Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Dispute with Lydia

Horace III.9

‘Oh when you loved me, Lydia,
And no young lad but me
Would slide his arms around your neck,
I shone in kingly glee.’

‘Oh when you burned, Horatius,
For mine, not Chloë’s face,
Then I outshone great Ilia,
The mother of our race.’

‘Now Chlöe has my soul enslaved,
She strums a honeyed lay:
I would not fear to lose my soul
If Fate her death could stay.’

‘And I am wasted in a fire
For Calaïs the glad,   
For whom I’d die not once but twice,
If Fate would spare that lad.’

‘What if our love could come again
And yoke us as before?
If I threw flaxen Chloë out
Would you come through my door?’

‘Although he’s fairer than a star
And you’re as light as bark,
Yet I will fondly live with you;
With you I’ll face the dark.’

‘Donec gratus eram tibi
     Nec quisquam potior bracchia candidæ
Cervici juvenis dabat,
     Persarum vigui rege beatior.’

‘Donec non aliâ magis
     Arsisti neque erat Lydia post Chloën,
Multi Lydia nominis,
     Romana vigui clarior Ilia.’

‘Me nunc Thressa Chloë regit,
     Dulcis docta modos et citharæ sciens,
Pro qua non metuam mori,
     Si parcent animæ fata superstiti.’

‘Me torret face mutua
     Thurini Calaïs filius Ornyti,
Pro quo bis patiar mori
     Si parcent puero fata superstiti.’
‘Quid si prisca redit Venus
     Diductosque jugo cogit aëneo?
Si flava excutitur Chloë
     Rejectæque patet janua Lydiæ?’

‘Quamquam sidere pulchrior
     Ille est, tu levior cortice et inprobo
Iracundior Hadria:
     Tecum vivere amem, tecum obeam lubens.’

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Manners Makyth Man

The motto of New College, Oxford, is manners makyth man. It was the device of William of Wykeham (ca. 1320–1404), who also applied it to Winchester College.

I spent a minute staring at this motto when I visited New College’s library in February and saw William’s arms blazoned on a college register. The great mystery of the phrase is its banality. Mottoes that glint hellfire – like Archbishop Parker’s mundus transit & concupiscentia ejus – are striking the first moment you read them, but they lack the gnomic power of Manners makyth man. The problem is: what could have prompted a thinking scholar to write something so seemingly empty?

Noble manners embiggenyth the smallest man.
It’s useless to muse listlessly about a koan. The only way out is to draw some clearer hypotheses. So after a little thought, I’ve managed to resolve the vague formula into four sharper possible meanings.

               1. Sui quemque mores componunt. 

“A man is made by his manners.” This is the first meaning to come to mind. It expresses public-school morality. ‘Want to be a man?’ it seems to say, ‘then get up at dawn to row, memorise lots of Homer, read a book a day, etc.’ In other words, the training a man gets is what ends up constituting his character. With nothing but the gifts of birth it might be possible to achieve some savage virtue, but it’s impossible to learn real humanity without intense discipline.

Furthermore: though it might seem that it’s something else that makes a man – like property, birth, rank, profession, or beauty – William insists (following this interpretation) that the essential thing is manners. Blot out everything but a man’s behavior, and you’ll see his soul.

Fair enough; both prongs of that make good advice. But it’s also advice so obvious that no thinking person should need it. Could such a banal observation have really lived in William’s mind?

               2. Suos quisque mores componit.

“A man makes his manners.” This one’s a little harder to swallow. Read in this way, it seems similar to what Dumbledore says to Harry at the end of The Chamber of Secrets. Harry is disturbed that the Sorting Hat marked him out for Slytherin, only agreeing to put him in Gryffindor on special application. Is he secretly rotten? No, Dumbledore replies, the essential point was that he asked not to be in Slytherin.
‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin . . . .’ 
‘Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are.’ (p. 332)
Like any predestinarian, I’m suspicious of human choice’s ability to rework an inborn character. An act of will is too weak and too fickle to remake a person’s soul; only something weightier, like changed social surroundings, is capable of that. It’s also worth pointing out that Dumbledore didn’t say that choices make what we are. They show it. It is only because Harry was good-hearted all along that it even occurred to him to make the choices that he did. This is true almost universally. Edmund is cursed by his evil nature, Edgar is blessed by his virtue, and that’s almost all there is to say.

In any case, as long as we fix on one of these two meanings, we’re doomed to stay in the realm of personal-development slogans. Let’s take a more philosophical point of view.

               3. Homo mores componit.

Man makes manners.” That is, human beings, as a species, decide the rules of their collective lives. No aspect of human behaviour is a law of nature; it can all be overthrown by social fiat.

This seems tempting. No thinking person has managed to go through four years of high school without hearing that everything is a social construct. Whether it’s the rules of language, gender, or truth, it’s always exciting to discover that the fabric of our lives – even if it seems to be immutable – is in fact the mere result of an unspoken contract among men. This is the reason it’s exciting: once you’ve decided that all the rules are a human artifice, you’re free to flout them with a clean conscience.

But putting matters this way attributes illusory agency to individuals. Just because a social convention is logically contingent, it is not therefore unreal. Human social laws has just as much of a real existence on earth as Twitter or Versailles or the Manicouagan Reservoir. It’s inane to object that just because our manners could have been otherwise, our manners are not practically binding.

So say that truth is a social construct: good, but you’re still bound by truth when it comes to defending your property in court. Or say that rules of language are a social construct: fair, but that doesn’t exempt you from them when you want to warn your grandmother about inflation or a bear. If something is a social construct, it doesn’t follow that we’re free from it. To the contrary, we’re just as bound to it as we are to the laws of gravity; perhaps even more strongly. Physics can be overcome; social structures not so. When Galileo wanted to escape gravity, he invented a flying machine. But he also tried to escape the prejudices of his generation – and that he could not do. The only way to escape your age’s manners is to wait for a new generation to be born. What’s more, your own internal feelings and commitments are bound to be controlled, at least indirectly, by the ways of thought that surround you.

Nor is it even defensible to say that human beings collectively decide the manners that bind them. Think about it carefully, and you’ll see that no social laws – whether in the realm of language or morals – are ever set down in an actual compact. In the Middle Ages, for example, it was assumed that guilt was best decided by combat or by ordeal. Now we universally agree that ordeals are superstitious, and we put just as much trust in random townsfolk to weigh the evidence. In the Middle Ages, moreover, people would blow their noses into their hands and spit onto the table at dinner. Now we don’t do that. At no point were these changes ever established by agreement. No group of people ever chose to be disgusted or otherwise by a certain form of table manners.

That is, the basic rules that bind human society do indeed change, but they change on a scale far vaster than any single human life or community. Moments of sudden social convulsion – like the 1960s, for instance – give the illusion that human communities control their fate. But like an earthquake is just the crisis of a much bigger continental movement, so does a social revolution represent only the decisive moment of a much more ancient process. “When the oak tree is felled,” said Carlyle, “the whole forest echoes with it; but a hundred acorns are planted silently by some unnoticed breeze.”

So if you want to know why the Catholic Church suddenly lost its power over Quebec in the 1960s, you shouldn’t be satisfied with the answer “the Quebecois decided to leave the church.” You’ll need instead to look at the larger social movement that gripped the West in that decade, a movement that shook Ireland and France just as well as Quebec, and whose beginnings are to be sought at the start of industrialisation. No single city had control over its social destiny in the ’60s. When the social revolution came, no community had the power to hasten or prevent it.

No: human beings are not the masters of their manners. It’s just the opposite. This brings us to:

               4. Hominem mores componunt.

“Man is made by manners.” I hope this was William of Wykeham’s point.

Out language binds us into ways of life that make us something other than foraging creatures. The concepts that give structure to our lives are all social and intellectual. They are concerns like honor, shame, honesty, deceit, eloquence, and stupidity.

If you were writing the encyclopedia article “Slugs”, you could give a complete report of those animals just by describing their anatomy, their evolutionary descent, their habitats, and their behavior. Nothing like that would suffice for human beings. Of course we have descent, habitats, and the like, but the important part of our lives is made up by our thoughts, our conversations, and our intricate mental passions. Those social and mental features are not supplements to the basically biological story. They are the kernel of our nature, just as their absence expresses something essential about the dumb animals.

We can play with one convention or another, but there is no escaping from human manners altogether. If we think we can live like Zarathustra or Thoreau, and go alone into ice and high mountains, then far from escaping human society, we’re only demonstrating our slavery to it. No one cuts himself off from humanity without being in the grip of an elaborate social attitude to his fellow human beings. Disgust with humanity, after all, is just as much a part of human social life as gregarious love. Human behaviour, whether it amounts to entering or leaving a given social circle, is entirely made by the mental and spiritual structures that come out of social life.

This is something like what Wittgenstein meant when he said: “Giving orders, asking questions, telling stories, and having a chat belong as much to our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, and playing (PU §25).”

Open any reliable book about the Middle Ages, and you’ll find that the introduction contains some variant on the following incantation:
We cannot describe medieval religion as something artificially superadded to men’s basically utilitarian consciences. We must to reckon with Christianity in all its intellectual detail as the basic constituent principle of our subjects’ world. Otherwise a good deal about them will make no sense at all. Terror on behalf of a baby who dies unbaptised. Costly pilgrimages to Rome. Hatred of the Jews. Lust for Jerusalem. Only when we lay aside the spectacles of modern prejudice can we begin to understand the lives of our ancestors.
Well-worn though these declarations are, they are there for a reason. They remind us that we can infer nothing about a human community without first paying close attention to their ways of life and thought. There are indeed common features of all human nature, but these features themselves only become visible when we perceive the deep gulfs separate one human thought-world from another. Because mores are essential to our natures, we can’t lay them aside when we want to understand other people.

Marx’s mistake was to conceive of manners as something given off like smoke from man’s essential activity, which is the pursuit of material welfare. Augustin Thierry, for his part, thought that manners were just the cloak of Frenchman’s primordial inclination, which was to seek freedom. Both of these men – like anyone who tried to find the single secret spring of human action – failed to see that human passions and manners are the important things in themselves. Sometimes human manners are to be taken at face value, and sometimes men themselves don’t know the significance of their own motives. (Illiterate peasants, for example, rarely grasp that their customs fit into vast geographical patterns.) But the untrustworthiness of face-value explanations is merely part of what it means for human life to be endlessly diverse.

Only after reviewing a vast number of examples – from history, anthropology, and even literature – can a person begin to grasp the outline of the human species. Only a God could be a perfect knower of men, because he would see all of our variety.

A corollary is that no human life is more germane to the species than another. Human nature is human thought and human manners, which means that no example of thought or manners can be judged a deviation from human nature. Savage puritanism is just as much a part of the human species as free love. Now, because we live in a part of the world that has committed itself to tolerance, our political orthodoxy makes it look like tolerance is the necessary end-stage of all human manners. It isn’t true. Manners are a many-colored thing, and there is nothing to logically prefer one set of moral commitments, or one system of social organisation, to another. (That’s all more the reason to fight for the death for tolerance: secular society has nothing to hand but sheer force to break the back of thuggish religious illiberalism. The history of the human species will not favour us as a matter of course.)

To close: it might be possible with some research to find out what was actually in William of Wykeham’s mind. But if we’re going to learn the most valuable lesson from it, “Manners makyth man” can’t be taken as an observation on any individual soul. It should be read as a statement of the nature of the human race.

Explicit glossa.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Muse in the Garden

Sorrow and terrors – take them, ye thrashing winds!
Take them and bear them out to the Cretan sea.
     I, the beloved of the Muses,
          Care I who rules in the frozen northland?

Care I what menace terrifies Titrades
Uselessly? Thou who laughest in virgin springs,
     Tie up a crown of summer flowers;
          Tie up a crown for my fondest brother.

Honey-sweet Muse, my praises without thy grace
Profit him naught, so bless him with Lesbian songs;
     Strum to my Lamia the lyre,
          Just as becomes thee and all thy sisters.

Horace I.26, my translation.

Musis amicus tristitiam et metus
Tradam protervis in mare Creticum
     Portare ventis, quis sub Arcto
          Rex gelidæ metuatur oræ,

Quid Titraden terreat, unice
Securus. O quæ fontibus integris
     Gaudes, apricos necte flores,
          Necte meo Lamiæ coronam,

Pimplea dulcis. Nil sine te mei
Prosunt honores; hunc fidibus novis,
     Hunc Lesbio sacrare plectro
          Teque tuasque decet sorores.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

It’s Perfectly Natural

Montaigne remarked in his essay on a monstrous child (II.30) that nothing produced by nature can be reproached for being unnatural.
Nous appelons contre nature, ce qui advient contre le coustume: rien n’est que selon elle, quel qu’il soit. 
We call unaccustomed events unnatural: but everything follows nature, no matter what it is.
He got the idea from Cicero, who had said something similar about a pregnant mule (De divinatione II.22). The thought is: if we’re horrified by something unusual or barbaric, the one thing we can’t accuse it of is being unnatural. If we think at first that it’s outside of nature, the only conclusion to draw is that nature is wider than we thought.

The logic is tautological as it’s unshakeable, and it’s not even worth pointing out that Montaigne’s argument proves exactly nothing. It’s interesting, though, to ask what impels a man’s mind to formulate a thought like this. We certainly see this particular observation everywhere, whether in direct quotation (e.g. Gide’s Corydon) or in spirit.

It is deployed most of all as an excuse for human folly: It’s not difficult to list behaviors that get defended on the sole grounds that they’re just another part of nature. Sodomy is the classic, but also think of adultery, nudity, masturbation, anger, gluttony, laziness, squid-eating, and zoophilia. Find me a guilt-ridden teenager, and I’ll find you the pamphlet that tells him it’s perfectly natural to feel or do what he does.

I think that this is usually an attempt to overcome shame of one kind or another. More specifically, by appealing to nature, we relieve ourselves of responsibility for our character. We don’t have to say, “such and such are my reasons for doing this”; or even “I am like this but I wish I were like that.” We can simply say, “I am what I am,” and dismiss gnawing guilt in an instant.

If your behavior is natural, then against all the glares and mutterings of a solemn priest, you have the warm approval of Mother Nature. She asks for nothing and allows everything. Her permission is an indulgentia plenaria perpetua offered for free to all souls that ask for it. If a child hits a baseball into a car window, he expects to be scolded and forced to pay for it by his mother. Natural man has a far more lenient parent.

It is worth remembering, of course, that merely being a child of nature is not enough to redeem a creature from its own wickedness – or even from its ugliness. That's because being natural puts you in dodgy company. Nature is more tolerant than any liberal New Yorker. She takes everyone under her roof, whether they’re men, women, blacks, whites, gays, cattle-rustlers, murderers, bears, cuttlefish, or Londoners. Robert Mugabe is as much her son as Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Viva, viva la libertà!
Nature can give birth to human beings and that’s it. Therefore, the most we can ever say about her is “she exists”. She cannot condemn her children, and because of that she cannot exonerate them either.

That means that if you want to press a moral case, you’d better find better grounds for it than nature. If you want to argue that polygamy or homosexuality is fine because it’s a part of human natural history, then you should be prepared to endorse gouging out an infidel’s tongue on the same grounds. By the same token, if you defend your own actions by saying “it’s only natural”, you share a dock with Jack the Ripper. In order to show your own innocence, you have to get there by proving his as well.

Good for Montaigne for pointing out that everything is natural. Pressed to its logical conclusion, his observation means only that ‘natural vs. unnatural’ is useless as a measure of behavior, of beauty or of character. Being natural is a participation medal for existing; it confers no relative justification.

Snake eating a living frog
— Nature is Scary (@NatureisScary) 6 December 2016

 ^ (It’s perfectly natural. Remember, you are the snake, not the frog.)

We, not nature, are the only ones who can pass judgment on human beings. Morality means imposing humane standards on our lives, regardless of what nature has made those lives into. It’s childish to give up responsibility for making these judgments. If we resign our authority to nature, then we’re shrugging our shoulders in indifference to gruesome sin. Rape and torture, after all, are as natural to humankind as sneezing.

So good, we’ve put away the argument from nature. Silly as it was, it was only ever devised because of a real psychological problem. If we can’t banish shame by calling our behaviour natural, we need to find some other way of coming to terms with it. Some people feel a tolerable amount of shame, and some feel it intensely, but one way or another every human life is bitten by little worms of secret guilt. Putting aside the casuistic trick of appealing to nature, there are three ways to cure ourselves.

Shamelessness is one way. That amounts to completely overturning the standards of behavior that you had previously been bound to.

This is the secret to “Christian freedom.” When God shows Peter a squirming bag of unclean animals, Peter refuses to eat them, protesting that nothing unclean hath at any time entered my mouth. God replies: What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. In other words, a Christian can gaily flout the bonds of old morality without trembling for fear that he’s crossed the will of heaven. A glance at the medieval literature (say, the Song of Roland) reveals how far this principle was carried by bloodthirsty Christians eager to glut their swords on unbelievers.

Shamelessness can take non-religious forms too. To Nietzsche, by uncovering the historical origins of morality, you can overcome the sickening shame that would usually go along with rejecting Christian pity. At the end of Lolita, for another example, Humbert decides that after committing murder and bringing a girl to ruin – well, screw it, why not drive on the left side of the road?

The risk of this approach is obvious. Shamelessness makes you deaf to reproof, which is fine if you’re being reproved by stupid people, but dangerous if, like most people, you’re susceptible to be seduced into evil under the guise of freedom.

Stupefaction is the other usual method of quenching conscience. Drink yourself blind, and what few shameful memories you retain will be covered over in the warm waters of friendly feeling. Tolstoy pointed this out in an essay of 1890. “Why do men stupefy themselves?” he asked. The answer:
People drink and smoke, not casually, not from dullness, not to cheer themselves up, not because it is pleasant, but in order to drown the voice of conscience in themselves. … Life does not accord with conscience, so conscience is made to bend to life.
This might not be exactly right – sin might not, in fact, be why most people drink. It is nevertheless one good reason. Stupefaction is a potent antidote to shame, so it's natural for the shame-eaten to distill it purer and purer until the spirit is completely extracted. Death, as Judas learned, is this perfect form: it is a final escape from remorse.

Apart from shamelessness and self-destruction, there is only one safe way to be freed from shame. It is to do nothing that is shameful. Then you won’t need sly tricks of logic, nor a leap into the abyss, nor even strong drink to let yourself loose.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Teruah Gedolah

Abraham’s Isaac was a son untainted,
Born to no handmaid of the Nile’s floodland;
Nor to Keturah, but to free and laughing
          Sarah, our mother.

Strange that the worker of the constellations,
And of the snowfall, and immense Behemoth
Stirred for so little as this son of men;
          Howbeit the Great Lord

Stirred for one straighter than archaic Enoch
Whom he’d exempted from the dark abysses;
Tenderer even than the one he took from
          Fountainous Ida.

So said his herald to our righteous father,
‘Get thee to Moriah, and ascend the mountain
Which I will show thee; there enkindle Isaac’s
          Flesh on an altar.’

Then he was quiet, and our pious father
Groaned to be sundered from the soul he clung to;
Naught less exulting to obey his likeness
          Over the waters.

Abraham stayed not, but in early morning
Burdened his asses and a pair of slave-boys.
These three with Isaac wandered north and entered
          Moriah’s border.

Now on a mountain was an emerald fire
Lighting the desert. To his slaves our father:
‘See ye not God there?’ and the slaves responded:
          ‘No, we see nothing’.

‘Stay then, O blind ones: we alone will meet him.
God is afire to his dearest children;
Naught to the nations, who will never see him.
          Mind ye the asses!

Now unencumbered they went up the mountain
Joyfully treading in the sight of angels.
‘Father’ – now Isaac – ‘here are flame and faggots;
          Where is the victim?’

‘God will provide it’, said his loving father.
Once at the summit they prepared the slaughter;
Abraham offering and his son the offered
          Host on the altar.

Seraphim wheeled now to the darkest heaven:
Sathan the dawn-star, and the never-westing
Septem Triones, and the Twins who glimmer
          Over the Hunter,

Kesil, and Kimah, and the Mazzaroth all
Pleading in horror for the life of Isaac
Vainly, till gleaming in a subtle hauberk
          Michael the princeling

Entered this darkness that was veined with amber.
‘Lord’ – he said – ‘swar’st thou to thy servant Abram
Erst that his firstborn was refused the birthright,
          But to restore it?

‘Or wilt thou suffer yet the moon to glimmer?
(Such even Isaac, as the sun his father.)
Think, is there nothing that thy soul desireth
          More than the stripling?’

Long was the silence, and the amber lightnings
Ceased for the while, as the fearsome being 
Pondered in darkness on his own devices.
          Then came an answer:

‘Wonderful creature, I relent; but mark! I
Smother mine ardour for no little pittance.
Yes, there is something that I covet sorer:
          Israel for Isaac!

‘Who, when he cometh, will contemn the gay hunt,
Guarding my statutes in his tabernacles.
Fondly he’ll love me, while the desert jackals
          Tear at his clothing.

‘Yea, though he hide him in the towns of Japheth,
Or in the deserts of his hairy brother,
Ever I’ll savour his appalling torment,
          Due to me fairly;

‘Though for what reason I had rather Israel
Ask not too keenly, for mine holy will is
Hidden in darkness. O thou loyal Michael,
          Slaughter this victim!

‘Sodden thine iron on his wasted members;
Ruin his wisdom with a thousand scruples;
Scourge him with fire, till I send Elias
          With an Anointed.’

‘Abraham, Abraham,’ now the sky resounded –
‘Here I am’, answered our unerring father.
‘Stop, and thy seed will be as all the stars thou
          Seest in heaven.’

Then there was silence, and our father yielding
Drew back the dagger; now descried a he-goat
Twined in a thorn-bush. Unensnaring Isaac
          Abraham slew it,

Darkly though guessing that the holocaust was
Bond for a later and a dearer victim.
Deep in this musing, with his living son he
          Went from the mountain.

Now in the desert was a rolling horn-blast
Like to a Levite’s up on Zion’s ramparts
Watching the west sky, when at last he trills his
          Hail to the New Moon –

So did it quaver; and the fires of heaven
Dimmed, for all nature and the the starry demons
Trembled to wonder what the unborn Israel
          Owed to his master.

Little they knew it, how the bleating flocks of
Jacob would smoulder on the nations’ altars,
Doomed to be incense to a god who loved them. –
          Doubt not! he loved them

Fond as a shepherd loves his little charges.
Say not then rashly, O ye scattered Hebrews,
That he hath spurned you, for he loves the race that
          Keeps his commandments.


If you want to know the author—or supposed author—of a medieval Hebrew poem, you often need only run your eye down the right margin. Take this Spanish ode, a prayer for the forgiveness of whoring Israel:

Looking closely, you’ll find that the first letters of each stanza spell out the words “Moshe Hazak.” This refers to Moses ibn Ezra, the twelfth-century author of the poem.

The acrostic’s history in Hebrew poetry dates to the Bible itself. Each verse of Psalms 25, 34, and 145 begins with a successive letter, though the received Hebrew manuscripts are missing alphabetically required verses here and there. The first four chapters of Lamentations follow a similar pattern, with the verses grouped into batches by the letters beginning their first word.

This is an introduction to a certain class of artistic features that I’ll call tinsel. Here are some more scrapings that artists have used to deck their firs.

First look at this poem by George Herbert. High school teachers adore this one, or at least figure that it’ll catch their students’ attention:

It’s called “Easter Wings”, and its clever conceit is that look, the poem looks like an angel’s wings when you turn it sideways! Proceed in a modern anthology of English poetry, and you’ll find variations on this theme, with words squeezed into the shape of ostriches or condoms or other things like that.

There is also such a thing as ‘found poetry’. This involves finding a snatch of text on a bottle of lotion or a grocery receipt, and calling it a poem, perhaps with a word or two added. Close kin is the ‘erasure’, which amounts to finding a scrap of writing and scratching out most of it to yield a penetratingly profound sequence of words. Look at this erasure I just made from the New York Times.

Next there are codes to be found in music. In The Marriage of Figaro, during Figaro’s climactic rant against fickle women, Mozart blows two horns together as a symbol of cuckoldry. Robert Schumann supposedly encoded the letters of his wife Clara’s name into his piano concerto in A-minor, so that the oboe’s melody begins with the notes C-H-A-A. The sequence B-A-C-H, for its part, has been written into over four hundred scores. (means in German-speaking countries, and means B-flat.) In February 2010, I was unfortunate enough to be at the premiere of Odna Zhizn, a clanging symphonic poem that you might be able to hum if you were an alien. The composer wrote in the program, if I remember right, that the piece’s notes spelled out the story of some woman’s life – but he wouldn’t tell us which notes or which woman. 

Then there is visual art with a backstory. This statue of an innocent girl, for example, is made of steel salvaged from a Francoist nunnery. This likeness of Willy Brandt is made of postage stamps from the DDR. This elephant is carved out of the bones of poachers. This kippah is sewn from the chest hair of an artist uncomfortable with Jewish masculinity. This building is exactly 1,776 feet tall.

Finally – I stop for mercy not exhaustion – , there’s the novel La disparition by Georges Perec, translated into English as A Void. Neither original nor translation contains a single instance of the letter e. Amazing! 

Hopefully you’ve grasped the common theme. These are all works of art whose main point lies in something other than the art itself. The emphasis is on a clever intellectual fact about the art. This fact is only visible to the contemplating brain, not the real senses of the person who listens to the poem or hears the concerto. 

Anyway, tinsel is always frivolous, whether spun in the fourteenth or the twenty-first century. An acrostic in an ancient Hebrew poem is excusable, because those poems are meant to be committed to memory, and frail human minds need as much support as they can get. Take away this excuse, and acrostics – like all gimmicks – become ostentatious and trivial.

I don’t think it gets mentioned enough that English-language Haikus are really bad.

crinkled autumn leaves
drifting gently into a teapot
it is almost dark.

Haikus have been held to be easy, but I’ve never understood that. An illiterate farmer can think up a native English poem at the plough, and sing it that evening at the free house. A haiku can’t be sung, and it needs pen and paper. (The above might be a haiku, or it might not, but you’ll have to check.) Easy? I can recite a hundred metrically complex stanzas of Horace, but I’ll never be able to get a single haiku into my head. If I didn’t know that this random arrangement of syllables was a culturally important form in Japan, I couldn’t tell a haiku from the words scrawled by vandals onto subway cars and called “Poetry in Motion.” Its only distinguishing merit among unmetered poems is that it ends mercifully quickly.

But worst of all is that a haiku’s touted feature – syllable-count – is something completely divorced from its substance, which is meant to be poetry. Haikus do not rely on the regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, which nearly all English poetry does. Instead they are built on the raw number of syllables, which is effectively inaudible to anyone who isn’t counting. It is an art form predicated on a gimmick; tinsel all the way through.

I am not arguing for simple art; extreme complexity, both of themes and of execution, is in fact necessary (though not enough!) for the best effects. Nor am I saying that every aspect of a novel’s construction must be immediately apparent. But complexity, if it’s to exist, must be the tissue of the work itself; it cannot be an external ornament without being vain. (Ah, you’ll ask, but is there really a difference there? That question is not ennobled by its refined tone of voice. There is. It is the difference between 20,000 notes in K. 331 and 273 seconds in 4′33″.)

You might also object that ornaments are constraints, and constraints are good for art! It is dogma in academic fiction-factories that a piece of art is more likely to “work” if it is produced under restrictive conditions. This, like so much said by program-fictionmongers, is a rotten cob of falsehood that sports a single kernel of undecayed truth.

Which kernel is this: every schoolboy knows that it’s easier to be forced into a story about a three-legged dog and an octopus on a Thursday than to face a blank page with only a pen and an imagination. Even a professional author is better off if he has a frame to work in; otherwise he might spin aimless in chaos with nothing to go on. This is one justification for modern poetry that follows the old formal patterns, like Robert Frost’s and Richard Wilbur’s. It is a weak argument – but no strong argument is necessary – against the shapelessness of T. S. Eliot and everything after him.

Then again, I think the fictionmongers have it backwards. A formal work of art is not good because it is constrained. It is constrained because it is good. In other words, beautiful art will have a traditional form because, dare I say it, the traditional forms are beautiful. The art of the Renaissance was not sweet and lovely because it wanted to be formal; it was formal because it wanted to be sweet and lovely.

Man with goatee and pierced ear:
“I think this really works. It takes a risk for sure, but it grabs me.”

There is nothing, however, to be gained from constraining a work of art for the sake of constraining it. Artists who don’t see the beauty of the forms, and insist on using them anyway, are playing a sick intellectual game. Parenthesis closed.

The real reason I dislike tinsel is not that I hate frivolity. (Hell, The Mikado is one of my favorite things on earth.) I hate frivolity that replaces our quest after real art. Art, seen right, is the earthly form of human feeling. We are all vessels of a great human oversoul, and the feelings that stir that soul – however glimmering and subtle – can be incarnated by a craftsman whose mind goes deep enough and whose hands are nimble enough. Tinsel is an abuse of the holy craft. Wherever you find it, there a scheming brain has replaced a mind that might have sounded eternity. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Slaves of Duty

One of the problems of democracy on an imperial scale is that no individual can choose his political rulers any more than can a peasant under a pantocratic tsar. Even if the drones have seized power from the queen, there are still too many of them for bee No. 8,493A to have any say over the honey quota.

The ballot that I just mailed in might have been eaten by a goat, and I’d never know it. Seven million other ballots in New York will decide every election tomorrow without regard to my preferences. Yet I still live, somehow, under the conviction that the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City have more claim to my obedience than a well-born king.

In a small and close community, the meaning of a vote is different. Take an election for president of the golf club, or Campus Whigs treasurer, or Pope. That is the native soil of democracy: a small group choosing a leader from its own numbers. Cardinal Adina wants the zealous Nemorino to be the pope, but Nemorino is only the third-most-popular candidate, and a vote for him would hand the election to the libertine Dulcamara. So he grudgingly votes for Cardinal Belcore, who wins on the second ballot. Adina’s mind throughout is occupied by all kinds of delicate practical considerations, most of which stem from the following question: ‘how can I reconcile my sincere preferences with the reality that my vote might effect something other than I intend?’ If the College of Cardinals enacts instant-runoff voting by the time Belcore dies, the question becomes even simpler: ‘what do I sincerely prefer?’ And this is no idle question. Adina has the power in his hands to bestow power over the earth on one man or another.

Very different is an imperial election like ours, which is formal and indifferent to individual voters. Only a tiny few know the candidates face-to-face. No one stands to gain or lose respect for his vote, especially if it’s on a secret ballot. Most important, the effect that any given vote has on the election is nil. Everything like “Make sure to vote if you live in [swing state]” and “My vote will cancel out yours” and “voting for McMullin will empower an evil goon”—and FiveThirtyEights’s voter-power index—is blather based on the lie that any political power is in the hands of any person, or even any hundred persons.

What value is there at all in voting under these circumstances, except to signal your virtue to your Facebook friends, yourself and your family? Is there anything other than sickly self-polishing to prop up democratic citizenship? 

In the absence of a living democratic impulse, an imperial election, if it’s to justify itself, needs to make demands on a voter’s mind that are not practical. In order to feel really compelled to look into candidates and vote (assuming we’re not wonkish hobbyists), we need to resort to a sense of thankless duty to our republic. Not only is this possible; if we are to be proud republicans, it is obligatory. Our republic will not be saved by our sentimental affection for it, which can always wane; still less by any thin intellectual belief in democracy, which can always be refuted by a Russian who’s clever enough. It will be sustained by its citizens’ unconsidered obligation to love and uphold democracy, and therefore to weigh candidates and vote.

A vote is only pointless if you have identified having a point with having an influence. This is admittedly an understandable conclusion, for influence is a real thing that you can measure, and duty only an invisible precept. Mass democracy does not give anything real to her children: voting, seen for what it is, does not confer a sense of being important, or even of being wanted. But this all goes to show the sole point of voting comes from the fact that it’s something you just have to do. The only thing that can drag an honest voter to the polls is a spare conviction that he must go. Go, then.

Corollary: When you are in the booth, you are not being asked to swing the election. You are being asked to give your honest opinion, and nothing more, about the best candidate for the job in question. It’s been popular to write thinkpieces and counter-thinkpieces on the question of voting for a third-party candidate. My own piece of thought is that if you shrink from voting third-party out of fear of the consequences, you are throwing away the single benefit to be had from the powerlessness of your vote.

You are to vote because your conscience, not practical inducement, makes you do it. Why not vote with your conscience too? The inconsequence of your vote is disappointing if your goal was to be influential, but it can also free your conscience, which wants the best for your country, from the demands of tempering caution.

Full disclosure: I voted for Hillary Clinton. I did that because I thought she would be a better president than anyone else on the ballot. If there had been a better candidate, I would have voted for him, however unlikely to win.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

O lösche das Licht

The visible world is a dream, says Schopenhauer. All its characters are shadow-puppets and its events are unreal phantasmagoria. Like many dreams, it is projected onto the dreamer’s consciousness by his lurking, longing will.

Music, moreover, is another projection of the will, different from and equal to the seen world. It is actually realer than the visible world, for whereas the the will is expressed only symbolically by the world, music is its direct apparition—which is a miracle, because it is a temporal expression of something eternal and infinite.

Never have I felt this principle more keenly than last night. Somehow I secured a $25 ticket to the opening-night gala of the Metropolitan Opera, which was a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The opera has already been reviewed by Anthony Tommasini for the New York Timesmuch more ably by Seth Walls for The Guardian, and in Polish for Wyborcza, but you can get the best sense of the real spirit of the evening from the coverage in Vogue.
At the under-the-sea-themed gala dinner [for rich people after the opera], Met Opera general manager, Peter Gelb, noted that the evening’s performance was, “more riveting and moving than any debate and certainly more beneficial for mankind,” while chairman of the board Ann Ziff proudly explained that the near-five-hour opera had been transmitted live in Times Square, adding coyly that, “the opera trumped the presidential debate.”
Hamilton star Javier Muñoz, who took over the titular role from Lin-Manuel Miranda in July, was thrilled to spend five hours of his precious little time off listening to Wagner.
And so on. The evening started with a red-carpet pageant for TV cameras outside the front lobby. In came Alan Gilbert, in came Amy Adams (was it her?), in came René Pape with a backpack in one arm and a lace-draped woman in the other. When a particularly bejewelled lady arrived, the crowd gasped, for she must have been famous, and a short woman thrust herself to the front of the crowd to take a billion pictures of her. On the balcony above, the really powerful folks drank champagne and looked down on the spectacle.

Inside, the party bore an even closer resemblance to the Masque of the Red Death. One woman had a few peacock feathers stapled to her hat. A man in his eighties dangled a thirty-year-old date on his arm, who was cocooned a blinding-yellow cylinder of fabric. A chattering clutch of men in linen clothing were smeared in glittery makeup, their skin speckled with jewels.

I took my seat in the orchestra. The man in front of me was wearing inch-long sharpened nails, a floral hoodie with a matching shirt, a beard, and a long ponytail. He chatted in an extreme lilt with his date, and reeked of something unprintable in a family blog. In the midst of the audience was a woman in a dress so grotesquely enormous that it rustled flush against both sides of the aisle.

The lights dimmed, there was a drum roll, and the orchestra played the national anthem. I felt a sudden surge of patriotism, half-suspecting that my opportunities to enthusiastically sing the Star Spangled Banner were running out. The audience stumbled through the words, and claw-fingered ponytail man giggled with contempt for the song. Perhaps his suspicion was justified. “God bless America!” cried a man behind me. “Make America great again!” cried his wife. I turned and glowered at her; she simpered back.

Then the music began, and the production was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on a stage. The sophisticated Polish director, Mariusz Treliński, had moved the action (as they say) from medieval Cornwall to Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Critical Hour. I’m serious: It looked like an Xbox game from 2006. There was a huge green radar disc projected onto the back wall. Instead of swords and hauberks the characters wore pistols and balaclavas. Everything was clanging and metallic. There was a naked woman in a cell below the stage for no reason, who got shot halfway through Act I for less reason. Sometimes there were computerised graphics during instrumental sections that must have been plagiarised from the iTunes visualiser. Good on you for updating the production, Mr Treliński. This one really resonated with the audience, who are obviously far more comfortable with gritty naval schlock than Arthurian romance. A medieval setting might have been appropriate for Wagner’s original 12th-century audience, but certainly not for us.

When the ship came to dock in Cornwall, some extras ran on stage with runway signal-lights: it was time for intermission #1. On the way to the men’s room I passed the VIP lounge. It was packed with smiling people eating cheese sandwiches served by solemn, obedient footmen. They talked about fashion and gurgled about Nina Stemme, oblivious to death and devouring time.

An audience at the Met can be divided into two parts. First are people who are there because it is a nice cultural experience. They have read the latest Knausgaard book, and they know that they like the opera in principle. They’re only ever really excited by Puccini’s schmaltz, but they can be brought around to something especially pretty in Mozart or Donizetti. They yell bravo to female singers and give standing ovations for everything. These are good-hearted, Hillary-voting Americans, and there is a place for them in the world to come.

The other set, who were there last night in far fuller force than usual, carry the whiff of evil. They are the powerful people who underwrite the whole thing. They are in a much sorrier condition: they despise the opera, but they must talk about how much they love this or that fashionable singer, or they will be cast from polite society. They dress in gems and dead animals.. They know not what they do.

I sat down and the second act’s prelude began, almost in time for The Claw in front of me to finish browsing Grindr. The curtain rose on a tall space-age platform operated by robotic machinery. But now not even Eurotrash could prevent me from really enjoying one of the most glorious works of music that’s ever been composed. Tristan and Isolde, drunk on a love-potion, curse the very world for keeping their souls apart from each other. They realise, as lovers usually do, that mere fleshy enmeshment gives only meagre satisfaction to the spirit. They promise, as lovers usually don’t, to die, melt into eternity, and become each other forever. They are plunged together into night, and they curse the looming daylight.

Brangæne, from offstage, began to sing the sublimest part of the opera: the dawn is breaking, and the lovers ought to beware the light. They cannot be sewn together forever. No gray morning illumined the stage at this point, but a violent fluorescent lamp and and then some more cybergraphics. I tried to shut my eyes, but the horrible light was so intense that it leaked through my eyelids.

There is a moment in every man’s life when he realises why he has strangled himself with a strip of fabric on every important day and night of his life. Mine was the 26th of September, 2016. When next the music swelled, I pulled my tie from out of my collar, and found that it was just wide and thick enough to make a blindfold. The opera became untellably better. I sank into a deep trance that lasted until the end of the act.

It was interrupted once, when I was shaken firmly by my chucking neighbour, a delightful Romanian woman, who whispered: ‘you have to see this.’ I lifted the blindfold to find Tristan and King Mark sitting in a bluish cellar on huge rubber barrels of hazardous waste, a big ventilating fan rotating lazily above them. I know the libretto, and the scene was not meant to have shifted since I had covered my eyes. But for some reason Treliński had gotten bored with cyborg watchtower, so TimeSplitters basement it was for the balance of Act II.

Act III, for which I heard completely blind, was without exaggeration one of the most intense experiences of my life. I spent a full hour and a half in a tunnel of darkness, prey to the most savagely beautiful music that has ever filtered up to mortals from the abyss.

Halfway through the act, Tristan sings the following stanza, in his extreme pain at losing Isolde:

Out of my father’s misery, and my mother’s pain; out of lovers’ eternal tears; out of laughing and weeping, joys and smarts; I found the poisonous draught! I brewed it; it flowed to me. I sucked it with joy. But curse you, fearful draught! and curse the one who brewed you!

We might expect Tristan to curse the drink that made him love Isolde. But that’s not quite it: the draught he describes here was brewed long before even he was alive. It is eternal lust for life, which has driven every lover to madness since the beginning of time. It is the curse that forces men to spend their lives under the intruding sun, which keeps them from what their souls desire most passionately: union and nothingness. Tristan does not curse his own love-potion, at least not specifically. He denounces the entire experience of mankind from beginning to end; it is a train of horrible sorrows, honeyed by transient joys. His exultation in ripping himself free of individual existence is one of the most stirring and disturbing moments in Western drama.

By Isolde’s last monologue—the so-called love-death, I was so wrapped up in the music that, without any visual stimulation, I forgot where I was. I saw myself plunged into a lake on a starry night, and then somersaulted into heaven, where the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy. Then the stars themselves folded up, the firmament collapsed, and I saw the creation of the world. The music resolved and there was nothing.

Somehow the audience managed to clap; I sat stupid in my seat, and only staggered feebly to my feet when it was time to boo the production team. I walked out gulping for air into Lincoln square, politely pushing by Countess Peacock-Staple as I went. The throngs of cabs and irritable New Yorkers seemed all right after all: it was just a dream.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Marius, a Fragment

This is most of what’s left of Cicero’s poem Marius.

The feathered thrall of Jove the Thunderer
Springs now at once from out a hollow stump,
Snakebitten. She tears with her wild claws
The half-dead serpent; as she flicks her neck,
He writhes; she rips him with her gory beak,
And now her lust is fed; her pains revenged.
She throws him dead and mangled to the waves,
And turns from the West into the splendid East.
When Marius, the augur of the god
Beheld her gliding with her wings aloft,
He marked so glad a token of his fame.
The Father of Heaven thundered on the left;
Thus Jove confirmed the eagle’s doubtless sign.

Hic Jovis altisoni subito pinnata satelles
Arboris è trunco serpentis saucia morsu
Subrigit ipsa feris transfigens unguibus anguem
Semianimum & varia graviter cervice micantem.
Quem se intorquentem lanians rostroque cruentans
Jam satiata animos jam duros ulta dolores
Abjicit efflantem & laceratum adfligit in unda
Seque obitu à solis nitidos convertit ad ortus.
Hanc ubi præpetibus pinnis lapsuque volantem
Conspexit Marius divini numinis augur
Faustaque signa suæ laudis reditusque notavit
Partibus intonuit cæli pater ipse sinistris.
Sic aquilæ clarum firmavit Juppiter omen.