Wednesday, January 30, 2013

On Muscles

At some point this morning between lapping the last loop of my Windsor and putting on my blazer, I hurt my neck. Twisted, wrenched, pinched, or strained I can't say, but some heretofore unknown and unloved muscle, after decades of flawless service, gave out. And when it did, rest assured I at last noticed it. Now it might have been the searing pain I noticed first, but hot on pain's heels set in my newfound incapacity. I was downright shocked: I can't move.

I'd never noticed just how much I could articulate this ten-pound cranium of bone, blood, and tissue until its range was reduced to about one degree in every direction. So as I leaned prone into the pile of blankets on my bed, the one painless position I quickly found, I remembered happier times: looking to my left, looking up and down. How full of agency, how free life used to be. How my muscles used to carry me carefree through life, upstairs, downstairs, over grass and through water. Heedless of their interconnected flexion and tension I ran for busses and unfurled boat sheets. I shimmied once or twice, I think. I also sat parked in front of my computer, which now seems a gross waste in this respect. (But how else to write?)

So what in return did they ask of me? Only energy, which I could supply in gleeful titillation of my palate and satiety of appetite. Not a bad deal. They even get stronger as necessary and heal themselves. What an ordinary wonder. One can surely see why great minds from Renaissance sculptors to enlightenment physicians marveled at the body's form and exercise.Take David, to the left. Look how weighty, how vital and full of  in he seems in his near stillness. How the slightest suggestion of movement, his contraposto position, suggests a symphony of activity, both actual and potential.

It's a glorious and ennobling potential, the agency of an intellect. So from now on the Half-Windsor, just in case.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Reading Bad Writing

It may come as no surprise that President Obama's recent inaugural effusions set your humble blogger on a tirade. You may, however, be pleased to know this tirade was strictly apolitical. In fact, the speech simply iced a cake which had been rising, layer by layer, for several months. The particular bugaboo this time was mine against bad writing. Now mind you there exist many shades on literature's spectrum and everyone has bad days and deadlines, but I'm noticing a downward trend. Maybe I'm just growing old and grumpy.

For my part, I am grateful to readers.  I assume that no content is ever so enthralling or persona magnetic that you can get away with a slight or cheap shot. I strive to please and thank all for coming back despite my literary mishaps. Every essay calls for a little persuasion, seduction even.

In fact, absent some linguistic enticement, writing takes on a strident tone. "You'll read me because I'm brilliant!" it insists. Salon seems to specialize in cultivating this self-important tone. You suffer through line after line of the author's indifference to clarity and style until you realize you labor more in trying to comprehend than the author did in conceiving. I find myself more and more often throwing my hands up and moving on. Unfortunately, I'm probably missing out on some good ideas which makes me even more surly.

So bad writing is ticking me off and it's everywhere. Let's look at a few ire-inducing examples.

1) Defective Cadence
"citizens who want to come to watch the state senate do things like" -Esquire
One wonders whether the author noticed the heavily iambic meter of this line, and how he builds up energy which crashes, without purpose, into the conclusion. Does he realize it reads like this:

"citizens who want to come to watch the state senate do things LIKE"

Of course one learns rhythm and meter in high school, but I first became aware of the need to avoid rhythms with unwanted effects or associations when I studied the prose rhythms of Cicero's Second Philippic.

2) What does it all means?
"He spoke in a soft voice, in an otherwise silent room." -Salon
You see how it's not really clear what's important in that sentence? Is it the softness, or the silence? After all, any sound would have shattered the silence. Also, isn't the construction sloppy? We want to make the two phrases with "in" parallel, especially because they're both indicating location, but the comma throws off the parallelism. The comma also puts the weight on soft, which as we established doesn't make any sense.

3) We Talk Like Dis

Another Silmaril from Salon:
"It’s like when you’re trying to decide on a restaurant with a new friend." -Salon
Choose, madam, the word you are looking for is choose.

4) Indirect Misstatement
even those for whom it is right can benefit from talking honestly about it. -Salon
On the one hand "for whom" is the indirect object of "it is right" and the subject of "benefit." Rectitude aside, don't Frankenstein your sentences. It is too easy in the name of efficiency to try to join clauses by any means possible. Sometimes, just make a compound: Even those who x, can y. Yay.

Similarly, from an opera blog:
[Her] unusual voice and compelling presence made Magda more interesting to me than I've found her in the past.
"More interesting" is shared between two verbs as the predicate of "made" and the direct object of "found." The result is an awkward shift in sense.

5) Participial Maze
by saying “these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” he took a decided shot at Paul Ryan, || doubling down on Mitt Romney by adding in the next breath. . . -Vanity Fair
First, note how the ideas before and after my red break are unrelated and lay listlessly against one another. The participle doubling links the two phrases, however the speaker (President Obama) did not "take a shot" by doubling down, or at the same time as doubling down. The ideas are related forcibly by proximity, not logic. If you strip out the extraneous you see how disjointed the sentence is:

"He took a shot a Paul Ryan, doubling down on Mitt Romney."

That the author thought to squeeze in another quote at the end. . .

6) Chopped Up
"They spoke audibly enough that I had to work very hard to not hear them." -WQXR
  1. Too many short words makes a soupy sentence where nothing stands out, unless you make something stand out.
  2. The use of "that" to indicate the result that is logically unnecessary.
  3. There's too much junk cluttering the parallelism between to work/not to hear, which is why one does not feel the parallelism, which I believe is the point of the sentence.
Hence a broken sentence.

Perhaps instead, "They spoke so loudly [that] I strained. . ."

7) Apposedly Bad
"have shifted from youthful nihilism to pessimism to a less totalizing pessimism, one that leaves room for something approaching or at least nodding toward hope, change, possibility." -NY Times
This sentences loses momentum and grinds to a halt. Why?
  1. The phrase beginning "one that leaves" is simply in apposition to the previous sentence, mooching off of its energy.
  2. The phrases "something approaching" and "at least nodding toward" are too long. Also, they're too similar, only one is necessary. The author clearly couldn't find the word she was looking for,  meaning "acknowledges and leaves room for"
  3. The concluding asyndeton lets the sentence drip dry.
Instead: "have shifted from nihilism to total pessimism to a pessimism which admits some hope, change, or possibility."

8) It Burns!
"In my writing and podcasts, I’ve expressed my hatred of breastfeeding Nazis, my love of boxing, and my bafflement at arduinos. I have lots of opinions, but I’m not all that ideological, and my favorite stories I’ve written are the ones with the least bombast." -Hannah Rosin, Reddit AMA
  1. Syntactical Ambiguity: Does she hate [non-Nazis] breastfeeding Nazis or Nazis breastfeeding each other?
  2. She's not expressing emotion at the arduinos as in I'm angry at you, she's baffled because of them.
  3. "lots of" is not colloquial, like "a lot of," it's just wrong. Unless perhaps she has multiple lots full of opinions.
The boldface line is a doozy. She starts with the direct object, gives us the main verb and subject, then a predicate of the subject. The result is that:
  1. The "my" and "I" jockey for prominence to the confusion of the sense. Also, one of them provides redundant possessive information.
  2. The separation we noted above means she has to duplicate the sense of "my favorite stories" again after the verb with "are those with."
  3. After we're confused and exhausted, we finally get to the point at the end.
Instead: The least bombastic of my stories are the most dear to me.

In conclusion, bad writing is unpleasant reading and fruitlessly effortful work. I don't recall which pianist once said how much more difficult it is to play a bad piece of technically easy music than an excellent piece of challenging music. The same is true of reading. Write well, for the sake of your ideas and your readers.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A 21st Century Mozart

". . . in modern conditions Mozart would make a fortune with the products of one side of his genius which he would lose in performances of works of the other side." 
–A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Arthur Hutchings, p. 160.

Arthur Hutchings' companion to the Mozart concerti is one of those densely perspicacious books in which one can find insight at every page and line. The one-off line I quoted above is one of many you could profitably unfold into a long essay.  At first look it seems a throwaway what-if to tantalize historians: What if Alexander the Great had lived, what if Cicero debated Demosthenes, and so forth. Yet the question is a little deeper, methinks.

You see, Mozart has rather unwisely been made the patron saint of starving artists, especially musicians. In truth, he wasn't the best servant to the Archbishop in Salzburg and afterward he made tidy sums throughout his ten years in Vienna. At the time of his death he was poised to explode on the opera world. So while we may be wrong to see in Mozart the subject of grievous injustice, we can't help and I don't think we're wrong to feel that he was let down. We who greedily lap up the masterpieces he produced-week by-week find unbearable the autocratic constrictions and lowbrow tastes with which he contended. Why should such a rare genius answer to anyone? Yet Mozart, very much the first freelance musician, responded to the demand and especially in the concerti and operas produced works both finely-crafted and appealing.

We should realize instead, from Mozart's experience, that ours is a liberated time. A 21st century Mozart wouldn't have to cater to the whims of a handful of rich patrons or the citizens of one city because the transportation and information revolutions have given every artist a global audience. Can you imagine the demand for Mozart's prolific universal genius? He'd have an opera premiering in New York, a new movie he scored opening every few months, he'd be on tour performing concerti and symphonies, and his serenades would dominate the Top 40. He would have commissions lined up for years and pupils lined up around the corner. Imagine a Mozart masterclass, and a Mozart not wasted teaching Franz "shithead" Sussmayr.

With his popular success Mozart would fund the projects of his heart. No more dense pupils and comissions for mechanical organ. What would we see? What would a mature, unfettered Mozart produce? Would he glory in the esoteric or elevate the everyday? Both, probably. What intimate chamber worlds and celestial symphonies might be. Surely he'd still be outraging the conservatives with his daring harmonies and befuddling the avant-garde with his knowledge of the old ways. I'm sure he'd still be giving cutting criticism of his contemporaries, and I can just see him walking Bimperl along Central Park on the way home to a private chamber recital with family and friends.

I would worry about his education, though. Would Mozart's father have been able to remain his private tutor? Could he have afforded to? Would Leopold have been dragged through the tabloids for exploiting his son? What scandals would have been cooked up in a media frenzy?  We should probably spare ourselves the thought of young Wolferl in a government school classroom of 30.

Aside from the fact that no musical education could replace that from his father, young Wolfgang's interest was almost exclusively musical. Would it have profited him, his family, or anyone, to have dragged him though a "Core Curriculum?" Yuck. Is not the disconnect between the thoughts downright offensive: Mozart and Core Curriculum. How different the associations. If the young Mozart was as attention-deficient as many of his sonatas, might he have been medicated dull as so many other spunky, innocent boys today? We rightly noted the virtues of our liberated culture, but it seems clear the young Mozart was a freer boy and the Mozart family a closer, freer family than most today. What Wolfgang might have gained in the technological revolution from looking at digitized scores of Bach he might have lost early in other ways and early on.

Of lessons we should be wary of drawing too many. It's all too easy to start pointing and wagging fingers at the alleged causes of the artistic lacuna in our society. The solution, however, is no political or social prescription, but the personal one to cultivate him in our lives through his music. Toward this end Mozart can have done no more, having left us his most perfect, universal art. The only appropriate responses, I think, are love and gratitude.

And more music. Especially opera.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Amarcord: Ten Frames

click to enlarge

Music of Middle Earth: The March of the Ents

If the success of a romance like The Lord of the Rings in the postmodern 20th century is not surprising enough, consider the love of Tolkien's songs and poems therein. Beloved by Tolkien and Middle Earth aficionados, the songs showcase not only the author's wordsmith craft but also his affection for words. Yet they're no artist's conceit because they add veracity and authenticity to the larger narrative, enshrining the deeds of Middle Earth not just in history but in lore.

Many of Tolkien's songs have been set to music and in this series I would like to compare some interpretations. So to start, The March of the Ents, from The Two Towers.

We come, we come with roll of drum: ta-runda runda runda rom!
We come, we come with horn and drum: ta-runa runa runa rom!
To Isengard! Though Isengard be ringed and barred with doors of stone;
Though Isengard be stong and hard, as cold as stone and bare as bone,
We go, we go, we go to war, to hew the stone and break the door;
For bole and bough are burning now, the furnace roars - we go to war!
To land of gloom with tramp of doom, with roll of drum, we come, we come;
To Isengard with doom we come!
With doom we come, with doom we come!
The Two Towers. Ch. Treebeard

The March of the Ents. Stephen Olivier. 1981.

Here we have the whole of Tolkien's Entish war song thrummed out by a chorus of basses over a walking bass line. Probably the most faithful to the simple spirit of the story, this version itself derives its considerable effect from simple means.  The deep, earthy basses are a natural fit for the Ents and the bass line, aside from mirroring the march of the Ents, provides a sense of motion under the strophic, hymn-like phrases of the text. The syllabic and almost staccato treatment of the words brings out the hard-hitting consonants of Tolkien's thumping battle hymn. Lastly, the dynamics give a terrible urgency to the fury of the Ents:
For bole and bough are burning now,
the furnace roars - we go to war!
The Ents' Marching Song. The Tolkien Ensemble. 2006.

Here, the drums with their wild rhythms create a scene of primeval danger. The ensemble here remains quite faithful to the text, deriving the rhythms from Tolkien's words. They do, however, insert a dramatic scene voiced by beloved Tolkien enthusiast and performer Christopher Lee in which Sir Christopher, presumably as Treebeard, shouts rousing commands to the marching Ents. This trick opens up the music from a simple song to a scene of action. The following brassy fanfares play up the martial theme until the bass voices return with the text. The opening and Sir Christopher's monologue are the highlights.

Isengard Unleashed. Howard Shore. 2002.

Consistent with the Wagnerian dimensions of Shore's score, the war song of the Ents is nested within the Battle of Helms Deep. Like Olivier's piece, Shore begins with bass rumblings, however he quickly builds to a small rhythmic figure which, in contrast to a simple walking bass, creates a more specifically martial theme. Next, however, Shore makes a radical departure from Tolkien and Olivier and, with both text and music, paints the scene from a third person perspective. No longer do we hear the Ents themselves sing of their tale in the making, no longer a muscular war song, rather we hear high soft voices narrate in the Elvish tongue. Shore paints the image of a people rising from an ancient slumber with a long, melismatic, conjunct line culminating in a crescendo and the entry of a solo boy soprano high above, fulfilling and releasing the musical tension and completing the narrative of the Ents' attack.

Lastly, let us hear from The Professor himself.

Shore's interpretation stands out certain for complexity and for its departure from the text, but I would argue it is quite successful. The version from Olivier and The Tolkien Ensemble are admirably faithful but still vivid and engaging interpretations. Are there any other noteworthy versions or performances we overlooked?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Top Ten: Things Which Annoy Classicists

Classicists are a curious bunch. We come in all shapes and sizes and with all manner of creeds, but generally it's a smart and elitist crowd. We're also rather. . . picky.

Most of us find the following vexing. Utter these at the risk of being denounced on an epic scale. I tried to keep the list focused on the discipline and not academia.

10. "I know Italian/Modern Greek. . .

. . . can't I just pronounce/read it like that?" It's not the ignorance of the cradle of Western Civilization here that galls so much as the unwillingness to invest in learning about it.

9. Fouling up quotations

Quote foreign languages at your own risk. "Arma virumque cana" is an epic fail.

8. Duckworth, Balchazy-Carducci, and Cambridge

Aside from the varying quality of the commentaries, the first two fall apart about an hour into reading and there is no force in the universe which can keep a new Cambridge propped open.

7. Random Translations

It's admirable that you added the $4.99 bargain edition of The Odyssey at checkout, but the Derpy McDerperson translation is not helping anyone or anything. Ask for assistance.

6. Lack of an Apparatus Criticus

You mean we don't have perfect original manuscripts? What?!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Review: Girls [TV]

Directed by Lena Dunham. Episode, "I Get Ideas." 2013.

I'm sick again, and you know what that means: television. I have to admit I did not intend to watch HBO's critic fave Girls, rather I was watching a documentary on WWII when I sat on the remote and flashed the channel to HBO. Well, why not?

I have no recollection of the first thirteen minutes of the show except for some desperately scrawled profanity on my pad. At that point, things got interesting.

Title character Hannah is dating a republican and after much pestering he reads one of her essays. . . and doesn't like it. She can't quite accept this and the problem quickly shifts from her essay to his social political views, which he refuses to discuss. He starts to explain that she doesn't really understand him and when, after their argument, she asks him if he still wants to have sex and he turns her down, we sense he is right. We star to see that Hannah understands neither her boyfriend nor even what she likes about him. Still, it is not Hannah's inability to understand others which seems to form the crux of the show, but her lack of self-understanding.

Indeed it is rather shocking to see such ignorance on display, to hear someone speak with a vocabulary of cliches such a litany of excuses, rationalizations, and diversions. Yet Hannah's delusions do not generate any concrete reactions to her. We don't feel pity because she deserves what she gets, we don't experience fear because her woes seem so easy to fix. Nor does Hannah possess any great charm or quality, like literature's great rogues from Richard III to Alex Delarge, to sweep us off our feet. Hannah is someone you simply want to get it together or go away. Yet she doesn't and in contrast just meanders around engaging in circular conversations which reinforce her self-deception.

An example is also of the most amusing scenes precedes Hannah's breakup when she discusses her boyfriend with a girlfriend. Her friend responds with the advice that as long as their "rising signs are compatible," "the sex is decent," and that he "supports you creatively," all will be well. She adds that republicans and democrats are equally bad and even Bill Clinton ruined our economy by repealing the Glass-Steagall Act. I'm not sure what amused me more, Hannah's befuddled reaction to her friend's apparent erudition or that someone whose intellectual progenitors are Paul Krugman and Miss Cleo is the most informed person on the screen. Humor aside, I felt a tad bad for Hannah here: if only she had a wiser friend.

Unfortunately, the B-stories about her friends don't stand up well on their own, although they do shed more unflattering light on Hannah. Her gay male friend is worried about telling Hannah that he might be straight because she's self-centered enough to ask why he isn't attracted to her. Hannah's other girlfriend gets a job as a hostess and Hannah refuses to admit she couldn't have gotten she same job because she's not pretty or congenial enough. That Hannah's many flaws all center around her lack of self-understanding is significant, but there needs to be a glimmer of recognition or at least a denouement to the plot. As it happens, we may say of this episode what Hannah's boyfriend says of her essay, "Nothing happens. It's just a bunch of stuf that occurs to you."

No conservative could have written a finale more full of liberal stereotypes. An old boyfriend visits Hannah during the night and when he refuses to leave, she responds by calling, albeit hanging up on, 911 services. The police show up anyway and proceed to bring in both the boyfriend to file a report and her for and a previous charge of public urination.

Overall, there's some but not much to recommend Girls. The writers nail the urban hipsterese dialect, an authentic but frustrating touch. Isn't listening to navel-gazing twenty-somethings tiresome enough? The plotting is amateurish and the writers need to work on establishing tone, purpose, and a sense of motion through an economy of dialogue. They also need to integrate the peripheral characters either into the main plot or into an independent B-plot. Of course, I'm judging based on this episode alone, so that might not be a pattern.

There's been much talk about the talent of creator-writer-director Lena Dunham and indeed one wonders whether the unlikeable Hannah Horvath is a work of creation or exhibition. Either way, Girls is the television equivalent of Tracey Emin's My Bed and my reaction is much the same: in the absence not just of purpose but of craft, one can but reply: it's ugly, so what?

Undoubtedly fans of the show will counter, "That's the point." And I shall reply, "Indeed." and wish them well down the existentialist rabbit hole.

Presidential Rhetoric: Grading the Graders

I don't care to read about politics before breakfast, let alone before my tea and shower, but today I stepped out onto the ice and fired up Twitter early in the morn. Naturally, right up in my face popped this Reason blurb of an article in which "experts" graded President Obama's recent inaugural address. I couldn't resist, not only because both alleged experts and laymen habitually overestimate this president's rhetoric, but because any easy praise irks me. It is no small matter to put an idea into someone's head, thus it is no small slight to the craft and its masters to heap undeserved praise on. . . let us say, the inexpert. I'm also in the middle of reading a book on Cicero's Against Verres and thus at this moment not particularly forgiving. So what did I do first?

First, I tried to find out a little about our experts and turned to their bio pages at their respective universities or personal sites, if possible.
  1. William Brown, chair of the department of strategic communication and journalism at Regent University
  2. Stephen J. Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington
  3. Kathleen E. Kendall, research professor of communication at the University of Maryland at College Park
  4. Mitchell S. McKinney, professor of communication and director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri at Columbia
  5. Martin J. Medhurst, professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor University
  6. Theodore F. Sheckels, professor of English and communication studies at Randolph-Macon College [No Faculty Bio Available]
  7. Gerald R. Shuster, professor of communication at University of Pittsburgh
  8. Mary E. Stuckey, professor of communications and political science at Georgia State University
  9. Ronald C. White Jr.
Alas, none of this research turned up any clear experts on rhetoric and oratory. There's plenty of writing about politics and "communication" and history, but scarcely any on, well, rhetoric. Forget about brass tacks talk of Greek, Latin, Demosthenes, Cicero, Aristotle, Quintilian. . .

Based on what we can see, these professors do not seem the experts to whom we should turn for a full, systematic, rhetorical analysis. Their views are surely relevant, but hardly definitive.

Only two professors, Martin Medhurst and Gerald R. Schuster, mention on their pages anything which remotely sounds like scholarly discussion of rhetoric. Of these two only Mr. Medhurst has his course descriptions online (It's 2013: Get with the program, universities!) and his course on Presidential Rhetoric seems credible though not necessarily rooted in the fundamentals.

Professor Medhurst seems to bear the most relevant expertise in having edited, "Presidential Speechwriting: From the New Deal to the Reagan Revolution and Beyond," and "Critical Reflections on the Cold War: Linking Rhetoric and History," volumes of mixed quality and relevance to our discussion here. These volumes both focus more on intersection of speech-writing, politics, and policy than fundamental rhetorical analyses. The contributing authors talk the talk of rhetorical analysis, throwing around deliberative and partitio, but there is precious little extended, systematic analysis. The criteria are thrown out and then not followed up. Some articles even betray a clear blindness to the Classics. How can one cite a modern author's view of, "rhetoric as epistemic" without at least a nod to Plato and Gorgias?

Maybe, though, these scholars possess the appropriate expertise by their training even if their scholarly careers are not perfectly attuned to the needs of our present discussion. Alas, their faculty bios do not list their courses and grades.

We have only left to judge them, then, by their contributions to this Inside Higher Ed article.

Second, the professors' own writing is abysmal. Their remarks seem improvised, as if the professors were interviewed, but should we give experts on communication a pass for that? Take a gander at some of these gag-inducing clunkers:
  • where citizens are bound to each other as a way of protecting (Farnsworth)
  • President Obama’s second inaugural had moments of greatness, on this date of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, as when he tied his speech closely to King’s "I Have a Dream" speech, both in parallel language and in his theme of equality. (Kendall)
  • seemed more confident with a sense of urgency (McKinney)
  • signaled that he intends to pursue (Medhurst)
  • what Obama hopes will be a sizable majority to pursue (Scheckels)
  • balanced persuasion with direction, and hope. (Shuster)
  • with and without adherence to focusing (Shuster)
  • the overall speech was gracefully done (Stuckey) (N.B. Beware non-adverbial uses of overall. The adjectival use will sink your noun like a stone and the noun makes the reader think of overalls.)
  • What makes us exceptional, he told us -- from Seneca Falls, to Selma, to Stonewall, will be an inclusive nation where everyone enjoys (White)
Editor on aisle five! It's a shame one could spill so much red in grading the graders.

Speaking of red, a note to the one at Inside Higher Ed: what Professor Brown gave you was not a rubric.

Lastly, these paragraphs are useless without analysis and examples. I expect, and hope, there exist detailed analyses behind them, but in the absence of such, what good are cliches and summaries? What are we supposed to make of statements like, "the energy seemed lower," or that the speech, "was better," "had references," and was "interesting" and "optimistic." These meaningless phrases are as useless as those other remarks which are mere summaries. 

I did not intend to analyze the president's second inaugural the way I did his first, but let's take a little look for fun. [Full Transcript]
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. Vice President Biden, Mr. Chief Justice, members of the United States Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens, each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
What stands out most is the definition of his own inauguration not only as the fulfillment of the promise of democracy, but also as the source of national unity. He is the first idea in his speech.

A few grammatical observations:
  • bear witness is a meaningless archaism to lend dignity to the speech. 
  • that what is a relative clause fumble. 
  • articulated in a declaration made more than is a giant brick
  • made more than two centuries ago would be better supplanted by one vivid adjective
A few logical observations:
  • A promise is something is a declaration that something will be done. What is the, "promise of our democracy?" It cannot be that all men are created equal because that is a premise, an assertion, not an activity. This statement is just a pleasantry thrown out there. 
  • How does the election of the president recall that all men are created equal? This is not official "question begging" (petitio principii) but some attempt at logic would be, well, persuasive. 
As with his first inaugural, the rhythmic gesture is ponderous and the effect is a leaden opening. There is no manipulation of periodic length to create an ebb and flow of tension. The vocabulary is dull and the verbs are limp and not consistently utilized to energize the speech. 

I would just like to add a few observations about the subsequent paragraphs:
  • The beginning of the second paragraph is a most peculiar place to slip into the third person.
  • This is not the place for a history lesson.
  • How on earth could anyone have chosen the word noted in the following:
Through blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword, we noted that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half slave, and half free.
Through repeated bloody violence, we noted

Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie Review: Amarcord

Directed by Federico Fellini. 1973.

Perhaps with the exception of Mr. Hulot's Holiday, there is no film more effortless to watch than Amarcord. This is all the more striking because Amarcord lacks a traditional plot with conventional scenes and dialogue to move it along. In contrast, the narrative of Amarcord is conveyed through the film's musical and visual rhythms, through a sense of the passage of time. It is an ease of motion, the imperceptibility of its connective tissue, which makes Amarcord a dreamlike whole out of the film's motley bits. This dreamlike passage of time universalizes the film's rich visuals into an overwhelming sense of a sumptuous, joyous, loved life.

In fact the larger-than-life visuals of the film would surely overwhelm a dialogue-heavy, plotted film, distracting with their absurdity. The dreamlike mood liberates the visuals which one can experience as ones own dream. Fellini's great contemporary Andrey Tarkovsy explored similar tone and structure, additionally commenting in his book "Sculpting in Time," that
It is above all through sense of time, through rhythm, that the director reveals his individuality. Rhythm colours a work with stylistic marks. It is not thought up, not composed on an arbitrary, theoretical basis, but comes into being spontaneously in a film, in response to the director's innate awareness of life, his "search for time." –Andrey Tarkovsky [1]
Amarcord's dreamlike sense not just of sight and sound but of motion which makes the Felliniesque style so natural and appealing.

Yet Amarcord still has a nominal narrative: a year in the life of a teenage boy in his coastal Italian hometown. Here too, though, Amarcord is larger than life and though we see the daily goings on of Titta, his family, and the townspeople, it is memory filtered through the gauze of Fellini's own waltzing, voluptuous sense of the world. School, then, consists not in homework and rote drills but in the lioness teaching arithmetic, the flame-haired headmaster, and one of the most ingenious pranks you'll ever see. And in girls. Grossing out, pining after, and lusting at girls.

Politics is the grandiose absurdities of the fascist regime with all of its uniforms, gun-twirling, and stomping around town. One of the film's best moments comes during a party parade when a giant paper mache likeness of Il Duce is raised as the party boys twirl their guns in demonstration of their health and commitment. The scene shifts from the comic proportions of the giant red face to the absurd as without warning one of the boys is being married to his beloved Aldina. . . by the giant face! Again the memories freely coalesce here, the sights, sounds, and emotions blending together into a tide you cannot help be swept up in.

The town too becomes iconic with its square, sight of the annual torching of the winter-witch, and the boulevard down which the town beauties strut and a lone motor-biker sweeps. Then there's the movie theater, sight of many hoped-for encounters, and the storefront of the massively proportioned tobacconist (and a hilariously-placed portrait of Dante.) One of the best moments in town comes when the boys stand outside one of the stores and press their faces to the glass as the owner bemoans that he couldn't get away with offing them once and for all. It's a brief scene but it establishes the town not just as a place but in time. They boys surely must do that every week and, we get the sense, so must have boys for many years, and so they'll continue to.

Yet Amarcord is not about growth or coming of age, but of the ebb and flow of people in life. It's also about remembering, people, places, feelings, with intensity and affection. The film is bookended by scenes of the arrival in town of the "puffballs" which signal the end of winter. This device, as well as Nino Rota's waltzing theme, give Amarcord a rondo-like sense of departure and return. To quote Tarkovsky again, we fall into Fellini's rhythm and become his ally. We eagerly follow him through the vast ivory hotel and we wait for the Rex to pass by the shore. So sure is he of the truth of these fables and so beautifully does he tell them that the fabulous, like a wintertide peacock, ceases to be the impossible and becomes a marvel.

[1] Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art. 1986. p.120

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Heretical Mind

T. S. Eliot famously observed the nature of the heretic as, "a person who seizes upon a truth and pushes it to the point at which it becomes a falsehood." This generalization strikes me as especially perspicacious and indeed indicative of a particular mode of thinking in which one observes events and attributes them all to one, or even a few, central causes. This cause-seeking reasoning is of course useful and fundamental to understanding the natural world, yet it is a potentially myopic approach.

Dr. Jeroen Vanheste in his study of classicism similarly observed that
Theories that consider everything to be a construction or a convention or the expression of a specific ideology, are a radicalization of an intuition that in itself obviously contains some truth. [1]
We are all liable to such a preoccupation and we see the generalizations everywhere when we read the
philosophically-untrained simplifying the world for us. We read of historical slights like "the essence of Greek culture" and political drivel about "the three ways to fix. . ." We see scientists struggle with  what occurred before time and anthropologists and now neuroscientists trying to make sense of human action. The fruits of such thinking often seem to come in the form of prescriptions, and Dom Prosper Guéranger, speaking about antipathy toward the Roman liturgy, observed:
All heretics without exception start out by wishing to return to the customs of the early Church... they prune, they efface, they suppress–everything falls under their hatchet–and while we await a vision of our religion in its pristine purity, we find ourselves encumbered with new formulations, fresh off the press, and incontestably human, for the men who created them are still alive. [2]
All other values, principles, and accidentals are stripped away and replaced by those of the observer, which are usually invisible to him and those of his age. The whole has been destroyed, but what has been revealed and what has simply been lost?

It seems, perhaps, that while both are necessary, learning by observation and learning by deconstruction (all too often "murdering to dissect"), are the lesser and lower, or better, preliminary, forms of learning. The ideal, then, would be learning by creation, no longer looking or digging but learning about the nature of things by purposeful making and being.

Now the creative act surely seems the most radical for it is no small matter to change the world, let alone make one, yet all three approaches change or make, yet only the creative admits to its purpose. Too it is just as systematic, built on rules and laws, and as well fuses past, present, and future just as the overtly fact-seeking sciences seek to contribute to one true knowledge.

The heretical mind is the philosopher as hunter-gatherer. The creative mind is the philosopher as man.

[1]Vanheste, Jeroen. Guardians of the Humanist Legacy: The Classicism of T.S. Eliot's Criterion Network and Its Relevance to Our Postmodern World. Brill Academic Pub. 2007. p. 437
[2] Institutions Liturgiques 1.399