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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Callouste Gulbenkian was an oil magnate and collector, and bequeathed his treasures to Portugal; they are now housed at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. You see at once that the collection was formed by the taste of an individual. There is nothing in it he didn’t like, and a bias in favour of some things that he did, such as Corot. I will write about the paintings, though they are preceded by a substantial array of ceramics, carpets, furniture and other objects, including the fine Torso of Pothos. There are two Monets, and I am not fond of Monet, but these are captivating. One shows two tall-masted boats in harbour, which together with their reflections make up a composition in long lines. The other is of ice breaking up over a body of water, and is a study in texture. A number of French portraits from around the eighteenth century possess a depth of character that feels quite modern: Mademoiselle Sallé by De La Tour looks right at you. Rembrandt’s Old Man, his finger resting lightly on his cane, hangs next to an old woman by Franz Hals; on the other side is Rembrandt’s Pallas Athene wearing her helmet, which dominates the painting, making it seem more still life than portrait — yet the face defines one pole of the chiaroscuro, like the white in a black and white photo print. A boy blowing a bubble by Manet is paired with another cheeky fellow with a handful of cherries, rather in the manner of Murillo. At the very beginning of the paintings are two Van der Weyden miniatures: Saint Catherine, instantly recognisable even without her wheel, perhaps because the artist had seen Crivelli’s St. Catherine which is now in the Ashmolean in Oxford; and St. Joseph as an old man with another penetrating gaze. Turner, Ruisdael and Hubert Robert reveal Gulbenkian’s taste for romantic seascapes and landscapes. There is a whole roomful of Venice through the eyes of Francesco Guardi. Two fine portraits by Van Dyck and Rubens show the more thoughtful side of both artists. I will return to the Corots in a post of their own.

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Bacalhau à minhota is salt cod with an onion and tomato sauce, and the onion and the tomato seemed to belong together. The slab of fish came with a green salad dressed in plain olive oil, and the table wine was smooth and characterful. Some Lisbon regulars in the bar were having discussions which, while not heated, had a boisterous frankness that might seem alarming in England, but with an even keel of good-spiritedness. My skepticism about the rosy view outsiders have of foreign parts notwithstanding, I felt I had come home. I could not help myself. The locals were followed by a succession of tourists who may have had much the same sense of authentic experience, to which my own jaunty Brazilian panama and increasingly voluble chatter with the staff no doubt contributed a blue note. Two Germans asked for “vinho verde”, one glass only between the couple, and a bottle was opened for them without complaint or sour looks, though with some discreet bafflement. Such civility must go back to the Romans. The LCD TV had the sound turned off but there were subtitles, with sombre news of economic crisis and the French elections, in which Marine LePen had come a strongish third. On April 25th the overthrow of the Salazar dictatorship 38 years ago is celebrated, and the television made an implicit comparison with the current “troika” of technocrats overseeing Portugal’s austerity programme. The political anger reflected in numerous fresh graffiti and murals, together with the grey dusty look of some people on the street, mingling with us tourists, has the acrid smell of history in the making, whereas Brazil remains on the path of the previous decade.

Kant’s essay on theory and practice established the view presented a few posts ago as to their essential unity. The asymptotic nature of theory might seem a weakness, but if we don’t keep trying, we capitulate to philistinism; moreover, if theory were set in stone, it could not reflect its lively object — instead impaling the butterfly, embalming its own fantastic errors — so it is all to the good that it’s a perennial work-in-progress: the metaphysical instinct to suspect such fleet-footedness as just shifty is a zombie survival from the middle ages. (Realism.) In fact (Kant’s Copernican Revolution), theory is parasitic on reality, not the contrary, and we are the parasite. Like many German authors, Kant suffers in translation, but the original texts can be quite hard going too, so he suffers even more. That is perhaps largely because of the difficulty and novelty of the content. A very few subjects are doomed to seem dry as dust. Heine made an honourable attempt to mediate German philosophy for French readers, who have very little tolerance for stodge, but lost much of the substance. I will update this post when I find a link to this text in English; however it is available in several good anthologies of Kant’s writings such as Lewis White Beck’s. And this particular essay, published in 1793 in the Berlinische Monatsschrift, was aimed at a broad audience, that is, it isn’t technical.

WordPress advises regular posting, because readers won’t return if they keep leaving empty-handed. The activity of writing a blog has surprised me by proving so compulsive, and I seem to manage a post or two every day or so. Things may slow down over the next couple of months, however, when I will be travelling in Europe. I’ll aim to post at least weekly, and normal service should resume in July.

Here is part of the libretto of Mozart’s Figaro, from a wide-ranging musicological website by composer Barry Mitchell; the other acts are probably there too. I was having trouble understanding the Count’s malediction of Cherubino towards the end of Act II (“Mora, e non sia più … “) where the first word is what a Classicist would call a jussive subjunctive — although maybe that just boils down to a perfectly regular imperative. (My Italian was picked up from the street and has big gaps.) Da Ponte’s language is disarmingly lucid, in contrast to the turgid pomposities that obscure many nineteenth-century libretti, but it is also noticeably older, with forms such as “veggio” for vedo or “leggo” for leggio that are probably perfectly good dialect in the next village over the hill where the people will knife you as soon as look at you, but wouldn’t be found any more in print. It is therefore sometimes harder than it looks. Those two descending notes have a dark colouring that fits the meaning like a glove, a fleeting effect at which Mozart excels.

Only the devil says theory is grey and dull. Theory gives form — shape, elasticity, cohesion, balance, in short, sexiness — to our Lebenswelt, and the wrong theory leads directly to a quivering, bleeding heap of jelly, as sure as water flows downhill. The erosion of habeas corpus, for instance, finds immediate expression in the miserable indignity of incarceration without remedy as the visible side of one single debased pewter coin of the realm. It’s difficult to get theory right, in other words, it is an imperfect and perennially provisional product of all-too-human ingenuity; but we feel the results in the most intimate part of our being, even if we are not actually tortured or otherwise officially abused ourselves. My recent posts on political questions, and also a while ago about the importance of education as a vehicle for humane values that cannot be reduced to vocational training, approach from various angles the theoretical question of what it is to be a man — of the vocation of man. The unity of literature and ethics is their intersection in the human condition.