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.

"...at 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.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Encounter With a Hip Person

It has just dawned on me that what I really ought to do is try to hook up with some other people on one of those collaborative blogs that might be able to attract more attention. My problem is that I want to be the star of the operation even more than I want positive (and I am using the term positive pretty liberally) attention, and it does not seem likely I would ever be able to have both. The other problem is that I don't think my writing is complimentary to or compatible with the kind of other writers I would want to work with, if any of these could even really be found and persuaded to team up with me. So it appears my destiny is to remain a solo blogger.

When I first moved to Maine, way back in 1986, it was much less like the rest of the country than it is now. Or at least it seemed that way. Still, there weren't a lot of things like big chain stores or restaurants compared to the mid-Atlantic at that time, and such ones as there were mostly regional, such as Bradlee's or Ames, or Deering Ice Cream, and had a regional feel about them, being rather quiet and dark and gloomy and 15-20 years out of date. The first mall in the whole state had just opened a few months before I arrived and my high school classmates never really acquired the knack of hanging out in it. Portland at that time was near the nadir of a population decline from around 70-75,000 people in the mid-60s to around 61,000 (it has since gone back up again), and as such there had been very little housing construction during the 70s and 80s--easily half the people I went to school with in Portland lived in pre-1960 houses. Likewise our high school, which was built in 1924, and had had over 2,000 students through most of the 50s and 60s, was down to around 1,300 when I was a senior in 1988. Whole staircases and wings of the building, including several with excellent views from and stonework in the windows, were closed off. Naturally all this was stifling to many people, but since none of it was ever really mine I found it for two years to be quite invigorating, even to the point of being unreal; for many aspects of it did seem unreal, as if the past, or at least a good chunk of it, had been preserved in the living present, which seemed an impossibility, or perhaps even wrong. This was how I experienced it anyway. Even the weather, following as it did the pattern of the seasons familiar in countless books and movies and fairy tales, mild idyllic summers, intense autumns, heavy snow and darkness in winter, etc, seemed unreal.

Of course the contrast between these far northern states and the rest of the country, at least as far as shopping opportunities and attitudes towards consumption go, has caught up at least to where the Mid-Atlantic states were in the late 80s, which is plenty bad enough; the attitudes of people in my home region towards most of life now is practically unrecognizable to me and appears to be rather obviously unhealthy in some fundamental way, even when they are indisputably and even wildly successful. Yet they almost strike one as belonging to an entirely other species of being to what I have become, and though I am a fairly hideous being, I do fancy that I resemble a somewhat old-fashioned type of human being. But I am not getting on with the story.

Downtown Brattleboro, I meant to say, still has some of these old time, 70s-80s era Northern New England stores still hanging on, such as closed down long ago in most of the other towns in the region. Sam's Outdoor Outfitters, which is a kind of smaller and more low-key LL Bean where you can buy canoes and rubber overalls to go cranberry bogging in is probably the most well-loved, but Baker's Office Products is my favorite store there. It is the kind of place that has long lines of dim florescent lights on the ceiling, one to two of which is burnt out at any given time, so the dark and gloomy aspect is well covered, especially at this time of year when it is cloudy much of the time to begin with and it is completely dark by 4:30. They have a large greeting card section, as well as a few shelves of knick-knack type things--samples of Vermont Maple Syrup, Red Sox coffee mugs, that type of thing--and of course several aisles of office supplies. They must sell all kinds of computer paraphernalia/accessories there but they must be arranged very inconspicuously, for the overall effect of the store when I walk in is that it is still 1987 and I am back momentarily in the semi-old New England. Really, there is a metal file cabinet, one of those old paper-hacking devices, the thing like a chessboard with a blade attached to the side, stacks of paper, notebooks, sketchbooks, scissors, white-out, etc, but I have no mental vision coming to me of anything computer-related. There is a good magazine rack against the back wall and to the left of that there is a little rise of four or five steps to the back room of the store where they have arts and craft supplies and a decent-sized section of better-quality toys (Playmobil figures, wooden toys, historically respectful action figures, etc). There is a large window at the back of the store, which, the Main Street being built on a hill, has a lovely view from a 3rd or 4th story vantage of the railroad line, the Connecticut River, and the trestle bridge across to New Hampshire. All in all, it is a very swell place, and one I frequently go to with my children.

So to cut this very long story short, one day I had taken a magazine from the rack--there was an article about the 50 greatest/most important Americans under age 40, and you can be sure I was getting depressed because I hadn't made the list--and was hovering in a pleasant spot near the metal filing cabinet under an abnormally bright florescent light reading about these accomplished people when a rather pretty young thing came in--somewhat ridiculously dressed of course, a threadbare purple Indian shawl with a plaid flannel skirt, black-rimmed intellectual's glasses, hair a mix of two colors, neither natural, probably self-cut or cut by an amateur friend, pulled and pinned up rather brusquely--still, with very good skin and features, and such a figure as any wicked poet-professor of the 60s would have known very well what to do with. She must, by my reckoning, have been in the greeting card section. This would not be surprising to me, for despite her somewhat unorthodox look, there was something a little aristocratic about her, or at least old-fashioned, that assured me she was the greeting card type. Suddenly a song came on over the speaker at a seemingly slightly higher volume than whatever had been playing briefly, one that actually sounded like an 80s song, though I was not familiar with it.

"Ohmygod. Is this Peter, Bjorn and John?" (she said).

I looked up from my magazine and took a rapid glance around the store. I was the only other person in the vicinity. But surely she was not really talking to me. Of course not. Fortunately I did not at the time actually know the answer to her question, so I was preserved from earnestly saying something like "Yes!", as if she had actually wanted to know. I merely looked at her, aloof, as if I were taking her measure, you know, and after about 4 seconds, once it was obvious she had not actually been paying any attention to me the whole time, I exhaled very slowly and profoundly and went back to want I had been doing. But I must say, something in the moment when she spoke was very very nice. I liked her.


Social Humiliation of the Week

I have never been much of a coffee drinker, never having learned to make it in such a way that it tastes good to me, and liking little more what is sold in most establishments. Yet as I find myself often falling asleep at work or while driving due to being worn out, apparently by the excessive commonplaceness of my life, I sometimes need to get myself some coffee, or at least something coffeelike. When I was Italy I had enjoyed drinking cappucino for breakfast, so as there was a cappucino machine at the gift shop at my work, I started to get that in the afternoons when my body was trying to tell me I needed a nap. Now there is a college-aged girl who works at this coffee stand who is reasonably cute and lots of perky, and all the shameless washed-up guys my age like to linger around the cash register for a few extra minutes on their breaks and conduct almost embarrassly wooden conversations with this girl so that I do not actually get to talk to her, not that I had any plans to, of course. Her main words to me are "Let me guess. Cappucino!" in a rather sarcastic voice, which indicates to me that I am of course hopelessly predictable. One day, she miraculously not being occupied either with a cell phone call or a lingering and socially maladroit IT employee, and I being more than usually tired and irritable at this perceived teasing, I tried for some reason--the desire to reach out, open my heart to a strange woman, evidently, which is never healthy--to explain that I was falling asleep at my desk and needed caffeine, but didn't like their regular coffee, etc, when this young lady began to laugh at me. "But there is no caffeine in this cappuccino! It's just powdered milk!" "There isn't? Really? But it's always seemed to work." "No, no, there isn't anything in it. You didn't know that?" So while I don't know whether there is really any caffeine in it or not, or if she is just pulling my leg--fun people do that to me all the time--it's all ruined for me now. I can't drink it anymore. I doesn't taste good. I don't believe in its powers.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Pictures of Children--Fall

These came out in the reverse order that I wanted, as well as in time, but I'm not going to worry too much about it.

This is at the Fall Foliage Festival in Warner, New Hampshire, on Columbus Day weekend, which is almost always the peak time for colorful leaves in this region. After Columbus Day all the slightly tawdry, supposed-to-be-fun sorts of establishments geared towards holidaymakers close up until May. This pretty much captures the general tenor of the festival, with a couple of bright trees thrown in in the background for good measure. There is something rather desperate and pitiful about these fairs and the amusements they offer that appeals greatly to me. At some point the children will inevitably have some kind of emotional collapse and fall to weeping in the face of such monstrousness, but I think it must somehow fulfill the role of a necessary catharsis for I believe they feel a similar fondness towards such events to that I do.
This fat and sluggish toad was easily captured in the swimming pool at the Brattleboro house (we are back in September now).

My oldest son, who has what seems to me a kinetic energy of fairly high potential capacity, though to what end most suitable I cannot as yet very well make out, has taken to scaling doorways, an activity which I cannot recall ever doing or seriously attempting as a child, though I don't feel as if I would have been able to do it, and certainly not with such authority as this one does.
It won't do to reiterate here the full list of lost skills of which the shameless donkeys of our age who try to pass themselves off as human beings live in complete ignorance, but I believe cooking is usually considered one of them. It has always been a theory of mine that the main reason modern people forgot how to do the sorts of tasks that built human civilization was not that technology rendered them unnecessary, but that they did not have, or were not made to wear, the appropriate clothes for learning them.