Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Unfit for Gentlemen

Politics: "[A] vaguely degrading . . .occupation. . . . plainly a career wide open to all-but-unmentionable talents and an occupation blatantly unfit for gentlemen - let alone gentlewomen."

-  John Dunn, The Cunning of Unreason (2000)

 Politicians (eating hot dogs)

My neighbor Zeno, an agnostic in most things except in his zealous prosecution of Christmas, might have spoken those very words in any of our desultory, Armagnac-fuelled afternoon confreries. A gentleman, he recently opined, is secure in his own opinions; these he has well considered. Further, he feels no need either to broadcast them nor to have them accepted by anyone less informed than he. En court, son assurance c'est complet.

 My neighbor Zeno

But what about Bill Clinton, I proposed. Or Barack Obama, for all of that. Surely Obama's opinions are by now those of an expert, worth the $400,000 he was paid to address those Wall Street bankers. He is finally being listened to by people who were once his sworn enemies.

Zeno lifted his balon of Armagnac and studied it in the warm April sun streaming across the north lawn of the chateau and into the belvedere. He sipped it and set it down deliberately on the wicker tabouret at his knee. As perhaps I should have said, he rejoined, a gentleman is secure. A gentleman could never receive what is dubiously called an 'honorarium' for his considered opinion.

So, I asked, former presidents and official dignitaries - the Clintons, Obama, the various Rices and Powells and Bushes - all offer their expertise and you suppose that they aren't gentlemen - or ladies - because they accept a fee?

Ah, he said, I spy a drop remaining in that flask at your elbow.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Fox and Hedgehog

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
                                                                        -- Archilochus, 700 BC.

There is an old line occasionally whispered around the ivied halls of academia in its rare moments of honest self-evaluation: that academic politics are such a nasty business because so little is actually at stake. It is a (rare enough) recognition that, though the pursuit of accuracy and the love of knowledge are worthy and significant pursuits, the institutional maneuverings incident to any such foregathering of competitive souls inevitably trivialize an otherwise honorable enterprise.

Intellectuals have always furnished easy marks for humorists since Aristophanes skewered Socrates. And when academics arrived on the landscape, like hedgehogs who, being close to the ground, must ignore the big array and endlessly rootle the one thing at the end of their noses, then Rabelais and Cervantes, Sterne and Swift were swift to follow with the guffaws. It's been the way of the world ever since, the sages and brahmins tweezing out the dwindling crumbs and gnats of wisdom to the evident merriment of the imps and the Great Unwashed.

So it seems almost foreordained that the posh little liberal arts school down the street should offer up  a symposium on "The Music and Lyrics of Billy Joel." Billy Joel, whose name conjures the kind of ham handed piano banging and the trite imagery (an elderly barroom piano player!?) that shouts 'Tin Pan Alley!"

From a Slate profile ("The Worst Pop Singer Ever"): "No career re-evaluations please! . . . . He was terrible, he is terrible, he always will be terrible. Anodyne, sappy, superficial, derivative, fraudulently rebellious. . . . Billy Joel's music elevates self-aggrandizing self-pity and contempt for others into its own new and awful genre: 'Mock-Rock.'"

“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”: The Music and Lyrics of Billy Joel
Now playing in a grocery store near you.

The music department's overheated blurb describes the event as "a scholarly symposium" on "the consummate singer-songwriter whose compositions translate larger cultural concerns into accessible and compelling musical narratives . . . . aim[ing] to share academically oriented insights . . . in an accessible and approachable manner." 

All this over the course of 30 separate "academic" presentations and a live phone conference with Himself. I am not certain what all this means; would "Mammy's little baby wants shortnin' bread" translate cultural concerns into a compelling musical narrative? How about that anthem for the era of legalized weed, "Love Potion Number Nine," in which the protagonist "didn't know if it was day or night"?

Then there's the honors history course on the life and times of Dolly Parton, offered without apparent irony by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. "I think there are some stereotypes associated with the area, especially in rural Appalachia," admits the student body president without apparent irony.

L'il Abner -

It's probably worth noting that Dolly is now 71 years old and so has become a legitimate object of merely academic interest. I suppose this brand of painless curiosity and effortless intellectual endeavor does no one any harm, but it does seem like the sort of material one might find covered in an Elderhostel class. It's a way to seem to get an education but still allow the moral imagination to remain untouched.

While we're on the subject of trivial pursuits, there will always be the unfolding historical panorama of the U.S. presidency, which continues to invite close study.

In the weeds, Mar-a-Lago

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Flights of Fancy

"Only the insane take themselves quite seriously." - Max Beerbohm

Friday, May 29, 2015

Trending Upward

"Arrogance is lording over a planet where a majority of all species that have ever lived are now extinct, without giving it a second thought . . . . Evolution does not always mean advancement."
                    - Timothy Egan, "The Arrogance of Jeb Bush," NYTimes, May 29, 2015

All the prejudices I here undertake to dispose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God directs all things to some certain end, for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God."
                   - Spinoza, Ethics, Pt. 1 (Appendix)

Tim Egan's New York Times column glosses a recent, breathtaking bit of Jeb Bush pre-campaign pandering in anticipation of the Koch Brothers' privately funded Republican primary: “And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you,” he said with affecting sincerity. “It’s this intellectual arrogance that now you can’t have a conversation about it even.”

Naturally Jeb's talking about climate science, or climate "science," as he might prefer it. "The people" who say these things, of course, are the very sort who belong to the Royal Society and the National Academy of Science, who issue "reports" which refer to climate change as "one of the defining issues of our time." Always these same people - the ones with the arrogance to pretend to know anything about the very topic they are trained to investigate, who have the unbounded gall to marshall orderly data in support of their contentions, who have the temerity to present a nearly unanimous front, across the global community of climatologists, in their public pronouncements.

Jeb Bush is supposed to be less appallingly stupid than his older brother, who admitted while he was president that greenhouse gas, to which climate change is tied, "is due in large part to human activity." So to give Jeb the benefit of the doubt, he's probably not stupid, he's only pandering for that imperceptible nod from the Koch Brothers without which no Republican can any longer hope to bear the scepter and wear the royal accoutrements.

"He'll say what I say"

Whatever brief enlightenment may have invested our species in the 16th century, when Spinoza wrote, has been suborned, squandered, recklessly spent, traded for a specious idea of our own 21st-century evolution. We've unwisely combined the 13th-century superstition (lifted from Aquinas who lifted it from Aristotle) of a providentially guided universe in which humanity is the acme, perfection and sole purpose, with the (otherwise salutary) idea of evolution. 

The hybrid notion, of a providentially-guided evolution, is a travesty - the idea that humans evolve according to some divine plan which tends towards the survival, eventual perfection and assured persistence of (at least the more advanced examples of) the species. (Technology abetted by capitalism make, on this view, but a pair of God's handmaidens.) Things don't, of course, work like that in Darwin's world, a nonfictional realm in which the inapt and nonadaptable can not persist, a world directed towards no end, a realm in which survival is merely one outcome of natural process and not a goal towards which things necessarily tend according to some benign inevitability. 

To suppose otherwise, to ignore the fate of the coelocanth and the great sloth, is true arrogance; it is the arrogance that supposes humans alone are exempted from the natural mechanisms that drive the habitable planet. We will likely become the sole species whose extinction was due to its own stupidity.

Jeb's earnest wish to be able to have this "conversation" is another specious bit of Republican open-mindedness. No, such a conversation is no longer edifying, useful or instructive. Here's NASA's version, if you really want to have that conversation, a version which accommodates the Fox Newsers' claim (accurate so far as it goes) that the mean global temperature has dropped in the past decade :

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Memento Mori

Listening to certain favorite pieces of music can call up strange and sudden intimations of mortality wrapped in a perfectly consonant sense of transcendence - all of which is, admittedly, temporary if a bit heady. One such piece is Jehan Alain's organ piece, the "Litanies," which comes out of the quiet with suddden bravura, high tones bordering on atonalities that lend a kind of awful immortality to its young composer, a sense that the listener may also share in such good fortune.

The Litanies is probably the most remarkable of Alain's not so many other organ compositions, mainly written in the 1930s when he was a young organist at the church of Saint-Nicholas de Maisons Lafitte in Paris. Alain was a regular prize winner at the Conservatoire de Paris, a composer of ethereal and dissonant "modernist" compositions - tight, structured, mostly meditative rather than exuberant - whose tonal qualities (not entirely "harmonies") are perfectly matched to the high, reedy tones of a French organ, an instrument which exchanges the grandeur of a German cathedral organ for refinement, a high madness and finesse which suggests immortality founded in spirit and irony rather than in forcefulness and overbearing strength. The Litanies seems to me the swelling exception to this, the intimation of death and transcendence.

Jehan Alain (1938)

" . . Alain was a skilled motorcyclist and became a dispatch rider in the  . . .French Army," Wikipedia records. "On 20 June 1940, he was assigned to reconnoitre German advance . . . and encountered a group of German soldiers at Le Petit-Puy. Coming around a curve, and hearing the approaching tread of the Germans, he abandoned his motorcycle and engaged the enemy troops with his carbine, killing 16 of them before being killed himself. He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre . . . and was buried, by the Germans, with full military honours."  He was all of 29 years old, and a musician at that. It is not implausible that the mechanical sound of such a near and sudden approach of the rebarbative was sufficient to make him die for music.

The other bits of music that have something of the same effect - a kind of transcending of thought, an immediate sense of something supra-human which religion never seems quite able to illumine in an ironic soul - are Beethoven's symphonies, especially the Third, the "Eroica," (with its grand and awful 'marche funebre); the Seventh (with its even more g. and a. funeral march); and of course the choral Ninth which, with its depth, power and optimism, subverts our post-20th century judgment that (given what we've done to one another in the interim) such a sanguine view of humanity must have been naive.

The 'Eroica' was written as a tribute to Napoleon, a tribute which was rescinded when, in 1804 Napoleon declared himself "Emporer of the French," thereby becoming, according to the composer, "no more than a common mortal." As are we all. But perhaps, Beethoven seems to whisper and shout, mortals all, we can do better than where the last two centuries incline us.

After 11 Israeli athletes, in Munich for the 1972 Olympics, had been held hostage and then assassinated by Arab terrorists in the wake of Israel's six-day military assault on Arab territories, the Munich Philharmonic under Rudolph Kempe performed a memorial performance of the "Eroica" - less than three decades after the liberation of Hitler's concentration camps, a memorial to Jews performed freely and in great deference by Hitler's hometown orchestra.  If nothing can ever be said, say it with Beethoven.

Hostage takers, Munich 1972

 And then there is Max Bruch's violin concerto #1, Romanticism in its dark and driving quintessence, the violin wafting in just after the first dark bars of ominous strings, the solo persisting in fleeting and answering strains. A swallow chasing a wasp above a deep and uncompassed sea, the picture of any soul, today and tomorrow.

A lost happy soul