motion picture, it's called

Friday, April 09, 2010

On the Philosopher- King

Master FVB, The Judgement of Solomon, engraving, c. 1490, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

"This was the intention of the divine Plato, that the king should be perfect in all three kinds of perfections which are truly perfect. They are as follows: [a] the perfection of the intellectual virtue governing practical affairs of nation and the states; [b] the perfection of contemplation of what comes afterwards, which is the object of his existence; [c] the perfection of the knowledge of the Torah, which provides everlasting good in this world and in the world to come."

Yohanan Alemanno, Hai ha-Olamim (Eternal Life), manuscript Mantua, 21. Translation by Abraham Melamed.

Alemanno was an Italian rebbe of the late 15th century, and famed as a teacher of Pico della Mirandola.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Pieta by the Master of Rabenden, c1515, Cleveland Museum of Art

Monday, January 25, 2010

Most Beautiful Unknown Libraries

Ladies' Library of Ypsilanti, Michigan

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Unlikelihood of a Political Novel

(initially posted over at Crooked Timber)

I’m going to make a very bold – yet I think correct – claim here: not only are there very few political novels, there are no political novels at all. I would argue that novels are an explicitly anti-political genre, and (an even more bold claim here): might have been intentionally designed by the initiators of the genre to exclude politics.

First, “novels about ‘politics’ where politics is defined as being ‘the way in which we structure and order our lives through a political or quasi-political process’’ in which case almost every novel is political” – that is not politics (or, conversely, it’s so broad that almost everything is political, which means that definition is effectively useless). A political novel would be about politics itself – i.e. about explicit politics, politicians, statesman, policy decisions and so on.

Look at the genres that the novel competed against in it’s first days – drama and poetry. There’s no difficulty in naming a political drama: the first play we have (Aeschylus’ Persians) is undoubtedly about politics and most tragic plays until the advent of the novel are explicitly about notable political figures. There’s no difficulty in naming a political poem: until the advent of the novel, a huge number of the epic poems we have are explicitly about political figures doing political things.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Philo on the Philosopher - King

Claus Sluter's Moses (figure in Sluter's Well of Moses, Charterhouse of Champmol near Dijon, 1395-1406

"There are four adjuncts to the truly perfect ruler. He must have kingship, the faculty of legislation, priesthood and prophecy, so that in his capacity of legislator he may command what should be done, as priest dispose not only things human but things divine, as prophet declare by inspiration what cannot be apprehended by reason. I have discussed the first three, and shown that Moses was the best of kings, of lawgivers and of high priests, and will go on to show in conclusion that he was a prophet of the highest quality."

Philo. On the Life of Moses. Translated by F.H. Colson. Cambridge, MA, 1957.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Ugly Prince: Louis XIV in Rossellini’s The Ascension of Louis XIV

I have been reading Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus. Since Xenophon's Cyrus is the basis of so many other depictions of young monarchs, it might be useful to understand Rossellini’s movie through the lens of Xenophon’s book. Xenophon describes Cyrus: “And even to this day the barbarians tell in story and in song that Cyrus was most handsome in person, most generous of heart, most devoted to learning, and most ambitious, so that he endured all sorts of labour and faced all sorts of danger for the sake of praise.” (Cyropadeia, 1.2.1)

Indeed, it is a commonplace, even among fairy tales, that the young prince is handsome, tall and well-spoken. Rossellini’s Louis XIV is almost astonishingly different from this – he is short, stout, comparatively ugly and speaks poorly. The actual Louis XIV of history was indeed short, stout and not especially handsome. But allegiance to the details of history was not critical for Rossellini – Rossellini takes numerous liberties with other historical facts. Rossellini must have had other reasons (or additional reasons) to depict Louis XIV as so different from our image of the archetypal young prince.

Rossellini’s reasons for this are to me unclear. But potential answers are likely to be at the center of an interpretation of this movie.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Philosopher and Prince

Unfortunately, my new book project and my new job are taking away from my blogging efforts. Since you, my loving readers, probably want to know what my new book project is, allow me to describe it for your approval.

As I’m sure my loyal readers by now know, one of my favorite authors is Machiavelli, and appropriately, one of my favorite books is Machiavelli’s Il Principe. What is less well-known is that Il Principe is part of a long tradition of a genre of philosophers writing to princes or rulers. Indeed, this tradition stretches back to the very first day of philosophy itself – Socrates’ infatuation and involvement with Alcibiades.

The plan of the book is to discuss the role of this genre within philosophic writing to trace the genre as it existed throughout most (but not all) of the history of philosophy.

Here is my plan as of the moment:

Philosopher and Prince: Activity and Contemplation
Socrates and Alcibiades
Plato’s Letters to Dion
Xenophon’s On Tyranny
Thomas Aquinas and Ptolemy of Lucca’s De Regimine Principum
Giles of Rome’s De Regimine Principum
Nicholas Oresme’s Commentaries on Aristotle’s Politics and Economics
Desiderius Erasmus’ Education of a Christian Prince
Leibniz’ Portrait of the Prince
Philosopher and Prince in Modernity

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Maimonides on how to read Guide of the Perplexed

"You who consider that you understand a book that is the guide of the first and last men while glancing through it as you would glance through a historical work or a piece of poetry: collect yourselves and reflect, for things are not as you thought."

Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, 1.2

Monday, February 16, 2009

Most Beautiful Unknown Libraries: Eger Lyceum, Eger, Hungary

Hungary’s Eger Lyceum Library is partially the story of a failed university. Eger would have been a fine site for a potential Central European country university along the lines of a Tubingen or Heidelberg – Eger is the sight of an ancient bishopric (now an archbishopric) and has an excellently preserved Baroque city center, as well as being sited in Hungary’s vineyard region (always something that appeals to students). Unfortunately, the bishops of Eger waited a bit too long to start on the potential university – by the time the bishops completed the large central university building in 1765, the Empress Maria Theresa was not willing to countenance another Jesuit instition, so the building instead became a large lyceum.

The pride of the library is the large ceiling murals, which depict heretical books being miraculously struck by divine lighting at the Council of Trent.

Monday, February 02, 2009

New DVD Review: Rossellini’s The Taking of Power of Louis XIV, Part I

The number of truly political films – films that examine politics as politics and not as a phenomenon of economics, culture or religion (i.e., examining politics as anything but politics) – are actually very rare. One of the few that does is the newly released DVD version of Rossellini’s The Taking of Power of Louis XIV, originally create for French television in 1967.

Part of the interesting features of this film is that it is a film that examines a monarchy without the sentimentality or romanticization of the vast majority of historical films about past statesmen. That is, past statesmen all saw themselves as politicians trying to solve concrete political problems. But most historical films don’t take the politics of their statesmen seriously, instead tending to focus on non-political matters like the statesman’s psychology, sexuality, love affairs, personality quirks, religious beliefs – i.e. things above politics, things below politics, but not politics.

Rossellini’s taking politics seriously leads to the movie more closely resembling a Renaissance history play than anything else, particularly one of the “accession of the young prince” dramas like Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The reason WHY trickle-down tax cuts don't work

The theory behind trickle-down tax cuts is that, if the rewards to certain very talented businesspeople is increased, they will then be incentivized to create even more economic activity.

The problem with this picture is that it completely misrepresents what businesspeople can do. In certain very rare instances and environments, a very small number of businesspeople with very specific talents can build large enterprises. Usually these environments occur when a new industry either initially begins or when an old industry drastically restructures.

In those very short moments of opportunity (historically, they rarely last more than a few years), a handful of businesspeople with incredibly specific skills, talents, connections, personalities, etc. can build up enormous business firms, employing huge numbers of people in a very short space of time. But once that moment of opportunity closes, often there is no new moment of opportunity in that industry for many decades (or even longer).

Thus, once that moment of opportunity had closed, the resulting Bill Gates or Andy Grove or Ray Croc is very wealthy indeed. But Gates or Croc's skills and experiences are very focused on the single opportunity they exploited. It has almost never happened that a single businessperson built two successful industry-dominating firms from ground up in two different industries (in fact, I can't recall a single example of this).

Further, a businessperson of this caliber in the very special environment we're talking about is largely unaffected by comparatively small changes in his tax rate. The opportunity presented to him is so unique and compelling that he would do the same things for much less money, and would do them for much more money.

Thus, when you increase the reward to the ALREADY successful entrepreneur (i.e., he has already made a big pile from his entrepreneurship), you don't actually encourage him to do anything new. He can't, he's ALREADY done the one single great thing he could do. The firm he already built up dominates his industry, and he will be extraordinarily unlikely to be able to do it again. All you end up doing is giving him more money to give to his kids.

Friday, January 02, 2009

World's Most Beautiful Unknown Libraries: Pasadena Central Public

Pasadena’s Central Library is a combination of Spanish and Classical elements, combined with a free and innovative hand by one of the twentieth century’s most neglected great architects, Myron Hunt. The library was built as part of Pasadena’s 1920s revamp of it’s major civic buildings – Pasadena’s City Hall, with a similar, though more formal, mix of Spanish and Neoclassical elements, was built simultaneously. The exterior of the library provides an interesting visual conflict. A brutally simple wall is topped by heavily elaborated Corinthian windows peeping out above. After clearing this wall, the visitor enters a courtyard of unexpected interest. We now see a full-fledged, quite elaborate façade.

Hunt however maintains his contrast between lavish decoration and severe, even brutal plainness – while the entrance façade is lavish, the rest of the courtyard is an almost minimalist expanse, relieved only by a very simple fountain.

The main hall of the Pasadena Library is the most imposing interior feature. Extending over two hundred feet from the building’s end to end, it’s a vast churchlike space with only the most minimal of decoration.

Besides being an admirable compliment to the Pasadena City Hall across the street, Pasadena's Central Library is one pinnacle of Myron Hunt's largely unheralded campaign from 1903 onwards to create an architecture particularly suited to the Southern Californian landscape, based upon Hunt's early career with the Prairie School in Chicago and his study of the work of the First Bay Area Regional School - especially the work of Willis Polk.

Though Hunt's work initially appears to be merely a sophisticated gloss upon versions of Spanish revivalism if not examined closely, the Pasadena Central Library shows Hunt to be highly adept at combining revival elements with a free and unique hand. And you have to love the palm trees poking out from the courtyard.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Most Beautiful Unknown Libraries

Rogier van der Weyden's Portrait of a Man Holding a Book

As you’ve probably gathered from the general interests of this blog, I like libraries. Obviously, since I’m also an architecture enthusiast, that means I really dig library architecture. Moreover, I worked my way through college being the Theater Department Librarian, so I've spent quite a few hours sleeping in libraries (er, that is working in libraries, that's right).

There’s the obvious choices for most beautiful libraries, which fall into a number of buckets:

The Big European National Libraries: the Bibliotheque nationale in Paris, Library of Congress, the British Museum Reading Room, and so on. Most of these are enormous nineteenth-century piles, gigantic boxes of extravagant neoclassical Victoriana. Not really to my taste. Most countries have a one (or even several) of these things in their capitals, and for the life of me, I can’t tell why you’d prefer one over another, or even been able to tell them apart. But they do have a certain fairly standardized beauty, and the Victorians certainly didn’t skimp on the budgets.

Big American University Libraries: Some of these are variations on the Big Neoclassical Box : Harvard’s Widener, Columbia’s Butler, Berkeley’s Doe – and these are no more exceptional than other massive piles of neoclassical box-mania. Again, they’re usually well-done (usually more tastefully restrained on the decoration), but where’s the exceptional charm or interest in any one of them individually? Much the same applies to the big-box neoclassical public libraries: New York, Boston, the old Chicago and San Francisco Public Libraries and so on. Where the extra-large class of library gets interesting is when American universities decided to get funky with the architectural styles. The main choice was Gothic, of course (what better for a university?): the best ones being the University of Washington’s Suzzallo, Cornell’s Law Library, the University of Oklahoma’s rather eccentric pink faux-Gothic Bizzell Memorial and the University of Chicago’s Harper. And then we get to universities that start to go out on a limb: UCLA’s Romanesque Revival at Powell, for example.

Then there is the height of the art: the Baroque and Rococo monastery libraries of Central European monasteries – Melk, Admont, Strahov and St. Gallen. The college libraries of Oxbridge form another well-known group.

Well, all of these are well-known libraries, many of them are gigantic to outrageous in size or artistically well-heralded, and you didn’t need me to tell you about them. A sign of true knowledge is the connoisseur who guides his adepts to previously little-known wonders. The following is a list of wonderous libraries I will highlight in the future:

Pasadena City Library, Pasadena, California
Amorbach Abbey, Amorbach, Bavaria
St. Mang’s Abbey, Fussen, Bavaria
Dawson College Library, Montreal, Canada
Chetham’s Library, Manchester
Denison Library. Scripps College, Claremont, California
Hackley Library, Muskegon, Michigan
Carnegie Library, Reims, Normandy
Cranbrook School Library, Cranbrook, Michigan
Poblet Abbey Library, Poblet, Spain
Former Monastery Library, Zwolle, Netherlands
Ames Memorial Library, North Easton, Massachusetts
Lyceum Library, Eger, Hungary
University Club Library, University Club, New York, New York
David Sassoon Library, Mumbai, India
University of Mumbai, Mumbai, India
Shrewsbury Library, Shrewsbury, Shropshire

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Art Moment

Master of the Virgo inter Virgines, The Entombment, c. 1470-1500, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Sister Wendy writes of this painting:

"We do not know the name of the artist who painted The Entombment. He is known as the Master of the Virgo Inter Virgines after one of his most popular paintings showing a seated Virgin Mary surrounded by a circle of well-born young ladies. Historians think he lived at the end of the 15th century in the Netherlands, but whoever this unknown artist really was, he clearly had a unique vision and he remains a profoundly impressive painter. No other artist could paint the Entombment with such passionate originality. The actuality of the death of Jesus is forced upon us, the body bleeding and the hair falling loose over the slack arm. Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus, who carry the body, thrust him almost grimly towards His grieving mother. The impression of passion, of genuine involvement in the scene, is almost overwhelming. The set expression on their faces, echoed by that of Mary Magdalene behind, is emphasized by the extraordinary richness of their garments."

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Election Movies - Part I

Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good Government, 1338-1339, Palazzo Publico, Siena

For a blog that’s ostensibly devoted to politics, this blog probably has you confused. Explicit discussions of “political” movies – that is, movies that explicitly deal with modern politics like elections, scandals, government policy – have been nonexistent on this blog.

A large part of this is my explicit highlighting of the differences between ancient and Renaissance drama versus film. Of course, ancient and Renaissance tragedy is almost exclusively about explicit politics – pageants of kings, princes and heroes so to speak.

When we turn to the moderns, political tragedy essentially immediately vanishes. Examine the following: the greatest poetic works of the ancient Greeks are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, stories of the kings and heroes fighting the Trojan war. The greatest poetic work of the ancient Romans is Virgil’s Aeneid, which has the same subject. The greatest poetry of Renaissance England is that of Shakespeare, who’s tragic subjects are the history of the English monarchy, the politics of Rome (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra) and tragedies befalling medieval or Renaissance princes (King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet).

But when we turning to the most modern of modern states, the United States, we encounter a literature that is essentially entirely devoid of depicting a major statesman from the inside. Certainly, American literature often depicts major political developments acting upon non-politicians. But, except for a mere handful of potential examples, American literature seems actually unable to depict a major political actor convincingly.

This inability to depict actual active politics in a substantive way seems to apply also to American cinema. Essentially invariably, statesmen are either portrayed with a cartoonishly shallow level of understanding – either as buffoons, villains or ethereal saints.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Halloween Special: Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” in Shades of Darkness

Odilon Redon's The Night, Cleveland Museum of Art

As we discussed last year, while the horror or ghost story has not infrequently reached great heights, the horror movie genre has generally been a failure. While not a superlative addition to the extremely limited number of superior horror films, Granada Television’s early 1980s series Shades of Darkness nevertheless has interesting features. This anthology show dramatized a number of ghost stories from some of the greatest horror writers like Edith Wharton and Elizabeth Bowen.

The best episode of the series is the dramatization of Edith Wharton’s “Afterward”. Unlike many other ghost stories, Wharton neatly pivots the genre to directly confront modernity, and in addition, the startling reflections of modernity in the past. “Afterward” is a haunted house story – but this time this haunted house story is built upon the economic basis of the large English country house. In essence, the question the story asks is what suffering were these symbols of wealth built upon?

“Afterward” depicts the Boynes, an middle-aged American couple, who, striking it rich through stock market speculation, now wish to flee their drab origins in Wisconsin and purchase a remote and ancient Elizabethan country house in the South of England. Naturally, the house has it’s secrets, but so do the Americans. The American couple initially romanticizes the old house, but really as part of their romanticization of themselves. They prefer to believe that their speculations (eventually revealed to be somewhat dubious in precisely the archetypal American fashion) are buried in a now-forgotten past.

Since the house contains… entity that forces the Boynes to confront their own history which they prefer to forget, the reader / viewer also wonders (since the entity has long been whispered about among the house’s previous owners) what remains buried in the house’s own past. After all, the previous owners of many centuries have seemingly hurriedly decamped for Switzerland........

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Architecture Moment: AlexanderKirche at Zweibrucken, Rhineland - Palatinate

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Emergency, Bay Area Film Lovers, Emergency!

Go to see the showing of Rob Nilsson’s 9-film series, 9@Night, now. NOW. This week at the Roxie, next week at the San Rafael Film Center. RUN, go there NOW.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ben Jonson’s Sejanus: His Fall

I have just begun Ben Jonson’s Sejanus: His Fall and it begins with the following dedication:

“To the No less Noble by Virtue than Blood

Esme Lord Aubigny”

No doubt Lord Aubigny liked this dedication, since Lord Aubigny’s lineage was of the finest. The intermarryings of his clan were the basis of James I’s claim to the English throne and Esme’s father was the great friend and confidante of the young James forty years before Jonson wrote Sejanus. Yet the dedication has a hint of something less flattering to the Lord, which the Lord perhaps did not perceive.

Patrick Stewart as Sejanus in I, Claudius

The dedication slyly implies that there are two nobilities, one by blood and one by virtue, that rarely coincide – otherwise, why would Jonson feel the need to indicate that this was especially praiseworthy in Aubigny? This dichotomy creates a paradox: titles of nobility (and the power and honor associated with them) descend by inheritance – but Jonson indicates that this has little connection with the virtue of those who inherit them.

Thus, in this dedication, Jonson already presupposed the conflict of two claims to aristocratic rule: the claim of those with the right inheritances and the claim of those of the greatest virtue. Only in the happy occasion when the two are the same are all questions of legitimacy answered. Jonson proposes that this is true in the person of Esme Lord Aubigny, but we wonder what of the unhappy places and times where this is NOT true. Lord Aubigny could take it for granted that his blood was of the noblest, but Jonson’s claim is that Jonson himself, the wise man, knows who is truly virtuous. Thus, the wise man or knower is fundamentally superior to those of noble blood – they merely know who’s blood is noble, but the wise man also knows in addition who is virtuous.

Patrick Stewart as Sejanus in I, Claudius

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Orson Welles and Howard Hughes’ F for Fake : A Response to GoatDog's Movies About Movies Blogathon

Everybody knows that Citizen Kane is about a media mogul modeled after William Randolph Hearst. What is less realized is that the mogul (specifically as a figure controlling a vast conglomerate) appears in roughly half of all of Welles’ films set in contemporary times – Kane in Citizen Kane, Arkadin in Mr. Arkadin, Eugene Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons and Howard Hughes in F for Fake. Notably, Welles himself acts the title mogul role in Citizen Kane and Mr. Arkadin. Further, Welles would act in many mogul roles over his career – highlights include Theo Van Horn in Claude Chabrol’s Ten Days Wonder, Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, JP Morgan in Tesla and the voice of Robin Masters in Magnum PI and, more arguably, Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Further, all but one of these mogul figures (Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons) are depicted as either having major media holdings (Kane and Hughes) or some sort of significant shadowy control over media (Arkadin). Further, all three of these moguls (Kane, Arkadin and Hughes) are based upon real-life figures who indeed had major political impacts upon the times. Considering that Welles’ fascination with the media mogul figure spanned from the very beginning to the very end of his film career (from Kane to his last uncompleted film, The Other Side of the Wind), much of this work can be interpreted as (among many other things) Welles’ life-long meditation upon media industries and their organization.

In F for Fake, Welles “investigates” four media figures: Elmyr de Hory ( a fabled art forger), Clifford Irving (a literary forger who wrote a fake "autobiography" of Howard Hughes), Pablo Picasso and Howard Hughes. While most discussions of F for Fake tend to revolve around Elmyr de Hory, it is critical to understand how the four figures interact in the film. Two of the four are artists (de Hory and Picasso). Two of the four’s moving images do not appear in the film (Picasso and Hughes) – we only see still photos of Picasso and only hear what is said to be Hughes’ voice. Elmyr fakes Picasso, while Irving fakes Hughes. Picasso and Hughes (the imitated) are both (largely) unseen, elderly, secretive, wealthy, eccentric, shadowy yet immensely successful figures within the film. So, the “real” in the film is unseen and largely unverifiable, while we see much footage of the fakers (de Hory, Irving and Welles, who proclaims himself to be a faker within the film).

Elmyr de Hory

Structurally, Picasso is thus repeatedly closely connected with Hughes in the film. Which seems bizarre on it’s face, admittedly. Further, the figure of Welles himself is an anomaly within the film – Welles declares himself a faker, but it’s unclear who he’s faking. Welles is also a great artist, but it’s unclear who’s imitating Welles. It’s clear that Welles connects himself to Picasso within the film: Welles is an artist like Picasso, Welles often resides in Paris, the South of France and Spain like Picasso, and Welles and Picasso are both depicted as desiring Oja Kodar (Orson's real-life longtime mistress) sexually.

Which naturally points us to the intriguing question: is it also possible that Welles has some connection to Hughes? But here’s where the complexity grows: both Welles and Hughes were film directors – Welles being the great director of his time and Hughes a mediocre one. So, it is Welles who is the real, while Hughes is the imitator or fake. Conversely, both Hughes and Welles were both businessmen (and both were the sons of inventors whose inventions made both their fathers wealthy) – but Hughes was the great businessman of his time and Welles a mediocre one. So, it is Hughes who is the real, while Welles is the imitator or fake.

Both Welles’ and Hughes’ voices are important in the film – we do see Welles frequently but essentially never see Hughes at all but instead hear Hughes’ voice at a critical juncture.. This is underscored by the amount of time Welles gives in the movie to his radio fakery in the War of the Worlds broadcast (i.e., a hoax created solely by Welles’ voice and aural effects). Meanwhile, de Hory and Picasso are both visually depicted: we never hear Picasso’s real voice at all (though we do see still photos of him). We both see and hear de Hory, but it’s his visual aspect (forgery by visual means) that’s his critical characteristic, not his voice. Picasso’s main action in the film is to stare (i.e., visual action) at Oja Kodar. Welles both looks at and talks to Kodar, tying himself simultaneously again to both the verbal and visual.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Architecture Moment: Mariendom at Zwickau

The Mariendom in Zwickau was built from 1506 to 1536 as part of a wave of new church building at the extreme end of the Gothic era in the highlands of Saxony. This region benefited from several economic trends: the growth of major mining activity in the area and the solidification of the ducal state of Saxony into a vibrant and successful Renaissance principality. The proximate cause of Zwickau’s prosperity was the 1470 opening of the great silver mines at Schneeburg, 17 kilometers southeast of Zwickau. More politically, the growing economy of Saxony was encouraged by the stabilization of ducal Saxony.

Dr. Norbert Nussbaum, in his seminal German Gothic Church Architecture, links Zwickau’s Mariendom with Rochlitz’s St. Kunigunde, Mittweida’s St. Mary and Leipzig’s St. Nikolai.

The cathedral contains the above fine altarpiece by Michael Wolgemut and his workshop, an excellent early Renaissance pulpit (c. 1538) and an astonishing double staircase.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Art Moment: Portrait of a Woman

Portrait of a Woman by the Master of the Holy Kinship
c. 1485 (this unknown master was active in Cologne)
Cleveland Museum of Art

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Beginning of Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Plato’s Republic

Part I: The Meeting in the Garden

Henry James was the son of a widely known writer about theology, and the brother of a great philosopher. When I began reading James’ novella Daisy Miller, it struck me how it’s opening is evocative of many philosophic works in general, and of the beginning of Plato’s Republic in particular.

James begins his novella by placing it in the town of Vevey. In the region of Vevey is also the setting for Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Heloise, the first romantic novel. It is not likely that James, profoundly knowledgeable about French literature, was ignorant of that association.

Many philosophic dialogues have traditionally begun in enclosed gardens. The greatest and best known of these is Plato’s Republic, but also include Thomas More’s Utopia and Machiavelli’s On War. Daisy Miller begins in the gardens of the Hotel Trois Couronnes – like the settings for the other three books, an actual location. In being the garden of a hotel, it most closely resembles the setting for More’s Utopia, which is also set in the gardens of a hotel.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Art Moment: Hans Multscher

Hans Multscher's Model of a tombstone lid for Duke Ludwig the Bearded, 1435. Now in Bavarian National Museum, Munich.

Theodor Muller in his Sculpture in the Netherlands, Germany, France and Spain 1400-1500 says of this sculpture:

"Here we have a supreme example of Multscher's treatment of surface. Even the background is full of incident, since the heraldic emblems of the duke are displayed, as indeed he requested. They are like embroidery in thick raised materials on a curtain. In the lower foreground the duke is presented as an eques Christianus, i.e. with the features not at all life-like, but equipped with all the insignia of his rank and looking up to an image of the Trinity in the upper part of the relief. This is an astonishing spatial arrangement whose magic is enhanced by the fact that the composition juts beyond the narrow projecting frame, thus deepening the latticed background and lending the maximum vividness to the whole presentation." (page 73)

photo from the image archive.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Commentary on the Recent Political Debates

Socrates: "Well then , why did you people take the trouble to deliberate yesterday on matters you don’t understand, and try to find out the best course of action for the city to take? Why weren’t you learning those things, rather, from someone, who understands them, so that you could take the best course of action for the city? Instead, it seems to me that you spent the whole day yesterday sitting there, making things up and divining about matters you didn’t understand, instead of taking the trouble to learn them – I mean those who govern your city, including you."

from Plato's Sisyphus.

Friday, April 25, 2008

New Book Review: Howard Sturgis' Belchamber: Bathos and Frustration

The New York Review of Books Press, in it’s incomparable Classics imprint, has just republished Howard Sturgis’ Belchamber (originally published in 1904 and long out of print). Sturgis’ friends and contemporaries seem to have mistaken their knowledge of Sturgis (1855-1920) the effeminate entertainer and host – Sturgis’ famed country house hosted such luminaries as Wharton and Henry James – for his tough and even harsh novel.

Superficially, Belchamber is a polite novel. No immigrant workers, steel mill riots, impoverished farmers, communist writers, cowboys, gangsters, alcoholic sports-journalists or other commonplaces of American writing penetrate (and ultimately, Sturgis couldn’t escape that he was an American living in England). The main characters are Englishpeople of (mostly) noble title – the title being the name of both the ancient country seat of the Chamber clan and their title, the Marquis of Belchamber. This fine country house, lavishly described by Sturgis (clearly a writer who knew his architecture), is a great marvel of England – and perhaps expectedly is equally a container for a clan of drunkards, degenerate gamblers, foolish skirt-chasers, sluts and plain scumbags stretching back into the mists of English history.

Belchamber condemns almost everybody within it’s world. The titular character is a naïve and foolish weakling, the Marquis Belchamber, whom his world mockingly nicknames Sainty. Strangely enough, as the novel progresses, we grow ever more fonder and fonder of Sainty, who’s infinitely taken advantage of by his idiotic hunting and showgirl-mad brother, his shrew of a wife, his smooth-talking but ultimately trivial and snobbish professor and his sly malicious bastard of a cousin.

As E.M Forster writes in a 1935 afterword to Belchamber (thoughtfully reprinted in the latest edition from NYRB Press): “His [Sainty’s] tragedy is only partly due to his own defects: he really fails because he lives among people who cannot understand what delicacy is; at the best they are dictators, like his mother, and miss it that way; at the worst they are bitches, like his wife.”

Ultimately, Sainty’s world is run by trivial people ruled largely by pure self-interest. Read it for a tough take on a world very much like our own.

Sidenote: The pictures above are of Basildon Park outside of Reading in Berkshire, built 1776-1783 by prominent local architect John Carr and an excellent example of a Palladian mansion. Perhaps too small for the Belchamber mansion described in the novel, but most tasteful and delightful in its own way.