Friday, January 24, 2014

Western Tradition Compendium: Ernst

Ernst – A Week of Kindness

In 1918 a Belgian, Frans Masereel, created a wordless novel in woodcuts, often translated to ‘A Passionate Journey’. American Lynd Ward created a similar woodcut novel, ‘God’s Man’ in 1929. German Otto Nuckel followed suit publishing ‘Destiny’ in 1930. So, by these accounts, Ernst’s 1934 contribution to graphic novels, ‘A Week of Kindness’, is a latecomer. But unlike the three pioneers before him, who all worked in woodcuts, Ernst did something new, namely creating his novel from collage. Collage, now the standby of the kindergarten art-class, was a new artistic concept in the early 20th century. The cubists, led by Braque and Picasso, were the first to experiment with the technique, but in a seemingly limited way. Cutting up and rearranging existing works instead came to the forefront of those two sometimes overlapping modern artists, the surrealists (who used the technique to make statements through juxtapositions) and dada (anti-art art).
            Max Ernst (1891 – 1976) was involved with dada and surrealism both. Modern art can be traced back to the 1800s, and Picasso’s 1907 unveiling of ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, the first work of cubism, definitely raised eyebrows. Beginning with modernism, art confronted the viewer. Art was now, by design, trying to provoke a reaction. Compare this against Munch’s famous 1893 painting ‘The Scream’. ‘The Scream’ strikes us, viscerally, and we react. But the painting was not intended as such, instead attempting to convey the painter’s own feelings of existential horror at perceiving a red sky. With the instillation by Marcel Duchamp of ‘Fountain’, an upside-down urinal, signed ‘R. Mutt, 1917’ modern art really began. ‘Fountain’ got people asking a question that previously hadn’t been asked, not whether or not a piece was good or bad art, but whether it was art at all. From here it was a short step to asking ‘what is art?’ The provocation would continue into the abstract, separating those who understand this as the purpose of modern art from those who want art to ‘represent something’.
Ernst was German, and spent time, like most twentieth century western artists, in France. From there he moved to America, with Peggy Guggenheim. Guggenheim continued to collect art, including Ernst’s, as her father had done, eventually opening the second of the four Guggenheim modern art collections, in Venice. He was joined by other artists fleeing the war, Duchamp amongst them. Ernst, meanwhile, remarried and eventually moved back to France after the War.
            The surrealistic landscapes he created are second only to Dali. By 1921 he was incorporating collage elements successfully into his surrealist works. Twenty years later his landscapes became unquestionable unique masterpieces, for example ‘Napoleon in the Wilderness’ from 1941, or ‘The Eye of Silence’ from 1944. Interesting, surely, to the art historian, but why is Ernst in this collection?
            With ‘A Week of Kindness’ two milestones are met. First, it represents the graphic novel and graphic story-telling generally. The 20th century has seen an explosion of this sort of narrative – truly a unique development in literature, spanning from the Superman and Batman comics that millions read, to the revered indie art of Kim Dietch and Chester Brown, to the middle ground of Alan Moore, Will Eisner, and Neil Gaiman. Graphic storytelling now accounts for a huge share of the global reading population, from Tintin to manga. Ernst’s work is made more interesting as the narrative is a surrealist one.

            Second, the importance of collage makes Ernst’s work critical. We live in a collage age. Our movies lift characters and dialogue, overtly as tributes or subtlety as ‘nods’, from the works that came before, as well as rotoscoping and using existing footage as templates, all examples of Hollywood interested in presenting the old as new. No one can listen to hip-hop, or pop, without getting a sense that these works are just collage. In literature William Burroughs would take Ernst’s graphic collage storytelling and revitalize it by cutting and pasting existing text to create his 1961 novel ‘The Soft Machine’. In visual art the ‘pop’ movement began with collage in 1956. New international agreements and legislation has branded much of this collage-style art illegal. ‘Sampling’ in music has now left the world of creativity and entered the realm of lawsuits for infringement on ‘intellectual property’, a once-brilliant notion now distorted far beyond original intent. Works such as ‘A Week of Kindness,’ if created today to be sold in bookstores would now be illegal. This disconcerting trend should give us pause as we move forward into the 21st century. 

Western Tradition Compendium: Hamilton, Jay and Madison

Hamilton, Jay, and Madison – The Federalist Papers

The American founding fathers were pretty rich. John Hancock, for example, was one of the richest men in the North American colonies. Ben Franklin, in his own Autobiography, declares how his media empire allowed him to retire relatively young. Washington owned a cozy 500 acres of Virginia soil complete with slaves, and Jefferson 5,000 of the same. They would need to win a Revolution, but also create a country.
            The Federalist Papers argued the need for a stable, strong federal government. Each of the three authors championed a functional state after the Revolution, writing under the pseudonym Publius (referring to the Roman aristocrat who overthrew the monarchy – rather fitting). A brief account of each of these three founders would suffice to represent their positions regarding the nature of government.
            Alexander Hamilton (1755/57-1804) took the ideas furthest. He had been an aide to Washington during the Revolution, and served as his first Secretary of the Treasury. His views on federalism led to his being leader of the Federalist Party. As Treasurer he managed the American debts incurred from the war and created the First Bank of the United States. Hamilton was violently disliked by some, including Aaron Burr, Vice President under Jefferson. In a duel Burr shot Hamilton, who died a day later.
            John Jay (1745-1829) was a man of many accomplishments. During the Revolution he was a diplomat to Spain, then the country’s second Secretary of State, followed by first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and finally Governor of New York in Hamilton’s Federalist Party. He influenced the development of American foreign policy, and the powers of the judiciary. Twice he ran for President.
            James Madison (1751-1836) was the last to die of the three authors, and saw the American experiment continued furthest. During the Revolution he served in the Virginia legislature, later drafting the Bill of Rights in the Constitution and serving in the House of Representatives. Ideologically Madison would shift further from Hamilton, and with Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican Party. He later served as Secretary of State, and in 1808 was elected as fourth President of the United States. During his years in office he oversaw the War of 1812, and set the groundwork for a period of United States history known as the Era of Good Feelings.
            The Federalist Papers were significant persuasive political writings, and are the best documents to encapsulate the American Revolution, and the problems of revolutions generally. The issues Hamilton, Jay and Madison dealt with in creating a new republican government would be the same faced for Haiti, France, and the South American states liberated by Bolivar, all of which would meet the task with varying degrees of success. Creating a new country is not easy on paper, much less in practice, nor is ensuring it will preserve freedoms and attain permanence. France, to take an example, enjoyed five different governments – monarchies, empires and republics – between 1815 and 1915. Hamilton ensured the financial success of the country, Jay the judicial and foreign policy, and Madison framed the Constitution and guided the nation through the British attempt to destroy the fledgling republic.
            Students sometimes ask me where the Washingtons, Franklins, and Jeffersons are these days. Where are those extraordinary men who made this nation what it is today? Who is our Washington? Petraeus? Michael Mullen? Who would be our Benjamin Franklin? Steve Jobs for his creativity? Or Rupert Murdoch for his media empire? Who is an architect, writer, statesman, farmer, inventor, and philosopher like Jefferson? From this arises the question: Would a new Revolution just not be possible these days, because men now aren’t what they once were? Or, a more chilling thought, considering the founders wealthy means spurred them to act, is it just that the elite of today are more interested in yachts than fixing our society’s problems?

            True, revolution seems unlikely in America today. Despite the Middle East and continuing world uprisings America is rather entrenched in the system devised by those founders. The notion of writing a new Constitution from scratch strikes many Americans as horrid. So too the notion of standing off against American troops in Times Square. As Saul Alinsky, who organized organizers lamented in 1971, “As I look back on the results of those years, they seem to be a potpourri, with, I would judge, more failures than successes.” Maybe Walt Whitman was right, and Yankee phantoms do not belong here anymore… 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Western Tradition Compendium: Twain

Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Personally, my favorite work by Twain is a speech he gave to a group of girls, entitled ‘Advice to Youth’:
            “I have a few things in my mind which I have often longed to say for the instruction of the young; for it is in one’s tender early years that such things will best take root and be most enduring and most valuable. First, then. I will say to you my young friends--and I say it beseechingly, urgingly--
“Always obey your parents, when they are present. This is the best policy in the long run, because if you don’t, they will make you. Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment.”
He continues to exhort the young lasses when wronged to hit those who would be their opponents with bricks, get up late each morning, learn to lie properly, and be careful to not play with loaded firearms. It’s a brilliant sendup, marvelous satire, and classic Twain at his wittiest. But this jovial essay pales in comparison with the significance of his great work, and arguably the greatest work in American fiction: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Mark Twain was born Samuel Clemens (1835-1910) in Missouri, about a day’s walk from the Mississippi River. Later in life he would make his way on the riverboats as a pilot, from which he got his nom de plume (‘Mark Twain’ being called out when the river was at two fathoms deep). Further adventures took him around the country and abroad, as a journalist and then an author. By the 1870s, now a family man, he moved to Connecticut, and there wrote the novels for which he is now famous. He is many American’s favorite historical figure, rough and ready like Teddy Roosevelt, but humorous and smart, like Ben Franklin. We picture him equally at ease on the Pony Express and the Mississippi as he was giving lectures and being a man of letters. Of course, as is also requisite for a blue-blood, he was uneasy with Europe, and his first work, ‘Innocents Abroad,’ dealt with this distinction in American and European character. It was a distinction he continued to realize in his works for the rest of his life, and why his works that are often considered the first to be truly American.
‘Huck Finn’ deals the painful legacy of America’s slavery. Huck is fourteen or fifteen, wide-eyed in some ways, but a young man in others. Having escaped town on a raft for amusing, yet somewhat sobering, reasons, he ends up floating down the river with an escaped slave as companion, named Jim. It is their companionship that is excerpted here, and the moral choices he faces in the antebellum South, a few years before all Americans were required by law to return runaways. The most popular American novel of the century, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ deals with the same subject, but in a moralizing, heavy-handed, and not particularly pleasant way. Twain tackles these themes with firsthand experience and gentleness that doesn’t preach.
There are many rich passages in ‘Huck Finn’ from Finn watching his own funeral, to meeting the eccentric King (based on real-life acquaintance and San Francisco notable Emperor Norton). But unlike the other amusing anecdotes, America’s slave-owning past defined us as a country, and Huck Finn’s navigation of the then murky moral terrain of escaping with a runaway gives the novel its enduring legacy. Finn is an American we can identify with. The book is written in dialect, and Finn is no one special – an average boy, getting into scrapes as boys are wont to do. He is distinct from Hester Prynne or Captain Ahab in that sense. Ordinary Americans were not previously worth writing about.

Twain lived to see the 20th century, and is the last literary figure we’ll read who predates Modernism and Joyce. It is fitting in a section defined by industrialism as America became a factory-based powerhouse, that its great novel is the story of a rural boy lazily drifting down America’s river. The pace of change by the turn of the century had left many nostalgic and questioning the role of civilization. The next selection we encounter will deal with a philosopher who radically rejected the industrial society of the time.

Western Tradition Compendium: Emerson

Emerson – Self-Reliance

Nearly sixty years after Emerson’s essay was published, the Governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, gave one of his most famous speeches; in praise of and advocating “the strenuous life.” This rugged means of living and striving was considered fundamental to the national character; and it clearly echoed the influence of Emerson and the Transcendentalists of antebellum New England.
            The Transcendentalists are best remembered by two persons, Emerson and Thoreau. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) was Thoreau’s mentor; and while Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment is arguably more famous now than Emerson’s essays, that experiment was merely the attempted implementation of Emerson’s ideas. What, then, is Transcendentalism?
            While our image of New England in the early 1800s is notably quaint, to the Transcendentalists the influence of society, politics, and other civilizational forces were viewed as corrupting the pure individual. In tandem with the ideal of a purity comes the notion that Nature, untamed and undeveloped, is superior to the bustling development and urbanization of the world. These ideas caught on with influential persons, such as naturalist John Muir and poet Walt Whitman. They believed that Man, alone in the woods, is at his best.
            Emerson’s ideas are not to be considered misanthropic, or antisocial, but rather advice for improving oneself morally, spiritually, and physically. What can we know of ourselves if we spend no time with ourselves alone? Where can we be truly alone except in nature? Within a few decades, still in Emerson’s lifetime, the United States would take the unprecedented step of setting aside the world’s first National Park, Yellowstone, as a place for retreat, contemplation, self-evaluation and spiritual nourishment. As Muir said “nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” This is little removed from Emerson’s landmark essay, “Nature,” which states “The remotest spaces of nature are visited, and the farthest sundered things are brought together, by a subtle spiritual connection.” For Emerson, both Man and Nature are inherently spiritual, and therefore inherently good.
             Transcendentalism was local to the United States. Emerson’s book of essays was the first philosophical work of note to come from a country only half a century old. The notion of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’ has, like his commitment to untrammeled Nature, spread beyond American borders. Throughout the Dark and Middle Ages, the society of other humans was seen as a source of comfort and even luxury. Cities were a means of assistance, rather than hindrance, to one’s livelihood. As the early Modern period progressed, this notion began to shift throughout the Western world. The early Industrial Revolution was greeted with astonishment, but also wariness, and perhaps a sense of curious novelty. As the factories progressed and the harm of child labor and poor working conditions became manifest, the view of cities and society itself became embittered. White-steepled and brick towns of Massachusetts are practically the definition of benign landscapes. Near Emerson’s home in the 1820s, the mill town of Lowell was founded, and within a decade young girls were working an average of 73 hours a week. Dependency on the towns and cities for protection, a compact reaching back to the Renaissance, was now being rewritten, and those who subjected themselves to the factories led hard, unrewarding lives. Retrospectively, it’s not surprising that a movement arose advocating for self-reliance and the importance of nature.

            Emerson’s life was one of recognition and appreciated distinction. While we may consider his peaceful philosophy to be tame, it was considered radical at the time. The notion of God in all things, to be experienced intuitively through commune with nature was certainly unconventional. In a predominately Protestant country, Transcendentalism evolved naturally from the conditions of time and place, but was disdained by some Americans. As a prominent thinker and advocate of individualism, it may be safe to assume that these concerns were of little note to Emerson. During the middle of the last century, due in large part to the modern environmental movement, Emerson influenced both American as well as global thought. The first great American essayist, and the first great essayist since Montaigne, Emerson gave new importance to the rugged individualist.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Western Tradition Compendium: Beowulf


During the last millennia Europe suffered a crippling ‘Dark Age’. True, recent historians have singled this description out as a misnomer. There was still art, and some trade, a bit of literacy, and peasant’s lives weren’t as horrid as once thought. All the same the feudal system was a far cry from the free grain for Roman citizens or the democracy and trial by jury of Athens.
            Our image of Vikings is often wrong. No Viking helmet has ever been found with horns – such illustrations and descriptions are the fancy of those attempting to depict barbaric ferocity. So too must we content ourselves with the mundane realization that they were predominately peaceful farmers, who only on occasion would sail out to raid other kingdoms. Yet the Scandinavian societies eventually grew in strength and enjoyed great geographic and cultural influence, with colonies and outposts from Greenland to Spain, Moscow to Cape Cod.
            In the midst of this civilization were the British Isles, politically divided and comparatively weak. Viking settlements on the island are not merely coastal fair-weather habitations, but far inland towns and permanent bases. From the Norse culture we gain a new pantheon of Gods and heroes to add to the Greco-Roman, and the origins of the English language. Beowulf concerns both of these developments.
            Literature after Rome hit a low that would continue until the first stirrings of the Renaissance. What writings there were are usually poetic, although the saga – prose tales of battles and journeys – was also a Norse development. Beowulf is clearly situated in the field of epic poetry. It was written in a language that is seen as the earliest predecessor of modern English. It would be nearly impossible to read today. Its opening lines read:

“Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
Þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
Hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

This may not look like English, but it is the progenitor, and happens to translate as the first lines of the poem:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

It may strike us that the story begins with days gone by – an oddly nostalgic choice for an epic. Beowulf was the last of the great ones, similar in strength to Hercules. The stories passed down to us concern the story of Beowulf versus Grendel and Beowulf, past his prime, fighting a dragon. The latter story is interesting for two reasons, in that there seems to have been two strains of the Beowulf story: one as a courageous hero and one as a bit of an oafish object of ridicule, all brawn and no brains. The encounter with the dragon is of this latter type, but the dragon itself is the other interesting feature of the latter story. A whole menagerie of beasts as well as important tropes come to the Western world from Norse and, by extension, Germanic and Celtic sources: gold-hoarding dragons, elves, warlocks, giant wolves, the twilight of the Gods (much of the Tolkien’s Middle Earth can be seen as heavily Norse influenced).

            Some scribbling monk fiddled around with the copy of the manuscript we have. The influence of Christianity on the Norse world eventually took its toll on the unique mythology of Northern Europe. Late depictions of Thor’s powerful magical hammer are fashioned as an object in the shape of a Celtic cross. Peculiar, out of place mentions of God and Jesus pepper Beowulf which certainly were not original. But this too tells an important story – an important stage in the progression of Christianity throughout the continent. Written around 900 CE Beowulf comes from the heart of the Viking Age, ~700 – ~1000 CE, by which point the inland kingdoms, sometimes with Viking help, had achieved sufficient strength to unify their surroundings and dispel invading armies or raiders.

Western Tradition Compendium: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The period between the Romans and the Crusades in Europe was focused inwardly. A peasant’s understanding of life was not much different from a king’s – the life hereafter was more important.  The human life predominately was a test of virtue; which, if passed, led to eternal paradise. With such a mindset, as we’ve seen in Beowulf, society had begun to deteriorate into small isolated communities with limited communication.
            Yet, by the 1300s, the time of “Sir Gawain,” the picture had changed greatly. The Crusades, while of very questionable foundation, served to unify a variety of kingdoms and princedoms throughout Europe. The results of this were felt in a variety of ways (to be considered later) from peasant revolts to the Renaissance. Starting in the 1100s, building to last had begun anew. In 1033, one thousand years after the calculated death of Jesus, since he had not returned, new works were begun; not surprisingly, these were the first Gothic cathedrals. So we have transitioned from the “Dark Ages” of the 900s to the High Middle Ages and the court of King Arthur.
            Most European regions have heroic kings. Why then, Arthur of Britain? The answer is two-fold. First, due to historical factors of Britain’s history and later empire, Arthurian legend has become recognized the world over. This is in contrast, say, to the great Polish King Krakus, of whom most have likely not heard. Arthur’s specifics do not differ considerably from these other legendary monarchs, and therefore he is a good example to consider.
Second to consider is the text itself. Quality work of the High Middle Ages is rare. Drama, for example, ebbed into simplistic, compelling morality plays. Arguably the two finest works of literature, both anonymous, are “Gawain” and “The Song of Roland”. Why I chose the former has already been elaborated.
            Arthur’s mythos is fundamentally tragic and romantic (depending on the interpretation). This particular story concerns one of the knights of the famous round table, Sir Gawain, who was known for his purity. Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, hardly play a role. Yet the themes explored are as central as those in the stories of Guinevere and Lancelot, or the Grail Quest. Sir Gawain deals with forbidden love, spirituality, and is perhaps the best example of chivalry.
            Chivalry then was rather distinct from our 21st Century notions. Rape and murder of peasants were perfectly acceptable. The stratified code of conduct applied only to the knights and nobles. Over the centuries, as the stories changed, the conduct of the nobility became more refined.  Arthur’s round table is perhaps the epitome of this change. One of the requirements of pure chivalry was unrequited love.  The story of Sir Gawain and the mysterious Green Knight relates this most intensely emotional facet.
            Many heroes, such as Robin Hood, are pure figments of imagination. Yet there is still rigorous debate on Arthur. If he was king it certainly was not during the period he was portrayed. The best suggestion is of a warlord during the late Roman Empire’s presence in Britain. Regardless of whether the mythology persisted or was invented during the Middle Ages the role of Arthur in British history was cemented as an ideal monarchy. It is worth remembering that, as in all societies, these stories of nobility, kings and refined society were representative of a tiny percentage of society. But for the European peasantry such stories were well-known entertainment.

            That we have the story of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is by the slimmest chance and great luck – only one copy of the story survived and was discovered by happy accident. The following is the story, with some abridgments. For those who enjoy the story and are interested in literature of the High Middle Ages there are numerous Arthurian tales to consider, as well as other great romances. The story of Eliduc is a well-known French romance with similar elements. From a historical perspective, the famed romance of Abelard and Heloise has been preserved in their remarkable letters from the 1100s. As the age came to an end, upward mobility returned through trade and the rise of cities. Trappings of the feudal system persisted for some time, but by the time Sir Gawain’s encounter was recorded (in 1380), the Renaissance artists in Florence were discovering artistic perspective. The golden age of knights was now in decline and would slowly die out over the next two hundred years.

Compendium Continued: Introductions

Just about a year ago I revisited my compendium project. Perhaps it's something about January, but at the start of this year I decided to revisit the old back-burner project.

I have now only 11 entries to finish (Aquinas, Archimedes, Boyle, Carson, Dante, De Beauvoir, Gibbon, Heisenberg, Pizan, Sophocles, Viete). The main work now lies in composing the personal sections, the introductions.

Compiling the work has been a pain of formatting, editing, and correcting. Each 20 page section often took a couple of hours. But the sections on their own are no good without an introduction - the context, the author, the themes to note. As such these one page intros are quite time consuming. They tie the whole project together and lend coherence to the aim of the work, as a primer for understanding western civilization.

So far I've completed and edited 34 of these little intros. As a spur to completing more I figured I might post some of these as a mans of elucidating the work's style. My list compulsion may move me to finish them as I do the series. Maybe not.

Often, while writing, I hear a British stuffiness come through, but hopefully this hasn't marred the texts. With regard to their manner it strikes me as something between David Landes and Kenneth Clark. Maybe they are stuffy...I leave the judgement to you, faithful reader(s).

Do note: they will not be presented in anything like chronological order.

Friday, January 10, 2014

New Year and Music

So it's an even-numbered year, and for the blog that means a favorite movie and television update in March. I may even write something on Gormenghast in the near future.

In the meantime, here are the best and worst of my music collection. Couple of things to note:

1. The grades are not standard American grades, thank you I know.

2. This is a very flawed system. I go through an album, and decide if I like a track or not, and then grade it. A good example of how this system is flawed would be a hiphop album with a lot of skits. Over all, the skits maybe make up a couple minutes of the total running time. But if they're poor, they'd skew the appreciation of the album down, due to counting as a track. Likewise some albums only have a couple tracks, and this too skews, for it's more difficult to judge if a 30 minute instrumental track is simply good or not.

Anyways, here they are: