Friday, July 31, 2009

Athanasius Kircher: Patron of Polymathematical Nerds


On this feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I exhort all of you to read up on Athanasius Kircher, SJ, one of the greatest polymaths of the Jesuit order (and the 17th century, for that matter).

I first discovered Kircher through a contemporary polymath, Umberto Eco, who treats him in his excellent little volume Serendipities: Language and Lunacy. In his quest to translate the hieroglyphics on Roman obelisks, Kircher became an example of a brilliant man whose errors led to real discoveries:

"When Kircher set out to decipher hieroglyphs in the seventeenth century, there was no Rosetta stone to guide him. This explains his double mistake, namely, believing that hieroglyphs had only symbolic meaning and the absolutely fanciful way in which he identified their meaning . . . Kircher poured elements of his own fantasy into these reconstructions, frequently reportraying the stylized hieroglyphs in curvaceous baroque forms . . . in the third volume of the Oedypus there is long analysis of a cartouche that appears on the Lateran obelisk, where Kircher read a long argument concerning the necessity of attracting the benefits of divine Osiris and the Nile by means of sacred ceremonies activating the Chain of Genies, tied to the signs of the zodiac. Egyptologists today read it as simply the name of the pharaoh Apries. Kircher was then wildly wrong. Still, notwithstanding his eventual failure, he is the father of Egyptology, though in the same way as Ptolemy is the father of astronomy: in spite of the fact that his main hypothesis was mistaken. By following a false hypothesis he collected real archeological material, and Champollion (more than one hundred fifty years later), lacking an opportunity for direct observation, used Kircher's reconstructions for his study of the obelisk standing in Rome's Piazza Navona."

(Umberto Eco, Serendipities, 61, 62-63)

In addition to founding Egyptology, Kircher also contributed to Linguistics, Physics, Mathematics, Music, Engineering and many other disciplines, though some of his theories (like the composition of the "subterranean world") have since been rejected. Kircher was also a pioneer in the study of electromagnetism.

More information on Kircher can be found at the Catholic Encyclopedia and this fun fan site.

Here are Kircher's obelisks, his cosmology, one of his inventions, and his subterranean earth:

































Athanasius Kircher, ora pro nobis qui scientiae studemus.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Brief Consideration of Gagauzia


Moldova has been in the news a lot lately, at least if you read the kind of news I do. Not only did the Communists just lose the elections there, but the international press has been pointing out that this election was a key moment in deciding if Moldova will tilt toward Brussels and Washington or toward Moscow. Meanwhile, the Chinese have been working to elbow their way onto the scene as well.

For those of you familiar with Moldova, you may know about Transnistria, the break-away Russian-speaking micro-state run from Moscow, whose main economic drivers may be the illegal trade of weapons, women and cigarettes. But - let's be honest - this little Russian puppet statelet is kid's stuff in the world of esoterica. I have, however, recently discovered...

Gagauzia, a Turkish-speaking province of Moldova. You clever members of the blogosphere will be raising eyebrows: Turkish? Really? But Moldova doesn't border Turkey. But you more clever members will recall that Turkey once had an empire, a large empire.

To be precise, the people of Gagauzia, the Gagauz, are not Turkish, nor is their language quite Turkish, though it belongs to the Turkic family of languages and is closely related to Turkish, along with Azeri and Turkmen. One might guess that the Gagauz are Muslims, but one would be wrong: they are predominately Eastern Orthodox.

From whence, you ask, did these people come? Well, you're not the only one asking. One Bulgarian scholar complied a list of 19 different theories on the origins of the Gagauz. The theories fall into two general schools, one claiming that the Gagauz are ethnically Turkic, descended from a tribe which emerged from the Central Asian steppe, the other school arguing that the Gagauz are in fact Balkan in origin, having simply adopted a Turkic language at some point (and intermarrying with the occasional Turk). I leave that debate to the ethnologists.

The Gagauz (whose unofficial flag is seen on the right) show up on the radar of history in the 19th century, when they fled religious persecution in then-Turkish Bulgaria for their present location in then-Russian Moldova. In the winter of 1906 they declared independence for five days, but Gagauz nationalism has been relatively mild. When the Soviet Union was coming apart at the seams, some in Gagauzia pushed for independence, at much the same time that Transnistria was declaring it. Gagauzia declared independence from the Soviet Union on 19 August 1991 - the day of the hardliners' coup attempt in Moscow - but nothing much seems to have come of it. A few days later Moldova declared independence and in 1994 Gagauzia's status as a "national-territorial autonomous unit" of that country was recognized.

Today Gagauzia (whose official flag is seen left) has a population of about 156,000 people, spread out over 707 square miles. Of those, most are Gagauz, though there are groups of Bulgarians, Russians, Moldovans and Ukranians, each making up between 3% and 5% of the population. There are approximately 100,000 Gagauz living outside Moldova, many of them in Ukraine, Greece and Turkey. Gagauzia's economy is primarily agricultural, with a strong emphasis on viticulture. Why is it that every small ethnic group around the Black Sea seems to make wine?


Many thanks go out to the Rogues, Rascals and Rapscallions, whose many Challenges - which are definitely worth perusing! - have helped fire my love of esoterica over the years.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Crazy Roman Custom


I've been on a bit of a Roman history binge lately, so I thought I would share a rather bizarre fact.

The ancient Romans every year, from April 12 to April 19, celebrated the Cerialia in honor of the goddess Ceres. This feast, as far as modern historians can determine, had agricultural roots--Ceres was the goddess of farmers. The Romans, however, had one peculiar custom on the last day: they attached lighted torches to the tails of foxes and let them run around. Ovid mentions this bizarre tradition in his Fasti:

So I must explain why foxes are loosed then,

Carrying torches fastened to scorched backs.

(Ovid, Fasti, Bk. IV, ll. 681-682)
Who ever got the idea to put a torch on a fox's back and let it run around? Was there ever any deeper significance to this custom?

Life: Imagine the Potential - Take Three


Coinciding with the recent anniversary of the first lunar landings, Catholic Vote released a third video.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Internal Exile: Cicero


A couple months ago, I wrote a post about “internal exile.” At the time I was busy preparing for finals, so I never followed up on that post with an example of internal exile. The other day, though, I read one of Cicero’s letters to Atticus in which he poses a series of questions that show exactly what kind of a dilemma a man of action faces when he contemplates going into exile, whether internal or external:

Should one stay in one’s country even if it is under totalitarian rule?

Is it justifiable to use any means to get rid of such rule, even if they endanger the whole fabric of the state? Secondly, do precautions have to be taken to prevent the liberator from becoming an autocrat himself?

If one’s country is being tyrannized, what are the arguments in favor of helping it by verbal means and when occasion arises, rather than by war?

Is it statesmanlike, when one’s country is under a tyranny, to retire to some other place and remain inactive there, or ought one to brave any danger in order to liberate it?

If one’s country is under a tyranny, is it right to proceed to its invasion and blockade?

Ought one, even if not approving of war as a means of abolishing tyranny, to join up with the right-minded party in the struggle against it?

Ought one in matters of patriotic concern to share the dangers of one’s benefactors and friends, even if their general policy seems to be unwise?

If one has done great services to one’s country, and because of them has received shameful and jealous treatment, should one nevertheless voluntarily endanger oneself for one’s country’s sake, or is it legitimate, eventually, to take some thought for oneself and one’s family, and to refrain from fighting against the people in power?”

(Cicero, ad Atticum, IX.4; March 12, 49 B.C.; tr. by Michael Grant)

It seems that Cicero never found satisfactory answers to these questions for himself. In the years leading up to his death, he alternated between writing philosophy at his various villas (this is the period when he composed the Tusculan Disputations and De Oficiis, among other works) and listening to the political news out of Rome, waiting for a chance to emerge from his self-imposed exile.

Even right up to his death he vacillated. When Antony rose to prominence, Cicero denounced him to the Senate in a series of speeches known to history as the Philippics. Antony, then, once he consolidated his power with Octavian and Lepidus in the Second Triumvirate, demanded Cicero’s death. Antony sent his thugs to kill him. At first Cicero chose to flee, but then changed his mind and remained at his villa at Astura. At the last minute he again decided to flee. But it was too late; Antony’s men caught up with him before he could reach the sea. In life Cicero often hesitated, but on his last day he met his death bravely, robbing Antony of any glory from his murder.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cultivating the Comedic Palate


I was going to post this reflection yesterday, but did not want to impede the heroism of German Catholic Nazi fighters (correct me if I’m wrong, Aaron, but wasn’t Bavaria—heart of beer-swilling German Catholicism and Caritas in Veritate—one of the few regions in Germany that did not support Hitler during his election?).

One of the great loves in my life is Comedy. I love comedy both personally (as either performer or audience member) and professionally (Aristophanes, Chaucer, and Shakespeare are three of my favorite authors to teach). Comedy is like a fine bourbon; most anybody who drinks a draught will appreciate its quality. It takes a connoisseur, however, to isolate the particular qualities and flavors and explain exactly why the bourbon is a fine one. The comedic connoisseur will have to sample a wide range of comedy, and along the way gain some appreciation for even the more broad and mundane varieties, just as a bourbon taster may grow fond of Old Fitzgerald while recognizing its profound inferiority to an 18-year-old Elijah Craig.

The comedic connoisseur will also be able to express, however inadequately, the specific qualities in a given comedic work that produce its kathartic effect (Aristotle’s book on Comedy, the second book of The Poetics, has been tragically lost, a loss mourned by Eco in The Name of the Rose). Though I could go on for volumes on this topic, let me suggest three of the many qualities that are routinely found in comedy, and a brief clip from the highly underrated mid-1990’s cartoon The Critic that illustrates what I find to be a harmonious blend of the three.

1. Mockery of Vice and Ugliness. Comedy from Terrance to Chaucer to Rabelais to Shakespeare to Swift to Gilbert and Sullivan to the Simpsons has delighted in taking vice and ugliness as its subjects. Our ability to laugh at the wicked and ugly demonstrates comedy’s social function, as well as the source of its cruelty. (This quality of comedy, by the way, is why Satan is almost always a comedic character in Medieval drama; see C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama.)

2. Parodic Love. Comedy often functions by parody—presenting exaggerated forms of earnest works and characters. In order to parody something well, however, the parodist generally needs some kind of knowledge of and affection for the subject parodied. The worst parodies are those in which the parodist despises the subject (consider how often the political satire of “Mallard Filmore” or “Doonsbury” drifts into the insipid); the best ones, like Christopher Guest movies, preserve affection for that at which fun is poked. In order for Chaucer to have parodied metrical romance in his Rhyme of Sir Thopas, he had to have understood works like Guy of Warwick backwards and forwards; in order for Joyce to have parodied the literary styles of Malory, melodrama, and the Catechism in Ulysses, he had to have intimate knowledge of, and some affection for, their stylistic limitations.

3. Audience Participation. When the audience is respected enough to put the pieces together on their own, the best comedy is born. I think that this is why great comedic works (like the Simpsons, seasons 3-6 or Shakespeare’s As You Like It) often throw in jokes that they know will fly over the heads of the majority of the audience (there are plenty of jokes that all will get); they know that those audience members who do get the obscure jokes will laugh all the harder for the surprise.

So, with these qualities in mind, here is Jay Sherman (voiced by Jon Lovitz), The Critic, showing his audience a clip from Disney’s The Cockroach King. The mockery of Howard Stern (a man worthy to be mocked) and the close parody of The Lion King’s cinematography should be clear. If you recognize the words used in the “African” chant, however, this clip will be all the funnier (and I know that The Guild Review’s Editor-in-Chief Aaron can enlighten us all on this matter).


Monday, July 20, 2009

Remembering the July 20 Plot - Again


Two years ago I wrote a post about the July 20 plot. This year, commemorating those who attempted to overthrow Hitler in 1944 is even more important to me.

This past semester, as part of my duties as a teaching assistant at Texas A&M, I led discussions on John Weiss' The Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany. Weiss' argument is easily caricatured: conservatives, traditionalists, big business and Christianity (in particular Catholicism) were responsible for the Holocaust. Only progressive, atheistic (or at least irreligious and relativistic) socialists are free of blame in Weiss' account.

The problems with The Ideology of Death are legion, too many to mention here. I shall concern myself with only one: Weiss all but ignores Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (pictured left) and the July 20 conspirators. Why? Because Stauffenberg represents everything Weiss abhors: a Catholic, an aristocrat, a nationalist and a military officer.

Weiss dismisses the July 20 plotters as johnny-come-latelys. The socialists, he says, had been opposing Hitler from day one, whereas the army only turned against Hitler when it was apparent that defeat was in store. Besides the fact that authors such as Allen Dulles have shown that the army had grave misgivings about Hitler and his band of unprofessional thugs even before the war began, Weiss overlooks a key point: the socialists never came close to toppling Hitler. The July 20 conspirators did.

As if to add insult to injury, Weiss claims that Stauffenberg has been shunned by a nation of proto-fascist Nazi sympathizers in the modern Federal Republic of Germany. His case is weak, at best. Stauffenberg's son Berthold became a general in the post-war German army; another son, Franz-Ludwig, became an elected member of both the German and European parliaments. The members of Germany's elite Wachbataillon take their oath of service on July 20, at the Bendlerblock, where the July 20 conspirators met and were later executed. The street on which it sits has been renamed Stauffenbergstra├če and the building now houses the Memorial to the German Resistance.

The modern German army, created in 1955, is keen to sever any connections with its Nazi predecessors. Thus, in addition to post-1955 innovations, there are only two legitimate sources of tradition in the Germany army. One source is the military reformers of the 19th century, men like Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Clausewitz. The other source are the lives and heroic deaths of the July 20 conspirators.

Stauffenberg and his coconspirators were not the only people within Germany to oppose Hitler; brave men and women such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the White Rose movement did likewise. We would do well to reflect on their sacrifices and defend their legacy against the likes of John Weiss.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Fuzzy-Wuzzy, Annotated


Fuzzy-Wuzzy
Soudan Expeditionary Force
Early Campaigns

by Rudyard Kipling

WE'VE FOUGHT with many men acrost the seas,
An' some of 'em was brave an' some was not:
The Paythan an' the Zulu an' Burmese;
But the Fuzzy was the finest o' the lot.
We never got a ha'porth's change of 'im:
'E squatted in the scrub an' 'ocked our 'orses,
'E cut our sentries up at Suakim,
An' 'e played the cat an' banjo with our forces.

So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your 'ome in the Soudan;
You're a pore benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man;
We gives you your certificate, an' if you want it signed
We'll come an' 'ave a romp with you whenever you're inclined.

We took our chanst among the Khyber 'ills,
The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,
The Burman give us Irriwaddy chills,
An' a Zulu impi dished us up in style:
But all we ever got from such as they
Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swaller;
We 'eld our bloomin' own, the papers say,
But man for man the Fuzzy knocked us 'oller.

Then 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an' the missis and the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an' of course we went an' did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an' it wasn't 'ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin' you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.

'E 'asn't got no papers of 'is own,
'E 'asn't got no medals nor rewards,
So we must certify the skill 'e's shown
In usin' of 'is long two-'anded swords:
When 'e's 'oppin' in an' out among the bush
With 'is coffin-'eaded shield an' shovel-spear,
An 'appy day with Fuzzy on the rush
Will last an 'ealthy Tommy for a year.

So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an' your friends which are no more,
If we 'adn't lost some messmates we would 'elp you to deplore;
But give an' take's the gospel, an' we'll call the bargain fair,
For if you 'ave lost more than us, you crumpled up the square!

'E rushes at the smoke when we let drive,
An', before we know, 'e's 'ackin' at our 'ead;
'E's all 'ot sand an' ginger when alive,
An' 'e's generally shammin' when 'e's dead.
'E's a daisy, 'e's a ducky, 'e's a lamb!
'E's a injia-rubber idiot on the spree,
'E's the on'y thing that doesn't give a damn
For a Regiment o' British Infantree!

So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your 'ome in the Soudan;
You're a pore benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man;
An' 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your 'ayrick 'ead of 'air -
You big black boundin' beggar - for you broke a British square!


Special thanks to Emma, whose lead, I followed. Thanks are also due to John Ringo, whose Hymn before Battle introduced me to this poem by alluding to the line, "sloshing with martinis", and to Roger Ayers, whose notes on the text were invaluable.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Epiphany from a Deer


A few weeks ago, I came upon a deer as I was walking up to my office in Marist Hall at the Catholic University of America. As residents of DC and CUA know, deer on campus are relatively rare, though not unheard of (there are plenty of green spaces in Washington). This small doe was simply grazing in front of Marist, minding her own business and--in good Aristotelian-Thomistic fashion--reveling in her deerness ("cervitas"?).

Perhaps it was my surprise at seeing an unexpected ungulate, but on realizing that there was a deer between me and my office, two thoughts came immediately to mind:

1. Should I contact campus security?

2. I wish I had a camera.

I find my response to be a sadly telling portrait of the urban American imagination. In the context of the workaday world (as opposed to a park or the forest), a deer is something that requires policing; it might begin attacking C.U.A. undergraduates if not for the valiant shuffling of campus police. Supposing, though, that this doe were harmless, it would be my duty to document it, to present it to friends as a curiosity, an odd intrusion of large fauna into the world of work.


(A deer caught by a person with a camera)

Without going full-out Jean-Jacques Rousseau here, I do think that my reaction was a rather sad one (and sadder too if it is typical of urban Americans). Humans should not be so very divorced from the natural world that a stray doe is cause for concern or amazement.

After musing at me for a moment, the deer sprang away to another grazing spot.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How Not to View a Painting


Last weekend I had to attend a conference in Washington, DC, so I took a little extra time to meet up with my brother, as well as some UD (and Guild Review) friends for dinner. When I arrived in Washington on Thursday, I had a little extra time in the afternoon, which I decided to spend in the National Gallery. In one of the rooms filled with works by Dutch painters, I found this painting of the interior of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam by Emanuel de Witte (I believe).



I'm no art critic, but I was impressed by the detail, and wanted to get a closer look at some of the figures in the painting. After I had been standing there looking at the picture for about a minute, a woman, who had just entered the room, stepped up right next to me and said, "That is magnificent!" And then she walked away.

If you're going to call a painting magnificent, shouldn't you spend at least few seconds looking at it?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Windows Rather Than Mirrors


I must confess: I am not a philosopher. Neither am I a literary theorist. But a couple months ago I was reading this review of a collection of essays by and about Umberto Eco. I admit, the review was not easy for me to follow, but I plodded through it, reading sentences two and three times if needed. Near the end, this passage really jumped out at me:

If anything marks the personality and writing of Umberto Eco, it is an insatiable curiosity, love, and sense of wonder about the world. He’s having a good time, to be sure, but good times aren’t the point. It’s rather that the world itself — in all its intractable, intricate, deliciously ambiguous, quotidian reality — is to Eco so astonishingly rich. It’s there on every page: this man is mad to know about things, not as a projection of his needs or wants, but as having their own intrinsic interest, indeed dignity. Kant was like that, come to think of it, and Aristotle too.

In contrast, the [Richard] Rorty I find as model author of this text, taking his random walk through life, tossed this way and that depending on the books he’s most recently come across, seems such a tepid character. He position is consummately worked out, but it seems so boringly inward-directed, with every book a mirror, instead of a window.

As a PhD student, I have spent the last nineteen years of my life in school. (Twenty if you want to count that half-day kindergarten class.) In spite of that, I am afraid that I spend most of my time with a pre-arranged plan plan for my studies, lining up the evidence to fit my personal predilections. It is a rare day when I approach the evidence with a genuine desire to follow where it leads me.

I think it was in my very first class at UD that I was told about the philosophic cast of mind. More than a discipline, philosophy is a way of thinking, and it requires three things: (1) withdrawal from the distractions of everyday life, (2) a sense of wonder about the world, in all its forms, and (3) a firm commitment to inquiry over whatever system one has constructed. I usually possess genuine wonder about the topic on which I am working, but too often I ignore neighboring topics of potentially great value. I am withdrawn from the world in the sense of being in the ivory tower of academia, but that is itself a very hustle-bustle kind of world. And it is a rare day when I am willing to overturn my whole system of thought if further inquiry proves it inadequate.

Thus, the piece about Eco was quite refreshing, for the simple reason that I had to struggle to follow it. Once I was in it, I was driven by the simple desire to understand the ideas being communicated, not to put them in one of my pre-labeled boxes. I really should pick up philosophy more often...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird


A Poem by Wallace Stevens

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadows of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

VII
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.


Special thanks to Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP, whose linking to this poem a couple months ago finally got me to read it.

The Enthymemic Nature of Discourse


There are many current events in the Church and State that merit our consideration and discussion: the Pope's meeting with the President, Caritas in Veritate, and the Palin resignation come immediately to mind. It seems to me that as important as considering and discussing these events are, some treatment of how we consider and discuss them is of fundamental importance. I think that a helpful way to consider our interpretation of and discussion about current events is found in the Aristotelian concept of the enthymeme and Richard Weaver's application of it to discourse.

Many readers of this blog may have run across Aristotle's enthymeme in courses on logic or rhetoric; the enthymeme is usually described as a syllogism that lacks a middle term; compare:

Syllogism:

All men are mortal;
Socrates is a man;
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

Enthymeme:

All men are mortal;
Therefore Socrates is mortal.
(The middle term is left unstated; presumably understood by the audience.)

This description does not do great justice to the enthymeme, though Aristotle himself is not terribly helpful ("kalo d' enthymema men rhetorikon sylloyismon"--"Accordingly I call an enthymeme a rhetorical syllogism"; Rhetoric, 1.2.8; 1356 b). What is important to note about the enthymeme in discourse is that it relies on the audience to make the connection between statements; the audience cooperates in the creation of meaning. As such, in the hands of a skillful rhetor, the enthymeme can be more persuasive than the syllogism, insofar as the minds of the audience are engaged in a cooperative process of reasoning.

How does the enthymeme apply to discourse? Though he doesn't use the term, Richard Weaver recognizes it as the underlying mode of discourse within a given culture, explained through the problems of academic speech:

"In the speech of a culture maintained by a traditional society, there will occur many elisions and ellipses of meaning. It is not necessary to state them, because anyone can supply the omissions; it is rather the awkwardness of pedantry to put them into words. But the man who is outside the tradition, or who is self-consciously halfway between the tradition and something else, goes about it in a different way: its beliefs, values, and institutions are 'objects' to him, and he refers to them with something of the objective completeness of the technical description. This is why professors 'sound so funny' when they talk of something that is an everyday subject to the ordinary man. This ordinary man wonders why the professor, instead of using lumbering phrases to designate the obvious, cannot assume more. It may also explain why professors as a class are suspected of dissidence. Their speech does not sound like the speech of a person who is perfectly solid with his tradition, which is oftentimes the case." (Richard Weaver. Visions of Order. Wilmington, DE: ISI Press, 1995 [1962]. Page 8, footnote 2)

In other words, the average person's language is enthymemic; the interlocutor's agreement regarding key omissions is taken for granted. Most significantly, we tend to assume and demand this kind of enthymemic agreement when making statements.

Recognizing this fact, we see why political and religions discussions in our culture (particularly in the online culture, as I've come to discover) are often doomed to discord: we do not, as 21st-century Americans, have a robust set of traditional cultural assumptions, and thus our enthymemes often assume agreement on premises that does not exist. Consider the following two (actual) examples:

Person on observing the American flag at half-staff earlier this year: "I guess it's mourning the death of American democracy."

Person commenting on the 2004 election in 2004: "This is the end of democracy in America."

If one were to fill in the elisions of these two statements, one would get something like this:

"President Obama won the election; liberal policies are not democratic; these policies are contrary to real democracy; American democracy is dead."

"President Bush won the election; conservative policies are not democratic; Bush will continue conservative policies; America is no longer a democracy."

Notice how in each case, the person speaking to me expected assent, expected that I shared their assumptions that need not be stated. The flaw in both statements, of course, is that policies that one dislikes are, de facto, policies contrary to democracy. In fact, in the previous two examples, both candidates won solid victories in democratically conducted electoral processes, making their victories examples of democracy in action.

An oddly heartening aspect of this example, however, is that the unstated premise common to both is that democracy is an unquestionably good thing, and that its end is somehow tragic. The two contradictory edifices of assumptions share the common foundation of faith in democracy. Thus we get something like a common cultural assumption shared by both people.

Thus there are two points I wish to make here, displayed in this example:

1. Recognizing that it is natural for us to talk this way, and that without a unified cultural tradition enthymemic discourse may be problematic, let's consider our audience in discussions of current events, and how they might fill in our elisions. Such a consideration may save much wasted time and energy, and get to more productive dialogue.

2. Even in a culture as fragmented as our own, there may be shared assumptions that can provide a foundation on which to build; getting down to these common foundational principles of our worldview may be the best way to begin learning from one another (and learn much about ourselves).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Social Encyclical?


In my own humble opinion, the blogging world has waited like vultures (instead of an eager flock) for the release of Pope Benedict's Caritas in Veritate. Some, George Weigel notably among them, decry this encyclical as leftist leaning and unclear. Weigel writes, "The net result is, with respect, an encyclical that resembles a duck-billed platypus." Disrespect for the Pope aside, it seems that many have focused on seeking to criticize and reading quickly according to their own agendas, instead of appreciating the words of Pope Benedict.

Admittedly, I have not finished the encyclical. But I would like to offer the following quote, which seems to point at a purpose for the encyclical that transcends the blogging disputes. Our Holy Father writes,

The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim "to interfere in any way in the politics of States." She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation.

Far from being mere "sentimentality," as some claim, this thesis speaks to the very purpose of man on earth. The Church speaks of the dignity of man in every situation, because She is the best organ to do so. Perhaps instead of reading this lengthy and in-depth encyclical in under 24 hours and spinning off a quick heated argument, we all would do better to read and pray over this work that the Vicar of Christ has labored over for all to read.

Your thoughts?

Blog Features and Beirut

Friends,
Over the last few months, you may (or may not) have noticed some minor changes to the blog. On the right side you'll see that you can Subscribe to the Guild Review (with or without comments) in a variety of RSS feed readers. My favorite is Google Reader. Basically, it takes all the blogs you read and puts new posts in one place; it looks and feels a lot like an email account, and if you already have a Google account you can use the same log-in information.

And you can now join the Followers of this blog! "Now why would I do that?" you ask. Well, for one thing, it lets the world know that you read this blog. (Perhaps you're ashamed of us, but we're proud of all our readers and would be happy to have your imprimatur.) Moreover, it helps people navigate the blogosphere by seeing what blogs their fellow blog readers are reading. Finally, depending on your feed reader, it can make subscribing to our posts even easier!

You'll also list of recent posts from various Blogs That We Read. The Guild Review is not responsible for this content, but if you enjoy what you read here, you'll probably enjoy some of these too. Like a recent post by Santiago Ramos on the Image blog about the band Beirut (which we've discussed before) and the phenomenon of Americans traveling abroad.

Alas, the latest statistics on blog readership have been garbled by the trolls that inhabit the internets, but the indications are a gentle rise above past figures.

As always, many thanks to our contributors and readers!

~Aaron

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Independence Day!

In years past I have been known to post the full text of the Declaration of Independence, on account of how so few actually read it these days. This year, I thought I would instead provide the audio. The good people at NPR have put together a reading, utilizing voices both old and new (along with the full text of the Declaration). Give it a listen! There are passages in there you have probably forgotten...

Friday, July 3, 2009

Music & Catharsis

A few days ago, I wrote a post on sports and catharsis. My main idea was that sports, so often snubbed by the more artistic-minded and "intellectuals," can actually bring spectators an experience of catharsis, just as a powerful tragedy can. Sports, in particular, help us to explore the meaning of victory and defeat.

Today, I would like to provide an example of catharsis through music, specifically J.S. Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (BWV 582), and explore history and redemption.

How does this piece work? Bach begins with a simple sounding passacaglia (a dance usually in 3/4 time) in the key of C Minor, played once through. Then, Bach elaborates on this theme with many beautiful variations, but after the first couple variations he starts introducing complications into the harmonies--the piece seems to speed up, and some dissonance appears to compete with the harmony. The two forces--harmony and dissonance--are at war with each other. At times it seems unclear which one will prevail.



At the very end of the passacaglia, the dissonance builds up until the tension feels nearly unbearable. But then, the piece resolves, and harmony is restored. However, the harmony does not last very long. Bach immediately moves into a fugue, taking the theme from the passacaglia as the basis for the fugue (albeit slightly modified). And the tension continues to build up, until it is even more difficult to endure than at the end of the passacaglia. Yet, the original order is still there, and shines through even when the piece seems most complicated and dissonant. Finally, the tensions do resolve, just as they did at the end of the passacaglia, except this time it happens in the most spectacular fashion. I do not know how else to describe it but to tell you the image that immediately came to mind the first time I heard it: fireworks exploding. The drama is finally over, and the harmony, we know, will endure. This is catharsis.



Yet, there is one oddity about catharsis in this piece. If at some point in the piece you are unsure whether harmony or dissonance will win out, just listen a little more closely, and you can pick up on a certain, nearly hidden pattern, an underlying harmony. What is this harmony? It is the same basic melody you heard at the very beginning of the piece. Sometimes the organist is playing the complete melody, and at other times he is only hinting at it with the pedals, but that melody is always there in one form or another. This melody functions as the permanent, though nearly invisible, presence of a higher power. The composer, the creator, always knows what that order is, and no matter what kind of chaos seems to be present in his art, in his creation, he will never allow that deeper harmony and order to be completely submerged.

In other words, Bach gave the plot away at the very beginning of the passacaglia! Can there be any more surprise, any more plot twists in this drama, anything more to contribute to the catharsis? What can be less dramatic than to give away the ending? Why would Bach do this?

First, I would point out that Bach is using the melody as a sort of foreshadowing technique. This is a perfectly valid dramatic technique, and even heightens the tension. Precisely how it achieves that effect can be seen in my next point.

Second, I would suggest that Bach's "giving away the ending" reflects the nature of history for a Christian. Creation started in harmony, but dissonance entered the world alongside sin. Nevertheless, the original order never entirely disappeared. With Christ's victory on the cross, we catch a glimpse of the restoration of eternal order, just as we have the resolution at the end of the passacaglia. However, the piece does not stop there. It continues with the fugue, just as history continues after Christ's resurrection. In the fugue, the dissonance of sin is even harder to bear after we have already been assured of the final victory. We know that Christ has conquered over sin, yet we still sin, and that makes sin even more oppressive. Indeed this existential truth, which the Christian must accept every day of his life, makes life all the more dramatic, and makes the final resolution all the more cathartic, than if we did not know the end--and if Bach had not given away the ending at the very beginning.

Maybe this historico-theological interpretation is a bit far-fetched, a little too allegorical, but at least I hope it will make you think about Bach's music.

(Postscript: Unfortunately, these YouTube videos are not really videos--there are no moving pictures--so, it is hard to get an idea of Dutch organist Ton Koopman's dazzling technique. To see Koopman--and especially his feet--in action, you should watch this video. For another rendition of this piece, here are links to videos of Karl Richter playing the passacaglia and the thema fugatum in the Abbey of Ottobeuren. Many people today regard Richter's playing as too Romantic and unfaithful to the way Bach actually played his music, whereas Koopman is one of the leading musicians in the last couple decades to advocate playing composers' music as they themselves would have played it. In any event, I take no position in this debate, and actually like both versions. Koopman, with his rather loud bass, gives a better idea of the underlying structure of the piece, and his finale is certainly more powerful. Richter, on the other hand, with the quieter bass and the slower pace, especially at the beginning of the passacaglia, brings out the lyrical quality of some of Bach's variations.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

How Should We Sponsor Art? (II)

Some months ago, I wrote a post asking what the best way to sponsor art was. That post was prompted by an article (which I can't seem to locate right now) by a German author who was concerned about whether art should be sponsored by private or public means. By "public," the author meant the state, and by "private" he meant large corporations. The author, however, is silently assuming that, no matter what, art must be sponsored by large organizations. Whatever happened to the individual artist and the friends with whom he discusses his art?

This question dawned on me this morning, when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Even Bach Needed Goldberg." And the more I think about it, the more important this question becomes. Why would an artist, who needs to explore the world in a very personal and intimate way in order to carry on his work, want to be working for some faceless conglomerate? One musician interviewed in the article, Christopher Theofanidis, explained that the process of composing becomes much more meaningful when it involves small salon-like groups. Theofanidis recently finished one commission for an amateur pianist, and said he would never forget the joy in the pianist's face when he played the piece.

The WSJ article also indicates that such small-scale private patronage is becoming more widespread, and as far as I can see, that's a good thing.

The Dying Art of Letter Press


Normally the name "The Guild Review," if it means much of anything at all, is a loose reference to academia, the last major surviving guild system (which is an entirely different post), but today I though I would share a bit about a particular craft which has been brought to my attention: letter press.




Special thanks to Kate Wyman for sharing this video.