The ‘airbrush’ lives on!

July 6, 2010

Just in case you thought that airbrushing the past away was a dead art form associated with the USSR, guess again.  It lives on in the news of our free press.  The Economist created a new image that packed more of a punch for their headline than mundane reality, but they did it for our own good, of course (see below – italics mine).  I don’t have a big problem with the crop, but zapping away the woman is over the top.

In a statement to the New York Times, deputy editor Emma Duncan (who made the decision), said Admiral Allen was removed by the crop and that the local parish president was removed “not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers.”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

June 16, 2010

While the mariners were landing in the New World (see previous post), the Renaissance intellectual literati were carrying on with their pagan wet dream in a dream.  Published in 1499, and a bestseller for centuries, I just finished Hypnerotomachia Poliphili [other posts] and I can confidently say that it is the weirdest book I have read.  Here are a few samples of the text which, as the translator tells us in his forward, has been considerably pruned of invented words and bizarre phrases to make it flow better for the modern reader.

One of the many architectural wonders Poliphilio dreams, and describes at tremendous length:

The threshold of the doorway was made from an immense leek-green stone, whose tough surface was marred with a scattering of white, black, and grey spots and various other indistinct stains.  The straight antis-columns rested on this, standing one pace form the edge of the threshold with their inner sides smooth and lustrous but their outer faces notably carved.  There was not sight of hinges either on the threshold, or above, nor any indications of iron hooks retaining the half-capitals which were of the same stone.  Above this there curved the arched beam or semicircle, with the requisite lineaments and measured fascias of the beam, namely balls or berries and spindles, arranged by tens as if threaded on a string; dog’s ears; sinuous or lapped rinceaux in antique style, with their stalks.  The spine, wedge, or keystone of the arch was worthy of admiration for its bold and subtle design and its elegant finish, which make it a splendid sight to see.

In his dream, Poliphilio meets an enticing nymph:

The white breasts were left voluptuously open as far as to reveal the round nipples,  The little virginal body rested on straight legs, and little feet, some of the bare within antique sandals what were held on by golden thongs that passed between the bi and the middle toes, near the little toe, and right around the heel, to join neatly above the instep in an artistic bow.  Some were in shoes, tightly fastened with golden hooks: others wore boots with soles of crimson and other gay colors, such as were never seen on Gaius Caligula, the first to wear them.  Some had high boots slit around their with and fleshy calves; others, slippers with masterly fasteners of gold and silk. Many wore antique Sicyonian shoes, and a few had fine silken socks, with golden laces decorated with gems.

Still in his dream, he finds Polia, and is invited into a pagan love-fest:

Does Mars dream?

Take your pleasure of me for a all days to come, and you will feel comfort and contentment that make you forget your former torments and past misfortunes:  they will dissolve under my caresses and kindnesses just as the mists, rising and thickening from the all-ruling earth are dispersed by forceful winds, as dust-motes float and vanish in the air.  Now take this amorous kiss’ (here he embraced me in virginal fashion) as the gauge of my inflamed heart, conceived from my excessive love.”  And as he hugged me tightly, my little round purple mouth mingled its moisture with his , savoring sucking, and giving the sweetest little bites as our tongues entwined around each other.

There is much sighing, some dying, some reviving, then dying more, then sighing, and loving and entwining.  But in the end, Poliphilio awakes, and it’s all over.  He curses the jealous sun that rose and ended his nightime bliss.

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


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