Monday, April 9, 2012

Short Books, Long on Wisdom (I)

All of these books are very short ( > 150 pages) but exceptionally insightful; many of these books would be accessible to curious and attentive teenagers. All will sustain multiple readings. The topics range over philosophy, theology, poetry, science, music, architecture and psychology. Above all, these short books are a school in which to learn the "art of living," a liberal education for those whose notions of wisdom aren't measured by the catena of degrees after a surname.
  • Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind
  • Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle
  • Edmund Rubbra, Counterpoint
  • Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences
  • E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed
  • David Watkin, Morality and Architecture
  • George Grant, English-Speaking Justice
  • Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances
  • Josef Pieper, Leisure: the Basis of Culture
  • Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
  • Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
  • Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology
  • Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text
  • Roger Scruton, On Hunting
  • C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
  • Martin Buber, The Way of Man
  • Etienne Gilson, Methodical Realism
  • Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension
  • Dietrich von Hildebrand, Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love
  • Leszek Kolakowski, Metaphysical Horror

Fund the Arts?

His cats, however, look amiable.

Privileged this morning to enjoy a day of leisure, that is, rest and study, upon waking I picked up my iPad to read a bit. I set upon Bach's cello sonatas to highlight the insights that awaited me. Zipping through my Twitter feed I brought my vigorous fingering of the screen to a hasty halt: Lo! Alex Ross has tweeted. I tapped through and began to read the article he had posted. As I read a cloud formed in my mind. A haze fogged my vision. My synapses writhed and my neurotransmitters gushed in an attempt to explain what I read. It wasn't just me, either. I'm certain Casals split a string as I spoke the crazed falderal in the vain hope that my ears could translate what had befuddled my eyes. Alas and Alack! They could not.

You see there is a particularly gross caricature of conservatives that irks me. In this fantasy Dick Cheney is Medusa, who plans to replace all of the world's museums with oozing oil rigs. He rides a chariot cast from melted Greek bronzes and pulled by a Brobdinagian Hydra of Conservative High Philistines. You cut of the Goldwater head and Reagan pops up. Cut off the Burkean head and Scruton rears his ugly one. One neck supplies an endless supply of Bushes. Before the beast marches the Grand Army of Conservative Neanderthals, their dragging knuckles raising such dust that their approach blots out the sun.

That a quiet, soft-tempered conservative man sits at his desk reading Latin and listening to Bach does not enter into this chimerical relief. That peace, quiet, and privacy are his preferred environment does not gel with his reputation for bloodletting. His childlike love of family belies the news stories that he lets children die in the streets and his hobbit-like love of the earth and all things growing nips at the fib that he cares not for the environment.

I would be an unserious or dishonest man not to admit the above descriptions are themselves caricatures. Neither image, of the conservative as saint or scion of darkness, is likely to be found with great ease or in great numbers. What to make of this article by a Mr. Will Robin from his blog Seated Ovation I'm not sure. What to make of Ross' Tweet of it, which can only be seen as a semi-tacit public endorsement, I know a bit. It's like finding Jersey Shore sandwiched between Ikiru and Wild Strawberries on his DVD shelf, or I suppose Lady Gaga between Bach and Mozart. It's embarrassing. Yes, we all come to moments of exasperation with our political opposites, moments in which we heedlessly lap up material which is more polemical swiping than scholarship. Yet these moments are brief and regretted as indulgences to baser impulses. To grace such fetid fair with display, let alone the slightest approbation, is to tread without wisdom.

Yes, I really am blathering on about this reflexive Tweet of a thoughtless essay but I think the occasion is quite revealing. You see I do think people change over time, but slowly and almost imperceptibly until they suddenly seem a caricature of their former selves. This is so because we to become more like our surroundings. Being surrounded by people who are crass and rude rubs off on you. One cuss becomes two becomes three until those all-too-versatile four-letter words have replaced a good deal of your vocabulary. Theodore Dalrymple has a recent and customarily noteworthy take on the phenomenon, but the ability of habits to form and change your character is as old as Aristotle. For my part I've recently been enjoying the series Edward the King in which, somewhere late in the series, someone shouts ass! It comes as quite a shock given the genteel world we've grown accustomed to in the program.

Indeed TV is a particularly powerful method of habit-forming since it's influence is over long periods of time. Because of that length of time, as I have articulated before, at some level we perceive television as real. I can't imagine what watching one of the many graphic criminal shows week after week will do to you, to say nothing of reality TV. Considering politics again, take Comedy Central's lucrative tag-team of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Funny they may be and often, but their shows consist of nothing more than relentlessly excoriating "the right" and without any formal standards of logic or argumentation or broad consideration of facts. Any honest man would call it, at best, infotainment. With scant exception, I say those I know who are fond of these shows are cynical, they think they are highly intelligent, and they are not nearly as informed as they think they are. Over time their image of their opposition has veered toward the cataclysmic scene I sketched before. Their change wasn't deliberate but it was unchecked. They think the Democratic Party is at worst incompetent but best left in charge because the Republican Party is manic. Add Stewart's plangent appeals to reason, the fact that his only real criticism is that people are stupid, and Colbert's shtick of mocking the reason (i.e. alleged lack of reason) of the right, and you have a feedback loop frightful to look upon. . . from the outside.

We can see then that pandering is not such a mild vice. We need little encouragement, already seeking out as we do, people, places, facts, and so forth, that allow us to perpetuate what comforts us.

Robin's Argument is of course no such thing. It is simply a series of assertions about government funding of the arts and cheap shots at conservatives. Though this rattle-banging falderal cannot be taken seriously I will endeavor to respond. I will spare any further mention of the embarrassing flaccidity of the argument as well as the extent to which using that clip from the television drama West Wing falls squarely within the behavior we looked at before. That said, I will address the points as they should have been made and as they would have to be made to respond.

The first issue is obviously the legal one, that is, the constitutional one. Our government is not set up as a pure democracy but a democratic-republic which requires deference to written law and also a declaration which acknowledges an overriding and inviolate natural law. I hope that sounds as serious as it is. If that doesn't sound reasonable to you then you're not a democrat since "Democracy" implies both the rule of the many and individual sovereignty, but simply a majoritarian. So if you want to spend on anything not spelled out in the constitution, prepare an amendment. That's the process. If people don't think it's appropriate for the government to do at all, whether or not it produces good, then that's the end of it.

The next issue would be when such a hypothetical amendment were being debated. Remember a government acts for all people, so any law should be supported by as high a majority of people as possible. By definition the fewer people that support it the less democratic it is. So to fund the arts, art itself would have to be defined. If that enterprise doesn't cause you some concern then you've put the cart ahead of the horse. Must it have a specific purpose, or should it not have specific purposes? Must it consist of specific parts? May it be abstract? Must it be intellectual? What about expressive content?

Then, whether you settle on funding art by a particular definition or anything calling itself art, you have more questions about the content. Should art be funded independent of content? What about art advocating breaking the law, or treason? What about religious art? These seemingly detailed questions beg another, which is of course why fund art? It's not as if art has some special edifying power apart from its process and the idea it expresses. Any old self-expression isn't necessarily of value and in a free society not everyone shares the same values.  Cato taught his son fighting, riding, and boxing in addition to reading whereas Aemilius Paulus gave his son a Greek education. (See Plutarch on these men for the details.) Take a guess whether or not Cato or Paulus would have tolerated meddling in their sons' educations?

Apart from processes, though, there still remains to discuss the ideas and as ideas are unavoidable in expression there is no such thing as funding " just the arts" because you're in effect funding specific art and specific ideas. So you end up with a council or individual enforcing standards. Now if everyone agrees, fine (maybe). None other than Destutt de Tracy, an Enlightenment thinker most influential on Jefferson, didn't see a problem with the government promoting republican values. (Why would a republican government not want to promote republican values?) Still: in that situation would it or would it not be propaganda? Bear in mind, this is a problem stemming from propagating ideas on which people already agree:  republican government. Imagine the storm around ideas on which people disagree.

Besides those points, who appoints the members of this committee? Do they run for the office? Is this an "office?"  For how long do they stay in office? Or is this committee just another government bureaucratic entity no one understands or oversees except those with enough pull to tug the ears of its members? Are they appointed in the way the "Secretary" or "Czar" is? Is that very democratic? To whom are they responsible? How? Robin speaks of "the symbolism of the position." Shouldn't in a liberal society, the symbolism of any office of authority make one a tad, oh, nervous? This issue is no less than the problem of government itself and that this serious matter is glossed over by Mr. Robin as wanton conservative mongering is nothing short of outrageous (and illiberal.) Robin continues with this wistful thought about a best-case scenario for what we'll benignly call the "post" in dispute:
Maybe we would end up with someone with a lot of political clout. . .
You see in the Res Gestae of Augustus the emperor states that during his reign he had no more potestas than any of his political colleagues but rather only more auctoritas. That is to say, technically he had no special power buy he wielded such enormous influence that he was the one in charge anyway. This might be laudable if there were no government at all, maybe, but to praise political muscle instead of the authority conferred by the office is once more, illiberal, undemocratic, and un-republican.

Even more illiberal is the following proposition:
Any attempt to create a position at the level of Secretary of Arts/Culture would be a political debacle. Let’s say we somehow actually get the position approved (can you imagine the nightmare of congressional hearings?). . . 
Whence this contempt for the political process? Aren't the problems of electing officials worth having in a free society? Aren't they more then "debacles" and "nightmares?" Shouldn't liberals consider undemocratic processes "nightmares?" Good grief!

So instead of treading this authoritarian path consider how you yourself, directly, might spread the arts without the use of force and perhaps even for free:

  1. Make instructional videos, podcasts, or materials.
  2. Write a book.
  3. Make a website.
  4. Subscribe to a scholarly publication.
  5. Donate everywhere you can as much as you can.
  6. Buy things from institutions whose causes you support.
  7. Perform wherever and whenever possible.
  8. Tutor people.
  9. Raise money for a local school's scholarship or competition.
  10. Pay for someone's education. 
Lastly, to promote the arts is to change men's hearts. Never underestimate this task and how little grand designs will succeed at it. No society has or will embrace "art for art's sake." Nor should one. They need ideas to want to express. I'll leave it to Nietzsche to explain the greatest folly of "funding the arts."
If forced to speak, philosophy might say: Wretched people! Is it my fault if I am roaming the country among you like a cheap fortune-teller? If I must hide and disguise myself as though I were a fallen woman and you my judges? Just look at my sister, Art! Like me, she is in exile among barbarians. We no longer know what to do to save ourselves. True, here among you we have lost our rights, but the judges who shall restore them to us shall judge you too. And to you they shall say: Go get yourselves a culture. Only then will you find out what philosophy can and will do. [Emphasis mine.]
Culture, although Robin so casually adds it to the title of his newly minted post, "Secretary of Arts/Culture," is by no means easy to define. It is certainly not something that can be planned, bureaucratized, produced, or administrated. It is not the same as "education." For a fuller discussion of this  topic I direct you to T. S. Eliot's Notes Toward the Definition of Culture and some of our other essays below.

If you enjoyed (or hated) this essay you may enjoy (or hate) the following: 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

On Graduation

We here at APLV would like to extend warm congratulations to a fine young woman, Derpina, upon the eve of her graduation from college. Congratulations Derpina! As you know, though, we're a curious bunch here at the blog and simply can't resist thinking about things. We just cannot stop wondering: what's Derpie going to do with her gilt diploma? Join us in a little speculation?

Right away we're a little worried because Derpie spent a lot of money on  her education, $100,000 in fact. Unfortunately Derpie didn't have that much money coming out of high school so some generous folks lent her the money. They were so kind in fact that they didn't even ask what Derpie was going to study in college or whether her degree would get Derpie a job and whether she would be able to pay back the money. Fortunately Derpie's parent's have a good amount of money saved so maybe they'll help. Let's move on then.

So what's Derpina going to do with her degree? Well let us see, she majored in comparative literature. Hmm, what can Derpie do with that? Uh oh! Derpie's having trouble getting a job. For some reason she can't find an employer who needs his literature compared. Shocking? Perhaps. Yet Derpina went to a liberal arts college. What does that mean? It means she went there not just to prepare for getting a job but to enrich her mind and character. She went there "to ask important questions." Well what did she ask, we ask.

Here we need to make a teensy distinction because while Derpina's school wrote "A Liberal Arts School" on the brochures and they offered music and philosophy and history, poor Derpina didn't actually get a Classical Education. What is a classical education in contrast to a progressive education? Well, why don't we just compare a classical education to what Derpina actually got in a few of her classes.

I. History

Since Derpina didn't major in history she only had to take two classes of history to satisfy the demands of the "core curriculum" for the "Bachelor of Arts" degree. Both classes met twice a week for four months and cost several thousand dollars each, plus the cost of text books. What did Derpina get for her money and time? In her American history class they spent the first class making some general remarks about history. Then they went to a play instead of class. Another time the professor was away and sent a graduate student to fill in, who showed a video. They spent one class watching a movie about women's suffrage and another about Christopher Columbus enslaving natives. Several classes were taken up by exams. There aren't that many classes left for teaching are there? The professor taught one class about the "robber barons," one on child labor, another on FDR's "Second Bill of Rights," and lastly one on the Vietnam War protests.

In her European history course the professor taught the class like a seminar instead of teaching and the students discussed the role of women in different periods of history.

A Classical Education in history would have taught Derpina a great deal more. She would have analyzed the Classical historians as authors with their modes of analyses: Herodotus' stories to preserve the deeds of the Greeks, Thucydides' painstaking accounts "not meant to entertain," Livy's exemplars, and Plutarch's "parallel lives." She would have learned of the different types of government, republican, democratic, oligarchic, monarchical, the characteristics of each, how each one might degenerate into another, and which Plato and Aristotle praised the most. Derpina would have seen the bright side of democracy in Pericles' shining funeral oration and its dark side in the Melian debate and the invasion of Sicily. She would have seen both the need for change in the expulsion of the Greek tyrants, but also the terrible price paid by subverting the traditional laws in the legacy of the Gracchi. She would have seen that sometimes returning generals leave their armies at the gates, like Cincinnatus, and sometimes they enter with them like Marius, Sulla, and Caesar.

In American history, then, she would study the American republic in the light of the ancient republics and the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution in the light of Roman Twelve Tables, Solon's reforms, and the Greek and Roman courts. In short, she sees that the ancient problems are our problems. Hooray!

II. Logic and Rhetoric

Uh oh! Isn't this embarrassing? Unfortunately Derpina did not have to take a single class in logic in college. She never reads Plato's dialogues or any of Aristotle's logic. She doesn't know about different forms of argumentation, fallacies, about appeals to emotion, about induction vs. deduction. What to do? How can Derpina think? How can she systematically and reliably interpret the world around her? Nothing else in the world, no other experience or form of study, can fill this lacuna in her education. Oh noes Derpina!

It looks like Derpina didn't study rhetoric either. She never read Cicero and Demosthenes to see examples of the best oratory ever written, its attention to cadence, rhythm, periodic length, imagery, argumentation, small and large scale structure, rhetorical devices, and so forth. She doesn't know from Aristotle and Quintilian the different components of a speech, the types of speeches, or topics which one debates. She doesn't know what the emotions are or how to appeal to them. In the absence of such understanding she cannot express herself well or determine when someone else is expressing himself well. Oh my!

III. Literature and the Arts

We've been so harsh on Derpina's education let us see if we can put her major, comparative literature, to good use. Oh good, it seems she studied Shakespeare and George Eliot, surely that must be of some good? Indeed such are worthy studies, yet Derpina cannot really appreciate Shakespeare without a knowledge of Classics, especially Plutarch. Without a knowledge of Plutarch's history, the classical mythology, and the classical languages, Derpina's study will be considerably hobbled. How? Well it's hard to understand, let alone appreciate and enjoy, Shakespeare's vast vocabulary without knowing the lives of his words and many images without knowing the stories of the Greeks and Romans. Yet there is another way in which Derpina's study is hobbled by a dearth of Classical learning.

Wolfgang Sebastian Handel,
composer of Aida.
Derpina only took a survey music course and no art courses. She knows a half note is larger than a quarter note, the oboe is a woodwind, and that Beethoven was deaf, but that's about it. She has not knowledge of musical structures of counterpoint and harmony or historical contexts of styles. She doesn't know it, but this makes her major all the harder to pursue because each of the arts enlivens the others. She can't let Handel and Tiepolo bring Julius Caesar to life, Verdi Macbeth, or  Mendelssohn the world of A Midsummer Night's Dream, because she doesn't know who they are. In short, she studies her discipline in isolation without the Classics weaving the strands into something greater than the sum of its parts.


Perhaps we ought to stop here lest we be thought cruel. It's not a point in need of repetition that a Classical education in fact is education. In need of emphasis, though, is this: it is one thing not to be educated and quite another to be uneducated and think you are wise. To lack a liberal education is not the worst of things. Nietzsche praised the Romans when he said they were at their best when they lived without philosophy as a traditional agrarian people. To graduate from a liberal arts college without a liberal arts education is indeed a waste but such a waste is often the fault of the student. It is something different altogether to spend a small fortune on a liberal arts education, follow the school's curriculum to the letter, and still get nothing for your time. Like Derpina, that student takes from such an education an undeserved confidence dangerous to others and a gross and dangerous ignorance dangerous to himself. Told you have been given all the tools for life, wouldn't it be fair for you to think that when life goes awry, there's nothing more to be done?

Such a student doesn't have Plato and Aristotle to form the bedrock of his mind. Latin and Greek don't teach him to read and write with precision. The advice in the Rhetoric doesn't make him skeptical of the demagogue and the Republic doesn't make him wary of the social engineers. Ovid and Catullus don't ease his heartbreak and Horace doesn't teach him to enjoy simple pleasures. Marcus Aurelius doesn't tell him to get over himself and suck it up sometimes. To understand such a loss as an absence of guidance gives one a sense of the gravity of the deprivation but it is worse still because understanding binds one to the world. The world is for knowing and we are epistemophiliacs, lovers of understanding. The desire to understand is part of our nature and thus to begin to know the world is to begin to know oneself. So indeed it is a crime that the student has no map and a catastrophe that he has no world, but it is a tragedy that he, unawares, goes about without a self.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

An Overture for Richard?

I am not one of the pesky many perpetually scoffing at programmatic music for being "limited." Yet. . . in this one case I simply must give new purpose to Rimsky-Korsakov's battle music from The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. It will be quite a different purpose but I hope you agree one quite a fine fit. 

I propose seeing Korsakov's scene as an overture to Richard III. From the outset the dark winds suggest ill intent and the lengthening line Richard's invasive scheming. The brassy six-note figure evokes here throbbing (and later in the violins, stabbing) as much as marching and the opening wind figure most appropriately accompanies it. The rising range of the orchestration depicts Richard's rise and the rising tension matches his increasing viciousness.  

The spacious and grand theme that follows is the essence of what fascinates us in Richard. It's a soaring and rapturous theme, seductive in its primal heedlessness. Its opening figure is repeated against increasingly martial strings and drums until climaxing in a dazzling and colorful explosion of vigor, violence, and self-assertion. Growing darker and more malevolent, though, the theme is then itself besieged by ferocious drums who hound and snap at it until, put to flight, it limps off. (This dactylic figure could easily also be Richard's horse trotting off.) A baleful shadow of its former glory the theme makes its last overtures now, shrinking after each attempt. Its last gasp is way up in the oboes, and the last bit of energy it expends is on the shock at its fate.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mozart on Film: Bergman's Die Zauberflöte

Bergman's opening scene to Mozart's final opera is itself a miniature masterpiece. We begin with the Three Ladies veiled and with spear in full warrior-maiden mode. A visually imposing presence, Bergman arranges the armed trio in a tableau bathed in flashing light and smoke. Their dark clothes against the light background emphasize the menacing sight and Bergman raises their dominant position further by shooting from a low angle.

Musically we now have a falling scalar figure alongside shouts of victory. Which will Bergman utilize? He chooses not to use the falling scales to emphasize the falling of the dragon but the calls of "Triumph!" to accompany close-ups of to the Ladies. These close-ups, preceded by a marching figure in the winds, further the Ladies' warrior look by showing us their flared nostrils and gaping maws. Yikes!

Tamino, looking equal parts comfy and conked-out, rolls around on the floor alongside the comically kicking dragon. In one smooth motion the camera pans up from the flaccid Tamino to the dying dragon to the victorious Ladies who now unveil to look upon their spoils: a handsome prince whom the camera dwells upon in closeup. With the shot fixed on Tamino the Ladies' hands enter the frame, emphasizing their agency and interest while contrasting the previous image of them as marauders. Those hands that had just thrust spears are now seen closeup in their silken femininity as they cradle and caress (and compete for) Tamino.

In the same unbroken shot they raise up Tamino and each Lady has a turn at his ear.

The relative stillness of the camera throughout the Ladies' movement in the shot gives the moment an ethereal quality.

Bergman holds the next shot in close on the two singing Ladies and pulls out to accomodate the third who joins them. This might seem more literal, with the camera mimicking the music, but it works because the joining Lady was the last to look upon Tamino and her delay makes it seems as if she lingered upon him longer, unable to tear herself away. This simple shot itself is worth lingering on a while longer. Do you notice the tension in the shot to the right? Where are we supposed to look? The left Lady attracts our attention because her blondness makes her brighter but the right Lady is taller, hence the introduction of the third Lady to the left and slightly lower feels like a resolution.

Bergman creates this scene with the barest minimum of movement but the fullest utilization of color, size, and spatial arrangement. It has life and energy without relentless motion. It is also the most sensual image so far, centrally displaying in close distance the Ladies' slender necks. Their heads then turn left to Tamino, first the right lady, then the left, then the center and in such order because our eyes must follow the center Lady. (Watch the clip trying to follow one of the other two and see how awkward it feels.)

The Ladies surround Tamino in another engaging tableau. Unlike before when they barely grazed him now the Ladies get handsy. Their caressing and wandering hands complement the music which here begins with an excited energy of quavers in the Ladies' voices against clipped quavers in the strings. This motion gives way to a throbbing iambic motion in two of the Ladies as the third is completely carried away. Visually and musically the Ladies are having their own private moment with Tamino. What could be less relevant here than the text about bringing him back to the Queen?

No sooner, though, do the ladies start eyeing the competition. The ladies enter one at a time, each offering to stay behind with the newfound stud and each in turn getting interrupted by one of the other Ladies who insists she be the one to stay. Musically this is handled with successive entries and visually Bergman has each entering Lady step in front of the other, blocking her competition from the camera. Bergman follows Mozart and repeats the pattern twice, the women working their way up to the camera until finally each thrusts herself forward, forcing the camera back.

Bear in mind that for this part of the scene the Ladies look directly into the camera, which is now at eye level instead of beneath them. Naturally this creates the impression that they are competing for us instead of what's-his-name. Bergman completes the moment with a cutthroat smile. If you're not drawn in at this point. .  .

The Ladies twirl their bodies away from us and start arguing about who will get to stay behind. ("I'm supposed to go?!") The camera quickly pans back and forth across the Ladies' faces as they argue. The staging of the Ladies here is quite brilliant. The two back to back have to turn their necks to argue, which adds tension, and the uppity response from the third who is left out makes way for a visual joke. Lastly, the continuous and close physical contact gives the scene a sensual charge.

Next each Lady how she won't leave Tamino for the others and Bergman is somewhat pressed to handle these musical repetitions with visual language. He arranges them as a pair discussing with the third separate, first in the foreground, then in the background, and with them joining all together to say "Nay Nay!" in between. This simple trick proves surprisingly effective at creating a sense of variety.

They join hands and circle around the dazed prince as if preparing for some more touchy-feely but instead they share a kiss amongst themselves: a truce. None of them will have Tamino. It cannot be.

Convinced of their defeat the Ladies move in front of Tamino and bemoan their loss, swooping forth one after the other like Mozart's stretti, first falling then rising. The Ladies turn and twirl until rising in proud acceptance and then collapsing in dejection. They return to him one last time, grasping him ever more boldly in knowing they'll get no further. . .

. . . before at last gracefully bowing out.

In short, Bergman's staging of Mozart is brilliant. Making use of all of his visual resources he is able to create a beautiful, effective and in fact quite simple visual vessel for Mozart's music. 

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?