Who wrote Don Quixote?

May 27, 2010

Silly question, isn’t it?  Miguel Cervantes, right? 

I first read Don Q. years ago, in fits and starts, in a translation by Tobias Smollett.  That was fun – I like that 18th century English – but it did place the book at a remove.  Now I’m reading Edith Grossman’s recent translation, and it is a wonder!  The voice is completely contemporary, and so funny!

So, the book is 900 pages long and I’m on page 70, and I’m already up to my eyeballs in self-referential, meta-literary, quasi-meta-narrative intellectual pretzels!  Did I mention that it’s funny?

Cervantes wrote the book, and presumably is the narrator.  The narrator is omniscient.  Or he seems to be.  That is, he knows a lot of things he couldn’t know from reviewing primary sources, but on the other hand, there is a lot he doesn’t know.  Or does he just choose not to tell:

Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago…

That’s how it begins, and that’s how it goes on.  At the point I just reached, Don Quixote is engaged in combat with another man he takes to be a villain, and is poised to cleave him in two with his sword.  The action breaks off and the ‘first part’ ends – something that is typical in chivalric romances I am informed by a translator’s footnote.  The author, Cervantes, then informs us that he was at a complete loss as to what happened next in this story he is telling us.  That is, until he happened upon a manuscript, quite by chance, written in Arabic, that is a translation of the second part of the battle tale.  He hires a translator, and provides us with the remainder of the text.

He warns us that we must not blame him if the story leaves out essential details since he relied on a Morisco to produce the text from the manuscript, and they are notoriously liars.  (Of course, he is referring to himself here.)  The Morisco laughed when he first saw the manuscript because of the funny annotation in the margin, written by a previous reader, saying that Dulcinea, the peasant whom Quixote imagines a princess, is well known for her skill in preparing pork.  Aha, so she’s real after all!

Centuries later, the Argentine writer, Borges, would comment on this with his short story, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, the tale of a man who had so absorbed the meaning and style of Don Quixote, that he sat down and begin to write it out, word for word, again.  And of course, his version was even better than the real thing!


On reflection…

May 20, 2010

 

Mr. Savage, of Swiftly Tilting Planet fame, commented on my recent post about my visit to the Frick Museum.  He mentioned the reflection in the mirror in the painting shown here.  That got me thinking about how often artists use mirrors in their work, to deepen the meaning, to add interest, or to display their virtuosity.  Some favorites here:

A mirror is sort of like an ironic painting – it’s flat, it creates an illusion of a world beyond, except it’s the real world.  For centuries, painting was preoccupied with creating that illusionistic realm, behind the flat picture-plane.  With perspective, they could make it appear as it appeared to us.  The concept had legs – Stendhal famously compared a novel, his anyway, to a mirror being carried along a road, reflecting the life around it.  Well, it’s easy to go on, but I’d be repeating myself…


I’m watching you

May 18, 2010

I ran up to the Frick Museum for a quick visit today, and of course, I took a long look at one of my favorite paintings.  I had never noticed that her gaze seems to meet yours, no matter whether you are standing to the right or the left of the picture.  It seems to follow you.  That sort of thing probably tickled Ingres.


La terre – Earth Day

April 22, 2010

I finished Zola’s La Terre yesterday, and by happenstance, today is Earth Day.

The epic tale of farting, murderous, avaricious, randy, bestial peasants who live by tending the great Mother Earth ends on a positive note. Images of the Earth receiving her seed bookend the similar opening of the novel. Jean, the townsman turned farmer, who was ejected from the local peasant community as a human body will reject an organ transplant, is signing up to fight the Prussians. Meanwhile, far away in Paris, in another novel, Nana lies dead in palatial bedroom, a suppurating mass of flesh killed by smallpox, while outside, the crowds, in a patriotic frenzy, rally and march to the cry of “To Berlin!” The Debacle will tell what comes next, with Jean at the center of it. After the loosing fight, he will return to the earth, not the town.

In our society, awash in sentimental and falsely nostalgic images of the more “green” days of the past, celebrants of Earth Day would do well to read La Terre (The Earth). Living “in tune” with the natural cycles of the the earth is not all daisies and recycling. It is more like being clasped in a crushing embrace by forces beyond your control, barely understood, that are beautiful and mysterious, but terrifying at times as well.  The peasants adore Mother Earth, and have little use for God, the one the priest talks about, but they curse her too when she destroys their crops with hail or fails to bring forth a good harvest.

Today, we hang calendars on our walls with reproductions of paintings by Jean Francois Millet, The Gleaners being ever popular. He intended this as a realistic depicition of the poverty and back-breaking labor of women who scour harvested fields for the leavings with which to feed their families, but we find it beautfiul, bucolic, even romantic. According to The Discovery of France by Graham Robb, even his images are a mild presentation of the reality of peasant life.


Nature & Number, Pythagoras & Fudge

March 16, 2010

A vibrating string, a perfect structure...

In his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari writes of Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the great dome on the cathedral in Florence,

…we should never turn up our noses when we meet people who in their physical appearance do not possess the initial grace and beauty that Nature should bestow upon skillful artisans when they come into the world…

Filippo was a great genius, but not all that good looking.  Note the use of the word should in the phrase “…that Nature should bestow upon skillful artisans.”  How can Nature do anything that it should not do?  Just whose rules does Nature obey, if not its own?  The idea here, that Nature has done something wrong, made a mistake, had a little hiccough, in making a great genius an ugly man, or at least, insignificant in appearance, may be common to Italy, or to Renaissance thinkers, but it is also part of an immensely deep and broad current of thought in western culture since the Ancients.  Outward beauty reflects inward perfection.  Personal beauty is a manifestation of the soul’s purity.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats

And if beauty is the emanation of the soul, why should an artistic genius not be beautiful?  How could it happen?  It’s a violation of the nature of the universe, the ordered universe in which truths are manifest in the order and lovliness of things.  And the most beauteous things of all  are the pure things, the mathematical entities, the Pure Forms of Plato, the Ideas.

Historians of  ideas (Man of Roma included) agree that this great torrent of intellectual traditions has its source with Pythagoras, the student of Thales, and a predecessor of Plato and Socrates.  He was a brilliant thinker, a mystic, an analyst, a mathematician, and the founder of a cult that has lived on to our day in various forms.  In the wonderful collection of brief mathematical lives, Gems of Calculus, he is referred to as 3/5 genius, 2/5 sheer fudge . Bertrand Russell appraises him similarly, and that is no small compliment!

From his followers’ mystical preoccupation with Number, and awestruck encounters with the order of the universe, Plato developed his metaphysical notions, Platonists mixed Plato with eastern cults, early Christians mixed Plato with Christ, later Christians mixed it all up into neo-Platonism, the Renaissance rediscovered paganism, Platonism, and mysticism allied to the beauty of art, and secular and mystical philosophers of the succeeding ages remained in thrall to the notions of:

  • A universe explicable in terms of number (Do I have to point out the obvious pop-Pythagorean nightmare – The Matrix, and Keanu/Neo?)
  • Beauty founded on elegance of formulation, mathematical economy, and aximomatic inevitability
  • Truth as proof, as in geometry
  • Knowledge as proof, as geometry, as deductive reasoning – NOT as mere dirty, error prone, contingent experience
  • The nature of the universe revealed through intellectual intuition and analysis and NOT through experience
  • The truth as imminent, but not obvious

Just a listing of these notions evokes so many associations, it’s clear Mr. P. was onto something big.  Did he invent these ideas?  Probably not.  But he was the first to articulate them in a way that had sticking power in the Western tradition.  I would guess that these notions have their roots far deeper, in the human organisms evolution as an information processing being.  The intellectual excitement of these ideas is a refined form of the fundamental “Aha!” feeling that comes with discovery…of food…of the lever…of the power of fire….

In our own day, these ideas live on, certainly in religious rhetoric, but they are also increasingly problematic as I shall discuss later.  Consider just Thomas Pynchon’s novel, V, in which a young woman, Esther, is having an affair with a plastic surgeon, Dr. Shale Shoenmaker (Dr. Shale Beauty-maker). He wants to give Esther a nose job, she is not sure why she should have one.  It’s a popular comic theme from the 1950′s.  The Mad Magazine song goes,

I once knew a girl with such a big schnoz,
she couldn’t get a boyfriend, or a job!
So she got a nose job!
Yeah, yeah, yeah!

The good doctor tells Esther that he wants to bring out the true beauty within her, make her outward experience in harmony with the inward nature of her soul, rectify, improve on the work of nature.  It is a pure Renaissance Neo-Platonic argument about art, truth, and beauty, but he was being ruthlessly satirical.  And of course, in our Botoxed present, who can deny that we have gotten something a bit wrong with the beauty-truth-body equation?

How did this concept get going?  It was the music.  The Pythagoreans noticed that by causing a string to vibrate and sound a tone, they could create pleasing scales of tones by holding down the string at set increments of its length, effectively shortening the string.  Thus, the musical intervals were codified, if not quite born.  Simple ratios, pleasing scales.  In the visual realm, pleasing proportions, the Golden Mean, which lives on in dimensions of our rooms and the size of a standard piece of writing paper.

Something always puzzled me about this, however, since I am not musical.  How did they know the scales were pleasing, were right? They just heard it, but other people heard differently.  Asian tonal scales are not the same as ours.  The de-tuned scales of the blues and other genres are pleasing to their audiences, but hardly classical.  My nom de plume, Lichanos (more in my By Way of Explanation), refers to a particular ancient scale.  Was it a deviant one?    Was there some fudging of the scales at the creation?  Did they weed out the not-quite-right tones so that only the ones with “good” ratios remained?  I await the response of the archaeo-musicologists amongst you!

I said earlier that this current of thought is not always good – it was very much an impediment to the development of science.  Ideas that were not “beautiful” were discarded.  Ideas not deduced from geometry and pure forms were considered suspect.  Even in Newton’s day, he felt he must prove his theories twice:  once as geometrical demonstrations that fill the pages of his Principia, and once in terms of argument that are derived from his laws of motion and his observations. In science, the truth is not always the beauty of Pythagoras and Plato.  Avogadro’s Number, without which we cannot solve chemical equations, is an ugly number.  Planck’s constant is not pretty either.  The acceleration of gravity (32.2 feet per second per second) is not lovely.  Don’t even mention the contant of universal gravitational attraction!  Even so, the lure of number remains, as an obstacle and as a motivation for science.

This split between two modes of apprehending the universe is represented in Raphael’s famous image of the School of Athens.  Plato gestures upward towards the empyrean realm.  Aristotle points downward towards the earth.

Plato dominated western thought until the great resurrection of The Philosopher, as the schoolmen called Aristotle, in the 12th century Renaissance.  He had his own scientific “issues” and the reign of Platonism was by then, in any case, well established.

The seduction of the geometric!  The fact that geometry revealed incommensurable, irrational numbers only placed a slight speed bump in front of the onward rush of the Pythagorean fleet.

If  a=1, and b=1, then c=square root of 2.  Punch that into your calculator and see what a nice, beautiful number you get!  Still, the Numbers as the final reach of truth, the ultimate ground, the thing in itself carried on.  How was it that mathematics could tell us about this earthly realm?  Fire a missile, from a canon or a slingshot, and it follows a parabolic arc (Gravity’s Rainbow) to its final resting place.  We can predict its path precisely – why?  The disjunction between experience and the pure realm of mathematics is bridged in physics, but how?  Kant wrestled with this and concluded…well, another time.

Today, the debased form of this issue lives on, melded with religious fundamentalism, in the argument against Darwin from Intelligent Design.  How could the world be anything but designed, according to plan?  There is a whiff of the old pagan, Pythagoras, here.

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. — Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

William Wordsworth

Postscript:  Giotto and Perfect Circles


Krazy – 1920s

February 6, 2010

Click for full strip

Crazy about Krazy!  The more I read, the more I love it.  He plays endlessly with ideas, the meaning of words, illusion and reality.  There is satire of politics, intellectuals, and wildly inventive disruptions of the panel scheme – nothing is out of bounds.  Krazy bleaches himself white, Ignatz must dye himself black.  Ignatz sees a portrait of Krazy – zip! a brick hurtles towards it.  Yet Krazy loves the little angel, Ignatz.  Is he male, female?  Ignatz is married, with children!  What planet do they inhabit!?

And that wonderfully simple answer to all questions comic – a brick to the head to crease Krazy’s bean!


Himalayan snowball fight

December 27, 2009

Is there anyone interested in the topic of climate change who is unaware of the recent flap over the glaciers of the Himalayas?  An ad showing an image similar to the one above was running on the New York Times Science page for some time during the recent conference in Copenhagen.  The image on the left is from 2007, while the one on the right is from 1921, clear evidence of melting, right?  So, we have this story, widely circulated in the media world (all emphasis added):

October 5, 2009 (CNN)The glaciers in the Himalayas are receding quicker than those in other parts of the world and could disappear altogether by 2035 according to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.[link]

This follows on an earlier alarming report on CNN:

Glaciers a canary in the coal mine of global warming

August 8, 2009 (CNN) — U.S. scientists monitoring shrinking glaciers in Washington and Alaska reported this week that a major meltdown is under way.

A 50-year government study found that the world’s glaciers are melting at a rapid and alarming rate. The ongoing study is the latest in a series of reports that found glaciers worldwide are melting faster than anyone had predicted they would just a few years ago.

It offers a clear indication of an accelerating climate change and warming earth, according to the authors. [link]

But not everyone agreed.  After the 2007 report of the IPCC came out, the Indian Ministry of Environment did its own research and published a report that concluded the melting of the glaciers was part of a natural cycle going on worldwide.  The response was quick and furious, a veritable snowball fusillade:

November 9, 2009 Guardian.UK:  India ‘arrogant’ to deny global warming link to melting glaciers

IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri accuses Indian environment ministry of ‘arrogance’ for its report claiming there is no evidence that climate change has shrunk Himalayan glaciers. [link]

…and…

November 16, 2009:  Indian Express – Pachauri rubbishes report on glaciers

Rubbishing the claim by a government-backed study that melting of glaciers was not due to climate change, leading environmentalist R K Pachauri on Sunday dubbed it as “totally unsubstantiated scientific opinion” and flayed Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh for endorsing it.

Pachauri, head of the Nobel prize winner Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said it was universally acknowledged that glaciers were melting because of climate change and the same applied to Indian glaciers.

“Everywhere in the world, glaciers are melting due to climate change, the Arctic is melting because of climate change. What is so special about Indian glaciers?” Pachauri said.

The study by former deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India V K Raina has claimed that while most glaciers are in the process of retreat, some Himalayan glaciers, such as the Siachen glacier, are actually advancing and some others, such as the Gangotri glacier, are retreating at a rate lower than before.[link]

As the snowballs flew to and fro, some people started to look into it:

December 1, 2009, BBC News:  Himalayan glaciers’ ‘mixed picture’

A scientific debate has been triggered over the state of glaciers in the Himalayas.

Some recent findings seem to contradict claims that the glaciers are retreating rapidly. Some glaciers are even said to be advancing.  There are clear signs of glacial retreat and ice melt from other parts of the world, but few field studies have been carried out in the Himalayas.

Its glaciers too were widely believed to be receding fast. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had said that Himalayan glaciers were receding faster than in any other part of the world.

The panel observed: “If the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.” [link]

Eventually, we heard from the Indian Minister of Environment in his own words:

NEW DELHI  December 2009 – Recession of Himalayan glaciers part of natural process:

Environment minister Jairam Ramesh said the recession of Himalayan glaciers was part of the natural cyclical process which could be attributed to various reasons, including global warming.  Replying to supplementaries during Question Hour, he said the melting of Arctic ice and Himalayan glaciers could not be compared as ecological conditions in each case were different.

According to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Himalayan Glaciers are receding faster than in any part of the world and if the present rate continues, there is a likelihood of their disappearing by 2035, he noted.

However, Ramesh said the studies carried out by the Geological Survey of India have revealed that majority of Himalayan glaciers are passing through a phase of recession, which is a worldwide phenomenon.

“The recession of glaciers is part of the natural cyclic process of changes in the size and other attributes of the glaciers. These changes could be attributed to various reasons including global warming,” he said…

He said long term studies are required to conclusively establish the causes and impacts of melting of Himalayan glaciers. [link]

Finally, alas, it all turns out to have been a little mistake:

December 5, 2009 – BBC News:  Himalayan glaciers melting deadline ‘a mistake’

The UN panel on climate change warning that Himalayan glaciers could melt to a fifth of current levels by 2035 is wildly inaccurate, an academic says.  J Graham Cogley, a professor at Ontario Trent University, says he believes the UN authors got the date from an earlier report wrong by more than 300 years.

He is astonished they “misread 2350 as 2035″. The authors deny the claims. 

When asked how this “error” could have happened, RK Pachauri, the Indian scientist who heads the IPCC, said: “I don’t have anything to add on glaciers.” [link]

You can read about the whole thing in more detail by following the links from this blog.


Down the memory hole!

December 21, 2009

The good old days of airbrushing history away – as Comrade Stalin always liked to say, “No man, no problem!”:

     

Not so easy anymore, as pointed out in this (unintentionally?) amusing story in the New York Times:  Accenture, as if Tiger Woods Were Never There


Life imitates art

September 8, 2009

discreet_charm  2007-08-19-ShabbeyRoad2

That’s what Oscar Wilde said, life imitates art, not the other way ’round.  I’ve been watching some Luis Bunuel films, and both he and Oscar would be amused by this pair of images, or appalled, maybe.

The one on the left is from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie from 1972.  The one on the right is of the Bush Gang on his ranch in 2007.  A similar, but better image appeared on the front page of the NY Times and I immediately thought of the lost souls of La charme discret,  walking, walking, walking, never getting anywhere… [In the Times' image, Condi was facing 3/4 backwards, as if beckoning to Georgie Bush to c'mon...]  Were the editors and photographers of the paper thinking what I’m thinking now?

The movie is mostly dreams, some dreams within dreams, of two French bourgeois men who can’t ever seem to get time to eat their dinner or to have proper sex.  They are always being interrupted by…reality?  In one sequence, the ambassador from the Latin American nation of Miranda is at a party and repeatedly asked uncomfortable questions by guests:  Is it true that Miranda has the highest homicide rate in the world?  The greatest infant mortality?  That poverty is at an all-time high?  No, no, no.  Exaggerations.  Not that bad at all.  Finally, the importunate questioning is too much, and he shoots one of his tormentors…and awakes.

They are all liars, hypocrites, criminals, and frauds.   They deal in cocaine and denounce the degradation of the times over cocktails.  The priest is deeply pious, and he even grants absolution to the man he confesses who turns out to be the killer of his parents.  Then he shoots the man with a shotgun.


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