only a classical education can give you the tools of self control and intelligence to form a character, and only a character can let you weather the suffering of poverty and the temptations of prosperity.

In the most conservative section of the speech Coolidge continues to tie together classical education, the individual, society, and culture:
We do not wish to be Greek, we do not wish to be Roman. We have a great desire to be supremely American. That purpose we know we can accomplish by continuing the process which has made us Americans. We must search out and think the thoughts of those who established our institutions. The education which made them must not be divorced from the education which is to make us. In our efforts to minister to man's material welfare we must not forget to minister to his spiritual welfare. It is not enough to teach men science, the great thing is to teach them how to use science.
Being American is not simply being born in America but too a process. Being American requires you to follow American ideals, in a nice turn of phrase, to "think the thoughts of those who established our institutions." Thus being American too is a process of education, and being conservative is a process of inheriting and passing on ideas. Coolidge concludes the paragraph by reducing yet another star of the modern world often seen as an end in itself, science, to its status as a tool.

Coolidge concludes with an exceptional exhortation:
Unless Americans shall continue to live in something more than the present, to be moved by something more than material gains, they will not be able to respond to these requirements and they will go down as other peoples have gone down before some nation possessed of a greater moral force. The will to endure is not the creation of a moment, it is the result of long training. 
The speech culminates in the idea that everything is a process, and thus that the "now" is never everything. Man must have transcending goals and transcendent values.

Finally, how does Coolidge propose to further the classics? A modern speech would conclude with the promise to have the government support their study, but Coolidge lets the burden rest on the people: "If they are to be maintained they will find their support in the institutions of the liberal arts." It is up to individuals, to "those who believe in America, in her language, her arts, her literature and in her science. . . to perpetuate them by perpetuating the education which has produced them."

This speech from then Vice President Coolidge would make a much-needed splash today. It reclaims the dignity of the individual by restoring character over its replacement, the ego. It makes culture and not politics the essence of living. It restores use to education by insisting on purpose. It reduces tools like science and values like materialism to their proper status and Coolidge weaves these values together with the thread of classics, the discipline that enlightens, scolds, warns, that discipline ever challenging, ever rewarding, ever necessary.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Movie Review: Underworld: Awakening

Directed by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein. 2012.

If I admit to being a rather picky filmgoer I hope you will trust me when I tell you that I'm rather forgiving of the action genre. This past autumn's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was not fine cinema but it worked. It had some action, some gadgetry, some sex appeal, a liberal dose of humor, Tom Cruise looked like he meant business, and the plot held enough water. In short, I was entertained. Underworld: Awakening did not entertain me. I'm not sure what it did, if it did anything. In fact I barely remember anything about it and I just got back from the theater. Guns are fired. Police run. A werewolf explodes.

Kate Beckinsale plays Selene, a gun-toting, death-dealing vampire who struts. . . no, I would remember strutting and I recall no such locomotion. Actually I can't picture her doing anything from this movie other than firing those two damn guns over and over again. She shoots them up, she shoots them down, she shoots people, she shoots werewolves, a whistle blares in the distance, my tea is ready. Speaking of pictures I'm fairly certain the costume, lighting, and special effects departments conspired to keep the gun-toting heroine as hidden as possible. This is inexplicable and does not work to the advantage of the movie.

You want me to talk about the plot? Well thanks a lot. . . fine. Selene wants her daughter, a doctor wants her daughter, the werewolves want her daughter, the few remaining vampires don't care. Why do the werewolves want her? Because she's the last descendent of Corvinus and apparently she'll make them very powerful. (Although her father is apparently alive and they have him captured so who knows. . .) Anyway the sides fight over the girl. One side breaks in somewhere, another side breaks out somewhere, one side breaks in somewhere, and you put your left foot out. The action might as well be stock footage from other movies.

There is nothing interesting or funny or sexy or novel. There is certainly nothing scary except for a few early scenes which take the form of a police investigation and do indeed terrify the viewer with the threat that the rest of the movie is going to be as numbingly boring. Ah my tea has steeped.

So should you be considering taking a trip to the theater to see Underworld: Awakening, consider the equally fulfilling and less costly alternative of enlarging the movie poster above and viewing it from a variety of angles.

P.S. The 3D effects consist of dust and light debris. Dust and light debris.