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Sometimes I do something so incredibly boneheaded and clueless, I can’t believe I can walk and talk at the same time.

To tell you all the truth, it hadn’t occurred to me, yesterday, to think about the “unified field theory of everything.” And it should have.  I’ve certainly heard about it enough.

But when I was talking about how we’ve lost the idea that the universe is a whole, and all of it’s connected, I was thinking of something considerably more modest.

When Alberti talks about the relationship of mathematics to painting, he does indeed go on–at great length–about how geometry relates to perspective (something he’s credited for being the “inventor” of, although that’s probably not quite accurate).

But what else he does is to assume that the standards for art–what makes a work of art “good” or “bad”–are also related to mathematics.

Most Medieval and Renaissance moral philosophers, when they talked about morality and conscience, did not simply say “this is what God said,” but assumed that right conduct was that conduct that fulfilled the purposes of nature.

To use the most obvious example:  the Medieval identification of homosexual practice with sin came from the Bible, but its identification of homosexual practice as wrong came from the assumption that nature’s purpose in sex was to produce babies. 

All the other reasons why people might have sex–lust, for instance, or orgasms–were morally wrong because they were not “ordered to nature” as Aquinas would say.

I’m not saying that we should adopt such a standard ourselves.

And I’m not unaware that there are problems with the standard as the writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance understood it–hell, even as Aristotle understood it.

There are complicated reasons why both Aristotle and Aquinas–both the Greek rationalist and the Medieval Christian traditions–treated pleasure as superfluous to sex, but I’m not sure they would (or should) hold water today. 

Both societies had a screamingly wrong conception of what happened in conception, too, which didn’t help any.

But it’s interesting that neither society fell into the naturalistic fallacy–at the same time they both saw conformity with nature as good, they both thought of a lot of what we would consider “natural” behavior to be unnatural. 

They saw man as being the one creature who could deny nature, so to speak.  Nature decreed that sex was for making babies.  Man decided it would be a good idea to screw goats because it made him feel temporarily good.

The temporarily is important.

I’m doing that thing again where I wander around blithering. 

But what I was getting at was the idea that if we think of nature as a whole–rather than a collection of discrete and largely unrelated parts–then we think about the parts differently. 

We don’t have to have a unified field theory of everything.  The concept is simpler and much more obvious.  We are all here together–the physics, the chemistry, the biology, the anatomy, the poetry, the music, the lobster thermidor.

I could not eliminate physics and still have this world. 

But I couldn’t eliminate poetry, either–I could eliminate a particular poem, or a poetic tradition (say, the sonnet, or haiku)–

But all people everywhere have had poetry.  And all of them have had narrative.  Look at the existence of poetry and narrative over time, and what we see looks a lot like poetry not as something people do, but as something people feel compelled to do. 

And yes, of course, if we eliminated people, we would still have a world–it just wouldn’t be this world. 

Nor was I asking that we should all become “experts” in everything.  In terms of the kind of holistic understand of the world as a whole that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance strove to achieve, our “expertise” would be more of a hindrance than a help.

A lot of what we call expertise is fragmented knowledge of bits and pieces and parts of things that is only of any use when we bring it together with the equally fragmented knowledge held by other people.  And a lot of it is of very little interest to much of anybody.  I really like the idea of quarks going in and out of existence at will, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with the “knowledge.”

I don’t have to be an expert in physics to understand that the physical properties of the material world constrain my action in that world.  I don’t need to be an expert mathematician to understand how the rules of geometry underpin perspective.

I am not a big fan of the cult of expertise–in case you haven’t already noticed–and that’s at least partially because it often seems to me as if it is a cult.

But what I’ve been talking about here is something else–it’s the possibility that the designation that some poetry (or painting, or music or literature) is “good” may rely on its congruence with things we now think of as “outside” the field.

If that makes sense.

I’m going to do that thing again, and remind anybody reading of the problem we’re having with COMMENTING ON THE BLOG:

If you try to post a comment and can’t, then try to register a password and end up getting the error message

            Invalid Registration Status

please e-mail me, and we’ll get you into the system manually.

So far, at least four regular contributors have had this problem, and I’m a little worried about new people with no experience of how the system usually works.

So if it happens, it’s just the program screwing up.  E-mail me–if you don’t have the address  you can use the contact form on the web site–and we’ll get you signed in.

Thanks.  Sorry for all the fuss. 

Then I’m going to go get ready to leave.

Written by janeh

November 19th, 2010 at 6:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Thick'

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  1. “But what I’ve been talking about here is something else–it’s the possibility that the designation that some poetry (or painting, or music or literature) is “good” may rely on its congruence with things we now think of as “outside” the field.”

    Maybe. I don’t want to do the whole “how do we know what is good?” bit again this week. Probably not next week either.

    But it’s worth considering here that “good” in the context of art, music or literature would have multiple meanings–technically expert, aesthetically pleasing, and then–not with music, but with some art and maybe all literature–a moral–or perhaps spiritual would be a better word–element would enter in.

    Let me see if I can do this right. For a long time, the “Dungeons and Dragons” people had a house organ–DRAGON magazine. The early cover paintings were almost cartoonish–were cartoons in some instances. As the standard of commercial art and DRAGON’s budget both rose, the later covers were startlingly competent–mythical creatures you could reach out and touch. But I would not have rated many as aesthetic successes, and fewer still reached a deeper level.

    You can see the same thing in paperback covers if you go back a little further–from immediately post-war to 1970, more or less. By that time the level of technical competence is often quite high–but it’s not necessarily “good art” in the other two senses.

    If you actually know the field, compare Michael Whelan with Frank Frazetta. Both are technically competent and Whelan really has read the story he’s illustrating–but Frazetta sometimes touches a much deeper place. Of the two, Frazetta might belong in a museum. Whelan does not. (But then there’s a lot of stuff in museums I don’t think belongs there.)

    Of the three meanings, I think technical competence is probably internal to the field, and aesthetic satisfaction is the one that can most probably be explained or understood by a different discipline. Apart from mathematics, there is, I understand, some reason to believe that we respond to “Pleistoscene” landscapes–seeking what our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have regarded as good ground.

    As for the deeper elements–are we back to that small interior voice again? Not tonight. Music is all emotion, I think, and art and literature can be. But they can also touch something in our souls or our DNA–and I would note that the most vicious critical battles are fought out on this level. Whatever it is, it’s NOT universal.

    Stick with the aesthetic level, I think.


    19 Nov 10 at 7:01 pm

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