Douthat in Hell

April 25, 2011

Oh Ross, you devil, you!

In today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat makes ‘a case for Hell.’  This is what we are offered as the intellectual ballast of the ‘conservative’ political movement today:  a shallow exercise in theology.

One sentence in his screed stood out for me, emphasis added:

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

Using GoogleBooks, I read through the introduction that Douthat cites:  some pages were left out.  Maybe they were the ones where Esolen makes this rather astounding argument about a poem that is often considered a literary summa of the medieval world-view, but I doubt it.  More likely, Douthat is not interested in what the terms Christian, Humanist, and Medieval actually mean, at least in literary terms.

The list of attributes he gives above are not normally associated with humanism, even in the simple version I recall from grade school textbooks, i.e:  man the measure of all things;  skepticism; finding truth with reason; lack of dogma; joy in daily experience, etc.  They are  associated with the medieval, Christian-allegorical way of seeing the world.  But for Ross, that is the only way, I suppose.

Douthat is the clever catechist:  He concludes by asking

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

If he had read The Inferno, he would know that Gandhi is certainly in hell, down on the First Circle, with all the righteous gentiles and unbaptized infants who died too soon.  They just sigh a lot – no torture – lamenting their missed chance at salvation.  All those intelligent B.C.E. philosphers are there too!  As for Tony Soprano, if there is no hell, there is no heaven.  I doubt any theologian really thinks what Douthat claims they think.

  

It would seem that the entire intellectual concept is rife with contradictions…


The Many-named Jan Gossart

November 27, 2010

The Metropolitan has a marvelous exhibit of the works of Jan Gossart (he is known by a variety of names) that I visited today.  A northerner, in the pictorial tradition of van Eyck and other pioneering artists in oil, he, like Albrecht Durer, went south, and was enthralled by the ruins of the classical world and the Humanist revival in Italy.  He fuses this taste with his northern gothic tradition and produces something that is at times downright weird, but compelling.  The exhibit was unusual, I thought, in its emphasis on the sources in contemporary art of the north for many of his works.  Gossart was on the cutting edge; one of a group of humanist-scholar-artist afficianados who found deep-pocketed patrons to finance their new vision. 

As always, click on the images to enlarge them.

The image at the top was one of my favorites – a disguised portrait of a young girl as Mary Magdalen, so simple, plain, and lovely compared to the other Magdalen below.

His debt to Durer’s popular engraving is clear and direct, but he drops some of the classicizing of the print’s image.

   

Here, he cuts loose a bit and depicts Adam and Eve as actual human beings, rather “than Biblical Figures”, who are obviously quite attracted to one another.

The Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalen:  The first is calm, contemplative, and shows that strange marble-like texture found in so many of his portraits.  He seems to enjoy painting people as though they were sculpture, sometimes to a degree that it appears trompe l’oeil.  The second is strange, twisted, writhing, and definitely tipping in the direction of mannerism.

  

Hercules and wife, classical architecture, bodies – see, her breasts are perfect hemispheres – and a weird, erotic entangling of legs.  The picture on the right makes use of blue pigment created from lapis lazuli that was as expensive as gold.

      

A bit of weirdly erotic classicizing…

A portrait of a man who was in charge of municipal toll collections, an important and lucrative post.  From his look, he seems right for the job.  If you look very closely at his eyes, at the white highlight on the iris reflecting the incoming light, you can see the image of the mullions of the window from which this scene is illuminated.


Architecture: that human scale…

August 10, 2008

There is a story about a press conference with Minoru Yamasaki before construction on the World Trade Center began:

“Why did you scale down your design from 150 stories to 100, Mr. Yamasaki?”
“We wanted to keep the human scale.”

Uh, yeah, right!

What’s up with this building of the Chinese State TV headquarters now going up in Beijing?  It’s designed by Rem Koolhaas, shown here in a presentation drawing.  Is it a Moebius strip?  I can’t decide whether it’s some kind of wonderful or a vision from the hell of 1984.  I don’t like to pass judgments about buildings I’ve never seen, but this one does give me the creeps.  I can imagine the minions of the state propaganda apparatus having a fine old time inside trying to control the minds of the nation.  And they say it is the largest office building in the world next to the US Pentagon.  Talk about human scale…which is something that Koolhaas does talk about.

Architects are a funny bunch.  Creative, ego-centric, perhaps a bit megalomaniac when they turn their hands to urban planning and “urbanism” writ large.  After all, don’t they want to see their drawing board visions brought to life?  Not that they want to impose them…except for our own good…

Here’s a gallery of images of buildings that seem to lack that loving, human touch…starting with a photo of the CCTV in progress:

We’ve got the Chinese TV headquarters under construction, then two shots of the late, great twin towers.  I know it’s heresy to say this, but I think that they destroyed the skyline of Manhattan.  Quite honestly, I hated them and found them to be soulless, overpowering buildings set in a windy plaza above a depressing subterranean shopping mall.  Now I look down from my window and watch their successors take form.

Next up, Le Corbusier’s vision for Paris – knock down the buildings and set up rows of cruciform skyscrapers.  The street must die!  It’s so noisy, chaotic, and…lacking in ORDER!  (Jane Jacobs knew where he was coming from.)  Corbu’s vision was realized in part in NYC in Cooper Village and Stuyvesant town, two mega developments that provided a lot of low-cost living space to WWII veterans coming home.  The towers are dull, even ugly, and set in a rather boring and uninspired “park” setting which is, however, lovingly, even lushly tended.  A saving grace…Now the subsidies are gone and the apartment rents and prices are through the roof.

Some visionary stuff a la Francaise. Claude Ledoux’s spherical house, pure geometry, but not overly large.  Still, what’s the point of living in that other than to prove an artist’s point?  And the Great Arch of La Defense, located on the edge of Paris.  Another exercise in pure form – lovely isn’t it?  Nearby, the National Library, in the shape of an open book.  Nevermind that functionally it is a failure, i.e., it doesn’t store books very well.

Next up, two images of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York, the capital of New York state.  “Empire State” is the nickname of  New York (thus the Empire State Building…) but it seems a bit ironic here.  A plaza in the capital of a state ruled by democracy, named “empire,” and in a style that would seem at home in an evil empire anywhere, cinematic, soviet, futuristic fascist, and the like.  It was built by Nelson Rockefeller, a man not known for his humility.  The huge reflecting pool on the left has a pavilion at the end that seems like an imperial Persian review stand on steroids.  And that weird floating thing on the right in the middle picture?  That’s a theater, not a cast-off from The Jetsons.  The last picture on the row, a shot of Brasilia, carries on the theme with a little more elegance.

Closing out, we have some fantastic visions – never built, of course, but today..? – by Etienne Boullee.  A pryamid a la modern, an enormous, cavernous, seemlingly infinite design for a national library, and a monument to Issac Newton.  The latter at least makes a nice match of over the top design with the size Newton’s ego, his subject, and his accomplishments as well.

 


Martin Luther King – American Irony

January 22, 2008

mlk.jpg

In a nation that is preoccupied with God-talk, in which the separation of church and state is being eroded and denied, a nation in which our “conservative” politicians constantly invoke the Judaeo-Christian tradition, you’d think that a holiday in honor of a preacher-activist-humanitarian would merit a national holiday, i.e., a holiday that is universally observed the way Presidents’ Day is. Even a secular humanist atheist like me would support it.


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