Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Record Post Total

This puts 2008 over 2007, 86-85. I would be impressed with my consistency, at least, if I had greater cause for pride in the work, or at least any sense of its not being exhausted in an entirely fruitless endeavor. I am not seriously going to try to wean myself off of this habit anytime soon, however, so long as I am not prevented from doing so, and can perceive no alternative task which it is any more suitable or necessary for me to pursue.

My Youthful Aunt is Now 50. Having only seen my youthful aunt once in the last fourteen years, I just realized this the other night while staring dazedly at the Christmas tree lights. My youthful aunt was only 11 when I was born. When I went to kindergarten, she was still in high school. When I was a slightly older schoolboy, she and her friends were about the only remotely youngish, with-it people with whom I had any regular contact (when I say with-it, I mean they were socially confident, fun, and always desirable within their own circle, narrow in terms of the whole world but extensive within the area of the northern edges of Philadelphia and its inner suburbs--they listened to Billy Joel and drank Miller Lite, and dressed the part). When I was 19 she took me out, (though she was married and had several children by that time), on what was my first ever night of bar drinking in Chestnut Hill. She was the sort who always had good connections with people who had unlimited access to supposedly hard-to-get sports playoff and concert tickets. Anyway, now she's 50. Her children are college-aged or older. She never went to college or pursued any kind of career or espoused much interest in work, though she married well (a master carpenter). She was a socially capable person, so I suspect she finds some way to pass her time which takes advantage of this.

On Polar Explorers. My other great thought for this post, now going on two weeks old and equally stale, was of my increased respect for polar explorers after spending an hour tobogganning in 13 degree heat. Even now if I come across an issue of National Geographic with a story about polar travel I am always mesmerized, and think "Now that is the way to live life." The guys in these expeditions are manly as hell. They clash with each other incessantly. They have to carry serious guns, as well as other weapons for spearing and gutting fish and seals and so forth for dinner. They leave off of women and drink and comfort and warmth for months on end and come back ten times stronger and more desirable and better for it.

As someone who believes the spirit of enthusiastic amateurism produces enough vitality to a society to offset in many instances the rarer, and largely undiffused excellence of the professional, I have a certain affection and admiration for the notorious doomed British polar explorations of the early part of the last century, Scott's and Shackleton's obviously being the most famous. The pros of today look rather aghast upon their general lack of preparation, experience and attitude toward a journey that is anything but a lark or a game, and of course both of these expeditions resulted in varying degrees of total disaster, but that kind of naive romantic foolhardiness bespeaks a culture whose people really believe something rather extraordinary about themselves and their place in the world, which we don't allow to be attractive or desirable until we have lost it utterly in ourselves.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Stones of Venice--Part XIX

In lieu of a special Christmas post, or a song, I will simply write Merry Christmas here and leave it at that. I had been grouchy that Christmas had become too much about chocolate and not enough about booze in recent years, but Santa stuck a few airplane bottles of scotch and Maker's Mark and Courvoisier in my stocking, which appeased me. It has still been a few years since I have been to an even remotely good holiday party, and all the people I knew who used to throw them are now dead, but I have been persuaded that it is not over for me, that there is yet a chance I will find my way into another one someday, and this has calmed me down somewhat as well.

This is as well the long-promised last post on Ruskin. This is mostly going to be like the last little walk, the last meal, the last hurried drop into a shop to get a snack for the ride before heading out of town. There are a few more observations on paintings, a few more overlooked churches noted, and then--Goodbye Venice.

Picture 1--Tintoretto--The Visitation--Scuola di San Rocco. Referring to the halos of light around the edges of dark forms, particularly the knee of St Elizabeth: "The daguerreotype has shown--what the naked eye never could--that the instinct of the great painter was true, and that there is actually such a sudden and sharp line of light round the edges of dark objects relieved by luminous space." I thought this was an interesting observation/insight into the capabilities of the mind and senses stripped of the aid of what is now a ubiquitous technology. Seeing how the Scuola di San Rocco was regarded as one of the highlights of all Italy for the most persnicketty 19th century Grand Tourists--Henry James, for one, was also a fan--I could not help wondering again how I happened to miss it. I still have the guidebook I took on that trip, the 1996 Lonely Planet Italy, and while it is not prominently touted, it does call it "one of the great surprises of Venice and under no circumstances should be missed". In the winter it was only open from 10am to 1pm. Admission was L8,000, which was about $4 at the time. I guess as the name Tintoretto did not mean anything special to me at the time--I somehow managed to avoid until my mid-30s all the effusive praise that is given to this painter, which now all of a sudden I encounter everywhere--and I just overlooked it. The Golden Book of Venice, a souvenir book of pictures such as I often pick up when I go somewhere--one might be tempted to chuckle, but I actually find I look at these souvenir books quite frequently when I am in need of some cheering, and my children like to look at them too--devotes page 102 to this sight, with pictures of the scuola and the chiesa and a brief paragraph about the art inside, in which the "magnificent staircase" and "breathtakingly beautiful cycle of paintings" are noted, but every page of the book is awash in similar superlatives about whatever building is featured on it, so there was nothing in this book to make me think I had missed anything more than usually extraordinary either. I looked on Rick Steves's web page to see if this had eluded him, but he had it covered, down to a personalized tour/commentary of 16 of the key paintings (in typical Rick style though, he recommends a hour to see the whole place). By the way, admission is now 7 Euros, and they are open in winter from 10 to 5. It was just me, I guess. I was the only one not in on the secret.

Picture 2--Tintoretto--The Crucifixion--Also at the Scuola di San Rocco. Ruskin: "I must leave this picture to work its will on the spectator; for it is beyond all analysis and above all praise." For what it's worth, I noted in my searching the internet to find this painting that a number of people had written that this painting is absolutely staggering to see in person, and that, even more than is usual, reproductions do not do it justice.

More Basics of Painting type material, still more or less fresh news to me of course, regarding the Baptism in the Scuola di San Rocco, which I was not able to find a definite picture of: "The valuable as showing his recognition of a principle unknown to half the historical painters of the present day,--that the reflection seen in water is totally different from the object seen above it, and that it is very possible to have a bright light in reflection where there appears nothing but darkness to be reflected."

Picture 3--Adoration of the Shepherds--Scuola di San Rocco. "...he does not, with German sentimentality, make shepherds and peasants grateful or sublime, but he purposely vulgarizes them...He will not put out his strength upon any man belonging to the lower classes; and in order to know what the painter is, one must see him at work on a king, a senator, or a saint."

The internet is of course rendering the necessity of reference books of all kinds more or less obsolete--I don't think this should be the case, but if people don't want to or think they need to use them, there they go--but I would still like to get a good, readable post-1870 but pre-1970 Lives of the Saints, which is one thing I don't have. I might then be able to glean more colorful information about San Rocco, or St Roch as he is known in English. From what I have found on the Internet it seems that: 1. He was French, from Montpellier, which is a city that for some reason has always had romantic connotations to me (I have never been anywhere near that part of the country). 2. When he was 20 he gave his fortune to the poor. 3. He cared for the sick during an outbreak of plague, and is frequently invoked as protections against the plague by Catholics to this day. 4. Once retreating into the woods to die, for reasons which are not explained, a dog followed him bringing food from his master's table which preserved the saint's life, after which the saint became a protector and patron of all dogs. 5. He was arrested as a spy and languished in prison for 5 years before dying at the age of 32. 6. Modern scholarship has questioned whether this St Roch is really a historical saint or if he has been confused with St Roch of Autun who died in 660 (this guy lived 1295-1327).

I want to acknowledge here the link to this series that was made by the fine and more notable blogger Gil Roth, whom I knew back at St John's College when he was in the graduate program there, albeit moreso on the basketball court rather than in the arena of ideas, which is where one is ideally supposed to form relationships at that august institution. Gil currently writes a weekly account of his readings in Montaigne which is somewhat similar to my literary postings--I don't want to give the impression however, especially to any non-SJC readers who might stumble upon this post rather than one of his own, that he does this because he is fatally infected with and limited by the St John's way of experiencing life. Such enthusiasms for the college as he sometimes expresses are those of a man who, by all appearances, is capable of functioning successfully in the regular social, professional and academic worlds that the majority of the educated population inhabits, and therefore have some merit.

Picture 4--Church of Santa Maria della Salute.

On the Marriage in Cana in the Church of Santa Maria della Salute: "The cicerone, who escorts the stranger round the sacristy in five minutes, and allows him some forty seconds for the contemplation of a picture which the study of six months would not entirely fathom, directs his attention very carefully to the 'bell' effeto di prospettivo,' the whole merit of the picture being, in the eyes of the intelligent public, that there is a long table in it, one end of which looks farther off than the other..." The next sentence struck me at the moment, for whatever reason, as a perfect evocation of the mostly highly European culture/mind: "The table is set in a spacious chamber, of which the windows and the end let in the light from the horizon, and those in the side wall the intense blue of an eastern sky." To me, that is just it; the table and windows arranged and situated just so to give the mind rein to comprehend its own noble relation to the universe. That is the Western ideal.

On now to the Church of St Trovaso, and the painting of The Temptation of St Anthony. There is an image of a woman representing the lusts of the flesh who has "flames playing about her loins". I don't have anything particularly to say about it--I suppose it is a fairly common device in art--but I suppose the idea appealed to my imagination at the time.

Picture 5--Church of St Trovaso.

Here is my last notation in the whole book, a quotation regarding the Last Supper in the Church of St Trovaso: "There is singular baseness in the circumstance that one of the near Apostles, while the others are, as usual, intent upon Christ's words, 'One of you shall betray me,' is going to help himself to wine out of a bottle which stands behind him." Besides the obvious observation that the guy reaching for the wine bottle at the crucial moment of the address would have been me all over if I had been there, I think the image really is pulled off inspiredly in the painting, judging from the reproductions I have seen. Its baseness in the setting rings true even if intellectually one does not oneself really believe it truly base.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Where Did It?

I nearly opened an account for myself on Facebook the other day because I happened to come upon the profile of a person I used to know, among whose many Friends were other people I used to know, and I thought it would be pleasant to be one of this person's Friends myself, and perhaps a few of the others' (but not all of them--that is always the rub with me) as well. But upon considering the matter more soberly I was enough restored to my senses to give up this idea. Besides that I have no claim on these people's Friendship--all of them could plausibly argue that they don't know me at all--it's not likely any of them would have been meeting up with me any time in the near future for a raucous evening of drinks, dancing, humorous conversation and brutally honest, unvarnished, cinematic assessments of our respective existences. Which for some reason is what I am always imagining is going to happen...

Is it me, or in most media accounts is not consumer debt still treated as debt, i.e., an obligation that it would involve some measure of disgrace to default on, while things like pensions, union wage agreements Social Security, etc, are referred to as 'liabilities' or 'entitlements' that it would be in the best interest of companies and the government to seek to rid themselves of? Just saying, 'cause people who worked on the assembly line at GM for 40 years regarded those liabilities as perks of the job, and a motivation to keep showing up every day. Really, there is so much tough talk now about how people need to be grateful just to have any job at all to avert starvation and homelessness, but you still have to make it somewhat worthwhile for people, especially men, to bother with going to work at all. Our society I don't think is doing a very good job of that lately; even if people are too pampered, and they probably are, to gracefully endure a decline in their living standards, if that is what is truly necessary, they aren't getting much help or encouragement in doing so from their supposed betters

Childhood of Famous Americans. I used to love these books, but I am starting to think they belong on the list of bad influences as far as my ultimate literary and intellectual development went. I am going over the course of the next few months to be examining some of these unfortunate influences, or, as they are more popularly known, The Kinds of Books That People Like Heidigger, Wittgenstein, Ludwig von Mises, Leo Strauss, T.S. Eliot, Robert Bresson, Anna Akhmantova, David Foster Wallace, et al, Did Not Read, or at least Did Not Get Taken In By For a Second. It was my peculiar fate that the library nearest my house when I was eight or nine or whatever had a large collection of this series--I have been to many libraries that did not have any of them at all--and my father being a history teacher so that I had a basic familiarity with many of the big names of American history, I developed an immediate attraction to the series, and thereon passed many hours in pleasant and, I imagined at the time, rewarding amusement. The original volumes of the series were published in the late 1940s and 50s, and were particular products of that time, the attitudes of which were already dated when I first got my hands of them in the late 1970s; these were probably the appeal of them to me however. The series operated from a conception of American history that was both dramatic and heroic, and that included, for that time, a fairly large number of volumes where the subjects were women, Indians, or blacks, though all were honored so far as they were seen to contribute to or embody approved qualities of the dominant mainstream narrative of an ever stronger, ever juster, ever more democratic, ever greater America. The endpapers of these books were so stirring to me as to have an almost magical quality. I used to study them for long periods of time and imagine myself fitting into one or other of the various categories of heroes. Both the front and back endpapers were lists of the series's books: the front was the chronological list, with the various divisions of historical pictures, accompanied by a little doodle ("The Revolution"--the three figures of the 'Spirit of '76'; "Westward Movement"--a covered wagon; "Turn of the Century"--a bowler-hatted gay nineties figure in a go-cart; "The Modern Age"--a jet) and the relevant biographies under it. The back endpapers were divided into categories according to achievement: Athletes, Explorers, Fathers of our Country (and Mothers--Abigail Adams, Betsy Ross, and Molly Pitcher--who has now made it into 2 of my last 4 posts-- are included here), Writer and Artists, Inventors (with doodle of a test tube). Indians were actually grouped under the category of "Indians" (doodle--teepee). In the later editions, as more volumes were added to the series, the little cartoons had to be sacrificed due to the space limitations. Those later volumes I knew were distinctly not as good as the earlier ones. As the series became more popular, it became more self-conscious, it had more hands in it, and more killjoys from the ranks of educators, librarians, critics, etc keeping an eye on it. The effusive pleasure of the early years of the project could not be sustained. Apparently the series continues still, and new biographies continue to be written every year, though I cannot believe the new books are any good.

The peculiar genius of the early books is how incredibly unself-consciously democratic and bourgeois they were in their tone. Robert E Lee may have grown up the son of an aristocrat on a plantation, Babe Ruth in a bar with an alcoholic father, and Sitting Bull in a tent on the plains of South Dakota, but these circumstances are just matters of local color; for the most part their childhoods were remarkably like mine. The version of school that each attends is easily recognizable to the modern student, as are the nature of the games they play, their holiday celebrations, the parties and dances they go to; the identification and nurturing of each's special talent by some wise elder in the community is exactly what I imagined was somehow taking place with me. There is sometimes an adorable little girl of the hero's tribe of whom he evinces fondness. The John Quincy Adams book I remember presented his meeting his eventual wife when she was about 5 years old and he was 10 or 11.

The "biographies" of most of the really big name guys had been long lost by my library by the time I came around, so I never did get to read Washington or Lincoln or Jefferson or Franklin or FDR--they remained in the card catalog for years after their disappearance, but I never saw them on the actual shelves. So I mostly ended up reading a lot from the B-list of famous Americans: Crispus Attucks, Luther Burbank, Kit Carson, Francis Marion, George Dewey (he was from Vermont!). The Robert E. Lee book I remember as one of my favorites. For about two weeks I thought it would be awfully swell to live on a plantation as the (white) boy of the house, which is an effect it don't think it is considered appropriate for children's books to have nowadays (Absalom, Absalom it wasn't). The scene of the Christmas ball in that book made a great impression on me; the first time I went to a holiday party in the Great Hall at St John's College that chapter immediately rose in my memory. The Lou Gehrig book was another favorite, which, combined with the film biography of him The Pride of the Yankees (in which, I might add, it did not hurt matters that his wife was played by the official all-time favorite movie star of this blog), was pretty much responsible for his being to this day my all-time favorite ballplayer. All the sports ones were especially well-liked by me, since children's books about athletes are generally some of the worst books in existence.

It's been eight months since we've put up a picture of our Official Favorite Movie Star. The date of this magazine is December 16, 1946. Here are all the Life Magazine covers from 1946. Not a lot of heavy material covered, but I'd say a pretty decent year all in all.

Here is the first of two pages showing the covers of the Childhood of Famous Americans books.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Road Trip--Part 2. The first 4 pictures were taken at Feeney's Nursery in Feasterville, Pennsylvania. There were a few other places where photo opportunities arose, but I neglected to take advantage of them.

In Pennsylvania, they take their nostalgia very seriously. And I am happy for that.
The pictures don't do justice to the onslaught of cuteness on display. It is not that one buys into these comforting depictions of days past as historically accurate. It is just always easier to make them seem so than it is with the materials of the present, or the real, if one is incapable of mastering them.
This conference with Santa has more of the feel of a football time-out about it than that of an encounter with a semi-deity such meetings ordinarily suggest. I am not exactly sure what our collective household idea of Santa Claus is at this time. It is acknowledged, I think, that he is capable of performing magic, and magic, at least as an abstract idea of an existing force in the universe, I think is believed in. I think it is believed that, if not exactly a man in a red suit with a team of flying reindeer, that somebody who is not related or personally known to the family somehow comes to the house and distributes presents in the night. I think there might be a rather sophisticated understanding of Santa as a symbolic being whose manifold live appearances need to be gone along with for some greater social harmony or good. Perhaps.

There was a better picture of the gingerbread house later, but you couldn't see the guys in it at all. Gingerbread houses don't really excite me as much as other things do anyway.

View of Portland, Maine from 9th-story window downtown. Whenever I read something about the coming chaos, collapse, social unrest, starvation, etc that is supposedly about to overtake American society, I always think, doubtless foolishly, that Portland will be able to weather these crises with a slightly less severe degradation of humanity. I have always thought of it as a substantial, highly civilized place--the class of people generally thought of as dumb, for example, seem on the whole to be far less absolutely dumb there than the similar segment of society does just about anywhere else, for one thing--and its existence has always been something of a comfort to me. The reasons for this seem to be highly personal with me and require more space to explain in detail than I wish to go into today. They certainly would not be, and are not, obvious to most people.
Thinking of Maine in conjunction with all the political scandals currently going on in Illinois and the raving about privilege and access and moral bankruptcy and so forth that accompanies it, I remembered that when I lived there the daughters of both the governor at the time and another guy who was later a congressman lived right in the neighborhood around my public high school along with pretty much everyone else. Both of them went to school with me, and I liked them both, though one especially I thought was a real sweetheart at the time. Yes, their fathers were lawyers, and one was the governor, and they had gone to Bowdoin and Harvard and had all of the credentials that the media absolutely fawns over now if anybody has them (and which weren't as big a deal twenty years ago, by the way--compare the coverage David Souter got when he was up for the Supreme Court with that with John Roberts got, though as far I can tell, they appear to be about the same guy both biography and credential-wise), but they didn't seem all that much wealthier or unapproachable than anyone else. Perhaps they were and I was too dense to realize it, which is probably the case. The congressman's daughter never went out with anyone below the level of an Ivy League caliber athletic recruit, though I used to imagine that if I could score 20 points in a winning effort against one of our city basketball rivals or win the piddling state championship in track (neither of which I accomplished, by the way) that she might be impressed with me. Still, the point is these people seemed to be nothing like the truly venal political leaders one sees in other states, and I really don't think they are.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ruskin--Part XVIII

This will be the second to last of the Ruskin posts. As a response to the...well, I saw the exact, right word, and then I lost it again before my fingers could hit the keys...insipid niceness and easy accomodation of my rivals for supremacy in the blogosphere that have recently settled themselves far too comfortably in these pages, I am going to be adopting a far colder, more pointed, even revolutionary attitude on the site. Anyway, that is what people want, and they will respond to it.

Picture 1--Palazzo Foscari. "The noblest example in Venice of the fifteenth century Gothic...but lately restored and spoiled, all but the stonework of the main windows. The restoration was necessary, however..." I am through with celebrating palaces and all this aristocratic architecture and values they want to beat us about the head with, but which can't nourish us, our intestines not being finely wrought enough to digest them cleanly. In the section on the Church of St Giorgio Maggiore, there is a good and long (I wrote this accomodating piece of prostration before I realized it wasn't doing me a damn bit of good) essay on Tintoretto's altarpaiece in the north transept The Martyrdom of St Stephen. The "freedom and ease" with which the leaf of a book (the Mosaic history) is crumpled is "as characteristic of the master as any of the grander features" (this image shows, by the way "how the blind rage of the Jews was violating their own law in the murder of Stephen"). Later on, Ruskin remarks that "It is almost impossible to praise too highly the refinement of conception which withdrew the unconverted St Paul into the distance, so as entirely to separate him from the immediate interest of the scene, and yet marked the dignity by which he was afterwards to be raised, by investing him with the colours which occurred nowhere else in the picture except in the dress which veils the form of the Godhead." The run of painters, he argues, could not have pulled off such exquisite subtlety. I haven't been able to find a great picture of this painting on the internet, but here is one that comes with the voice of a droning tour guide at least. (Now the new me starts in earnest). One of my revolutionary aims will be to make it possible and normal for human beings to engage with real works of art and beauty without looking or feeling like jackasses (Another is to have myself fitted with dignified tailor-made clothes, which I have never had before. To which my wife would doubtless say, "Other people would want to end hunger or something like that...").

In the note on the Church of St Gregorio, it is mentioned as being beside the Church of the Salute, which made me think about how close together churches were built in all the ancient cities of Europe. Rome famously has 981 churches, and London had 107 in the one square mile of the City prior to the fire of 1666, of which 21 survived and 51, plus St Paul's Cathedral, were rebuilt. Many of these churches are within no more than a block or two of each other; none of them that I know of supports an active congregation of more than a handful of members now, if they are even still functioning as churches. It is one of those things which is obvious enough once one examines it, but is rather striking upon a first casual amble around the old quarters of these cities.

Picture 2. I don't get angry at (presumably) ordinary people having a good time rather than humbling themselves in awe at great sites and straining to improve their dim understanding of what such greatness entails. Ruskin presumably would have, as well as most of the canonical writers and scholars who lived before 1960. They expected something more out of men. The mirthful, even blasphemous exploits of men like Byron and Casanova amid such scenes may be tolerated because they are such superior spirits and talents; the frivolities of the lesser sorts of men should expect to meet no such tolerance.

Libreria Vecchia--"by no means to be missed, whatever may be sacrificed to see them", according to Ruskin: a beautiful and strange Madonna, by Bendetto Diana; two noble Bonifazios; and two groups, by Tintoret, of the Provedditori della Zecca. I can't make out whether these paintings are still to be found at this location however. The library itself seems still to exist.

Ruskin's flamboyant description of the grotesque sculpted childrens' heads tied up by the hair on the altar steps at the Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli merited being quoted in a mainstream modern guidebook I happened to look into in my researches, for what it's worth.

Picture 3--Chiesa di Santa Maria de Miracoli. Of course I did not see this church on my brief visit there. I find the pictures of it to be especially impressive, in spite of my new skeptical attitude towards received wisdom and opinion.

Church of St Moise--Tintoretto's representation of Christ and the disciples: "He never loses sight of the fact that all were poor, and the latter ignorant; and while he never paints a senator or a saint, once thoroughly canonized, except as a gentleman, he is very careful to paint the Apostles, in their living intercourse with the Saviour, in such a manner that the spectator may see in an instant, as the Pharisee did of old, that they were unlearned and ignorant men; and whenever we find them in a room, it is always such a one as would be inhabited by the lower classes."

Although I have a tendency to fetishize Christian art and certain theological writings that appeal to me, I am not actually a believer, i.e. I am not a citizen of Christendom or any other community of the spirit (I don't like atheists--especially self-satisfied ones--however, so I am looking for a way to avoid identifying myself as one of them). My wife was brought up in the Episcopalian church, and she has gotten the children going to that church and involved in some of the activities there--all of which I generally approve of--so as it turns out I have ended up going there a lot too, much more often certainly than I ever I thought I would. This is a very liberal church as churches go: gay bishop, gay marriages, abortionist on the vestry, male and female priests who run off with each other though already married to other people. You would think this would all be right up my alley given my social aspirations but to be honest I find myself, if it is to be the case that I am going to be a regular churchgoer for the next fifteen years, daydreaming about at least making my weekly show under the slightly more exacting auspices of Rome. My wife will have no truck with the Pope however, and in her mind as I was never confirmed I have no claim to being a Catholic at all, though I think this is not exactly true, that baptism carries some status with it. I have never, to my knowledge, been officially excommunicated. Nonetheless as things stand I will probably have my funeral and be buried as a Protestant, and no one will ever suspect anything was ever otherwise. That is why men must ever make these records of themselves.

There is more German tourist trashing to get to however, the scene this time being before the picture of San Rocco in the Hospital by Tintoretto in the Church of St Rocco: "In order to show what waste of human mind there is in these churches of Venice, it is worth recording...there came in a party of eighteen German tourists, not hurried, nor jesting among themselves, as large parties often do, but patiently submitting to their cicerone, and evidently desirous of doing their duty as intelligent travellers. They sat down for a long time on the benches of the nave, looked a little at the "Pool of Bethesda", walked up into the choir, and there heard a lecture of considerable length...they then turned and went slowly out of the church, not one of the whole eighteen ever giving a single glance to any of the four Tintorets, and only one of them, as far as I saw, even raising his eyes to the wall on which they hung..." To be honest I think he is a bit overcritical. Art appreciation requires a peculiar combination of relaxation (namely freedom from extraneous concerns), intensity (readiness to receive and engage with impressions) and organization of the mind to form solid ideas from the impressions, that requires a lot of practice and habit of thought to attain. People should not delude themselves as to the quality of their overall experience/engagement, of course, but I have always considered even fleeting instances and glimpses of deep engagement and understanding to count for something in a man's life.

Picture 4--Scuola di San Rocco. Where the biggest hoard of Tintoretto masterpieces is to be found. In Ruskin's estimation one of the three most important sites in all of Venice.

I have written myself a note at this point to "comment on neglect even of famous pictures". I assume this refers to neglect by me as well as other visitors, even such as may have come a long way with some idea of seeing such pictures as one of the main purposes of the trip. I have touched on my ideas about this before on this site, namely that it is very difficult to incorporate something, even something of uncommon beauty and excellence, semi-permanently into one's mind, such that said object as it were lives with one always, on a single viewing, no matter how much effort or concentration one puts into it. I think you have to encounter things variously, in different moods, different seasons or kinds of days or times of one's life, to have some awareness of it in a variety of contexts before meaning can begin to sink in to you; it is the same generally with women, or important friends, or other interest. Of course there are always exception, one-time encounters where the impression is so overwhelming as to remain with one always; but these are necessarily rare.

Here it is, the three most precious buildings in Italy for pictures, according to Ruskin: the Sistine Chapel, the Campo Santo of Pisa--I would not have guessed it (I have not been there or anything to have an opinion)--and the Scuola di San Rocco, Venice.

Picture 5--The Campo Santo runs behind the Dome, I believe.

"Exactly in proportion to a man's idiocy is always the size of the letters in which he writes his name on the picture that he spoils."

Monday, December 08, 2008

Road Trip--Part I

O's Eatery, Chatham, NY. On the Taconic State Parkway. Highly Recommended.
The Crew Gearing Up For Lunch at O's. As usually happens, the fried meal I ordered tasted much better than the sun-dried tomato and lobster-flavored mayonnaise thing that Sabrina ordered, so we had to switch plates after two bites.
View of the Taconic State Parkway. This is a real old school highway, which, as it runs almost side by side with I-87, means that it is pretty much empty until you start to approach the suburbs of New York City. It also means unfortunately that the towns that got left behind view anybody passing through on the road as a revenue source. About 10 miles before this stop I got a ticket for going 71 miles an hour. It's still a great road though.
Molly Pitcher Rest Area, NJ. Since I'm the only person apparently left in America--at least who is under 40--who doesn't have a cell phone, I had to stop and make a phone call here. Like all the rest areas on the NJ Turnpike, with the possible exception of the Alexander Hamilton (the Hamilton being just a few miles past the Vince Lombardi, which is the first rest stop after New York City going south, it is comparatively uncrowded and sedate) this place is always a madhouse, but I had the phone booth room--and they still have twenty lonely payphones in it--all to myself. If I had been cleverer I could have taken a picture of that that would have made a statement.
Entrance to the Molly Pitcher Rest Area, NJ. I am disappointed about the flash messing up the picture, but you must picture the scene, and that I had about two seconds to get the picture off while there wasn't a wave of people moving in one direction or the other.
I don't normally like a picture to be the last thing in a post, so I am just going to type this short sentence here.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Other Subjects

Here are some of the ideas for posts I've had over the last few weeks. None of it turns out to be quite what I am looking for. I have to remind myself that this little enterprise should not be thought of as constituting anything significant in itself, but is supposed to serve as a kind of transitioning vehicle for my mind from the obsolete way of thinking and relating to the world into a form more suitable for functioning in the present and future. As such I cannot expect it will always produce results that are pleasing to me.

I. Why Psychiatric Treatment Has Not Led to More Successful Results With Me--For the same reason that I have not had success in many areas requiring engagement with educated professionals, that I am unable to trust them because they won't, or are unable to engage with me in anything approaching the way I would desire people (especially if I am paying them) to do so. I know I probably make it hard for most people to be able to do that, but I would expect it to be part of a good psychiatrist's job description to be clever enough to pick up on the particular pretensions that a patient desires to have humored, doing which one would think would enable the doctor to more easily tease out the crux of any real and curable problems the patient may have. Also whenever I suggest that perhaps I might benefit from some of the old techniques of psychoanalysis such as you always read about in those psychology books from the 50s, Erik Erikson and Jung and all those people, Freud obviously, the therapists just kind of laugh as if they are dealing with a fool such as is rather beyond hope (Most insurance plans don't cover psychoanalysis anyway; I am usually just trying to throw an idea out there). I don't want to say that the general vibe this field strikes me as akin to a more emotionally/intellectually centered version of visiting a brothel, but the sensation of paying a certifiedly highly intelligent person, who is generally completely disinterested where you are concerned, to allow you to talk all about myself to them for a certain alottment of time before you are hustled back down to the street (and without addressing any of your actual real problems), rather begs the comparison than otherwise.

II. Advice to Notre Dame Regarding Rebuilding Its Football Program. I thought that rather than further downplay their Catholicness and interest in integrating players at least somewhat into the academic culture of the campus in a Quixotic quest to attract freakish athletes--who apparently don't want to go there that much anyway--to rescue their team, that they should actually reemphasize, and proudly so, their Catholic identity first and foremost, which is how they were during most of the era when they were good. Indeed, as recently as the late 1970s, when Joe Montana was the star and they finished ranked #1 in the country, almost the entire team was still made up of Catholic players. If BYU can go 8-4 every year and 10-2 every fourth year with an unapologetically all-Mormon team, surely a team of Catholics, even with a mediocre coach, assuming it takes them 10-15 years to find an outstanding one, could at least match the 3-9 and 6-6 records as Notre Dame has put up the last two years. They might even be able to beat Navy (who, along with Army, was also a national power 50 years ago, but is unable to recruit the most superior football players to sign with them anymore; however, they continue to compete honorably and, in recent years, having had some good coaches, have consistently outplayed their opponents in terms of the supposed quality of talent on each team, Notre Dame most conspicuously). Boston College, the other Catholic college with a Dvision I team, and which appears to have more actual Catholic players than Notre Dame does at this point, manages to go 8-4, 9-3 every year, and has also beaten Notre Dame 6 times in a row. Now is this type of program going to be competitive for national titles with Florida and USC on a year-in, year-out basis in the 21st century? Probably not. But then Notre Dame hasn't won the championship, or even been a serious contender for it, in 20 years anyway, and they have won it once now in the last 30. When they were a consistent top-10 team back in the 60s and 70s, and 40s, they benefited from the demographic advantage that their main source of talent--Catholic high schools attended by students from actual Catholic households--were a much more substantial percentage of the pool of potential players than they are now, while at the same time the southern schools that are the most dominant programs today did not have any black players on their teams at all before 1970, and most continued to maintain a quota of no more than 10 or so black players per team for ten years after that. That kind of favorable dynamic for Notre Dame on a national level is not going to come back, and is exacerbated (for the purposes of fielding a good football team) by the appalling softening/rejection of this same Catholic upbringing and school experience over the same time span...I don't want to go on forever, but I have been to Notre Dame, and known a couple of people who went there of whom I think highly. These people were all of good intelligence, and seemed to have acquired a decent amount of learning and improved understanding during their time in school, with much less detectable arrogance about themselves than I find I encounter generally in the northeast. They do have more to offer high school players coming to their campus than just football, and they should stand fast by that position. If they cannot get enough quality talent with such an attitude to field a team that is not an embarrassment, than you have to consider that maybe big-time football is no longer compatible with the mission of the university.

III. NYT Magazine Article--This was the one written by the gazillionaire Southhampton writer/socialite/fourth wife of an investment banker about using a surrogate mother to carry her child. Some of the attitudes, if you aren't exposed to these sort of people a lot, are pretty breathtaking, and especially in a paper that is widely-read pretty far down the income scale. I only bring it up at all because at one point during her description of the life of the surrogate mother (who was married and had a college degree, for what it is worth) which was made out to be borderline lower middle class and somewhat remote from civilization, as she pondersed how to explain to her son how he came to be born in such a godforesaken spot, she anticipates the question "Where is Abington, Pennsylvania?" Now it so happens that I was born in the hospital in Abington myself, and grew up in the next township over. I am not going to claim that there is anything particularly memorable or spectacular about it, but it quite a bit different from what the article would lead one to believe. First of all, it is located about 3 miles from the city of Philadelphia, and is entirely urban. Secondly, the average educational and income levels in this town must be well above the national, state and area averages in both of these areas. The town has a large Jewish population that is highly active both politically and culturally; in the last twenty years there have also been significant influxes of highly-educated Korean and Indian professionals. Meritocratic, new economy success and high SAT scores are actually more the norm than the exception there.

My point I guess is that there are lots of people there who are much smarter and more accomplished than this writer, and are well-rewarded and compensated for it as well, and I think it is an important point, because one encounters these offhand condescensions all the time that in some cases really should not be allowed to pass. I am not attempting to boost Philadelphia's particular place in the world beyond what it merits so much as trying to understand why the amount of genuine talent and intellect that so obviously exists in a place is seen by people, even some people who live there, as so insignificant and unworthy. I actually had someone tell me once that she had lived in Philadelphia for three years and never found anyone with whom it was possible to have an intelligent conversation. What such a person means of course is that she never found a social circle in which she could move where she was able to have the kind of talk that she likes; and I am sympathetic to that, because I never found my scene there either (nor have I found it anywhere else, really, but that is a matter for another day). But for people to proclaim constantly--as they really do--that there is no cultural, literary, intellectual, social, etc, life in Philadelphia, or Washington, D.C., for that matter, though each of these cities has numerous world famous universities, research hospitals, art collections and other museums, large numbers of foreign professionals who have been educated and have worked all over the world, etc, such that they can find no one worthy with whom to converse or associate with, is really to strain credulity as far as I am concerned.

IV. Movie and Book Reviews on Blogs--I will get back to this another time. My position is that if such things are thoughtful and well-written, then there is value in them. I personally have learned a great deal more about the world from reading book and movie reviews over the years than I have from reading op-ed columns.

V. My Reunion--My high school (in Portland, Maine) did end up having a 20th reunion after all, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and I did end up going to it. I did not have high expectations, which was good, because while I talked to a few people, even very brief encounters took a lot out of me, and I mostly shuffled back and forth between the bar and the catering table. I realized once I was there that I had only lived in town and attended the school for two years, while most of the people had been born there, grown up there, either stayed there or went somewhere not too far away for college, and moved back there when they were done. So comparatively my presence in their lives was very brief. One sad note was that none of my female classmates talked to me or even seemed to remember me, though I told myself that maybe if we could have had the girls from younger classes there someone might have remembered me or expressed some emotion--surprise, pleasure, horror--at seeing me. A few of the women (including a couple that I--er--used to like) I must say looked quite good, considering that we are all 38 now; I was expecting much worse. I thought I was looking pretty good myself when I was getting ready in the hotel bathroom, but in the pictures that have been posted on the web from the event I look, compared to literally everyone else, stiff and unnatural and rather like a walking corpse in every picture. Still, it was a good party, though I didn't participate in it too much. I always liked the people in Portland. They are friendly, but with a little edge to them. They have distinct personalities, and they are fairly comfortable with those personalities, at least around each other. I think most of them just didn't remember who I was.

VI. The Apartment--I watched The Apartment last week, for the 1st time in about 15 years. With my superior critical powers acquired during these years I noticed that the plot is fairly ridiculous, that the ending is a fantasy which has no basis to support it, that some of the dialogue is cringe-worthy, and that the supposedly sympathetic characters are little more virtuous than everyone else in the movie, and are sympathetic mainly for being pitifully weak. All that said, I still love it, and I was sad when it ended and I had to come back to 2008, without even a raucous office party or white collar alcoholic's bar to look forward to going to.

Here are some reasons why I think I like The Apartment so much :

1. It's underrated as a holiday movie. All right, one of the main characters tries to kill herself on Christmas Eve, but this actually enhances rather than kills the mood, because now the main character has a good-looking girl, albeit an unconscious one, staying at his place instead of being alone. The scenario is actually quite appealing, to a certain extent, and to a certain type of boy.

2. The apartment itself, the staircase, hallway, neighbors, etc. Not realistic, but the stuff that makes the atmosphere of people's imaginations. When I used to imagine myself having an urban bachelor pad after college, once I made my big move and all that, I think the apartment in this movie is the exact one I had in mind.

3. The treatment of the girl who has overdosed on sleeping pills is left to the lonely guy, not the professionals. This is an important and often overlooked aspect of the fantasy of movies, books, etc, that people are forced to handle difficulties and unusual situations much more on their own than they are generally allowed to do anymore in real life. The doctor neighbor does come in and give the schlemiel directions as to what to do with the girl but then instead of sending her to a hospital he leaves her in the guy's bed.

4. People are smoking indoors, even in bars! This is a new pleasure, because the last time I saw this movie, it was still actually allowed to do these things.

5. Shirley MacLaine sort of resembles my wife in this movie. She doesn't have the same hair, but there is something uncannily similar in her facial expressions--the squinting of the eyes perhaps, or the set of her mouth--which is pleasing to me.

I think there are more, but I'm going to stop. Here is a good video of the movie's highlights, with the very nice theme music. If you hasn't seen it yet though and are planning to someday it will give away the plot, if that is something you care about.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ruskin--Part XVII
I updated the layout of the blog in another attempt to embed some kind of visitor-tracking device in the sidebar, but once again it didn't work.

I am aware that this is the 18th post on Ruskin. There is a purpose, a grand project, an ambition of sorts at work in all of this that I believe is eventually become apparent to me, the resolving of which matter I am convinced will be the most important event to occur in my mental life in many, many years.

There is an interesting little section alluding to the associations and meanings excited by the words "Venice" and "Byron" in conjunction. Ruskin writes first that "the reader will find the influence of (the Bridge of Sighs) on the public mind ascribed chiefly to the 'ignorant sentimentalism of Byron'", and "that (Byron's) feelings about Venice had been founded on an extremely narrow acquaintance with her history," but then saves himself from too insufferable priggishness by admitting that, on his earlier visits anyway, "in spite of all my carefully collected knowledge, I still felt exactly as Byron did, in every particular...I had formed my own precious 'style' by perpetual reading of him, and imitation of him in various alliterative and despairing poems...for the love of Byron, I had run the risk of a fever in drawing the under-canal vaults, and the desolate and mud-buried portico of the ruined Casa Foscari." The argument however is that while Byron rather remarkably tapped into and brought into existence a whole cornucopia of exciting feelings and perceptions about Venice that appealed to the contemporary imagination, his seductive depiction of these perceptions and feelings was not merely inaccurate as to the Truth of the essences of these perceptions, but far inferior to them and infinity less whole, as we would realize had we still the capacity to understand the kind of mindset that informed their creation.

Later in the same chapter, Ruskin offers a course syllabus to an imaginary questioner who asks "But if I'm really good, and mean to try to see it (Tintoret's Paradise, in the Ducal Palace), what's to be done?":

"Well, you've got to read Homer all through, first, very carefully; then, with increasing care, the Prophet Ezekiel; then, also with always increasing care, the Gospel of St John, and then the Apocalypse..." These read over a thousand times or so and got pretty much by heart, "...they will lead you as far as, I will not say Tintoret, for you would have to spend another college-residence in actual painter's work before you could make much of him; but as far as Gentile Bellini and Giorgione, and the rest is according to the time and faculty you can dispose of..." It is somewhat rare that people give such specific direction as to what one needs to know utterly before it can even begin to be discussed whether he understands anything or not, so I always include such instances in my posts.

Picture 1--The Palazzo Contarini Fasan. There is a note on this further down the page. Once again I can get no control over the order in which the pictures arrange themselves.
"...the greatest pictures represent men and women in peace, clouds and mountains beautiful. Never in the moral or the material universe does the great art of man acknowledge guilt, grief, change, or fear." This is a lead-in to a discussion of such a picture, the Castel-Franco altar, which I was going to put among the pictures on this post but it transferred as rather absurdly gigantic. The statement quoted is not something of the sort you usually hear anyone, other than perhaps Thomas Kinkade, asserting nowadays, and I suspect it would not be considered a morally acceptable viewpoint by many well-developed modern minds even if they were able to grant that in a certain historical or religious context it might have legitimacy. However, if the greatness of human art consists in grandeur of conception united with grandeur of execution, which certainly seems reasonable, it is likely that the art an age which does not conceive man, or existence generally, in some fairly intense degree of awe, will be ultimately impoverished.

He adds, "And the strength and joy, and height of achievement, of any group or race of mankind has, from the day of Christ's nativity to this hour, been in exact proportion to their power of apprehending, and honesty in obeying the truth of His Gospel." I thought this should be noted. I don't have anything to say about it. I don't pretend to have such developed apprehension, and I am not convinced that Ruskin had it in any such degree as he was striving for, but I certainly believe it is a real phenomenom that gives such people as have it real power.

Picture 2--Byron on an adventure, accompanied by the wit, the fun, the bravado, the sex, the title, and the associates that have given generations of phlegmatic library-bound drips far more enjoyment and consolation to read about than he had in the doing.
My impression at the time apparently however was that 'He is in the end not really in touch with reality.'

I also noted that 'The base mind has no conception of sin, no capacity for beauty.' I don't know whether Ruskin stated this, or I came upon it by deduction. Probably the former, as it is too neat a maxim for me to have come up with on my own.

Picture 3--Tintoretto's Slaughter of the Innocents. Referred to below.
Good news! We have now finished the book proper and are now in Appendix 1 ("Grotesque Renaissance").

There is a three page footnote in this section about the arrogance of Germans and their lack of any feel for as well as understanding of painting which must almost warm the heart of anyone who has had, as Ruskin himself presumably did, to suffer a representative of this people's pronouncing upon the value, or truth, or nature of any aspect of existence as if were the only and absolute word on the matter for all times and all peoples. I am sure however that his criticism and ridicule of the German mentality and approach to art would be dismissed by its intended targets as containing nothing of substance or concern in it. It would not sting them in the least; they would not understand what in it could possibly be supposed to. I will quote part of the section anyway, though, as it gets somewhat close to feelings I often have towards people generally, though this group includes more than a few Germans.

First he writes about the philosophical system of a German painting: "...its objective side, and subjective side; and mythological division, and symbolical division, and human and Divine division; its allegorical sense, and literal sense; and ideal point of view, and intellectual point of view; its heroism of graceful attitude and braided hair; its inwoven web of sentiment, and piety, and philosophy, and anatomy, and history, all profound: and twenty innocent dashes of the hand of one God-made painter, poor old Bassano or Bonifazio, were worth it all, and worth it ten thousand times over."--I am just setting up the rest of the quote here. If ever met an artist or intellectual with this precise a breakdown of his thought and work processes, I would doubtless be so overawed by the organization that I would scarcely be able to question whether whatever he did was really any good or not--such a distinction would not be for the likes of me to make--"...the worst result of the system is the intense conceit into which it cultivates a weak mind. Nothing is so hopeless, so intolerable, as the pride of a foolish man who has passed through a process of thinking, so as actually to have found something out. He believes there is nothing else to be found out in the universe. Whereas the truly great man, on whom the revelations rain till they bear him to the earth with their weight, lays his head in the dust, and speaks thence--often in broken syllables...I was once introduced to a German philosopher-painter before Tintoret's "Massacre of the Innocents." He looked at it superciliously, and said it 'wanted to be restored.' He had been himself employed several years in painting a 'Faust' in a red jerkin and blue fire; which made Tintoret appear somewhat dull to him." There is of course some truth in it; you are generally safe in assuming that most efforts, most people, amount to nothing much, either where you or the credit of the human race is concerned, though I must say I think this is not how the most truly brilliant and imaginative people view the world. I am not sure that Ruskin himself is that much more insightful than the people he is continually trashing. He pays a closer attention to certain things that are matters of interest to people of above average education and social stature--that is his most valuable quality--but his grasp of the larger part of Man, or Life, that is the portion of the great artist, is not, I think, very strong.

"I think that the central man of all the world, as representing in perfect balance the imaginative, moral, and intellectual faculties, all at their highest, is Dante; and in him the grotesque reaches at once the most distinct and the most noble development to which it was ever brought in the human mind." (In his youth Ruskin denoted Michelangelo and Tintoretto as the second and third greatest men Italy had ever produced, though in later years he denounced "the false reverence for Michael Angelo in which I had been brought up"). At the very top of such rankings all the contenders are so well-developed and excellent in so many facets of mental life that it seems rather nit-picking to me--to me--to determine that Dante is more supreme than Homer, or Socrates or Moses (I assume this is due mainly to his having been denied revelation of the Christian faith), or Thomas More or Samuel Beckett in any way that has any relevance to a minor person, but the sentiment of why anyone would be so designated is very well-expressed. Most people instinctively believe there is a proper, much higher, if not absolutely ideal, form of humanity towards which they ought to be ever striving, which would in turn suggests that human existence has a more ultimate purpose beyond its purely animal aspect, however unlikely a prospect that may appear to the rational mind. It is the great challenge and purpose of civilizations and cultures to define what these purposes are by the clearest and vivid, and in the way most harmonious to the soul, means possible.
I wanted to take a little more time on the thought and writing in my posts, which have become sloppy and displeasing to me of late, but I also don't want to spend 30 hours writing up a sheet of little comments summarizing my deadbrain reactions to what are supposed to be provocative ideas.

Now we are in Appendix II ("Venetian Index").

The Palazzo Contarini Fasan (picture #1 this page) was, according to Ruskin, foolishly criticized in English accounts of foreign buildings for being ill-proportioned, "the simple fact being, that there was no room in this part of the canal for a wider house, and that its builder made its rooms as comfortable as he could, and its windows and balconies of a convenient size for those who were to see through them, and stand on them, and left the 'proportions' outside to take care of themselves..."

My observation was that the builder of this house was perhaps not a renowned genius architect, but a practical craftsman with enough absorbed culture from the surrounding environment to be able to produce beauty. I was thinking of this at the time because I had recently been to Woodstock, Vermont, which is a very posh town nowadays, in part because its center has some of the most architecturally renowned colonial-era houses in the United States. None of these houses were built by professional architects, but by regular citizen-amateurs of the village who had good groundings in geometry, Latin literature and philosophy, and the confidence that (along with obviously a general knowledge of the fundamentals of building construction) they were adequate to the task of not only building their own dwellings, but doing so in a manner that demonstrated a high degree of "civilization".

On Tintoretto's Paradise, which has already been reproduced and remarked upon in an earlier section: "The picture is on the whole wonderfully preserved, and the most precious thing that Venice possesses. She will not possess it long; for the Venetian Academicians, finding it exceedingly unlike their own works, declare it to want harmony, and are going to retouch it to their own ideas of perfection."

Monday, November 17, 2008

Why Are Economist Types So Testy?

It is certainly my impression anyway that the kind of people who consider themselves as having a strong understanding of economics tend to have very little patience with anyone who questions or expresses skepticism about that understanding, unless the questioner has a practically unassailable reputation in the field, or enough demonstrable earned wealth to indicate that his grasp of how markets function must be respected. These economic theorists, especially the more obscure they are, almost never acknowledge that perceptions about the nature of the world that are proposed by people who don't agree with their own pronouncements in full have any validity, and, what in my opinion is worst, never even take up the question (which is essential in philosophy), of why ordinary people's perceptions are so wrong, and whence the error originates. Instead, readers or listeners who betray confusion or skepticism are frequently dismissed out of hand as 'economic illiterates', and told to "go and study basic economic theory". This, even though both parties may be responsible functioning adults, of reasonable education levels and adequate life experience to have a serious discussion about a multitude of subjects that are supposed to be of great interest to every thinking person in the modern world. Thus the party asserting a superior understanding considers himself to have no burden--even out of common courtesy--to clarify his position, while at the same time expecting it to be acknowledged as true by intelligent people solely on account of its being spoken forcefully and accompanied by superior credentials.
Now there is surely no profession requiring an advanced academic degree (as well a great many which do not), whose practitioners do not fancy themselves to be in some vital sense the smartest people in any room on almost all occasions. The behavior of the representatives of the various professions in such rooms of course alters according to their comparative perceived position in the hierarchy. Schoolteachers and unsuccessful artists have to keep any outright declarations of such beliefs under their hats, lest they risk public ridicule, though you mustn't doubt they have them; if they are the sort of people who are unable to constrain themselves from all self-expression, they will probably attempt to assert their value by overly pretentious speaking and movements. Computer programmers and their ilk will scowl and sneer at the other members of the crowd in contempt, though these others will have no idea that they are doing this because they really hold their (the others') intellects in such low esteem, because it never occurs to anyone else that computer types are actually smarter than they are in any meaningful way (this is true, by the way. In any non-technology oriented business or social environment, invariably the computer guys see themselves as brilliant, and the rest of the crowd sees them as wimpier versions of auto mechanics). Priests can maintain their equilibrium and not risk exposure, especially at the hands of scientists, by affecting humility and the graciousness that is expected of their field. Small business people insist that they are the backbone on which the community, all the other professions, and indeed the whole system of civilization are riding. Big business people take it for granted that everyone must concede this. Lawyers seem most concerned to make sure you know they are a lawyer--as if this in itself is supposed to vouch for a superior intelligence in a person--and not, I suppose, insurance agents or government bureaucrats or school employees, or whatever it is such people seem to fear they might be mistaken for. I never meet any scientists or engineers in real life, though they are everywhere on the Internet, and as they seem to think everyone who didn't get an A in chemical engineering or particle physics at their college or one ranked at least equally high to pretty indisputably be a moron. They appear to feel, like so many people, that their great intelligence is woefully underappreciated in social situations. This cannot be said with regard to doctors, of course, who on the whole seem to have less trouble actualizing their intellectual self-image in public settings than other professions. I think this is because they tend to work constantly with a lot of people who come from lower social classes and have far lower levels of education than they do in a way that people in other esteemed professions do not, and thus are far more accustomed to exercising authority and power over people across the human spectrum than those in other fields do. Also of course, they are at least perceived to make lots of money, certainly when compared with the general run of humanity, which in most societies, and definitely in this one, is widely accepted as a proxy for high intelligence.

So where do the economists fit in? My sense is that economist types are more obsessed with being the smartest guy in the room, and having everyone else know and acknowledge that they are the smartest guy in the room, than anyone else, even philosophers. I suspect this is because, first, in most of the other professions, one can attain a high degree of skill that in many instances complements pure intellectual ability, or can at least offset a slightly higher degree in it in one's competitors, but economic theory seems to allow for no such manuevering. The whole field is perceived as a battleground of raw intellect. Those who engage in it are therefore obsessed with the idea of intellect, and give to it the place of primacy in all engagement with other people, positive or negative, in a way that is simply not possible is less wholly abstract fields. Thus at the same time, apart from the very high end of the field, there is a great deal of self-doubt that one hasn't really the intellect one needs to master the subject, and there is really no other skill, or act of will that can begin to make up for the deficiency. The other reason why economists are such a nervous and obsessive lot about asserting their intelligence is that of course their field concerns the study and understanding of money, an intrinsically measurable value the accumulating of which is also supposed to correlate strongly with intelligence, and about which there is little disputing who has the greater and the less. This all doubtless contributes to a worldview in such qualities as compassion, spiritual and communal health, virtue not directly applicable to economic growth, etc, can have little prominent place.

Working-Class Heroine Well, enough of that. Let's have a pinup girl! I know I shouldn't do it--respectable, serious publications like The Paris Review or the Times Literary Supplement would never stoop to such frivolities, though a little further down the mental scale, Esquire does have their monthly Women We Love feature, in which they dress someone who is considered to be a little more alluring or intelligent or mysterious than the common run of celebrities in chic clothes and take pictures of her in a Paris hotel room reading Ulysses, sipping martinis, and lying upside on the pristine white sheets of the canopy bed with the top two buttons of her blouse undone. So I guess I will keep doing it whenever I come across or remember someone I like.

This week's pinup girl is Shirley Anne Field, muse of the shabby-postwar-Britain-in-precipitous-decline genre. (And what a genre that was, I might add!) While almost all of the film stars I like best had very brief heydays and are forever identified in the public mind with a very narrow time period and type of film, Shirley Anne Field's was especially short--almost all of her remembered work came in one year, 1960, when she appeared in the cult classics Beat Girl and Peeping Tom (which I have not actually seen) and two favorites of mine, The Entertainer, and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. She usually played the part of the true working class girl who was nonetheless a little better than her squalid surroundings and held herself as such as much as possible. In real life she seems to have been a little naughtier--she got her start in show business by posing for British cheesecake magazines during the 50s, which is about as naughty a milieu as you can into while still being somehow adorable and acceptable both for marriage and a future doing Disney voiceovers.

Since there is little better than scenes from an early 60s kitchen sink movie set to the music of a modern alternative rock band, here is someone's homage to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Shirley Ann Field obviously is the younger and prettier of the girls who appears in this video. I like the custom by the way of putting on a jacket and tie to go down to the dingy corner local and get falling down drunk on a Friday night. Will this ever come back?

I don't know the first thing about the Last Shadow Puppets, but another song of theirs was chosen as the soundtrack for this groovy looking and otherwise totally unrelated video, which looks however like a French take on the Angry Young Man genre, the intrigue of which doubtless depends on the importance of the role that the French take on anything happens to play in one's life.

No Shirley Ann Field in this clip either, but we do have the final scene of The Entertainer, with what should be the theme song of this blog. Laurence Olivier is too big of a superstar for me to really say "I'm a fan", but this is my favorite movie of his. He has a great face, and great enunciation, which I am probably not sophisticated enough to appreciate in all of his Shakesperean adapations (though I do generally like those better than anybody else's nonetheless).

Friday, November 14, 2008

On Competitive Families

The other day I was reading something about Rahm Emmanuel--not much; he sounds like a pretty big-time jerk, and seeing as I may already be in the homestretch of life and do not figure to be improved much further by reading about people whose dominant quality appears to be that they are jerks, I try to make it a point not to waste too much times on such pieces. Still, my attention was grabbed by the information that he is a product of a high-achieving family--doctor father, civil rights activist mother, one brother who is a molecular biologist or something like that, another who is a millionaire Hollywood agent--that emphasized competition and the idea that the purpose of life is not some fuzzy, weak pursuit of love or happiness or being nice, but to accomplish things far beyond the reach or ambition of ordinary men. Many prominent people are reported to have grown up in this kind of household: the Kennedys, Hillary Clinton (though in her case the exacting standards apparently only applied to her), the founder of the Papa John's Pizza chain. In such families the sons are expected at a minimum to maintain straight A's, win at sports, date the prettiest girls (with the Kennedys, "date" was replaced by a more explicit verb), and to always assume the leadership role over other boys in every situation. I used to wonder what would happen if a person like me who might be truly incapable of winning at sports or dating the prettiest girls should be born into such a family; would I have been disowned or banished, my name never to be spoken of again? But then I supposed that perhaps if I had been born and lived always among people who simply knew how to win and get what they wanted nearly all the time, and assumed these things their birthright, such triumphs would have seemed much more readily within my grasp. Also if it had appeared I might have issues with social awkwardness I might have been set up by my socially confident and important parents on things like tennis dates or been secured invitations to small tea parties where one or two appropriate young ladies would have the charge of entertaining me for the afternoon. The singer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers's father supposedly began providing him with girls and drugs when he was 12 or 13, and whatever one thinks of this method, it was certainly not long before the son was able to procure both of those things by himself without any problem.

In any event there is no doubt that the attitude of the parent plays a great part in creating favorable conditions for relishing competition as well as succeeding in it. There is also no doubt that it helps if the parents themselves have been in the long habit of succeeding and dominating the vast majority of their own peers in competitive endeavors, both to set an example for the children and for their practical knowledge of how to win at such levels where winning really means something. I am not completely sold on this approach to child-rearing as the optimal one, in any case; however, I also have three sons myself, and without some degree of aggressiveness one gets into a habit of losing and conceding to the more forceful boys everything you will one day want to have back--girls, games, jobs, leadership position, fields of study--before you really realize you have done so, and which once you have done so it is very hard to take back again without having to overcome--in effect kill--most of your real personality, which is on the surface no great loss, perhaps, but the effect on meeting people who have done something like this is very strange and unsettling. My wife, whose outlook on life is that of a popular heroine from a story out of pre-1945 America, believes that things like stability, a consistent quality and richness of minute by minute daily experience, competency in a variety of traditional skills and activities, examples of industry and virtue, even if humble, etc, will make one strong enough to contend on equal terms against people who have been driven and groomed to succeed more purely in the popular attitudes of the 2000s. I would certainly like to believe that this is true; I think in rare cases something of the sort can occur, and it is certainly an encouragement to go on in life when one comes across such a person who has attained excellent and beautiful human qualities through forces and practices and habits that seem accessible to one's self and one's own offspring. Can it realistically be said that this was ever the way of the world though?

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Stones of Venice--Part XVI

Once again, all the pictures loaded not in the order which I had intended. They came up 3rd-4th-2nd-1st. Obviously I will have to come up with a new strategy.

Ruskin wrote that "the Raphael who seemed sent and inspired from heaven that he might paint Apostles and Prophets, sank at once into powerlessness at the feet of Apollo and the Muses", though he adds in a footnote that "yet the Parnassus is the greatest of the Vatican Raphael frescoes". What do I have to say about this? I suppose I was thinking, "Oh yes, I have seen those". I most remember "The School of Athens", of course, all of those philosophers, the muscular Aristotle, Archimedes drawing a circle with a compass in the dirt, the haughty Dante, and so on. I found the rooms pleasant enough and the atmosphere lofty enough in spite of the crowds. Serious people always consider the crowds to debase such sites beyond all salvation. This is mostly I think an accurate observation considering our usual relationship to masterpieces and grandeur in general. We think of them--or rather perhaps ourselves--as not so great as to be able to withstand so much sharing, and of such a rather rough kind, with all its noblest qualities intact.

On the unhappy trend of using the greatest gifts of imagination upon fictitious subjects: "The images summoned by art began gradually to assume one average value in the spectator's mind; and incidents from the Iliad and from the Exodus to come within the same degrees of credibility." The Iliad is here supposed to represent the fiction.

I very often write things on this blog of which I realize a couple of days--frequently a couple of hours--afterwards I have missed entire important aspects. I do not necessarily believe what I have written to be wrong; I have simply failed to see enough of the whole. Even the greatest of geniuses comprehend and reveal at any given time only a sliver of the whole and real truth of any matter. The greatness is in the wholeness, richness and importance of the particular sliver under consideration. Weak thought, weak writing, weak understanding is above all a problem of narrowness of view, an inability to grasp enough sides, enough facets of an issue. This deficiency of course cripples the critic no less than it does the creative artist. Ruskin does not deal sensibly, nor, I think, honestly enough with the real reasons for the decline of genuine religious feeling among artists and intellectuals in the West. He writes as if intelligent people ceased believing due purely to perverse wilfulness, a desire to be lesser and more wicked men than their fathers. Surely this is an oversimplistic view of the dynamics of the case. The life of traditional faith had ceased to serve many people's deeper intellectual as well as emotional needs. If it had not truly done so, there is little reason to believe the cultural leaders of the day would have dealt with it in such an artificial, coldly felt manner in the kinds of artworks which Ruskin talks about that date from the decline period. In a later note on the statement that 19th-century Western Europe is as Pagan as it was in the 2nd century: "I wish it were! But the worship of Bacteria and Holothuriae had not been instituted when this was written". (Holothuriae are echinoderms [water polyps?-Greek translation] having an elongate flexible tough muscular body). This is not really on the subject, but I have often thought that while modern medical facilities are truly remarkable--indeed awesome--testaments to human learning and achievement, and are indeed in many communities by far the largest, richest and most important institution for miles around, akin in some instances almost to the medieval church, I have my doubts as to how positive of a trend this is as it absorbs ever more and more of the populace into its ethos, either as workers, patients or citizens.

" last, in the very institutions of which the administration may be considered as the principal test of the genuineness of natural religion--those devoted to education--the Pagan system is completely triumphant; and the entire body of the so-called Christian world has established a system of instruction for its youth, wherein neither the history of Christ's Church, nor the language of God's law, is considered a study of the smallest importance; wherein, of all subjects of human inquiry, his own (my emphasis) religion is the one in which a youth's ignorance is most easily forgiven..." This idea of religion as a birthright, and the most vital one a man possesses, is important, because it is a force that is certainly very much alive today, and is still powerful. Orthodox Jews are an obvious example of this in our country, not to mention Mormons, who should probably be taken more seriously as a force in the world, because they are one, seemingly entirely on the strength of their oft-ridiculed creed. Others of us however have little or no meaningful sense of such an inheritance.

A prophecy: "I believe that in a few years more we shall wake from all these errors in astonishment, as from evil dreams; having been preserved, in the midst of their madness, by those hidden roots of active and earnest Christianity which God's grace has bound in the English nation with iron and brass." This is accompanied by a footnote, which reads "Carlyle allows two hundred (years) or so; I hope, too liberally." 200 years from the publication of the book would be 2051. It certainly does not look like things are headed in that direction, especially in England's green and pleasant land, though maybe things are at, or at least very near, the nadir now, and people will begin to reclaim their birthright (though if Anglicanism is a genuine and particular birthright [as opposed to Romanism], how and at what point did it attain to this status).

Picture--Postgraduate American Girls on the Grand Tour. Ahhh. Sorry, I can't help myself. These chicks (I think they're from Texas) obviously aren't really my type, and I am certainly not theirs, which is unfortunate, because in the prime pickups spots of Europe they outnumber the kinds of girls I like by about 2.3 to 1, and those I might ever have had a chance at getting by around 734 to 1.

All right, I got through that. Now we are in the chapter titled "Mene", which I believe is a Latin word, the meaning and significance of which eludes me at the moment. There is a long description of the "Feast of the Maries" which was carried on for four centuries up to 1379 and was the exclusive marriage day for the noblest families of the city during that time, that is very beautiful and evocative. The event was by all accounts marked by extraordinary splendor. The occasion for the feast was a vision of the Virgin by the 7th century Bishop of Uderzo, in which the mother of the Lord commanded him to found a church in the spot he should see a white cloud rest, which was done, and the church was known as St-Mary-the-Beautiful, in the square of which was carried out the main pomp of the feast (see picture below, though the church dates from after the time of the festival). Ruskin assures us that "the spot is still worth (the traveller's) pilgrimage, for he may receive a lesson upon it, though a painful one." As I have noted before, I am mad about the idea of pilgrimages.

On the grotesque heads from the later, decadent Renaissance period which adorn many of the city's bridges: "...they are evidences of a delight in the contemplation of bestial vice, and the expression of low sarcasm, which is, I believe, the most hopeless state into which the human mind can fall." I can vouch that it is a pretty disgraceful state to descend to, but there are at least gradations in the extent to which one is lost.

Now we are in the Castel-Franco chapter (picture next time). It opens with a very nice slam of English tourists in Venice, especially such as had read his book: "...I find on re-reading it, so clearly, that it greatly amazes me at this date to reflect how no one has ever believed a word I said, though the public have from the first done me the honor to praise my manner of saying it; and, as far as they found the things I spoke of amusing to themselves, they have deigned for a couple of days or so to look at them, helped always through the tedium of the business by due quantity of ices at Florian's, music by moonlight on the Grand Canal, paper-lamps, and the English papers and magazines at M. Ongaria's, etc..." I suppose I am glad that I have discovered at a relatively early age that no matter how hard you try, if you lack the quality either of deep seriousness or luminescent brilliance somewhere inherent in your mind from an early age, you are never going to be accepted by or do anything right in the eyes of smart people.
Picture--Piazza de Santa Maria Formosa. Ruskin thought this square, which looks pretty gorgeous to me, a place to learn an unpleasant lesson about the degradation of a people and a culture.

Ruskin describes Venice at the end of the above rant as "the umquhile Queen of the Sea." Umquhile is such an outdated word that it does not even appear in the Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary of 1965, which is the most useful and intelligent dictionary for a person seeking a quick, clear, precise definition of problematic words that I am aware of. It seems to mean the same as "erstwhile" which is a word I do not feel I can pull off using myself, either in speech or writing, but enjoy very much coming across when it is used by others.

Picture--Parnassus (Raphael)

Ruskin denies that he has written "as an egotistic person would, my own impressions, as thinking those, and not the history of Venice, the most important business to the world in general..." I mean, really. Please.