There be dragons!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Willy Pogany

While composing the last post I was reminded of the artwork of Willy Pogany who first ignited in me a visual fantasmagoria for the Iliad and the Odyssey. His work, though not in favor these days, was some of the best illustration for children's literature ever. His greatest masterpiece, the illustrated "Parsifal", even today is selling on Amazon for $1,243.96 (original 1912 printing). That's staggering! Here are a few of his illustrations. Dover has since put out some of the texts illustrated by Pogany, but in these days of rotten children's literature, I'd like to see more still. Though some of his work should be carefully reviewed by adults (Bilitis, for instance) Pogany still ranks right up there with the grand illustrating ability of Howard Pyle and I'd recommend him to anyone.

More on The Iliad

While grading student papers it suddenly dawned on me that there are three dopplegangers of Achilles in the epic. Each parallel character represents a stage of Achilles' life and each one is stripped from him.

Briseis, the sister/lover, is closely associated with mommy, Thetis; she represents a world of the feminine, the world of childhood, a time when the young man could run to mommy or the shelter of the beloved for comfort. She is stripped from Achilles by the brutal leader, Agamemnon and her seizure precipitates his movement into the next stage of life. Achilles' grief is for more than just a slave girl; it is for the whole world of comfort and easy love that childhood embodies. He grieves for the sorrow of losing himself, losing his innocence.

Patroclus, the brother/friend, is closely associated with the thumotic youth of Achilles. He only appears midway through the epic and his appearance shows a new love for Achilles. Much has been made of the homosexual element btwn Achilles and Patroclus, but I think that is a red herring. Whether he is or is not the lover of Achilles seems inconsequential. Just as Briseis represented more than just a slave girl/concubine, he represents a person loved. His connection to Briseis is highlighted when she, weeping at his death, claims that he was always gentle to her. Patroclus, it seems, embodies all that is best and noble in Achilles - he is the brother figure and the mirror image of the great warrior without the hubris that clouds Achilles' judgment. He is not entirely representative of innocence for he sees the brutality of war, even sees the brutality of Achilles, but he is courageous enough to take action as a young man might, to tend to the wounded, to speak against Achilles' headstrong pride, to want to right through mere force of arms the wrongs done his comrades. When he dies, that other world of youth and happiness, carefree living, the bright future free of cynicism and the weight of adult knowledge, is lost to Achilles.

Priam/Hector represent the third doppleganger. Being that they are father/son they consist as a set, each representing a different aspect of the same thing. Priam is the aged father, looking down the dark tunnel of ruin and despair. Hector is the noble man, already dead - he is Patroclus in nobility and death and he is Patroclus' killer. Yet both also represent the future of Achilles. The Achaean knows, now that he has chosen war over peace, that his demise is not far off. He knows his time is marked and the knowledge, previously remote, is grievous to him. He hearkens back to his father and sees in Priam the sorrow that his own father will experience when he dies. Thus another connection is made between Achilles and Hector, Peleus and Priam. In the last book, Priam becomes the father, figuratively, of Achilles and Achilles trades roles with the now dead Hector. Thus, the realization of age, ruin and death are all made quite immediate to the Greek warrior and he must face the harsh reality of adulthood. He will lose what he loves most, not comfort & joy, not youth & nobility, but his very self. Thus Priam is also representative of "the enemy" - the other which we seek to shut out from our own imagination. We do not wish to think about our own ruin and death, but Troy will fall and Priam will die, slipping in the blood of his own son. Though Achilles will, by then, not be alive, such ruin has been the telos of all his actions to this point. Neoptolemus, his son, will be the killer of Priam (as we learn from Virgil) and thus Achilles will have "killed" Priam - the king within himself. This is a harsh and yet necessary reality and Achilles acceptance of it, represented in his going down into the dust to communally weep with Priam, marks the warrior's capacity for humanness.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The American Way

Raptoralis recently posted on my blog "My Favorite Captain America" saying...

Im not sure that "the american way" is something that we aught to claim any more because of what it has been defined popularly as. It makes me very sad to see the news almost anytime so I dont watch it anymore because of the garbage I see. All this in the name of america, freedom of speech, once again we see the realm of the aesthic driving the world around us. Driving it in an almost subconsious or subliminal way to say that freedom is actually libery.(in the sence that eric cartman means it when he says "whatever whatever i do what i want"). The ideals of the nation (life, Libery and the persuit of happyness) were perhaps badly worded or perhaps the nation has been twisted by those who would see it crumble, through the process of destroying our words. Im uncertain if im being nihilistic at the moment as I havent yet studied in depth on the subject but the outlook seems bleak to me.

What is "The American Way"? Good question. Certainly in current trends it seems to be something akin to rape, burn, pillage for the almighty dollar, and indeed I am highly critical of the culture that seeks to dehumanize and destroy all that is good in the human person. I suspect the term was originally just a bit of jargon amidst all the jargon of the 1940s and 50s when we were so hell bent to win the two great wars (Fascism and Communism) that people spoke in cliches only.

But I do think there is "An American Way" and that it reaches back to the very founding of this nation. The Revolution of 1776 was, we are told, based on freedom and the desire of the colonies to be free from a tyrannical government. But freedoms then, as now, are only realized in the physical world. Locke claimed that man had an inherent, or inalienable, right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property." Jefferson changed this to "...pursuit of happiness" and the change was a good one, but consider the connection. Happiness is closely tied to property. Locke's definition of the word included all those things which we lay claim to owning; body, ideas, foodstuffs, home & land, business, whatever we consider as an extension of ourselves. Without the ability to do with these things as we wish, in fact, without these things, liberty is only a phantasm and life is enemic. American liberty has, consequently, always been tied to materialism, for good or ill, so much so that the very revolution is actually a revolution of economics.

Materialism is mostly used pejoratively b/c, as the pope noted in Centesimus Annus, rampant consumerism dehumanizes people and causes a degeneration from democracy to tyranny of the rich over the poor. Thus Americans are frequently, and rightly, accused of lording their prosperity over poorer nations of the world and even over their own people. Nevertheless, to extricate freedom from property is an impossible operation. If one is free he must be free over some THING. Without property (goods, home, land, whatever) freedom is only a name. So I think first in the "American Way" thing is a sense that every man ought to have the ability to own property and exercise his liberty through such ownership.

Second, Locke claims, and Jefferson reiterates, that government exists for one reason only; namely, to secure inalienable rights. Rights to life, liberty and property exist b/c God made us so, not b/c some king or warlord allowed us such and such. Our government exists ONLY to make sure that these rights are honored by all, passing laws in order to perpetuate this security and levying taxes only to maintain its function. Government serves people, not people government. Thus, Americans ought to consider government intrusion a necessary evil which should only be invoked when other means have been exhausted. If the first element of "The American Way" is a right to certain inalienable rights, namely property, the second element is a vision of small government which ought not to interfere too much in the lives of its citizens.

Third, then, is the vision of self-reliance. B/c of our initial need to survive in a terrain which was challenging to say the least we have, as a nation, long held the opinion that a man must stand on his own two legs. We are not only able to make our own decisions, we are also held accountable for those decisions. No one ought to blame culture, race, handicap of any kind for the decisions they ultimately make and as Americans as much as we honor the decisions of others we also expect that they are going to take responsibility for those decisions. Included in this, I think, is an American respect for the opinions of other people and, thus, the ability to discourse rationally even with people holding opposing opinions.

Fourth seems to be an American talent for improvisation. We are always analyzing, reconstruction, tinkering and rebuilding everything; including ourselves. Part of our current fits of apoplexy are due to an intense need to refashion who we are following the trauma of 9/11. As much as I disagree with the naysayers of the war and with the conspiracy theorists, I know that what they are saying is part of the American thing. Americans are not "my country right or wrong"; that would be like a nation of automatons. Rather, we are "my country's successes, let me fix her wrongs." The inventions not just in technology but in cinema, foodstuffs, government & law, nutrition & science, production of goods, language, arts has been dominated by America for the last 200 years! Why? Coincidence? No, I'm in agreement with Victor Davis Hanson; the culture determines the culture. How we view ourselves determines what sort of culture we are, so that the dominance in invention is not circumstance by systemic in the culture.

Fifth, as we like to reinvent ourselves, we are also perhaps the one nation that has a sense of humor. Other nations certainly laugh, poke fun at things, enjoy life - I'm not saying they don't. But America has a remarkable ability, as a nation, for poking fun at herself and at others. We don't have the dementia of class-system or of race politics (for the most part) or of caste-system, we don't have open civil war in our streets (yet), we don't have grinding poverty or rampant disease (like Russia), we don't have forced abortions and a krypteia terrorizing our populace (as does China), we don't have the indolent wallowing in state-sponsored suicide as do most European nations. Consequently, we seem able, as a people, to laugh at ourselves; perhaps bitterly, perhaps jovially, but we laugh. Our entertainment industry, for all its faults, creates joyful works and works of great humor. We enjoy sporting events, gaming, leisure and group activities w/o fear that tanks are going to roll into the soccer stadium at any minute. Heck, we even find politics a sport and not something to riot over. Americans laugh. That's a good thing.

Now I know that these are generalizations; I know that the excesses of freedom allow for pornography, abortion, abuse, indulgence, addiction, corruption, and other really horrible things; I know that the government often oversteps its bounds and requires Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford to correct it; I know that there are many people here in the States that are ignorant, arrogant, corrupt and brutal. All these things exist in any human culture. What I'm saying are generalizations, I know, but they are generalizations that work. If we are to look for the best things that make 21st America a better place to live than, say, Cuba, or Russia, or China, or ... France; if we are to look for the best things that make this country greater than Ancient Rome & Greece, or better than merry old England, or better than 19th century America, I think it would be these things; inalienable rights, view of government, sense of independence & responsibility, improvisation/improvement, and sense of humor.

Finally, with all the blemishes she has, I think the United States isn't just a fun place to live b/c we have lots of Burger Kings and Wal Marts. I really think that the United States, the philosophy that makes the nation more than a geographic location on Google maps, is invaluable and a treasure and ought to be exported to other nations willing to attempt the philosophy if not the excesses. Call me an imperialist slob if you will, but I really think, with Lincoln, that America is "the last, best hope of mankind."

Again with the Artwork!

A recent exchange with a student concerning artwork:

Mr. A,

To prevent being completely productive in the two weeks when it would be most beneficial to do so, I started writing a commentary at my blog on the lyrics to "Call It Clear", a song by Halloween, Alaska. So far I have only written on the first 3 lines, but the more and more I think about those three lines the more I see in them. At a certain point I have to imagine I've overstepped the author's intent and am only using the text as a tool for explaining my idea, not explaining the text by my ideas.

When reading a great play or novel is their a point at which your interpretation is no longer intended by the author but some kind of fluke connection? If so, how do you know where that point is? You have said that you believe such and such an author chose every single word with intent, but how do you determine if the author you are reading was that mindful of his own work? In other words, is it possible to read a book with no intended symbolism and manufacture your own dynamic interpretation? How do you know if you are doing that?

Thank you,

Student Aix Wizee

Thanks for the email, Aix, and in order to waste my time I’ll try to give a quick response.

Of course there is a difference btwn reading the text and reading into the text. Unfortunately, there is no rubric to know exactly when you cross that line. One way to know that the author intended X is to read as much of his other work as you can and see whether the message stays consistent. Look also and see whether the imagery used is appropriate for the rest of the message (for instance, does the author make his hero suddenly become a bunny rabbit? If so, is that consistent with the culture, as it would be with Indian or Buddhist culture but not so with Western)? Also an aid is to read what others have to say about the author; frequently such opinions offer great insight which an initial read might miss.

Ways to know when you’re really off? Any bending of the imagery to meet what you want would be a misread (for instance trying to insist that the color red represents purity). Any wishful thinking contrary to the actual text and imagery would be a misread (for instance hoping to find the golden proportion where it doesn’t exist). Any anachronistic interpretations would be a misread (like Marxist or feminist readings into an earlier historical work; or Christian for that matter).

Unfortunately, the only sure way to know a misread is the gut response one has to the text; it seems right or wrong. No one has ever read the Grendel cave as a womb (at least to my knowledge) but it is; under water, in the earth, reached through a passage, dark, feminine & devouring life. That just seems right. So in any essay I right I make the case that it is so and hold up to public scrutiny whether this is right or wrong.

Finally, the odd thing about all art is that it transcends the artist. Sure, we say that the artist “intended” XY or Z and with great artists they really are careful in their choice of word, note, or color/form b/c they are very aware that their choice will have some effect (I’m excluding here poor or sloppy artists whose work seldom is great except by some fluke). But the work is greater than the artist and can frequently speak to an audience of things which the artist himself never saw or intended. He intended a great message, but perhaps a greater message than what he intended corresponds to the work. This observation Plato himself made in the Republic when he noted that artwork corresponds to realities beyond the limitations of the artist. Thus a piece of music may speak volumes to us when the artist just found it a whimsy or small work. “Carnival of the Animals” for instance, was loathed by Saint-Saens who wanted to write only “serious” music. The Mona Lisa was only a minor portrait by DaVinci and the Last Supper was merely a decoration of a refectory; rent payments. But the impact these works have had on others has been tremendous. So when you find a work speaking to you and your analysis growing out of control just remember that the analysis may be still correct.

Hope this helps. I’m not intentionally obscure but I play it on TV. I would suggest reading Aristotle’s Poetics and Walker Percy’s “Message in the Bottle” as well as Santayana’s “Reason in Art” and Carl Jung's "The Spirit in Man." Also a great work is “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper” and “Sexuality of Jesus Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion” by Leo Steinberg and “Harmonies of Heaven and Earth” by Joscelyn Godwin. Lots of reading, but all good stuff.


Abecedarius Rex

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ars and Techne

I think this problem is one of semantics. We use the word "art" to mean any old number of things that sort of kind of look a bit like a thing that kind of does a certain thing that is something or another and gets some awards. The classical world, though, distinguished btwn "ars" and "techne", a distinction picked up in the 19th century by Kant and also by R.G. Collingwood (as explained here by Denis Dutton)

Craft is something performed with a known outcome and skill which guarantees that outcome; such as the building of a chair or the putting in of a window. Art, on the other hand, is the expression of human vision or emotion, the outcome of which is not always a guarantee. Art, as Kant said, possesses a certain "genius" or infusion of the spirit which craft does not have. Though art benefits when one knows craft (say how to use paints) knowledge of craft is not necessary for doing art. W/o the infusion of genius, however, craftsmen can do their job quite well. So it seems that art isn't so much a "what does it do" question as a "how is it done" question. If the object produced is one which was achieved knowingly with a guaranteed outcome (as in, this will reroute the sewer) it is craft. If it is produced such that the outcome is not entirely known, yet the work is infused with the indescribable element of genius, it is art.

Do I agree with this?

Yes and no. It seems plausible enough and seems to be extolled by such greats as Kant and even Plato in the Republic; yet I do think that there is a craft to art which can also produce an outcome knowingly. Certain images or forms do certain things, or strike us in a certain way. Colors affect us, images affect us, notes affect us in a fairly consistent manner. Thus the artist, although expressing genius, does so with a knowledge of how his creation will affect others; in other words, he knows what could convey his vision effectively (instead of just trying things until they work). This, of course, is the skilled artist not the hack.

So what is art? To give a criteria by which we say "this is, this isn't" I think is near impossible. Art is the expression of the human soul, the trying to recapture lost paradise, the visions of the beautiful and the damned. How that plays out defies definition. There are some things, though, that work and make us say "yes, that is it" and others that do not work at all and leave us disgusted and flat.

Perhaps, then, the more important question than "what is art?" is "what does art accomplish?" Do artists just produce stuff haphazardly to satisfy themselves in an ars gratia artis way? Do artists produce for cash only? Do artists seek to alter their audience and in what way? These, I think, are more engrossing questions that what the thing is. Ultimately, ars is simply that; literally "a making"; what the Greeks called "poiesis". It is the thing we do that no other animal does. In itself neither a good or evil. But in how it is made and what it seeks to accomplish, therein lies the good or bad art.

BTW, great article on ars and techne by Christopher Janaway entitled "Arts and Crafts in Plato and Collingwood" here at JSTOR if you can access it.

Notes on Nationalism - Essay by George Orwell

A very interesting read on the dangers of nationalism. I esp. like his comments on the maniacal hatred of one's own or another's country that form as a result of nationalism.
Notes on Nationalism - Essay by George Orwell