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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.

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.

This is supposed to be a literary blog but let’s not be too strict. The other day I quoted Chomsky to the effect that race is a red herring. To put it differently, race can be reduced to class: for political questions, or better, for questions of social justice. It is also a marker for cultural differences, but those are ours to make of what we will. What is so unappealing about racism (apart from the disadvantages for its victims) is its mean, narrow view of “us” as well as them, as if what gives us value were something so superficial, never mind muddled. That high-minded talk about the inability of different people to get on envisages instead an oppressive, dull sameness where other kinds of intolerance must flourish. At its heart is a stunted image of human worth. Is that true of all kinds of intolerance? Such a general theory of intolerance is expressed on a practical level in the thought that intolerance does not oppress just its victims.

The following post is linked to from Tim Gowers’s blog, which I came across reading about his boycott of one of the big publishers of academic journals. That’s not the topic of this post, but I must say it is quite frustrating not to have access to such material, given that I have no academic affiliation, and I certainly can’t afford to pay twenty or thirty pounds a time just to skim something of potential interest. The way flesh and blood libraries work is by browsing, preferably the actual books not a catalogue. Access to the stacks saves time (the library staff’s too) when a riffle and a glance is enough to discard nineteen out of twenty volumes for immediate purposes. The title is not enough, usually nor is an abstract.

htp://www.quora.com/What-is-it-like-to-have-an-understanding-of-very-advanced-mathematics

The anonymous author describes the flavour of a domain of knowledge more rarely scaled than the ability to perform publicly on a classical instrument. Richard Sennett writes movingly about certain stages on that path. He trained as a cellist, if I remember aright, and some physical accident undid his mastery of one of the steps, forcing him to pursue a career as a sociologist.

A number of things in that post seem applicable to the humanities too. The humanities are largely empirical and not pure, but the way one learns to find one’s feet on unfamiliar ground is not the result of acquiring an ever greater stock of data to refer to. Data is not even interesting. History (for instance) is not made up of facts, but well-founded interpretations. Lack of understanding makes me feel in my element, as atop a pathless Highland heath, because it means there is work to do. What is already understood is just groundwork — or else wrong, so even more work! Like what the compass says, it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, and checked against the landscape and the lie of the land, whether they are familiar or not. As Heraclitus gnomically put it, the way up and the way down are one and the same. Rivers flow downstream — a terrain has a grammar. It goes without saying that the fun only begins off-piste.

I don’t think post titles can contain html tags, otherwise I’d have put in a link to an explanation that Die fröhliche Wissenschaft is the book by Nietzsche, the title of which is commonly translated as “The Gay Science”. These days, the ‘G’ word needs a footnote of its own, but I leave that as an exercise for the reader. Hint: Nietzsche was even wittier than his contemporary Wilde, an aspect too often elided in translation, but as far as anyone knows, no afficionado of the green carnation. I can’t come up with a better English title, and the ‘G’ word has become dated in its old sense; so I left it in German.

A recent murder in America has stirred up some old racist debates. Black people apparently score lower on average in IQ tests. Although such tests purport to measure an innate quality, the impact generations of inequality might nonetheless have is obvious. In this badly sourced quote from Wikipedia, Noam Chomsky drily brushes all that aside:

a correlation between race and mean I.Q. (were this shown to exist) entails no social consequences except in a racist society in which each individual is assigned to a racial category and dealt with not as an individual in his own right, but as a representative of this category […] In a non-racist society, the category of race would be of no greater significance [than height]. The mean I.Q. of individuals of a certain racial background is irrelevant to the situation of a particular individual, who is what he is.

The “debate” between left and right is about whether the state should intervene to ameliorate social disadvantage … or just not bother because blacks are born disadvantaged. Is the only reason we (“we”) might want to better the condition of the underclass … to protect ourselves against them?

There are two reifications in play, that of IQ itself, and the category of race; Chomsky hits the nail on the head by saying the latter is a red herring — unless the actual axe we have to grind is race itself, in which case no support is to be had from such tests, even if they held their own water.

I had to reread those sentences several times before the penny dropped.

Luíz, as I would like to be able to call a man I consider almost my only friend in this country, just lost his father, a century old. Sr. Luíz will build you a house or fix a drip. He worked a day in my house at the end of December and left it full of the material we bought together. Last week he came back with his hammer and chisel. I work as his apprentice. A minor job was regrouting the tiles in the bathroom along the floorline. I had just finished breaking the old leaky finish when he received the call on his mobile. He cried and changed his clothes and then showed me the correct consistency to mix the grout before heading off to the interior, many hours away. In Brazil, as in the Arabian desert, burial waits for no man.

I mentioned below that “homophobia” is an overbearing word. The view it implies of what underlies that particular kind of intolerance appeals to me, but the heathen canaille of queer-bashers are unlikely to be won over by being told they’re yella, however heartening it may be to the sheep within the fold to think the wolf without is not only vicious but a coward at heart. Two words in Brazilian Portuguese that preach to the converted: “agrotóxicos” (agrotoxins) for fertilizers and pesticides; “alcoólatros” for alcoholics. The latter is a portmanteau of alcohol and idolatry. The “demon drink” indeed … Orwell said good writing should be like a windowpane. The cause is not served by such verbal bludgeons.

My previous post touched on the tension between the lived experience of a place and an objective view. Perhaps only literature can bridge the gap. In Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann attempts to capture the diabolical horror of the death of Hanno Buddenbrook by switching to an account of the general course of typhus from a medical encyclopedia. With Nepomuk in Doktor Faustus, Mann achieves a fusion of the gruesome details of another such death with the movement of the narrative. In both cases the effect is powerful, but in the later novel, a veil is removed, and the achievement greater. Death, like sex, is an intractable subject for prose. I would like to post on these two passages in more detail when I have the books to hand.

It is one thing to go somewhere for a holiday, another to study or do business there, different again to settle abroad. What we take in is also shaped by our expectations. Since the time of the Grand Tour, when young gentlemen went off to the continent to see something of the wide world and acquire a bit of polish, we northern Europeans have had a special place in our hearts for the sunnier countries towards the Mediterranean. Goethe’s Roman Elegies capture the collision between visiting the ancient seat of classical culture and the flesh and blood encounter with different manners and customs, more unbuttoned and spontaneous perhaps: tapping out hexameters on his mistress’s back. But that is the perspective of the Sommerfrischler, with a home to go back to. What is a country actually like? The answer can’t be the view from a place. An objective analysis must be based on a country as a set of institutions. For example, it says something about a country if the police systematically shoot street children. Such an analysis is also likely to be critical. Just as patriotism is mere ideological ectoplasm, the warm glow of drinking red wine in Tuscany doesn’t count. It is both impolite and impolitic to find fault with one’s hosts, though. Dissidence — the only true patriotism, because it is not partial — starts at home. But “ubi domus, ibi patria”.

“Man does not live by bread alone” (as it is usually quoted) is such a well-worn phrase that I hardly needed to cite chapter and verse. To do so, though, is a reminder of a way of reading texts very closely. Just as the Bible is a common reference for us, so much so that the King James version permeates the English language (alongside Shakespeare), the Torah was and remains the central text in the Jewish tradition. This is another kind of classicism. When the devil took Jesus off to the wilderness for forty days to tempt him, Jesus argued back by quoting scripture. My copy of the King James Bible has a dense column of intertextual references running down the middle of each page to help the reader pick up such echoes. Turning to Deuteronomy 8, the analogy is with the forty years the tribes of Israel passed in the wilderness before entering the promised land (the underlying historical event is probably the considerably longer period of the Babylonian exile); Moses exhorts them to keep their faith and not get caught up in merely material concerns. The phrase in question puts it far better! In making such an allusion, I don’t mean to imply a particular religious allegiance. Once again, though, there is a subterranean connection in that our way of talking about what might be important in life beyond bare life itself still uses the language of that tradition.

I posted a while back about “merely practical arguments”, for instance in opposition to the death penalty, that don’t express the essential grounds of the conviction they buttress. The importance of Classics is another example; it may be true that studying Latin helps you learn French or even write better English, but the heart of the matter is fostering a link with our classical tradition, precisely as a value more humane than mere utility (“… it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone”, Luke 4:4 = Deut. 8:3). Or take gay rights. It is frequently argued that because people cannot control their sexual orientation, it is unfair to persecute them for it, but wouldn’t it be unfair even if they could? Further, the discomfort aroused by sexual deviance (I use the word in its sociological sense) is an indication that homosexuality or other non-heterosexual preferences really do subvert norms guiding gender roles; however, maybe that is no bad thing. “Normality” can be crushing, and homophobia (what a crowbar of a word) is at least as much the result of anxiety about maintaining the prevailing order without illuminating its darker corners as it is a matter of active, prurient intolerance. A fourth example: the euthanasia debate is full of “hard cases”, but its core is the notion of human dignity and its meaning. However, there is an inherent connection between the shift in this notion and the advances in medicine that cause the kind of suffering we wouldn’t submit our pets to: materialism in a metaphysical sense has engendered a vulgar, fetishistic cultivation of the body, with mere health as the summum bonum; the practical problem expresses a tension between health conceived, technologically, as bare, skeletal survival, and the glistening, radiant ideal of the aerobics class. Verweile doch, du bist so schön! In all these cases, I suggest that what appear at first sight to be extrinsic, rhetorical arguments may well have a subterranean connection with the heart of the matter, even in cases where more clarity of thought is needed. And that must be a sign that the principles at stake are a good reflection of the concrete reality they abstract from — in other words, you would expect the principles to be embodied in real, practical instances. To return to the death penalty, the conviction of the innocent may only be part of its inhumanity, but it is a large one and not different in kind from that of the execution of the guilty. Once convinced of the unacceptability of the former, most people are likely in time to reject the latter. That is, they will already oppose all executions because it is impossible to tell the difference; the priority given to the sanctity of life over the need for retribution is based on the same principle in both cases, and once admitted at all, it will probably take root and flourish.