28 December 2010
23 December 2010
“When opportunities for acquiring and disseminating knowledge were fewer, we had to act quickly to seize them: who know when another would come by? But now, with so much we can know and so many ways to get our ideas out into the world, we need to seek time and space to filter through the options. We need, as never before, the virtues of discernment.”Fitting for the day I put up my last post at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. If anybody's trying to keep track of me with RSS, this site is home base for now. (Try not to get too settled, though.)
21 December 2010
SOME DAMNABLE ERRORS ABOUT CHRISTMAS
by G.K. CH*ST*RT*N
That it is human to err is admitted by even the most positive of our thinkers. Here we have the great difference between latter-day thought and the thought of the past. If Euclid were alive to-day (and I dare say he is) he would not say, "The angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal to one another." He would say, "To me (a very frail and fallible being, remember) it does somehow seem that these two angles have a mysterious and awful equality to one another." The dislike of schoolboys for Euclid is unreasonable in many ways; but fundamentally it is entirely reasonable. Fundamentally it is the revolt from a man who was either fallible and therefore (in pretending to infallibility) an impostor, or infallible and therefore not human.
Now, since it is human to err, it is always in reference to those things which arouse in us the most human of all our emotions—I mean the emotion of love—that we conceive the deepest of our errors. Suppose we met Euclid on Westminster Bridge, and he took us aside and confessed to us that whilst he regarded parallelograms and rhomboids with an indifference bordering on contempt, for isosceles triangles he cherished a wild romantic devotion. Suppose he asked us to accompany him to the nearest music-shop, and there purchased a guitar in order that he might worthily sing to us the radiant beauty and the radiant goodness of isosceles triangles. As men we should, I hope, respect his enthusiasm, and encourage his enthusiasm, and catch his enthusiasm. But as seekers after truth we should be compelled to regard with a dark suspicion, and to check with the most anxious care, every fact that he told us about isosceles triangles. For adoration involves a glorious obliquity of vision. It involves more than that. We do not say of Love that he is short-sighted. We do not say of Love that he is myopic. We do not say of Love that he is astigmatic. We say quite simply, Love is blind. We might go further and say, Love is deaf. That would be a profound and obvious truth. We might go further still and say, Love is dumb. But that would be a profound and obvious lie. For love is always an extraordinarily fluent talker. Love is a wind-bag, filled with a gusty wind from Heaven.
It is always about the thing that we love most that we talk most. About this thing, therefore, our errors are something more than our deepest errors: they are our most frequent errors. That is why for nearly two thousand years mankind has been more glaringly wrong on the subject of Christmas than on any other subject. If mankind had hated Christmas, he would have understood it from the first. What would have happened then, it is impossible to say. For that which is hated, and therefore is persecuted, and therefore grows brave, lives on for ever, whilst that which is understood dies in the moment of our understanding of it—dies, as it were, in our awful grasp. Between the horns of this eternal dilemma shivers all the mystery of the jolly visible world, and of that still jollier world which is invisible. And it is because Mr. Shaw and the writers of his school cannot, with all their splendid sincerity and, acumen, perceive that he and they and all of us are impaled on those horns as certainly as the sausages I ate for breakfast this morning had been impaled on the cook's toasting-fork—it is for this reason, I say, that Mr. Shaw and his friends seem to me to miss the basic principle that lies at the root of all things human and divine. By the way, not all things that are divine are human. But all things that are human are divine. But to return to Christmas.
I select at random two of the more obvious fallacies that obtain. One is that Christmas should be observed as a time of jubilation. This is (I admit) quite a recent idea. It never entered into the tousled heads of the shepherds by night, when the light of the angel of the Lord shone about them and they arose and went to do homage to the Child. It never entered into the heads of the Three Wise Men. They did not bring their gifts as a joke, but as an awful oblation. It never entered into the heads of the saints and scholars, the poets and painters, of the Middle Ages. Looking back across the years, they saw in that dark and ungarnished manger only a shrinking woman, a brooding man, and a child born to sorrow. The philomaths of the eighteenth century, looking back, saw nothing at all. It is not the least of the glories of the Victorian Era that it rediscovered Christmas. It is not the least of the mistakes of the Victorian Era that it supposed Christmas to be a feast.
The splendour of the saying, "I have piped unto you, and you have not danced; I have wept with you, and you have not mourned" lies in the fact that it might have been uttered with equal truth by any man who had ever piped or wept. There is in the human race some dark spirit of recalcitrance, always pulling us in the direction contrary to that in which we are reasonably expected to go. At a funeral, the slightest thing, not in the least ridiculous at any other time, will convulse us with internal laughter. At a wedding, we hover mysteriously on the brink of tears. So it is with the modern Christmas. I find myself in agreement with the cynics in so far that I admit that Christmas, as now observed, tends to create melancholy. But the reason for this lies solely in our own misconception. Christmas is essentially a dies iræ. If the cynics will only make up their minds to treat it as such, even the saddest and most atrabilious of them will acknowledge that he has had a rollicking day.
This brings me to the second fallacy. I refer to the belief that "Christmas comes but once a year." Perhaps it does, according to the calendar—a quaint and interesting compilation, but of little or no practical value to anybody. It is not the calendar, but the Spirit of Man that regulates the recurrence of feasts and fasts. Spiritually, Christmas Day recurs exactly seven times a week. When we have frankly acknowledged this, and acted on this, we shall begin to realise the Day's mystical and terrific beauty. For it is only every-day things that reveal themselves to us in all their wonder and their splendour. A man who happens one day to be knocked down by a motor-bus merely utters a curse and instructs his solicitor, but a man who has been knocked down by a motor-bus every day of the year will have begun to feel that he is taking part in an august and soul-cleansing ritual. He will await the diurnal stroke of fate with the same lowly and pious joy as animated the Hindoos awaiting Juggernaut. His bruises will be decorations, worn with the modest pride of the veteran. He will cry aloud, in the words of the late W.E. Henley, "My head is bloody but unbowed." He will add, "My ribs are broken but unbent."
I look for the time when we shall wish one another a Merry Christmas every morning; when roast turkey and plum-pudding shall be the staple of our daily dinner, and the holly shall never be taken down from the walls, and everyone will always be kissing everyone else under the mistletoe. And what is right as regards Christmas is right as regards all other so-called anniversaries. The time will come when we shall dance round the Maypole every morning before breakfast—a meal at which hot-cross buns will be a standing dish—and shall make April fools of one another every day before noon. The profound significance of All Fool's Day—the glorious lesson that we are all fools—is too apt at present to be lost. Nor is justice done to the sublime symbolism of Shrove Tuesday—the day on which all sins are shriven. Every day pancakes shall be eaten, either before or after the plum-pudding. They shall be eaten slowly and sacramentally. They shall be fried over fires tended and kept for ever bright by Vestals. They shall be tossed to the stars.
I shall return to the subject of Christmas next week.
20 December 2010
The RSS feed system works pretty well for wisdom literature, at least judging by how I've enjoyed Don Colacho's Aphorisms, a site that posts English translations of Nicolás Gómez Dávila's work at four-hour intervals. Just from this weekend:
- #2,445: "Loyalty to a doctrine ends in adherence to the interpretation we give it.
Only loyalty to a person frees us from all self-complacency."
- #2,435: "To scandalize anyone today, it suffices to suggest to him that he renounce something."
- #2,347: "History shows that man’s good ideas are accidental and his mistakes methodical."
17 December 2010
“I know a little boy whose mother had to go away for a few days. When she came home, he cried and told her he had missed her. Touched by his infant sadness, the mother said, ‘It’s nice to be missed’ – and he replied, ‘It’s not nice to miss.’ It is nice to be missed because we learn what love means in the sadness of another. The face that always smiles is the face of a stranger. Love is written on the face of sadness.”A few days later, Fabricius posted theses on joy.
15 December 2010
My guess is that most modern readers would think of this story as happening on the verge of the Renaissance, taking place in the final centuries before the light of culture breaks through. One of my favorite polemical essays would turn this myth on its head, though. James Franklin argues against the idea of Renaissance as high watermark:
[T]he "Renaissance" was a period when thought declined significantly, bringing to an end a period of advance in the late Middle Ages. … Now if there was a Dark Age, it might be argued, with some show of reason, that there must have been a renaissance to end it. This is perfectly correct. There was one, and it happened in the twelfth century.It's surprising how many of the late Middle Age achievements Franklin mentions have already made their appearance in Eco's book — most obviously, the protagonist, William of Baskerville, carries reading glasses, which seems like an anachronism when it happens. At the same time, Franklin identifies an obsession with allegory as the principle intellectual vice of the stagnant period between 1350 and 1650, and Adso's rapt absorption in the carvings on the abbey church doorway is the best representation of the allegorical mindset I've come across.
But leaving intellectual historiography to the side, I still can't help reading as a story set in twilight rather than before dawn. The bulk of the narrative takes place in 1327; just over two decades later, in 1348, Europe was hit by The Black Death, one of the most devastating plagues in human history. (Presumably Adso is setting down the story in the years after the plague.) So whatever our judgments about the accomplishments of the Renaissance, it seems right to consider the abbey in The Name of the Rose as a tragic setting.
14 December 2010
Not that I'm saying it's a good idea to try to measure quality with blog stats in the first place. Just that long comment threads skew pageviews.
13 December 2010
"Although this life is a game, I am not playing a game with you - I'll give you everything - my love, my body, my mind and my entire life, be sure I know how to be faithful!"
Ye Sacred Muses, race of Jove,
Whom Music's lore delighteth,
Come down from crystal heav'ns above
To earth, where sorrow dwelleth,
In mourning weeds with tears in eyes:
Tallis is dead, and Music dies.
10 December 2010
The first music outside the pop/folk/rock idiom I "got" was Baroque music -- Bach, to be specific. Only later did I consciously realize that the key to the music was the elaboration of the lines that the composer pulls through rough harmonic territory on the journey back to the tonic. Curiously, this metaphor also helps with jazz.
For Mozart and Beethoven, the idea of distance from the tonic ended up being the gateway, only now the music is conceived in terms of tall vertical chords rather than lines.
I have trouble with Chopin; I'm not quite sure what he's doing. A friend suggests that the ebb and flow of harmonic complexity in his music provides a sort of second-order melody: an elaboration through time of a single harmonic idea. I'm still trying to get my head around this, but this video seems like evidence for the theory.
07 December 2010
What I like most about the An die Musik performance space in Baltimore is the low stage, which to me represents the basic spirit of the place. It's no more than two feet high, and it extends wall-to-wall across the full forty-or-so foot width of the yellow room. There's no curtain, for this stage is neither display-case nor pedestal. When I go to symphony halls or other elegant classical music spaces, I sometimes feel like an intruder in the courts of the the cultured. An die Musik is different: you don't have to be high-class; you just have to like music.
Last night I went there to see a performance of David Lang's Little Match Girl Passion, which was being performed as part of Judah Adashi's thus-far excellent Evolution Music Series. It's a choral work that on a first listen sounds to an untutored ear like something Arvo Pärt might have written. The piece is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's short story in recitatives, interspersed with choruses inspired by Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. On the Carnegie Hall website (where, incidentally, you can stream a good recording of the piece), Lang describes why he chose the story of the match girl:
"What drew me to The Little Match Girl is that the strength of the story lies not in its plot but in the fact that all its parts—the horror and the beauty—are constantly suffused with their opposites. The girl’s bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories; her poverty is always suffused with her hopefulness. There is a kind of naive equilibrium between suffering and hope."
I have a feeling that, had Lang not been so careful to maintain this equilibrium, this piece would have struck me as incredibly mawkish, as the story alone does. Yet the meditative interludes, especially "Have Mercy, My God" and "When it is Time for Me to Go," gives the listener a relationship to the music than the reader couldn't have with the text.
As for the performance, I thought all the singers were wonderful, but then again I haven't spent much time listening to vocal performances. The mezzo-soprano gracefully handled the phrasing in the recitatives as the other musicians , and I noticed the tenor had an exquisite high range. Beyond that, I can't judge. There was a deceptive simplicity to the staging. The musicians didn't come to the stage as a group; they just kind of ambled up there in ones and twos, sat around for a minute or two, then stood up and started. They also played some sparse supplemental percussion. I've already described the effect An die Musik's stage setup has on me; this sort of performance in this sort of space makes me feel like I'm watching highly skilled DIY indie musicians rather than Professional Classical Vocalists. (But of course these singers are in reality highly trained.)
The one sour thought I had during the oratorio had nothing to do with the music itself. In Baltimore, we've just settled into winter temperatures in the last week or so. Here I was, in a warm room full of music appreciators, listening to an artful evocation of a poor person suffering in the cold. Surely there is something wrong with this scene, and though I will try to ease my conscience by donating to a charitable organization this week, my conscience isn't really the issue here.
UPDATE: Tim Smith at the Baltimore Sun reviewed the concert. He says: "The only disappointment, given the roughly 40-minute duration of the composition, was that it didn't get performed twice. I'm sure the sold-out crowd would have gladly stayed for a complete encore." I can't speak for everyone else, but, yes, I would have stayed for that.
I am prejudiced against twenty-year-olds. Because at nineteen you're still your parents' fault. At twenty, you're technically an adult, but you still haven't done anything. Like, twenty-year-olds are like, "this job sucks"--yes, that's why we gave it to you. Because you're twenty. You're twenty years old. You haven't done anything. You've just been sucking up resources: you've just been taking food and love and education and iPods, and just taking it and judging it: "yeah, I like that, uhh, that sucks." You're like a big orange on a tree that's rotting, and the tree's like "get off!" and you're like "I don't wanna!"
-Louis CK on The Tonight Show
Steve Sailer -- notorious for stances that his friends would describe as "non-PC," his enemies as "racist" -- left a comment on Freddie's blog, and it turns out that I can agree with this comment, and I can do so without reservation or qualification:
"The fictional preface is a pretty hilarious Nabokov/Borges parody."True. Sample:
"If something new had not occurred, I would still be wondering where the story of Adso of Melk originated; but then, in 1970, in Buenos Aires, as I was browsing among the shelves of a little antiquarian bookseller on Corrientes, not far from the more illustrious Patio del Tango of that great street, I came upon the Castilian version of a little work by Milo Temesvar, On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess."
-Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose. trans. William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994. (3)
05 December 2010
“While searching for night lodgings, I passed a drive-in. In a selenian glow, truly mystical in its contrast with the moonless and massive night, on a gigantic screen slanting away among drowsy fields, a thin phantom raised a gun, both he and his arm reduced to tremulous dishwater by the oblique angle of that receding world,—and the next moment a row of trees shut off the gesticulation.”
-Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita.