Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Stones of Venice--Part XV

A regular reader might have the impression that one of my biggest problems is that I believe everything I am told. This is not quite true; I do however take what I perceive other people to believe or feel far too seriously. Whenever anyone is complaining about or denouncing something with any vehemence, and clearly does not include themselves in the general censure, I tend to assume that they are including me in the list of those who are not living up to their standards. Consequently I feel a lot of anxiety and guilt about things like the pitiful condition of current literature and intellectual life, the near-extinction of ambitious, fearless men who are attractive and interesting to women, the gross ignorance of the Constitution and the rights Americans are said to have once enjoyed, the sheepish following of the dictates of the media and other corporate overlords, the stupified wallowing away of life in wage slavery, the thriving market for processed junk food, the disappearance of pride, honor and good manners from daily life, and so on, for I feel in my own person responsible for these various catastrophes in my own little but culture-enervating way. Even when I know the contemptuous person is ridiculous, since I seem to have neither the power to stop them, or influence their thinking, or be at all certain that other people are not taken in by them, or do not realize what they are dealing with, this causes me to be anxious. After all, one of the reasons one writes anything is because one wants his own perception of the truth of things to be about and at least a part of the body of ideas regarding a given subject, especially when most of the representations made by others seem either wrong or inadequate. I also think that there ought to be some wider ground of common humanity among a society of people wherein some degree of harmony can manifest itself even among enemies, and make points of argument or temperament or even differences in intellectual capacity less absolute, less alienating. That there seems to be ever increasingly less such is a matter of great concern to me.

"In the hands of a great man, posture, like everything else, becomes noble, even when over-studied, as with Michael Angelo, who was, perhaps, more than any other, the cause of the mischief; but, with inferior men, this habit of composing attitudes ends necessarily in utter lifelessness and abortion. Giotto was perhaps, of all painters, the most free from the infection of the poison, always conceiving an incident naturally, and drawing it unaffectedly..." I note such maxims as this because, believe it or not, I am trying to impress and incorporate some of these ideas about making artworks into the general stream of my own thought and approach.

Ruskin of course was a great champion of the Pre-Raphaelites, who were also trying to put some of his ideas to work in their art. While I think I can agree with him about their dialing down the intensity of the posture in most instances, they were only about half-successful, actually quite a bit less, in composing natural and unaffected scenes.

Picture--Ruskin stayed at this hotel for 3 months in 1877. I took a look at the current rates--they aren't atrocious, especially if you can handle the shared bathroom. The rooms look a little more modern and upscale than I generally like but I think I could endure it.

Another telltale sign, according to Ruskin, of Venetian decline was the gradual evolution of the medieval/Gothic recumbent statue of the deceased on his tomb, eyes closed and hands joined in prayer, to the more elaborate, self-glorifying monuments that became popular during the Renaissance: "The statue rose up, and presented itself in front of the tomb, like an actor upon a stage, surrounded now not merely, or not at all, by the Virtues, but by allegorical figures of Fame and Victory, by genii and muses, by personifications of humbled kingdoms and adoring nations, and by every circumstance of pomp, and symbol of adulation, that flattery could suggest, or insolence could claim."

On the monument commemorating a father-son Doge pair from the later 17th century: "...the incapable sculptor could not conceive any form of dreadfulness, could not even make the lion look angry. It looks only lachrymose; and its lifted forepaws, there being no spring nor motion in its body, give it the appearance of a dog begging."

The next chapter is called "Infidelitas", which is concerned with the mockery of religious feeling that was brought on by the Renaissance and infected the art of the period. Ruskin was considerably hotter and more anti-Catholic at the time of the book's original publication, and there are many footnotes added during later revisions in which the earlier rhetoric is toned down and qualified, mostly by acknowledging that Protestants, especially contemporary ones, do not demonstrate any appreciably better sense of the divine.

One footnote that is of the kind I like to pass on, as it contains a declaration of a superlative where the arts are concerned, is this: "The most true and beautiful analysis of the entire debate (the debate concerned is the Reformation) that I know in literature is given in three of Scott's novels--if you know how to read them--'The Monastery, The Abbot, and 'Old Mortality'." I have never read any Scott, though I think I will eventually if I continue to follow my program. He has of course been out of fashion for at least a hundred years now. For a long time it was hard to see him coming back, but I suspect he will come back, in limited fashion, among serious people in this century. His real preoccupations, identity, cultural rejuvenation, a defined if narrow idea of what properly constitutes manhood at least, if not womanhood, are going to be more important to more people than they were in the 20th century. Granted, what little of his work I am familiar with seems pretty bad--contrived, false romanticism mostly--but he was so big, Dickens/Jane Austen big for most of the 19th century, that I have to think there is something there that we have just not been attuned to.
The rampages against Catholicism are too long to quote at much length, though here is a sample: "Multitudes of minds which in other ages might have brought honor and strngth to the Church, preaching the more vital truths which it still retained, were now occupied in pleading for arraigned falsehoods, or magnifying disused frivolities..." In a footnote on this sentence, which goes on for more than a page, written 30 or so years afterwards, the author observes "What a little Edgworthian gosling I still was, when I wrote this!"

Another footnote, regarding a sentence he regards with regret as having cost him a good deal of time to write, to no good purpose: "We have little time enough, in human life, to watch men who are doing right, and to help them."

This footnote actually approves of his youthful sentiment, and aims only to clarify it. The downfall of many men who thought they were doing the wisest thing for their improvement, including me, is hinted at within: "Logic and Rhetoric are indeed studies only for fools and hypocrites; all strong heads reason as easily as they walk, and all strong lips speak for truth's sake, and not emotion's." There is a lot that is true in this, as least as it applies to dolts.

Picture--This is one of Ruskin's own drawings of St Mark's, I believe also from 1877, the same visit where he stayed in the hotel above.
He does back up his argument against the study of logic by appealing to religion, which will hardly appease the logicians: "Christ's teaching was found not to be rhetorical, St Paul's preaching not to be logical, and the Greek of the New Testament not to be grammatical." Still, I think I understand what he means as it applies to life as it is actually perceived and experienced: "Of the debasing tendency of philology no proof is needed beyond once reading a grammarian's notes on a great poet; logic is unnecessary for men who can reason..."

In the original edition, concerning the Renaissance fascination with classical antiquity at the expense of religion: "The human mind is not capable of more than a certain amount of admiration or reverence; and that which was given to Horace was withdrawn from David." He modifies this slightly in a later footnote: "True; but a good deal ought to be given to Horace, nevertheless." One of the real pities of decline of Latin knowledge on any kind of meaningful scale among the generally educated is that Horace, as well as Virgil, two of the most revered poets of the entire world, have been essentially lost to any communal, non-specialist human consciousness. Such a thing is a serious matter. I have dabbled in Latin as I dabbled in many things, learning them all about 2% of the way to proficiency, (I am as perfect a symbol of the travesty that is modern humanistic education as anyone else), and I have a Loeb copy of Horace's odes, though apart from a random, still quasi-famous line here and there (dulce et decorum est pro patria mori) I cannot really make out any of its greatness. The poems really do not translate into English with any power at all ("My friends, o how we drank, how we sang, how happy we were then"). Maybe when I am older and I have more time, and all my worldly ambitions, feeble as most of them are as it is, have been put at last to rest, I will make a proper go at it. Perhaps.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Quickie Thoughts; Charles Trenet

It really does not make any sense that poetry as an art form should be so completely moribund. There are too many minor subjects, impressions, momentary states of feeling that would seem to call for poetic expression above any sort of treatment in prose form. I do think there is a tendency among us too much to seek a poem, will it into being, than have confidence that its shape will reveal itself to us. Also, "poet" is not really a proper career, or first career anyway, even if one eventually is remembered as one. The number of poets in history whose output would have justified doing nothing but writing poetry for fifty years is not large, and almost all of these had substantial other careers and roles as well. It is not a profession.

I was watching a movie from 1988 not long ago--it was one of Woody Allen's movies, so it was relatively low budget and lifelike--and I was astonished at how quaint that time period looks now. Other periods--the 1940s or the 60s say--because I have no actual memory of them, never seem to be any more different or to grow any more remote to me though time rolls on--the Beatles, for example, say, though when I first became conscious of them they had just broken up a couple of years earlier and were still barely in their 30s, always belonged to the long-lost past in my mind. But in 1988, while I wasn't doing much I was 18, I was driving, I had a job, I may even have been in New York (I was there a lot in '89 anyway) but when I see film of it now I almost can't believe I did. It truly looks like a foreign country.

I know, this is on every American's top-five favorite French pop songs list, but it's there for a reason. I have never been anywhere where this song came on and every head in the room did not snap momentarily to attention. It is one of the more rousing compositions I know.

Charles Trenet was the Johnny Cash of French music--everybody loves him, he embodied the nation to the world in a light it found most flattering, and every idea for a song he fell upon seemingly turned to gold. One could spend a good part of the day working through his oeuvre, but I will just link to a view of my favorites:

Que-Reste-t-il de nos Amours?--A big famous hit. Quintessential yearning French romantic song.

La Romance de Paris--Speaks for itself.

Les Oiseaux de Paris--Yes, he was gay. Short, charming piece.

La Vie Qui Va--Superb! Also a rare instance of French people shown enjoying themselves in a completely psychologically unburdened manner, without any need to cruelly manipulate and torment each other.

Le Debit de Lait--The lyrics are full of clever wordplay that is probably beyond anybody who is not a native speaker's ability to get much of a thrill from (certainly mine). This is sort of thing the French themselves go into extasies over though, and it's a pretty good tune.

Since there were themes both of France & the year 1988, I will give you Joe le Taxi as well. Vanessa Paradis (now famous as the wife of Johnny Depp) is of course only 14 or 15 here, but as I was 17/18 at the time this video was made I tend to see her (and anybody who was a teenager in the 80s) as somebody who would have been in high school the same time I was, not as someone I am leching on.

However my (and doubtless everybody else's) real 80s French love interest was the incomparable Mireille from the French in Action TV show. There are several videos devoted exclusively to footage of Mireille's breasts, but I will leave you to find those on your own. I won't stoop that low.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Thoughts on Nobel Prize Brouhaha

Don't you want to know what I thought of that member of the Nobel Prize committee's dismissal of contemporary American literature that stirred up an afternoon's worth of controversy in global--or at least the English-speaking world's--literary circles in the days leading up to the awarding of this year's medal? I thought as much, and that I ought to weigh in with a statement regarding the matter.

For anyone who has no idea what I am referring to, one of the Swedes who casts a vote, or however it is done, for the Literature prize, when asked by a journalist about the prospects for an American winner (there has been but 1 in the last 32 years, and some people think that doesn't smell quite right), expressed the opinion that American writers were too insular, overconcerned with pop culture--and exclusively their own at that, unengaged in literary dialogues with the great international writers of the day, and so on in that general vein, as well as the remark that got everybody especially fired up, that Europe was the center of the world literary scene (though I am not sure why this last upset anybody. I thought every American writer's fantasy was that we might someday have a more prominent book-centered culture, or at least oases of it, on the international model, with the witty banter, the feuds, the love affairs, the picturesque seaside villas, the confrontations with the government and all the rest of it). The general gist of the response, such as it was, was essentially to deny the charges as absurd, at least where our serious authors were concerned, disparage the Prize because Sully Prudhomme, Selma Lagerlof, John Galsworthy, and lots of communist sympathizers had won it and Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust, and G.K. Chesterton had not (some people threw in Kafka as well, but given that he died at age 41, before he was very widely known even in German-language circles, I think the committee can be cut a little slack on him), roll out the usual ripostes about European sterility and decline, and offer up Philip Roth or John Updike or Don Delillo (these seemed to be the top 3 suggested candidates) as being much better than any of the winners of the last 15 years except V.S. Naipaul and maybe Orhan Pamuk. While some of these points contain nuggets of truth, I thought they were such as rather missed the mark, and did more to give credibility to the criticisms than to make them appear foolish, which in many ways they are, though not in the ways to which people seemed to be responding.

Fig. 1--George Seferis was all business when he brought the Prize back to Hellas in '63.First I will note, that while I don't think the Prize is that much of a big deal to literary giants in major Western countries and literary languages--it does seem to have a somewhat more significant impact internationally where winners from lesser known literatures are concerned, just with regard to their becoming known, which frequently they were not, much, before--I don't have a problem with it existing. I do not know how much outrage there was in 1938 at Pearl Buck's winning the award over James Joyce--I suspect not as much as there is now--but doubtless there are eligible candidates that are being overlooked rather innocently today whose neglect will be regarded as a travesty fifty years from now. It is not a Hall of Fame, nor a Pantheon, so much as an very wealthy, venerable, eccentric sort of club that holds an annual dinner and chooses a different guest of honor every year according to its prevailing disposition the week that the invitations go out (this is with regard mainly to the Peace and Literature prizes; I know that the Science and Economics Prizes are held as stamps of true legitimacy and achievement in those fields). As once or twice a decade, sometimes more, the literary club's choice of guest speaker falls upon an honoree with great cachet among the initiated who usually accepts the invitation (Faulkner; Yeats; Solzhenitsyn; Garcia-Marquez; Beckett, though I think he may have refused to show) it is able to retain its shroud of relevancy, and causes its less solid choices to arouse a seemingly inordinate amount of indignation for a subjective prize awarded by a group of middle-aged Swedish academics and writers whose names would be unrecognized by anyone not of that country.

The prevailing disposition of the moment, incidentally, seems to be cosmopolitanism, especially in the form of engagement with the "emerging" cultures? populations? economies? of Africa and Asia, and a desire to look away from the tired, dead-end way of life that most conventional artistic wisdom has it the West has gotten itself stuck in. This year's winner, Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio, is French, but moved to Nigeria at the age of 8, went to college in Britain, lived in Mexico and Central America for many years, and is married to a woman from Morocco. Last year's winner, Doris Lessing, was born in Iran to British parents and grew up in Rhodesia. I don't believe she was in Europe before she was 20 or so. She also does not think much of Americans, which certainly does not seem to count against anybody's candidacy these days. Another recent winner, Naipaul, fits this pattern as well. Pamuk, it is true, is said to almost never leave Istanbul, though where exotic Oriental or African cities are concerned--Mahfouz and Cairo being another example--these are teeming with enough life and culture to qualify as worlds onto their own, from which a man need never stray and still be able to attain artistic fullness at the highest levels, which I am not sure even New York or Los Angeles qualify as being now.

Also, from the American point of view, the Nobel Prizes are similar to the Olympics, in being one of the few things that a fairly significant number of Americans take an interest in and participate in but which are controlled by Europeans and are run on their peculiar whims and prejudices. This drives a lot of Americans crazy. To use an example from the Olympics, the sport of skiing is, in the United States, proficiently practiced among a fairly narrow demographic relative to the size of the country, though still large enough to produce a fair number of world class skiers; in say, Norway, nearly everyone can ski better than 98% of Americans, and though the raw numbers of proficient skiers in Norway and the United States are probably roughly the same, the Scandanavians regard skiing as almost an essential part of their collective experience and consciousness as a people, a thoroughness of understanding and identification with the activity that it is assumed an American, because it is not an activity central to and shared with the collective life of the nation as a whole (with rare exceptions) cannot attain. There are, and have been historically, many examples of this--the French with food, the old Austrians with music--that it is taken for granted the American cannot fully grasp because his whole existence, all the people he associates with in childhood, etc, are not saturated in this knowledge; this is how people from other countries are constantly able to declare with perfect conviction that American culture consists of nothing but fast food and television, these being apparently the only things shared in common among the whole population. When a European thus makes a statement about Europe being the center of the literary world, he knows what he means, and what he means is not merely that brilliant, important work is being done there--this may well be debatable--but that one can count on literature's having priority among serious people, and that such people will be both deeply grounded in it and in the understanding of what it means, what it is, and how it integrates into the fabric of historic and communal life. He may be wrong in this too, but I certainly do not see the same kind of strong literary sensibility and way of relating to human society among educated Americans as one tends to find among Europeans and certain other foreign nationals, though the Americans be otherwise of equal or superior intelligence.

Fig 2--The Banquet. I know you need that long table so everybody can be accorded approximately equal status. I imagine if you are Queen Elizabeth or someone who has to take meals like this on a regular basis though this setup must grow rather wearisome.

It is my personal opinion that the cheerleaders for American literature either overestimate its quality or are simply unfamiliar even on a basic level with the impressive literary histories and cultures that exist in other countries, even perhaps that of England. Philip Roth and John Updike are good writers, Updike especially I give extra points to for liking the same kind of girls I like, but I cannot conceive of them as having any especial claim on the Nobel Prize, though that does not mean I think they would be unworthy recipients. They are professional, diligent and precise. The world of their books is, whether completely honest at all times or not, instantly recognizable as our own, which is, however, ultimately their limitation. A master novelist needs to infuse his fictional world with some quality of magic that gives it a heightened reality beyond its resemblance to our familiar world. The living American author who most possesses that quality is also perhaps the most widely famous internationally, though his name is never brought up in discussion about the Nobel Prize--I think it is safe to say he would pass on the banquet with the king--I am of course talking about none other than J. D. Salinger.

Now I am aware that J.D. Salinger does not really have the body of work to qualify for the Nobel Prize, that he has not published anything since John Kennedy was president, and that most serious people think, definitely on the record anyway, that he is immature, solipsistic, and not a great writer in the least. I even grant that these are fair criticisms. His books are terribly misunderstood; at least the apparent messages of them--that, among other things, prep schools, the Ivy League, New York City and most of modern society are dungholes full of horrible people--fail to take their proper effects, because all of these things aforementioned have never quite been portrayed so attractively to so many people even as they are supposed to be repulsed by them. Salinger doubtless always felt like an outsider in this rarified world he portrays--I think that is pretty evident--while actually being, by the standards of a kid stuck in a cul-de-sac in Alpharetta, Georgia, or Manassas, Virginia, anyway, an insider. That is doubtless a great part of the source of his attraction as a writer, but really the books work--and I have looked over a couple of them recently, they really do work--because they are fantasies so very appealing that even when Seymour Glass blows his brains out one feels comforted that he was able to do so on such a fine afternoon, in such a fine hotel room, and after having such a witty dialogue with the strange little girl on the beach. The more hardheaded critics always saw right through this, but I always thought it telling that Nabokov, who generally eviscerated everyone writing at the time as a clod of one degree or another, and always maintained his own very strict, but very singular, standard of what he considered "seriousness" found Salinger to possess something approaching authentic literary talent which he could not bring himself to allow he found anywhere else on the American scene at the time. It might also be noted that credibly intelligent, attractive, and successful people don't name their children after characters in Philip Roth or Don Delillo novels. These things of course are not what literature or the Nobel Prize are all about, and may mean nothing, but I thought them worthy of at least momentary consdieration.

Abroad, Salinger seems to be especially popular in Germany and the former Eastern Bloc countries too, for what it's worth, as usual among people who read and appear to be more than usually intelligent but tend not to be in positions of any cultural authority higher than teaching high school or blogging. In the communist nations, I suspect he was allowed by the authorities to be translated as a chronicler of American depravity, but such depravity as was again found to be attractive by the more sensitive or suppressed people to whom the books found their way. I have generally found that foreigners who like Salinger hold a more generally positive impression of the United States than those that especially like Faulkner or Noam Chomsky.

Fig 3--Bringing the Nobel to New Hampshire?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ruskin--Part XIV

How many Ruskin posts are there going to be? I don't know. The sections "The Spite of the Proud", and the one after it, "The Street of the Tombs" were both outstanding after their manner and very persuasive. This is not to say that I am completely won over to a preference for the Gothic over the Renaissance, and will forever shun the false pleasures of the latter, but, unless I can be even more persuasively shown that Ruskin understood nothing about any of this, I will probably always be more wary of their real sensibilities than I would have been otherwise. Ruskin really starts to break out with specific superlatives in these chapters. "The perfect type of the Gothic tomb" in general, he proclaims, was reached in the thirteenth century, and the Italian style superior to that developed in England, those of Italy "kept massive, smooth and gloomy,--heavy-lidded dungeons, of stone, like rock tombs,--but bearing on their surface, sculptured with tender and narrow lines, the emblem of the cross, not presumptuously nor proudly, but dimly graven upon their granite, like the hope which the human heart holds, but hardly perceives, in its heaviness."

Fig. 1--Church of St Paul & John, Venice. Where the most interesting examples of the simple sarcophagus tombs are to be found in that city.

These are just notes for me to refer to should I have occasion to return to that part of the world as a tourist some day, especially as I will probably be past the age at that point where I can expect to do a lot of damage in the area of nightlife:

"...the consummate form of the Gothic tomb occurs in the monument of Can Grande della Scala in Verona."

Another perfect tomb of the Gothic style is cited in "the second chapel counting from right to left, at the west end of the Church of Frari (Venice)...It is a knight's; but there is no inscription upon it, and his name is unknown."

Fig 2--Monument of Can Grande della Scala, Verona

"...the tomb of the Doge Andrea Dandolo in St Mark's...and that of St Isidore in another chapel of St Mark's...are, on the whole, the best existing examples of Venetian monumental sculpture." I was unable to find any pictures of these. If I were really diligent I would do searches in the Italian language, which would probably turn up more than I am able to find doing it this way, but that is something I really don't have time for at this stage.

Four pages later however we find, in the choir of the Church of St John and Paul, "the richest monument of the Gothic period in Venice; that of the Doge Michele Morosini, who died in 1382."

Fig 3--If you do a photo search for "John Ruskin girls" this comes up. Upon further inquiry, I have discovered that this woman is a Canadian film actress named Liane Balaban. After the first two pictures I saw of her I thought I was in love, but being able nowadays to pull up anybody you want on Youtube--though I only found about 5 'hits' for Liane, her career has not really taken off--I did not like her quite so much. She is trying, but she comes off as being pretty much just like everyone else of her particular type--sort of urban, sort of cosmopolitan, sort of educated, sort of artistic, sort of clever, sort of sexy, all without quite being any of these things enough to the core to knock one backwards. Her mother is Catholic and her father is a Jewish emigrant from Uzbekistan, which sounds like a vigorous combination, and she is from Toronto, which for some reason I always think is promising. I think all Canadian women are promising when I find out where they are from, but have any ever come through for me and lived up to my imagination? No! Yet the place maintains an aura of romance for me that I cannot destroy.

Ruskin refers in so many places to the greatness of Carlo Zeno in the history of Venice--he dates its decline practically from the moment this leader drew his final breath--that I thought I ought to do a whole piece just on him. At the very least I should issue a formal statement regarding my thoughts on such a personage. I don't have a good sense of who he was, however, beyond being an almost perfectly-realized representative of a culture that had reached an especially realized fullness of time in his youth and maturity. Such people are to my mind more worth studying than any other kind; they are what every civilization is, or ought to be, working towards the attainment of, the type of which every great artist and scholar awaits the arrival. That said, I haven't been able to get around to doing the research for this analysis.

I made a very cryptic note, which I believed is intended to be a comparison with our own present situation, regarding the expectation of the wealthy to devote their fortunes to the war effort (in times of such crises), not profiteer. Michael Morosini, who was chosen as Doge over the Carlo Zeno himself and set the decline of the republic in motion, had tripled his fortune during a war that had recently concluded by speculating in real estate during the period of uncertainty.

Fig. 4--Inside the Church of the Frari, Venice. This is not the tomb that Ruskin liked though.

Ruskin speaks with such intimate feeling about these people from the 14th century, and in a way that makes them seem so civilized and and advanced and fully-rounded as characters, that one begins to forget that they didn't exactly live yesterday. The 1300s was a long time ago.

With regard to the changes in attitude and feeling that Ruskin so laments in art history, surely he knew it would be inevitable that artists would eventually want to do something different, even if it were inferior (or maybe not. Perhaps this idea is a prejudice of us moderns, and there is no inherent reason why human beings should ever try to do thing differently, especially if there possibility of its being an improvement on what came before it. Some sensible people do think this way, too, and do their best to imitate the style of their masters. However, the fine in fine arts hints at a delicacy and subtlety in perception and experience and knowing that changes and transmits itself through the form, and from which the form must take its life or fail. Right?)

Fig. 5--This Is One of Liane Balaban's movies. I was still crushing on her at this point. Then I watched a little preview of this movie on the Internet. My interest was piqued because it's about teenage girls in some nowhere town in Newfoundland where its freezing and there is a significant Catholic population, which has some similarities to parts of my own life, but it looked pretty badly written, and it looks like Liane can't act much either, certainly not enough to give a mediocre film some respectability. (The reason she came up on the search by the way is because this film appears on a list on the same page with a film called "The Passion of John Ruskin"--God only knows what that is about--which does not seem to gotten much of a release, even on video.

A subtle, but symbolic development in the transformation of Venice from virtuous to decadent state is demonstrated by the changing nature of the battle-shields of the nobility. In the earlier period, of course, the shields were actually used in war, "and therefore there was no need to add dignity to their form by external development", but as firearms rendered this equipment obsolete in the 15th and 16th centuries shields became fields for elaborate decoration and engraving, usually regarding the glory of their owners' family. Ruskin thought that this ornamentation greatly diminished the dignity which had belonged to the formerly much plainer but more useful shields.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Would-Be Statement Regarding the Great Issue of the Moment

The great issue of the moment having apparently no substantive force or reality in my imagination however compared to movies made in 1962 or histories written in the 1840s, I find I cannot write about it in a direct or serious way. So I have scrapped the article I was laboring on it. My main point was that I thought people, even if they were not technically overstating the scope of the problem, were still overreacting, that their perspective was not right. I have demonstrated on numerous occasions both on this site and in real life that I have very little feel for the drift of the future, so in all likelihood we are facing an imminent breakdown of our civilization, with violence, anarchy, severe food and energy shortages, and a general return to conditions last seen on such a wide scale during the Thirty Year's War, if not the heyday of the Vikings, as so many people, especially on the Internet, seem to believe. I won't say that this scenario is impossible, but I do say there is no reason why it should happen, or why anybody should expect it to happen. The strong and intelligent part of society--and we know it is there, right?--has to display more psychological fortitude and leadership to adjust to these crisises and muddle through them without the kinds of horrors one sees predicted being unleashed. Isn't that supposed to be one of their primary responsibilities? It is evident that a good many people have absolutely no confidence either that we have a society capable of coping with the slightest hardship or disruption without going berserk, or in their own ability to influence or direct events by their own steady example and exhortations. That to me is the most disturbing revelation which has come out of the last few weeks.

To give one example--one of many, by the way--from my own generation of the extent of the pessimism, here is a 36 year old woman, married with 4 children, who has moved to an organic farm in upstate New York to grow soybeans, keep chickens, homeschool, and otherwise avoid the fallout from the disintegration of industrial society as much as possible. Now after I read over a couple of her posts I was pretty certain that this person was "insane" (by which meaning that she shows strongs tendencies towards being delusional). Yet she has attracted a large readership for a blog--50-70 comments for every post, most of which seemed to be in agreement with her views, many with even more certainty and militancy, while many others indicated that their authors had adopted or wanted to adopt a smiliar lifestyle. She has also made something of a little profession out of her relentless and humorless doomsdaying and negativity, with academic positions and conference invites and published articles and books that appear to be highly respected among the however-many-hundred people who follow this movement. I confess to searching for a picture of her to see if her person was as unattractive as her view of life, and, not surprisingly, I found that it was indeed so, though I felt rather less sated in the confirmation of my suspicions than I thought I would.

This is the more left-wing, hand-wringing, anti-consumption and exploitation strain of this school of negativity; the other, far more entertaining one, at least to read about, is the angry, culturally dislocated white male revelling in fantasies of anarchic conditions where their expertise with guns and tools and other traditional practical skills will give them the upper hand over lawyers, liberal academics and other modern pantywaists who are utterly lacking in any such useful knowledge. A typical theme in comment boxes on the various doomsday sites involves the contemptuous, well armed commenter magnanimously stating that while he will do his best to protect and take care of as many defenseless suburban wives and children as he is able when the SHTF (from what? starvation? being taken as concubines or forced into prostitution?), neither he nor other men like him will be able to carry and support the masses of useless men our society has produced over the last several generations; these will have to fend for themselves, he warns darkly, and--he will not mince words--most are likely to die by one means or another within a couple of months. Personally I am sure the lawyers at least will be fine, even in the unlikely event that our society is about to dispense with all need for their particular expertise. Much is made among survivalist types about how no one will have the slightest idea how to field dress big game or construct a hut or a canoe out of logs or preserve enough food to survive a long winter in isolation and without access to electricity or natural gas, but I suspect anyone who is reasonably strong and has the will to survive would be able to pick these skills up more quickly and naturally than is commonly supposed. In truth since in my community at least the lawyers are in the habit of taking over and running everything important, I would expect in a crisis that the would-be warlords will, with a few exceptions, more likely find themselves acting under the direction of the lawyers than vice versa before they realize what has hit them. I make no such claims for the liberal academics however...

My other point was that I thought it unlikely that the United States, a nation in which supposedly the vast majority of the available intellectual talent is single-mindedly devoted to wealth creation and the advancement of material comfort, was really likely to become poorer, and to function at a lower overall level, than the likes of Cuba, a nation where for half a century one of the main functions of the authorities has been to stifle any potential outburst of individual economic initiative. Yet even in Cuba my impression is that there is not a high degree of starvation, or anarchy, whatever other deprivations exist there, and even these conditions--housing, mobility, etc--don't seem as bad as what some of the doomsdayers are predicting are going to befall us. Even given energy shortages, does it seem plausible that we will not be able to maintain a 1920s level of production of food and other goods, an era which again, obviously did not offer the scale and variety of good and services to which we have become accustomed, but which I should think most people would be capable of tolerating? I hate to always be boring people with my old Czech stories, but when I was in that country the per capita income was around $4,000, few people had cars, and most lived in small apartments in rather dingy and lifeless apartment blocks. Now I do not want to play down the real problems that afflicted the citizens of this country, though if exposure to the lifestyle available in Western countries and the possibilities of emigration to these did not exist most younger people especially would have been able to bear the life there all right. Opportunities to make any kind of real money were very limited. The choices available in such things as food were equally narrow, though this was in part compensated by the circumstance that the five or six basic things that were eaten nearly every day--beer, bread, cabbage, bread dumplings (knedliky), pork, cheese and an array of sauces--came to be made expertly, good enough that someone like me whose palate was not overly refined, or spoiled, in youth could go a month without tiring of them and craving something else too terribly. Indeed, though impecuniousness in itself is not pleasant, especially to contemplate, there was much about leading an impecunious way of life--at least in a city both with a good level culture and where almost all of the other inhabitants are equally poor--that I found very pleasant, though a) I know these conditions are unlikely to be reproduced in many places in America, and b) like a good American I fretted over whether revelling in and glorifying economic stagnation rather than attacking it with all one's might was ever acceptable. Still, I think if the smart people can keep their heads, trust in their inner resources as constituting the real substance of life even though diminished materially, embrace the social possibilities that hard economic times may bring--with limitations on the ability to spend a lot of money individually, outings and excursions, for example, may need to be undertaken more in small groups or replaced by more socializing in the home, both of which were the norm for most educated bourgeois types until the last 30 or so years anyway.

By the way, my wife has a garden with pumpkins, cabbages, broccoli, tomatoes of course, corn, funny round watermelons that are able to grow in northern climates and that have a million seeds in them, and she has often expressed a desire to live on a farm, though I think her idea of a farm is something with hogs and cows and a silo--this kind of thing--and that does not double as a political statement, and I live in an extremely stable and civilized, if rather boring, area of the country that will probably be one of the last places to succumb to anarchy if it comes, so I guess I am already half-living the life of the societal dropout/refugee anyway, though I had not exactly planned on it.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Ruskin--Part XIII

This book was written at the same time as the Irish potato famine. Given our modern proclivity to be aware of and in some cases wring our hands over catastrophes quite a long way from home, I thought it worth noting that the crisis does not seem to have borne much on Ruskin's thoughts, though his own country and class was the ruling power in Ireland. Many modern people have wondered why England, nominally the wealthiest country in the world at the time, appears not to have attempted anything meaningful to relieve the mass starvation at the very least. While I do not doubt that the leadership of Britain was largely indifferent to the suffering, especially by our standards of decency, I wonder how logistically possible it would have been to pull off a humanitarian intervention on anything like the scale that we would expect now. I expect not very. The English nation at the time had not come to grips with feeding its own masses that, severed from the rural life or the cultivation of their own food, and without adequate employment, were unable to feed themselves. A lot of people seem to think we are going back to this level of civilization within the next few years, if not months, but I will comment on that in another post.

Fig. 1--Crusaders' Chain Mail. One of the many inexplicable, minor unrealized dreams of my life was to pick up a girl at a Renaissance fair. The reputation for beauty of the girls who attends these fairs is not high, but there are some acceptable lookers among the crowd, who would have more of the kind of education and other strange qualities that I would find appealing. This was to be a temporary, artistic-infused affair. Aren't the girls who dress up like this supposed to be notoriously easy if you can convince them you are one of them? Of course I never had any intention to dress up like the clown in this picture; I would have been willing to put on a tunic and a gauntlet if I had had to get in, but that is it.

I was greatly surprised in my researches to discover the extravagant cost of these fairs. They are $40 or $50 a person just to get in. Since they are so strongly associated with losers and the hopelessly uncool, I had assumed they must be free, or nearly so, to get any girls other than completely desperate ones inside the gates at all, but evidently that is not how this dynamic works (though judging by the reports on the internet, there are still a handful of studs who monopolize all the women, and the majority of male attendees go home bitter and alone, just like everywhere else in life; my miscalculation was always in thinking I would be one of the dominant ones among this crowd because to my eyes even the "cool" ones appear so weak. Yet their ladies love them as they are). "It is for each man to find his own measure in this matter (i.e., the activity of one's life); in great part, also, for others to find it for him, while he is yet a youth. And the desperate evil of the whole Renaissance system is, that knowledge is thought the one and only good, and it is never inquired whether men are vivified by it or paralyzed." By knowledge here, I am pretty sure he means mainly modern scientific knowledge.

Like most people--and I do mean most people, though not most very, very smart people who understand somewhat better what human existence is about--my instinct when reading a condemnation of contemporary life, whatever previous epoch of history it happens to be being compared with, is usually to nod in affirmation, though when pressed (and contrary to what it may sometimes appear), I do not believe that past ages were on the whole any better than our own. Obviously I find in certain individuals or pockets of people in former times admirable or delightful qualities that seem not to have been passed down to many people in our own age and that I should like to see a little more of. All of the problems with life elucidated here I have both at one time or another felt myself, and felt that my own society was particularly lacking in the wisdom or perception to meaningfully address. Perhaps these really are psychological conditions unique to the organization of society in modernity, and men in the high middle ages were the happiest and most fully realized people of all time--it is remarkable to me how many authors and scholars have come to this conclusion--but even if it were true, it is quite as impossible to return mentally to this manner of life as it would be for me to try to relate to the world as I did when I was a child--in which period, I might add, I was not especially happy, or brilliant either, at the time, but only seem so in retrospect when contrasted with the irreparable ruin I have since become.

"...one effect of knowledge is to deaden the force of the imagination and the original energy of the whole man: under the weight of his knowledge he cannot move so lightly as in the days of his simplicity." Again, one feels something like this to be the case in himself, though on the other hand it is impossible not to observe that many people who do not appear to know or think about very much at all also display little evidence of imagination or vigor. The problem I think may lie in the half or less than half-understood form that most knowledge consists of. The more mastery a man has over his knowledge, the more he is one with it and it with him, the greater his ability to manipulate it, the more vigorous and imaginative he will be.

Fig.2--Ruskin bearded. I have never had a beard of any kind. On the few occasions where I did not get around to shaving for a couple of days the growth did not look too terrible but I found it to be unbearably itchy. My children want me to grow a beard for Christmas and then shave it afterwards. I have always felt that one's face had to contain a high degree of solidity and purpose to carry off a beard with dignity. At the same time it seems like something one ought at some point in his life be removed far enough from pleasant civilization for some time to be forced to try on.
"...the Renaissance knowledge is like the Renaissance armour of plate, binding and cramping the human form; while all good knowledge is like the crusader's chain mail, which throws itself into folds with the body, yet it is rarely so forged as that the clasps and rivets do not gall us." I thought this figure and analogy especially well-down. That was my years as an earnest aspiring man of letters rearing itself out of the sludge, as such things will have the occasional tendency to do.

"They (men) look back to the days of childhood as of greatest happiness, because those were the days of greatest wonder, greatest simplicity, and most vigorous imagination." I don't have terribly fond memories of my childhood. In truth I very rarely think much about it up to about age 16 except in little fragments of memory that something has jolted. I was never one of those children who was infected with a high degree of "wonder", nor do I recall anything ever appearing especially simple to me other than lists of facts, dates, numbers, etc. My imagination was functional, but even at seven or eight I knew that it was not as vigorous--though I would have lacked the language to express this--as it might be. I guess I was just a bad seed through and through from the very start.

Fig. 3 This is supposed to be Croesus, I think.

The whole chapter "The Spite of the Proud" is very good reading. Though I don't know if he was thinking of Pope when he chose the title--somehow I doubt it--the phrase appears in the "Essay on Man", the closing couplet of Epistle I:

"And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite, One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right."

"...of the paltry knowledge they possessed they could only be proud (as opposed to loving)...the one main purpose of the Renaissance artists, in all their work, was to show how much they knew." This is the same criticism Johnson made of the metaphysical poets, who were I suppose Renaissance figures, though late ones. Our time of course is so infused with this attitude that even I would not swear that anybody ever really did anything out of pure affection for their task more than egomania.

Fig. 4--I don't remember what this building is, or why I have a picture of it up here. I am pretty sure it is one of the colleges at Cambridge, but I cannot guess what it is supposed to refer to.

"Raphael, Leonardo, and Michael Angelo were all trained in the old school; they all had masters who knew the true ends of art, and had reached them; masters nearly as great as they were themselves, but imbued with the old religious and earnest spirit, which their disciples receiving from them, and drinking at the same time deeply from all the fountains of knowledge opened in their day, became the world's wonders." I thought it was an attractive theory. I don't know that I believe it, or that I can make it mean much to my outlook on life--so deadened to impressions and ideas my imagination has become, though it is still interested in coming upon them--but it carries with a whole vision of the organization of the world that I would find most desirable to believe in if I could.

"For instance, when perspective was first invented, the world thought it a mighty discovery, and the greatest men then alive were as proud of knowing that retiring lines converge, as if all the wisdom of Solomon had been compressed into a vanishing point." I thought this was humorous.

Fig 5--Dance Club on the Tech Company Trip to Miami. Now why the hell do I have this picture in here? These people look totally lame. The girl with the tattoo has nice hair and might not be a terrible person at heart or have a terrible mind but one suspects both of these have been somewhat constricted by society. I was thinking that any man of reasonable parts should be able to dominate this crowd with little problem, inspire lust in the women and awe in the men and so on, and yet so far am I from dominating them, that I couldn't even get invited to tag along with them or to work in a respectable position at their company. The distance between my perception of who I am vis-a-vis the rest of the world and who I really am is quite stunning even to me. Criticism of the excessively aristocratic bent to Renaissance architecture: "For, observe, all other architectures have something in them that common men can enjoy; some concession to the simplicities of humanity, some daily bread for the hunger of the multitude." Thankfully he did not leave to see Modernism. At first I wasn't sure about this quote either but there might be something in it; the architecture styles of certain ages definitely warm me more than others do. I don't know, however, either whether the Renaissance is really as off-putting to the common mind as he says it is, or whether it is really alone among pre-1900, or, given that Ruskin seems to hated the 19th century, pre-1800s epochs in being so.