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Archive for June, 2010

Having A Plantagenet Face

with 3 comments

Every once in a while, I go through these little fits of needing to Google things right and left, and this past week I have been looking for Medieval Art from Italy.

In a way this is not surprising–I’m reading Dante’s Paradiso, and that’s Medieval literature from Italy, so it makes a certain amount of sense that I’d be interested in checking out the painting.

I even managed to find a really good site with a really good essay on Italian painting in the period, here:


And I found a painting I really love, too, here:


But the fact is that I read a lot about the Middle Ages, and I read a fair amount of Medieval literature from all over the place.  This doesn’t usually make me feel like I have to spend the afternoon Googling related sites.

I was thinking about why I felt so drawn to do it this time, and I came up with a surprising discovery about myself.

Advanced degrees be damned, I unconsciously associate different periods of history with different national cultures.

Partially because I studied English literature, partially because of years of Sir Walter Scott novels and Robin Hood movies and even more “serious” things like Becket and The Lion in Winter, to me, in my head, the Middle Ages are quintessentially English.

The Renaissance, on the other hand, is definitely Italian, and most especially Florentine.  The Enlightenment tends to be stuck in my head as American, even though the  US was only the result of the Enlightenment and not its source.  But while Europe was going increasingly Baroque, the American colonies and the new American nation had a “plain” style both in writing and in architecture, and that whole period between 1700 and 1860 just “feels” American to me.

Then we hit the Victorians, and we’re back to a period that’s “English” again.

Now, I know, intellectually, that none of this makes any sense.  It especially makes little or no sense in the Middle Ages, when national feeling was nowhere near as clearcut as it is now.   

Not only was this a period when the nation was the king, but it was also a period in which men were encouraged to think of themselves as first and foremost inhabiting something called “Christendom.”

The religious identification was not secondary.  Kings claimed to have their rights and power derived from God Himself, and they accepted the idea that their only access to God Himself was through the Church.

Pope John XXII became a scandal to the world because of his corruption, not the least of which was his habit of excommunicating princes and then only lifting that excommunication when the princes finally offered enough gold to suit him.  These days, such corruption would make most people think that the power was itself illegitimate.  In John XXII’s day, nobody questioned that when he excommunicated somebody, that somebody would go to hell for eternity if he died before the excommunication was lifted. 

This is not to say that the princes took all this lying down, or without trying to maneurver around it.  On a number of occasions, one king or another captured the Pope (and at one point, captured him and moved him from Rome to Avignon, where it would be easier to keep an eye on him). 

But if Stalin had asked his question–how many divisions does the Pope have?–in 1200, he’d have received a resounding answer:  he’s got the keys to Heaven, and he can send you to hell and have you tormented for eternity. 

The unifying effects of a shared religion with a shared and single head were amplified by the fact that Europe also had a single language for official documents and official business, as well as for scholarship and art, right down to the thirteenth century.  Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is famous not only because it is a great work of art, but because it was the first work of “high” art written in the English vernacular, as Dante’s Divine Comedy was the first in the Italian vernacular.

Three hundred years later, most literature and all philosophy, science, and international documents were still being written in Latin, most university students heard their lectures in Latin, and all religious rituals were performed in Latin.  It took the Reformation to change that.

In spite of all this, I really can’t shake the feeling of “Englishness” in my vision of the Middle Ages, any more than I can shake the feeling of “Englishness” of the Victorian period.  I suppose I should be grateful that my vision of the Middle Ages at least recognizes the everybody else that was there.  My vision of the Victorian period is such that, when I am thinking of the Victorian period, or reading about it, or reading Victorian literature, it’s as if, in that period, nobody else existed on earth.

I don’t know, exactly, why I’ve attached the nationalities I have to the periods in question.  The English really were the world’s great power in the Middle Ages, and the Italians really were the great promoters of Humanism in the Renaissance–but the Americans were not the premier anything in the eighteenth century (in fact, we were rather minor and provincial), and England was largely a backwater on the world scene through most of the Middle Ages.

I wonder how much of my understanding of these periods–to the extent that I understand them at all–is affected by my subconscious assignment of them to particular national cultures.  I wonder how much of my attraction to, and dislike of, particular works of art, literature and music from these periods is affected by the same thing.

If you go to the first of the links at the start of this post, you’ll find a page that not only has an essay on it, but that has a series of thumbnail sketches of Italian paintings of the Middle Ages.  When I looked at it, I went completely past the first two–because they looked far too much like Greek icons, a style of art I associate with Greece in general and the Greek Orthodox Church in particular. 

The painting that really struck me is, in fact, the one that looks most like what would come next in Italian painting in the Renaissance.

Whatever.  As a conundrum to have in a life, it’s minor enough.  It’s just the kind of thing I can sometimes talk myself into worrying about.

Written by janeh

June 18th, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Mistaken Identities

with 2 comments

Some mornings, I get up, get my tea, do my work–and then feel sort of all over the place.  It isn’t that I’m finding it hard to concentrate.  It’s that all the functions of my brain feel like they’re being flown on a kite.  That probably doesn’t make any sense. And  I don’t really know how to explain it.  All  I’ll say is that I’m sorry if what follows doesn’t seem as…solid..as my posts sometimes are.

I’m in the middle of reading Dante’s Paradiso, the third part of the Divine Comedy.  I read Inferno and Purgatorio over the past couple of years, and I finally got to the place where I was ready to do it again.  You have to sort of gear up for Dante, even in translation.   And translation is the good news.  The original Italian is written in something called terza rima, a rhyme scheme that goes


and on and on and on, through three line verses almost wthout number–but not quite.  It’s something like 4000 lines.  I think I’d go completely insane trying to read that.

The translation is not in terza rima, of course, because it would be nearly impossible to get it that way given the differences between Italian and English, never mind medieval Italian and modern English.  That means I’m free to concentrate on content, and the content has just thrown up something interesting.

Consider Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.

Or rather, don’t consider him in toto. 

Just consider the Boethius part for a moment.

I first herad of Boethius–or thought I first heard of him–about ten years ago or so.  Boethius lived in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, and he ended his life imprisoned, tortured, starving and finally executed, because he ran afoul of the Ostrogoth King Theodoric.

I’d heard of him because he has recently become a secular sant to many people in the Humanist and Freethought movements, with his last written work, called The Consolation of Philosophy, put forward as the last great example of the Stoic tradition, and as nearly an ideal example of how secular people should face the realities of life and death.

I’ll admit that I was not terribly curious.  I did order a copy of the book–which I  haven’t read yet; it’s one of those things–but I had some vague idea of who this person was, and I just let it float.

What I thought I knew was this:  that Boethius, who was called “the last Roman” by a lot of people (even in history), was a pagan persecuted possibly for his refusal to accept Christianity, or something like that, and that when he was imprisoned he fell back on pagan philosophy to soldier through.

This was, pretty much, what the Humanist magazines were putting out, and I had no reason to doubt it, or even think about it, until I got to Dante’s Paradiso.

And there was Boethius again, except that this time he had another name, and I had heard of that one.

It was St. Severinus.

The full name is, as above, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.

Here’s the thing.

Boethius was a Christian theologian, and a campaigner against the Arian heresy, of which Theodoric–the guy who executed him–was an adherent. Down through the ages, until very recently, Boethius’s execution has been attributed to his refusal to abandon the traditional Christian faith in favor of Theodoric’s Arianism.

Boethius left numerous works of theology, and a long list of minor works, partial works, pieces of letters and other records that testify to his steadfast Christian faith over decades. 

And although it’s true enough that Christ is not mentioned in The Consolation of Philosophy, the work was well know immediately after Boethius’s death, and it didn’t stop the Catholic Church from consecrating him a saint as a Christian martyr. 

I don’t know where the revisionist history started that tried to prove either that he wasn’t a Christian at all (hardly credible, given all that theology), or that he’d given up his Christian faith before he died.  I just know that it’s become a favorite subject in Humanist circles.

It’s also almost certainly wrong.  The Consolation of Philosophy does not contradict the Christian faith, even if it doesn’t mention it.  The book was extremely popular with Christians throughout the next centuries, and it remains popular in the Catholic Church today. 

The Humanist assumption seems to be that if the Church is not mentioned it must be rejected, because the Church would not accept that there was any other way than the narrowly “religious” one to face the problems of life.

In other words, it’s a mistake based on that same assumption that Christians are everywhere and always narrow-minded, anti-intellectual and stupid.

But there’s more to this, if you think about it.

No matter who Boethius actually was, he now serves thousands of people in the US alone as the poster child for persecuted intellectualism–the brilliant pagan philosopher tortured and executed by a rapacious, violent and destructive Church. 

It almost doesn’t matter if this is not true, because the lack of truth in it does not stop the image from being accepted and embraced by a lot of people who don’t know better.

And this is not the kind of thing you can expect people to know better about.  Even in the kind of rigorous intellectual history-oriente sort of education I’m in favor of, you’re unlikely to come across much about Boethius.  I think I may have put up The Consolation of Philosopher on The Western Canon According to Me, but mostly as example of a certain kind of philosophical reasoning.  Just reading the book won’t tell you much of anything about Boethius’s life.

And Boethius is hardly the only person in history who has come to stand for something completely opposed to what it was he really was.

My favorite example of this is still Robin Hood, who has gone down through the centuries as the man who “robbed from the rich and gave to the poor,” as if he were some kind of proto-Communist.

What he really did was to rob tax collectors and give the tax money back to the people who’d had to pay it.  He should be the patron saint of Libertarianism.  But everybody “knows” the other thing, and there we are.

A more modern example of this would be all the events around the Scopes trial, which people tend to know only in the version given in Inherit The Wind, where the Scopes character is a well meaning high school teacher just wanting to open minds, and where everybody on the other side is ignorant, stupid, horrifically cruel or just plain crazy. 

In real life, Scopes never taught a single word of Darwin in a classroom, and the whole thing was a set up by Scopes and the ACLU to test the legitimacy of the law.  They were aided in this project by the municipal administration of Dayton, Tennesee, which was as interested in the outcome as they were.

What interests me is this:  does in matter, in PRACTICAL terms, whether the general public has the facts right in cases like these? 

With the Scopes trial, I think we can make a case–but I’m not really sre in the cases of  Boethius and Robin Hood. 

Whoever these people were  in real life, they are somebody else for us now, an the sombody elses they are are what have an impact on the way we live. 


I don’t really want to sound as if I don’t care what is true and what is not.  I do care.

It’s just that I think that the impact such people have on us is the impact they have on us.  And that impact may be significant even if its’ wrong.

And that means, I think, that we have to take that wrongness as seriously as if the legends were right.


I’ve stopped knowing how to make this make sense.

Written by janeh

June 17th, 2010 at 7:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Alvin Greene

with 4 comments

I know, I know.

I keep saying I want to talk about Lorenzo de Medici.

And I do.  I still think of him as one of the most fascinating people who have ever lived, if only because he embodies–in his person–the fundamental contradictions of culture and education with human nature.

But something else has come up at the moment, and it fascinates me, too.

About a week ago, a number of American states held primaries.  For those of you outside the US, a primary is an election held to determine which person will stand as candidate for a party for a seat in the coming November elections.

Sometimes candidates are selected by a simply party process.  Sometimes, however, there is no consensus in the party, or lots of people want to run for that seat.  In that case, and election is held, one person gets to be the candidate, and on we go to November.

Most states where primaries are held hold restricted primaries–that is, if you want to vote in the Democratic Party primary for the Connecticut Senate seat up for election in November, you have to be a registered member of the Democratic Party. 

Some states, however, run open primaries.  An open primary are not ones where anybody can run, but ones where anybody can vote for any candidate in spite of  party affiliation.

Therefore, if you’re a Republican and the Democrats are running a primary, you can vote in that primary. 

In case you’re ahead of me here–yes, people have noticed that there is a potential problem with this.  If you’re a Whig, and you have an incumbent Senator (or Representative, or whatever) whom you want to see re elected, and he’s a little weak, and the Tories are having a primary to pick their candidate to run against yours–well, what’s to stop you and a bunch of other Whigs banding together to vote for the weakest guy over there to be the opposition candidate to yours?

It’s confusing.  I know.  It took me awhile.

But here’s the thing–there is the above scenario, and then there is the South Carolina Senate seat now held by Republican Jim Demint.

Now, the South Carolina Republian Party seems to be in some version of free fall.  It’s the Republican governor of that state who suddenly disappeared in the middle of a work week, was announced by his aides to be hiking the Appalachian trail, and was then found in South America with his mistress.

It’s also the case where a deputy assistant state attorney general was found in a cemetary with an eighteen-year-old prostitute–in the middle of the day, mind you–and a bag of sex toys in his car.  When asked about the sex toys, he said, “Oh, I always carry those around.  For emergencies.”

(Disclaimer–I am in no way implying that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to be involved in sex scandals.  I’m just pointing out that the South Carolina Repubican Party seems to be on some kind of roll.)

Jim Demint has not been involved in any sex scandals, as far as I know, and he is running in November for the seat he now holds.

What’s interesting is what happened in the Democratic Party primary to choose a candidate to run against him.

There was a fair field of the usual sort of people running to be the candidate, including one state heavyweight who’d been a judge.  And there was this guy, Alvin Greene, whom nobody had ever heard of. 

And  Alvin Greene won. 


So far, so good–right?  It’s not unheard of for candidates to come from behind to win things like this, and Greene was the only African American in the field, in a state with a large African American population. 

At that point, however, the press actually began to look into this guy’s candidacy, and a few things emerged.

The first was that the man had held exactly zero–none–fundraising events of any kind.  There was no record that he had sent out mailings, solicited money house by house, nothing.  He needed $10, 500 just to get himself on the ballot, and he had it, but nobody could figure out where it came from.

The second was that he had done no campaigning.  None at all.  At least, he’d done none that anybody could find any evidence of.

And that was when the trouble started.  But it got a lot worse.

Because the first thing that happened was that Keith Olbermann invited Alvin Greene onto his nightly news commentary show on MSNBC.  The show is called Countdown, and I was actually watching when the interview happened.

You might want to try the MSNBC site and/or YouTube to see if they’ve got a clip of this thing, because it was startling. 

This MIGHT be the URL to the Olbermann interview on YouTube


but since I can’t run YouTube on this computer, I can’t check.  (New computer coming soon–yay!)

If I hadn’t had the students I’ve had over the last ten years, I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at.  For what it’s worth, I think a number of the people who have commented on this situation since have misinterpreted it.

But here’s what happened:  Greene got on television and produced a blank-eyed, unblinking stare.  When he was asked a question, he made no indication at all that he’d even heard it.  The silences would sometimes go on so long that Olbermann would jump in just to end the dead air.

When Greene did answer a question, his words were mumbled and minimal.  What campaigning did you do?  Long, long silence, followed by, “I did campaigning.  I campaigned.”  Back to silence.

Since that interview, at least one South Carolina Democrat has expressed the opinion that Alivin Greene is not intellectually qualified to be a legislator–a nice, if roundabout, way of saying he thinks the man may be mentally retarded.  A number of other people have said that they think Greene was sincere in his run, but being “taken advantage of” by nefarious people in the background–another roundabout way of saying that they think the man is simple, as we used to say when I was growing up.

I don’t know if the man is or not.  He was indeed behaving the way many such people do behave–not the ones with Down Symdrome or Autism, but the ones with subnormal IQs.  On the other hand, I’ve had my share of bright enough students who behave like that when they feel they’re being put under the spotlight. 

It’s not a great defense mechanism as mechanisms go, but it is possible that the man is much brighter than he appears.

Of course, freezing and playing dumb when you’re in the public eye isn’t exactly a great qualification for a US Senator, either, but that’s another thing.

To be going on eith, however, there are other problems here.  The most important is where that $10,500 came from.  When asked, Greene fumbled around and did the stare thing and then said he’d used his own money, that he’d saved up from his time in the service.

If this is true–fine.  If it’s not, and somebody else, or a number of somebody elses, gave it to him, what we’re looking at is a federal felony.  For all the yelling and screaming about machinations behind elections in the US, there’s some fairly tough election law covering things like where you get your money from and how it has to be reported and that kind of thing.  Since Greene did not report any fundraising, and did not release any donor lists, if he did take money from other people, he might very well end up going to jail.

The other thing, of course, is how he won without campaigning–and now we get to asking if that old conspiracy story actually came to pass this time, and a bunch of Republicans voted in the Democratic Party in order to insure that the Democrats had the weakest possible candidate to run against Jim Demint.

And it doesn’t help that South Carolina is still using those old Diebold digital voting machines that don’t leave a paper trail, and there are yet again dozens of complaints from voters about malfunctions of the touch screens and that kind of thing.

It is,  I think, a mess.

And I’m willing to bet it’s going to get messier.

Written by janeh

June 15th, 2010 at 8:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Distraction–Or Maybe Not

with 4 comments

This was on Arts and Letters Daily this morning–


Be sure to click on the link to the full Bard freshman seminar reading llist.

And remember that Bard was always considered to be a hotbet of faculty leftism when I went to college…

And before bitching about what is or isn’t on the reading list–remember, the purpose of the course is to have students read what they think they ALREADY know, but that they don’t.

Written by janeh

June 14th, 2010 at 9:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

While all the rest of this stuff has been going on, I finally finished my afternoon book.  It’s called The Secret Language of the Renaissance:  Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art, by Richard Stemp, and it leaves me with a couple of things to say.

The first is that I really hadn’t realized, before this particular book, how much the size and shape of a book matter in the way I read it.  This is an outsized, coffee-table type art book, full of really gorgeous illustrations, and it’s damned near impossible to pick up and read.

To read it, I had to lay it out on the arm of the loveseat and lean over it sideways.  I couldn’t bring it with me to school or to lunch.  It didn’t fit in any of the things I usually bring with me, not even the outsized knitting bag my friend Carol gave me that fits my grade book and folders.  It was also too difficult and too awkward to handle when I was standing in line anywhere.  It wasn’t much better in the car.  I’d prop it up against the steering wheel, and all I had to do was breathe funny to make the horn go off underneath it.

I often wonder if this would be a problem with electronic book formats like Kindle.  They’re smaller than this book, of course, and meant to be portable, but for some reason I feel that they would also be far more fragile.  I can bang a book around without worrying about it, except around water.  I have visions of my caving in the Kindle in my tote bag because I drop a heavy book in there with it, or I end up slamming the bag against a corner as I’m going around it.

Whatever.  I’ll admit to not being really entranced with the idea of electronic books.

The second thing is that I find myself really happy to have found something new to learn about–ack.  That’s not quite right.

Let me try it this way.  Art has an entire technical vocabulary I have encountered only infrequently in my life, and an entire intellectual history I know very little about.  This was a good book for me because it was not so simple as to make the whole project seem vapid and overly simply, but not so technical that I couldn’t understand it with a little work.

And it made me remember that I like doing the work.  I started a small notebook for terms and information after a while, just trying to keep things straight in a single source where I could refer to them when they came up again.  I found out that there were names for things I didn’t know there were names for–pendentives, for instance, which are the triangular sort of insert looking things that  fix a round dome to a square structure.

This is the kind of thing I should have brought away from Introduction to Art History, years ago.  Maybe I wasn’t paying attention.  When I was younger, I tended to think of anything that didn’t have to do with words as being essentially trivial.

It’s been a long time since I’ve actually found something I wanted to understand thoroughly and began the process of doing that.  I’m glad to be back at it.

Maybe it helps that Italian Renaissance art was designed to be “read”–that is, was designed with enough references and allusions to give Yeats a headache.  I posted a link to this picture on Facebook a week or so ago, but I’ll post it again here:


I may have posted it here, too.

I like it because I like it–I like the near photographic quality of it in spite if the fact that it is obvious not photographic.

But I also like it because it fascinates me as a message.  Every image in it, even the little line of articles (the candle, the vase) on the shelf above Mary’s head, has specific meaning that anybody in the Renaissance, even people who were illiterate in the ordinary way, would have been able to decode.

It’s not just the images, either.  Things like the relative placement of the figures, the specific colors and kinds of paint that were used, were all part of conveying a narrative–and narrative was definitely the point of most art in Italy in this period. 

So I’m back to stories, just stories told in pictures.  Think of Crevelli’s Annunciation as   the high art tradition’s version of a comic book…

Or maybe not.

The third thing is a quote from Stemple’s text.  It’s his attempt to explain how Renaissance artists, sculptors and thinkers defined the word “civilization.”

Civilization, he says, is “nature subjected to the organized mind of man.”

If with “nature” you include “human nature,” I think that’s a very nice way of putting it, a way we probably couldn’t put it now, without being subjected to a lot of lectures from environmentalists.

The Renaissance had no sentimental delusions about nature.  It was not an era whem people imagined that “the natural” was “the good.”  It was often an era when “the natural” was equivalent to “the evil.” 

Nature was not only fallen, not only shot through with evil due to the original sin of Adam and Eve, but imperfect.

For years I wondered how people like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine would revere both Aristotle and Plato at the same time.  It seemed like a contradiction.  Aristotle and Plato were poles apart–direct opposites, in fact–when it came to things like politics and the perfectability of human beings.

I should have remembered that different eras have different obsessions.  Renaissance philosophers–and artists and theologians–didn’t pay much attention to the political thought of either philosopher.  They saw in Plato’s concept of this world being but a pallid shadow of the Ideal Forms which exist in eternity a way of explaining the relationship between this world and God’s perfection. 

Like the huddled men staring at the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave, we, St. Paul said, “see through a glass darkly.”

And, I’ll admit, that was something that had never occurred to me before.  Not bad for a book that was probably not really intended to be read.  If you know what I mean.

Anyway, that thing about civilization being “nature subjected to the organized mind of man” intrigues me, and has landed me once again in front of Lorenzo de Medici.

But I think I’ll worry about it tomorrow.

Written by janeh

June 13th, 2010 at 6:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Internal Contradictions

with 6 comments

I never know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that I sit down to write the post in the morning and I don’t know where to start.

This morning, however, I’d better start with the most salient point.

I never said that William Henry was a conservative.

What I said was that he took a number of positions–a lot of them, really–that virtually everybody in America these days would assume were conservative positions.

These include

1) opposition to affirmative action

2) the position that affirmative action is a process by which lesser qualified candidates are given preferment over better qualified ones (and therefore is a form of racism)

3) an antipathy for the graduated income tax, under the assumption that such a tax is meant to punish achievement and success

4) an opposition to “victim’s studies” departments in colleges and universities

5) an opposition to “mainstreaming” the mentally handicapped in elementary and high school classrooms

6) an opposition to uncontrolled immigration and an insistance that immigrants learn English, Americanize themselves and assimilate

7) an opposition to conducting business, especially government business, in the US in anything but English

8) the firm belief that Western civilization in general and American civilization in particular is objectively superior to most of the others that now or have ever existed, and especially superior to the cultures of the present-day “third world.”

If I gave you that list of positions and told you nothing else about the person who held them, you would assume that person was a Republican.  So would I. 

And we’d be right.   In today’s political climate–and in the political climate of the early  90s, about which Henry is writing–those would be Republican positions.

What has always bothered me, what continues to bother me, is how it is possible to reconcile such positions with the position that highly educated elites are bad, and that goodness in the political process belongs to “just plain folks.”

In fact, I think that last thing, in the paragraph above, is inherently contradictory to the rest of the list, numbered above.

Of course, the obverse is also inherently contradictory–it makes no sense to champion lowered standards in schools and colleges and the superiority of Guatamalen folk art over Michaelangelo at the same time you’re insisting that the government is better run if it’s run by highly educated elites.

Back in the 30s, the Democrats had both the drive to economic leveling and the folk singers.  It was upper class Republicans who upheld the high art traditon while at the same time opposing the graduated income tax.

The parts of the puzzle do not go together for me. 

In the 60s, as in the 39s, being a progressive Democrat meant dumping all that higher learning, high achieving stuff and going in for folk art.  Being a Conservative–at least a William F. Buckley conservative–meant not only championing capitlism but looking down your nose at rock music and insisting that the high art tradition was the only tradition worthy of being called art.

This situation got turned around in the 80s, and I’m not quite sure how, although I think I know why.

What I am trying to say here is this:  it makes absolutely no sense to me that people who take the positions I outline above would ALSO take the position that all virtue resides in the “folks,” and that “elites” are bad.

The positions outlined above are, as Henry notes, essentially elitist ones.  To say that Western Civilization is superior to others is to say that Western Civilization is better and others are worse.  To say that entry to university should be on “merit only” is to say that some people are better than others and deserve better things–and that this sense of “better” is objective and universally applicable.

Back on the main page of this web site, I’ve got an essay–one of the ones on the menu on the right hand side–called “Why I Don’t Vote Republican.”  It comes in three parts, the last of which is called “The Stupid Thing.”   A number of people who have written that essay have said that it doesn’t make much sense to them.

This is what I was trying to get across here.

First, that the self-conscious apotheosis of “just plain folks” does not fit the rest of the positions that supposedly make up the Republican political philosophy and

Second, that it’s a deal breaker for me when any political party denigrates intelligence, education, and high culture.

And, what’s more, Ayn Rand would agree with me.

In spades.

A week or so ago, Steve Lewis (from the other blog) got confused as to why I would link “small town values” and Sarah Palin, and this is why.

But I still don’t understand how either political party manages to bridge the contraditions.

Written by janeh

June 11th, 2010 at 7:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2, 4, 6, 8–Okay, The Numbers Were Not A Good Idea

with one comment

So, to get back to where I was yesterday–Henry’s book isn’t actually about literature, or even the arts, specifically.  He has something to say about them, but it’s in passing.  His major bone of contention is what we would now call “multicutluralism,” which is an approach to cultural diversity that says that all culturals are equal to all others, that no culture can be called superior to any other.

Part of the problem I’m having trying to think of a way to talk about this is in the fact that the words are all vague or inadequate.  By that, I mean the words to define what it is we’re talking about.

“Culture” is one of those things that’s so broad in its general usage as to be almost useless.  People say “Western culture” when what they mean is “Western Civilization,” but also when what they mean is “the way people in the West live now.”  People talk about the “culture” of the “knitting community.”  They also talk about “the culture of consumption,” meaning a lifestyle thread within the larger “culture” that is distinct and…I don’t know.  Totalizing?

Henry tends to use “culture” almost as a synonym for civilization, but not quite, which makes things difficult to sort out sometimes.

His point, however, is that some cultures are superior to others, and some are inferior to others. 

Outside of diehard ideologues, I don’t think much of anybody would find this a controversial idea.  Even those of us who don’t want to say so, because it would be rude and hurt other people’s feelings, tend to think that a culture that favors FGM, the right of men to beat their wives and the banishment of women from public life is inferior to one that accords women equal economic, political and social rights with men.

For myself, in terms of modern cultures, what always strikes me about the Islamic states now in existence is the extent to which they are unable to maintain themselves in any meaningful way.  Places like Saudi Arabia have lots of money, bought from sales of oil.  And they have modern, well-functioning hospitals, impressive architecture, everything you could want technologically–but by and large the have to hire Europeans, Americans and Australians to build and run these things.

This is not, obviously, some genetic defect on the part of the people of these countries, making them incapable of learning science and technology.  Saudis and Iranians who come here to live often do very well as doctors and engineers.  The people who remain at home, however, seem to either not want, or to be in some way culturally prevented from, scientific and technoloigical achievement.  Or even scientific and technological functioning.

The other thing that strikes me about cultures as they now exist on the planet is the extent to which they can be divided into those that do, and those that do not, contribute to global welfare.

This–like the scientific and technological stuff above–is not necessarily a function of the wealth of the countries or cultures involved.  There are poor states all along the Pacific rim that provide goods and services to the rest of the world at prices cheap enough to bring comfort and entertainment to people who might otherwise not be able to afford it.

More importantly, though, there are cultures that produce technological innovation, medical and other scientific discovery, books and movies and music and other artworks–whose output positively affects the lives of people in hundreds of different ways.

There are others that produce little or nothing of this kind of thing. 

And I would say that the societies who do are superior, at least on that measure, to the ones that don’t.

The worry, of course–the reason why so many people shy away from this kind of judgment–is that if we acknowledge that one culture is better than another, we will also be endorsing the idea that the first culture has the right (or maybe even the obligation) to invade and conquer the second.

After all, wouldn’t it be just for the second culture’s own good?

I do not, personally, understand why this needs to be so.  Of course, lots of people think it’s necessary to forcibly intervene when they see somebody acting in a way that “isn’t good for him,” but I’ve never had that particular kink. 

And there is nothing intrinsic to acknowleging relative values to different cultures that requires anybody to intervene to “fix” the ones that are less than ideal.

Henry, to be fair, does not suggest that we should do any such thing.

What he does say, in his list of things that make one civlization/culure superior to another, is that a superior civilization keeps its citizens “safe,” in the sense of keeping them from being invaded and taken over by some other civilization.

In other words, that any conquered culture is–by the very fact that it has been conquered–inferior to the culture that conquers it.

And that’s an idea I keep running around a lot.

Henry’s attributes of a superior civilization comprise the following:

1) It “promotes the liberty of its citizens”  That is–it “fends off invaders”  So the issue in contention here is the first one.

2) “provides a comfortable life, relatively free from want, for a plupart of its citizens”   I find the “relatively” here very interesting. 

3) “promotes modern science, medicine and hygiene and otherwise maximizes the health, comfort and longevity of its citizens”

4) “produces permanent artifacts that express esthetic and humanistic principles appreciated by other cultures”  There’s a lot in that one.  The “appreciated by other cultures” thing is a potential can of worms.  But I’ll get there.

5) “provides widespread, rigorous general education and ensures a generally meritocratic admissions system, so that the chief talents of each generation will be fully exploited”

6) “expands, by trade or cultural imperialism or conquest or all of the above, and will find its tenets embraced by the erstwhile captives even when the era of expansion is over”

7) “organizes itself hierarchically, tends toward central authority, and overcomes tribal and regional divisions, all without suppressing the individual opportunity for self-expression and advancement”

It’s an interesting list, and I’ve tried to quote it directly rather than paraphrasing it, so that I’m as accurate as I can be.

But it’s worth thinking about–and the problem with it are even more worth thinking about.

And I may do that tomorrow.

Written by janeh

June 10th, 2010 at 6:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

And A 1, And A 2…

with 2 comments

So, Robert thinks I’m going to yell at him–but I’m not.  I’m much more fascinated by the fact that a) we have been defining “deference” differently all this time, and b) we’ve been talking past each other on the subject of the Canon and objective standards for art.

Let me start with deference.

I do, of course, sometimes “defer” to the judgment of other people in particular cases, if by “defer” you mean deciding to go with “if you say so.”

But there is no subject–not cancer treatments, not quantum mechanics, not even the weight a bridge would carry–on which I automatically assume somebody else to be “right” just because they have a credential (or even a lot of experience) that’s supposed to make them an expert.

In my experience, experts are wrong a lot.  If I trust the person, I’ll trust his judgment.  If not–and you’d be amazed at what I’m willing to challenge–I’m going to go research the subject before I allow your “expertise” to rule the day.

To me, “deference” is not a question of whether or not you do or do not accept a person’s judgment in a particular area.  It’s a question of acknowledging that the other person is intrinsically better than you are, AS A PERSON. 

“Oh, yes.  You’re MUCH better than I am.  I should look up to you and follow you.”

That’s deference.

And I give it to nobody, and do not expect it for myself.  And, as I’ve said, I’ve known very few people in my life who have been interested in that kinds of things–and the most obvious example was not an English professor, but a school nurse. 

I think people who want “deference” in that sense are intrinsically bad people–and dangerous people, too.   But although I have known a professor or two with that problem, my acquaintance with them has been overwhelmingly with people in the “helping professions.”  My guess is that there are going to be a few in every profession, but that some professions are more congenial to this kind of personality than others.

On the other hand, I’ve known one of these people in private life.  You can demand this sort of thing of a family as well as of a client, or a colleague.

That said, however, it’s got to be obvious that most of what’s been said here about objective standards for the arts and about the Canon has been to a large extent a matter of assumptions not fitting the context.

For one thing, I would NEVER suggest that ANYBODY should simply accept that X or Y is a great work of are, or that W or F is a bad one, simply on somebody’s say-so.  Hell, if I won’t automatically accept a doctor’s cancer diagnosis on the basis of his say so, I’ve got no idea why I would want to accept Professor X’s decision that Don Quixote is a great novel on the basis of his say so.

A lot of the confusion comes, I think, because, when we get into discussions of this sort of thing on this blog, we are never talking about just one thing.  We keep jumbling things together–objective standards for art, what belongs on the Canon, somebody or the other’s required reading list–that seem to be the same subject, but are not.

On the subject of objective standards for art, the claim of the necessity of absolute relativity is untrue on its face.  At the very least, it’s simple enough to design an interior system–that is, a system where judgments of “good” and “bad” are made by referring to an a-priori set of rules.

We do this all the time in sports.  We say that Serena Williams played “a good game of tennis” or Lebron James played “a good game of basketball,” and this isn’t about the score.  It’s possible for somebody to win playing a bad game and lose playing a good game.  There are rules internal to the game that determine the “goodness” or “badness,” the relative worth of the played game, that people who actually understand the internal system can determine with a great degree of consensus. 

The rules for judging relative worth, then, are arbitrary but perfectly objective.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I was looking through the book on Italian Renaissance art I’ve been talking about.  Renaissance artists and philosophers wrote a lot about the internal rules of the game, so to speak–they developed elaborate rules for painting, for sculpture and for architecture–many of them mathematically based–and applied this to their own practice and to judging the practice of others. 

Art understood in this way would fit Robert’s requirements that he be able to check it, and that the results of such checks be at least reasonably reliable.  There would, of course, be grey areas on the edges and points of contention–but outside pure mathematics, there always are.

Which brings me to my second problem in these discussions:  the insistance of applying ruled and standards to the attempt to define objective criteria for art that would not be applied elsewhere.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again–the mere fact that there is controversy about X does NOT mean that there is no objective truth about X.  It may just mean that some people are wrong. 

There’s a lot of controversy about the theory of evolution–that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing but opinion and all opinions are equal.  It just means that some people are wrong.  There once was a lot of controversy about the shape of the earth.  That doesn’t mean the roundness of the earth was just a matter of opinion, no more or less connected to reality than the flatness of it.  It just means that some people were wrong.

The fact that there are lots of different opinions about  X doesn’t mean that there is no true, objectively, about X.  It just means that people can and do believe what they want to, for lots of reasons, and often with facts be damned.

We would not declare all of biology to be “just a matter of opinion” because lots of people don’t accept evolution, or even because there are differing views on the nature and existence of the Cambrian explosion among biologists themselves. 

There’s no reason to declare the arts entirely subjective matters of opinion because people do have different opinions about them.   People have different opinions about everything.

The second thing here is the assumption, never stated by always running around underneath, that English teachers and literary critics are the “experts” on what makes a great work of literature, that art history teachers and art critics are the “experts” on what makes a great work of art.

But this is like saying that philosophers of science are the “experts” on what makes good biology, say, or that architectural critics are the “experts” are what makes a great building.

In most fields, experts are not usually outside critics or chroniclers of the field.  They’re the actual practitioners in it.

The Renaissance had no English teachers, but it did have writers who both produced work (Orlando Furioso, for instance) and judged other work (Dante’s Divinia Comedia, for instance). 

The third problem is that the judgment of what is or is not a great work of art is separate from the judgment of what belongs on a Canon, or what should be required in the classroom.

Neither the Canon nor anybody’s required reading list is compiled as a list of what constitutes great art.  Great art may indeed be on it, but only because great art tends to be influential in a lot of different ways.

The Canon is first and foremost a list of works necessary to understanding the intellectual history of a civilization.  These include literature, philosophy, history, painting, sculpture, music, theoretical works of all kinds, religion–some of these works will be great by internal objective standards and some of them (Mein Kampf, for instace) only necessary to understanding the whole.

As for the Required Reading List–well, that’s another thing altogether.  Required reading lists for high school and college courses are not usually compiled on the basis of what is or is not great literature.

For high school, the issue is teaching certain advanced reading skills.  Sometimes this is done by trying to “expose” students to great literature, but more often it is done by picking things the teachers think the students can ‘relate” to in the hope that they’ll bother to read anything at all. 

And this is as true of the old freshman English course that included “readings” in fiction and poetry as it is of high school courses. 

These days, most Freshman English courses require no reading in poetry or fiction AT ALL–they stick to essays about topical subjects like abortion or gay rights or gun rights or war. 

Once you get beyond Freshman English, a decent English major is looking to make sure students know a long range of works across the centuries–it is, essentially, a study of the works that have lasted as a way to understand the internal workings of imaginative forms in English.

So, yes, I wouldn’t bother to assign Trollope to students in Frenshman English–but I would expect he’d be represented as part of the Nineteenth Century Novel course requirement for majors. 

Even so, however, that would say nothing about whether Trollope wrote great novels. The choice of what novels to include in a Nineteenth Century Novel course is not made on the basis of what works are “great,” but of what works it is necessary to read to understand the history and evolution of the form as it has come down to us.

Henry in his book sides with the “we should teach people about  X because X represents one of the highest human achievements” line–and it’s one that’s interesting enough on several levels.

But it has nothing to do with according anybody deference, in my definition of the world.

I’m actually cold.

Written by janeh

June 9th, 2010 at 9:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5, 6, 7, 8…

with 3 comments

There are a lot of books in my house, hundreds of them at least, maybe thousands.  There have also been a lot of books in my life.  In that case, the number is almost certainly many, many thousands over the course of the years.

One of the peculiarities of my life has been the fact that it hasn’t always been possible to hold onto the books from one point of departure to another.  I’ve moved continents a couple of times.  I didn’t pack all the books in boxes and send them around to where I was next.  For a while I kept a lot of them at my parents’ house–but they moved around some themselves, and in the end they were storing things with me.

So books got lost, and it didn’t really bother me a lot.  It seemed natural, and books can be rebought, most of the time, if you really want them.  Sometimes–maybe even more often than not–I found out I didn’t.

The much less frequent, and distinctly odder, phenomenon has been that of the books I just can’t seem to lose, even if I’m trying.  These tend to be books that I remember distinctly for some reason or the other, but not ones that I necessarily liked. 

I usually have no intention of reading them again., and yet there they are, every time I turn around–on top of the TBR stack even though I’ve already read them, on the counter in the kitchen, the first or second or third thing to hand when I’m looking for something else.

One of these books is a short thing called In Defense of Elitism by William A. Henry III.  I suppose there’s something almost funny in the fact that somebod writing a book defending elitism should be “III.” 

Henry was–before his massive heart attack at 44, just before this book was published–a “cultural critic” for Time and other magazines.  He’d also done some fairly serious journalism, notably on civil rights during the civil rights movement, and won two Pulitizers.  One of the Pulitizers was, I think, for a biography of Jackie Gleason.

The book came out in 1994, and it’s been in print ever since.  Which is an interesting thing on several levels.

Let me pass over, for a minute, the fact that Henry is the only person I have ever heard, before I started talking to Robert, who really had a thing about the word “deference.”  And I’m going to get to the deference thing is a minute.

Let me start by saying that the book is not screamingly original.  Most of what Henry has to say–about affirmative action, about “victim’s studies” departments, whatever–has been said a million times before.  It’s just that, these days, sixteen years after the fact, most of the people who say them are also witheringly contemptuous of the high art tradition.

In a way, Henry’s book makes more sense to me than the critiques of much of the contemporary populist right, because I think it hangs together better–it is, in fact, conservatism as I had known it in the pages of National Review in my childhood.  There is something just–confused–about a group of people who both champion the high art tradition and push for gay studies departments at the ivy-covered alma mater, which is what we have now, with the upper middle class liberal-left.

That said, Henry is not, as far as I can tell, a conservative.  He thinks gun rights are only “imagined,” he thinks dislike of homosexuality is mindless bigotry–let’s face it, no conservative organization would have him.  And the Republican Party of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party would vomit him up like bad meat.

The left wouldn’t have been much in love with him, either, though.  If he hadn’t died before publication, he’d probably have had a rough time of it.  Even as it was, a few self-consciously liberal and left reviewers allowed as how Henry didn’t have the courage of his convictions.  He should have just said that other races and sexes besides heterosexual white European males were genetically inferior to those heterosexual white European males.

This always interests me, as a tactic, because it is a sort of self contradiction.  Why is it that people who claim that all human idenity is socially constructed–that intelligence, artistic talent, and the rest is a matter of nurture and not nature–have such a hard time accepting the actual (and predictable) consequences of differences in nurture?

Most African Americans were slaves until 1865, and then burderend with racist law throughout half the country for another hundred years after that.  They were denied significant education in many places.  Is it really surprising that they have not yet produced an African American Shakespeare?  Is the only possible answer to that that there must be something genetically inferior about African Americans?

Most of sub Saharan Africa is a climate-induced tangle of jungle that the rest of the world found it very difficutl to penetrate, therefore cuting off the societies there from intercourse with the wider world.  The climate also made it difficult to preserve buildings, never mind fragile artefacts like manuscripts.  Is it really surprising that no major civilization (on the scale or Greece or Rome or even the Incas) arose in what is now Zimbabwe?  Is the only possible answer to that that there must be something genetically inferior about African peoples?

For some reason, a significant number of people seem to have a problem understanding that “not yet” isn’t the same thing as “not ever possible.”

But although I find most of Henry’s analysis unexceptionable, there is one thing in the book that absolutely took me aback the first time I read it, and it’s something I never forgot.

That was why, when the book came swimming to the surface again the other day, I sat down and reread it. 

It’s on page 135 of the paperback edition I own. 

It’s where he says–in the context of health care rationing–that some lives are just more worth saving than others.

I’ll get back to this. 

It keeps bugging me, and for more reasons than you might think.

Written by janeh

June 8th, 2010 at 7:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Taste: The Lemon Test

with 4 comments

Yesterday, I went crazy, looking all over the web for an image I wanted to post here.  Usually, this is not a problem.  I know it isn’t really true that everything is on the Net, but it sometimes seems like that.

In the end, I found only one image, and it’s from the Powell Books page on the very book I’m sort of half-reading in the afternoons.  The URL turned out to be War and Peace, so I shortened it at tinyurl.com, which gave me this:


With any luck, it will work. 

What it is is one of the intarsia panels made for the “studiolo” of one Frederigo da Montefeltro, and it exists in the book as an example of the growth of the use of perspective in painting. 

The trick in this case is this:  Frederigo da Montefeltro had only one eye.  And because he had only one eye, what he saw when he looked at that painting was much different from what we see.  The eyes work differently depending on whether we have the use of one or two of them.

I’ve got absolutely no idea if this is true, and I find the writer’s contention that this painting would look “much more impressive” to da Montefeltro than it does to us completely astonishing.  I find it impressive as hell as it is. 

And I’m a little worried about the image that URL leads to, because on my computer you can’t get the whole image up at one time.  You have to scroll.

But here’s the thing–I think the issue of taste is essentially an issue of perspective. That is, different people have different “tastes” in music, painting, literature, sculpture, food, you name it, because they are in some way situated differently.

I am not now talking about the endless drudging nonsense about “sex race class” that has come to substitute for actually understanding literature in some of our college English departments. 

Or maybe what I mean to say is that the “gender race class” thing is nonense not so much because those things don’t in some way factor in to a person’s enjoyment of (or lack of enjoyment of) the arts, but that the way in which these things are conceived in literary theory doesn’t factor in.

I’m falling all over myself here.

The problem with the “gender race class” thing is not that it wants to know what those things have to do with how people respond to the arts, but that it DOESN’T–what “gender race class” theorists do instead is decide beforehand how those things SHOULD matter in the way people respond to the arts, and then try to come up with rationalizations for why that isn’t the way they actually do.

That’s the point at which we all start to get endless lectures about “false consciousness,'” and the saner among up pack our bags and go home.

The problem, of course, is that “gender race class” matter in ways that are more complicated than a politicized analysis can deal with.  With sex, for instance, it’s almost certainly the case that we’re dealing with some things that are at least partially innate.

I’m not an essentialist, but I don’t have to be one to know that if it is true all behavior is socially constructed, Darwin was wrong.  Some differences in “taste” will just be there, because they are.  My older son was four years old the first time he tried escargot.  He ate the entire late in one go.  Some things, we’re just born with.

I don’t think we can change what we inherit in genetics, but I do think we can channel it–in fact, I know we can channel it.  So lived experience, and habituation, are both going to be factors. 

This would give the “gender race class” people their opening, if they actually knew anything about the lived effects of gender, race and class.  I suppose it would be petty of me to note, here, that if these people had spent some time actually reading and understanding the literature they claim to be expert in, they’d have a better chance of getting this right.

But I saw a beautiful example of not getting it right a few weeks ago on a television show called Countdown with Keith Olbermann. 

A man–I think he was an editor at  The Nation, but I’m not sure–at any rate, a guest on the show, went something like, “How do we explain to these people?  We don’t want to take your money and give it to somebody else.  We want to take the banker’s money and give it to you.”

And the guy was convinced that people couldn’t understand this, because he was sure if they did understand it they’d have to be in favor of it.

Which put me in mind of a Josh Thompson country song called “Way Out Here.” 

Which that guy ought to listen to, but won’t. 

The other thing, though, is that it’s fairly obvious that both the innate and the habituated can be overcome, either deliberately because we try to do it or accidentally.  Frderigo da Montefeltro didn’t start out with only one eye.  He lost one in a “jousting accident.”

And even in cases where it can’t be overcome, it can be channeled. 

If we could bring all these things together and actually examine them, we might come to some conclusions about what makes “taste.” 

And that might be interesting.  I’m fascinated by the idea that da Montefeltro saw something different in that painting than I do.   And there’s surely a part of me that would like to understand why some things become enormous best sellers–Chicken Soup for the Soul, for instance. 

But I think what really strikes me in all this is this:

When we talk about taste, we’re not talking about the arts we seem to be referencing.

We’re talking about ourselves.

And what the “gender race class” people in English departments have done–aside from nearly destroy the study of literature–is to find an analytical-sounding way to talk about themselves. 

For all the self-righteous blather about “confronting white skin privelege” and “empowring the other,” what modern college English departments have actually done is to install a system whereby they can hold perpetual lemon sessions.

In case you don’t know what a lemon session is–it’s when everybody in a group gets together to tell X what’s wrong with him.

And you’d think that would be awful. 

And it is, when X doesn’t want to hear it, or when it’s sort of thrust at you out of the blue.

But there are lemon sessions in various groups (like sororities, for instance, and consciousness raising groups) and for all the supposed negativity, it’s something a lot of people actively enjoy.  Hell, they’ll pay money to go to seminars where they know that’s exactly what’s going to happen.


Because, in the end, there’s one really good thing about a lemon session.

It’s all about you.

Never mind, feeling cynical this morning, I suppose.

I’m going to go off and think about harpsichords.

Written by janeh

June 6th, 2010 at 9:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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