In Academe’s Groves

July 1, 2014

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The Gray Notebook, by Josep Pla, from a long entry about his days as a university student in Barcelona:

22 March – High Culture

…Syllogisms poured forth.  One pupil piped up confidently:  “Trees breathe through their leaves.”

Sr. Daurella replied gruffly, in his baritone bass pitch:  “The pear tree is a tree.”

And the pupil completed the round enthusiastically:  “Therefore the pear tree breathes through its leaves.”

We were all so pleased as punch we would readily have gone on for another hour or so.  It literally was a land of make-believe.

…How can you refute something you don’t understand or grasp?  It made no difference.  Every year the same episode was rehearsed, an episode I experienced and witnessed repeatedly, and if one ever describes it to anyone not deformed by our official seats of learning, they burst their sides in laughter because it reveals such stupidity – it is the legendary anecdote about Professor Arana.

“Sr. So-and-so,” said the professor in his mellifluous Spanish.  “Today we are doing Kant’s theory (or Rousseau’s).  Tell me about Kant’s theory.  What do you know about Kant’s theory?”

The student stood up, opened the syllabus, shifted his body slightly so his ear was better positioned to hear his prompter on the next-door bench, wet his lips, scratched the nape of his neck, and came out with drivel.  The prompter that day, for whatever reason, was a dreadful prompter.  He was a failure as a prompter.  A tense silence reigned in the lecture theatre.  In the meantime, Sr. Arana glanced at his student register through the gold-rimmed spectacles on the end of his nose.  Finally, the wet fish of a student – to describe him accurately-confessed.

“I didn’t find time to study,” he said, looking distressed, oppressed, and completely at a loss.

“So, Sr. So-and-so,” the professor replied, not at all sourly, smoothing his moustache, as if he were commenting on the weather, “you don’t know Kant’s theory.  But I expect you know how to refute it.  Now, be so good as to refute Kant’s theory.”

As the prompters were a waste of time, sometimes a holy spirit arose from the most unlikely corner of the lecture theater to help the person questioned to survive.  The student heard various noises behind him, (what was known as “rhubarb-rhubarb”) and began to stammer.  Sr. Arana immediately struck the pose of a man who is completely entranced.  He wiped his chin as if he were stroking a goat’s nipple.  The rhubarb-rhubarb made sense and the student bore up.  The professor listened with growing admiration.  The amazing scene always ended with a professorial comment.

“You didn’t know the theory but you did manage to refute it.  That is quite an achievement.”

I don’t think high culture has ever scaled such heights as those exemplified by these absolutely authentic scenes.

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Meanwhile, back on Planet Stupid…

August 16, 2008


Once again, David Brooks clocks in with a column that makes me ask, “what planet do you live on?”  Visiting the countryside in China that was recently traumatized by earthquake, he comments:

We’d visited the village without warning and selected our interview subjects at random, but some of the answers were probably crafted to please the government. Still, there was no disguising the emotional resilience and intense mutual support in that village. And there was no avoiding the baffling sense of equanimity. Where was the trauma and grief?

For someone who bills himself as a libertarian-leaning conservative Republican, and a “pop” sociologist, his response is remarkable.  Does he not read the newspaper that publishes his drivel?  He hasn’t heard of the protests by grieving parents, their children crushed to death in shoddily built schools, that were broken up by police, the parents beaten?  He is not aware of the concerted effort by the Party to buy silence with a hush money policy?  It never occurs to him that the vast network of Party officials throughout the country has made it perfectly clear what sort of statements are acceptable?  Does he think that these people are as stupid as he is?  Does he really think that the Chinese collectivist spirit, as he calls it in his superficial maunderings of the last week or so, precludes grief over the death of a child, especially when such mind boggling political corruption is involved?

And speaking of ideas that are so stupid only an educated person could believe them (to use George Orwell’s phrase here for the umpteenth time), what about that “End of History,” eh?  People like Francis Fukuyama are why the word “intellectual” is, for some, a slur.  Just add the pointy headed… How could anyone take this idea seriously?  Well, it seems that Vladimir Putin didn’t.   Fellow neo-con Robert Kagan gets a jab in at FF with his new article, “The End of the End of History,” commenting on the return of 19th century history as Russia pursues the “Great Game” with renewed vigor.

Yeah, every movement is supposed to end history.  The same thing in art – we had Modernism…then Post-Modernism.  In the end, all we have are styles and fads.


Art by the numbers…

August 4, 2008

Today, in the New York Times, there was an article about an economist who has reordered the canon of art history by using market statistics and counts of the appearance of works in standard texts.  After his quantitative ranking is done, what will know about art?  That is, will it deepen or alter our appreciation of the works?  I think not, though it may have some interest as cultural history.  As Arthur Danto pointed out succinctly,

“I don’t see the method as anything except circular. The frequency of an illustration doesn’t seem to me to really explain what makes an idea good.

“Somewhere along the line you’ve got to find answers to why it’s so interesting.”

If you’re interested in art, that is…

Unmentioned in this article, is the fact that it seems to reverse Marx’s comment on history playing out twice:  first as tragedy, then as farce.  This economist is engaging in a travesty of thought, a tragedy of …well, maybe it’s just farce all around, but the farce certainly came before him.  Has he not heard of Komar & Melamid?  These two tricksters did extensive polling – market research – to discover what art people want and then they gave it to them!  That’s art by the numbers!!


Cellini II

February 17, 2008

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Last year, I posted about the theft and return of Cellini’s masterpiece in Thank Heavens for Cell Phones! From an article in the New York Times on the dim wittedness of art thieves:

Many of the most notorious art thefts in past decades bear him out and illuminate a strange disconnect between the enduring mystique of art theft and the reality of its perpetrators. The theft in Vienna in 2003 of a gold-plated saltcellar made by Benvenuto Cellini, valued at $60 million, was traced to a 50-year-old alarm-systems specialist with no criminal record. The police, who caught him after he tried to ransom the sculpture, called him a “funny guy” who had decided to take the Cellini more or less spontaneously. A divorcé who lived alone, he kept the sculpture under his bed for two years.