Stairway to Democracy?

In my free time this week I've been listening to Donald Kagan's lectures on ancient Greece and enjoying them very much. I also listen during my visits to the Kline Center, where I spend time on the treadmill and the rowing machine. Certainly makes that time less tedious. (Now, if I could be more successful at cutting back on sweets I could make some real progress...) Kagan's comments on Athenian democracy and the analogies he makes to our times are certainly interesting and thought provoking. And certainly confirm my own ideas about the importance of education and its relationship to democracy. But beware: isn't it suspicious when our ideas find confirmation? On guard! And I didn't need Kagan to reach that conclusion. Socrates makes the point quite nicely. What I mean, of course, is that it's so easy to find confirmation for our beliefs. That's the problem! We've got to continually put them to the test. (And that's why 90% of political commentary today is so deathly boring. All these self-assured pundits. They'd be a lot more interesting if they gave their egos a rest now and then.)
Why do I seem to forget to bring my lunch with me in the morning? Is this an age thing? Should the US have intervened on behalf of the II Spanish Republic? Who's advising Mark McGwire? (Perhaps a Greek ostracism would be a good punishment for him.) In the photo: the spectacular triple staircase at the former churcho of Santo Domingo in Santiago de Compostela.


Booze and Brain Damage

Yesterday I read about the new study that links binge drinking during adolescence to permanent brain damage. It gave me an uneasy, sinking feeling. Shit, did I blow it. But my unease quickly eased. ( I did an un? As in, instead of undoing something, you could simply un it?) There you go, brain damage. Oh well, I've got an excuse.


Your tax dollars at work

Yesterday I began to read friend Antonio Soler's weekly article in Diario Sur and almost from the start it wasn't making sense to me. Something about the FBI and Gaspar Llamazares, the head of Spain's communist party and a member of congress. I had to google it. Last week the news got out that the FBI had used a photo of Llamazares in mocking up an image of what Ossama Bin Laden might look like today. How incompetent can you get? This is national security? It seems a lot more like national embarrassment. (According to Madrid daily El Mundo, the FBI admitted they had googled the image of Llamazares. Hmmm, why Llamazares?) Wow, these guys at the FBI are really working hard: incredibly, parts of Llamazares show up on the composites of two other wanted terrorists!) But the seriously dark side to this is that the FBI was being terribly reckless in their stupidity and risked creating an even bigger diplomatic mess than the one they've already created: imagine if Llamazares had travel plans to the US before this had become public. It could have been really ugly. Anyway, Soler had a funny take on all this: part of what really has Llamazares upset is that some hack at the FBI must have considered him sufficiently irrelevant to pull this keystone cops stunt. That hurts!


"Ah de la vida..."

The past few days I've had Francisco de Quevedo's famous sonnet "Represéntase la brevedad de la vida..." on my mind. It begins "¡Ah de la vida!... ¿Nadie me responde?" (Translated be Alix Ingber as "Calling Life! And no one answers me?") Yes, any one out there? Quevedo was a truly fascinating character of 17th century Spain. Polemicist, satirist, brilliant, curious, outrageous... a real baroque figure for a baroque time. He was full of contradictions. In his 1641 essay "God's Providence", a kind of late Scholastic text, Quevedo seems to reveal his own agnosticism: the text is directed at atheists and attempts to "prove" rationally the immortality of the soul. But he was a smart guy. It's hard for me to imagine he really believed it. In any case, maybe I was reminded of Quevedo when I came across the Out Campaign earlier this week: an initiative led by noted atheist Richard Dawkins to get atheists to "come out of the closet" (but no 'outing' other atheists). The link to the website is here. My brain is quite limited, but I keep coming back to the big bang. Didn't there have to be a "match" of some kind? Something to ignite this process? Isn't that the divinity? But that isn't much consolation is it? It seems that force could care less about our fate. A new metaphor: God is driving down the interstate smoking a cigarette. He tosses the butt out the window and it lands on a puddle of gasoline in a very dry field. Kaboom! The fire is HOT, and sets off quite a chain reaction... But God is long gone, isn't aware of the fire... He never turns back. Well, at least I've advanced a little bit: I now understand that metaphors of this sort are no good to the extent that there is no "time" before the big bang. So the idea of "God coming down the highway..." just doesn't work. It was actually a video I came across that gave a visual representation of Einstein's insights into the space/time relationship in the General Relativity theory that helped me finally begin to grasp this concept. By the way, Quevedo was a drunk. I can imagine.


An email got me thinking...

I just got an email announcing a talk to be given next week in Malaga by Juan Luis Cebrián, the founding editor of El País, the grand Madrid daily that was so important during Spain's transition to democracy. He'll be talking about the future of journalism, certainly an interesting topic, as newspapers are going out of business all over the place. (This morning is classic Carlisle grey; I wish I were in Malaga.) In any case, it got me thinking, not about internet, but rather about the future of education, and this is one of the reasons I'm an optimist, in spite of it all. It's easy to be a pessimist: people read less, everyone seems to be geographically illiterate, kids are on one electronic device or another all day, blah, blah, blah... But these same technologies are going to make high quality, more individualized instruction available to all. A pipe dream? Perhaps, but it can be imagined, and eventually we'll get it right. Teachers will spend less time informing and more time mentoring. (The other day on tv I heard a little girl say this: "When I grow up I want to teach people how to learn." Exactly! That's what I want to do, too, when I grow up!) In the photo, Cebrián. Don't speak Spanish? You can see, of course, that "sociedad" is an easy cognate. Society in red? No, "red" means "network" or "web". The forum is on the topic of Society and the Internet. That is, you might say, the topic these days. Twenty years ago was before the internet age. Today we are in it. A lot has changed.


Who Should Pay for Culture?

That's the question that underlies an article in this morning's Times that uses as its starting point a promise from Britain's Conservative Party shadow Culture Minister to introduce a "US-style culture of philanthropy" if the Tories come to power. They are trembling in Paris: Sarkozy might be listening. This question of who pays for the arts avoids a question that perhaps it would be healthy to return to with some regularity: why should the arts be subsidized at all? Yes, the arts should be subsidized. And generously. Societies that devote significant energy to the creative arts are healthier, happier societies. Can you be a good citizen without some artistic sensibility? (No!) On the other hand, bureaucratic control of the arts can do great harm. Cultural institutions should be privately controlled and, in select cases, publicly subsidized. (Oh boy, doesn't this sound just a little too earnest?! Quick, someone tell a joke! Here's one: Glenn Beck.) Well, I'll take the middle road on this one: tax benefits for private funding of the arts (and education) should be a no brainer; direct public financing has a place too, and, in the case of the US, should be substantially increased.


Vargas Llosa on Culture

About a week ago I came across a stimulating essay by the great novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. In Spanish it's title is "La civilización del espectáculo". In the essay Vargas Llosa reflects on recent shifts in cultural values, the possible differences between high and popular culture, and the ascendence of entertainment as the dominant force of our time. (He's talking mainly about frivolous entertainment.) He observes, as many have, how the distinction between news and entertainment has become terribly blurred for large segments of the population. That's one 'symptom'. This is quite significant because, and I'm sure I've made this argument before, as our pursuit of distraction becomes ever intensified, our ability to sustain, much less improve, a just, democratic society, becomes increasingly endangered. Curiously, I mentioned this essay yesterday to a colleague and she said, oh yes, that's the talk Vargas Llosa gave at Dickinson. (That was in December, 2008, when we were in Malaga.) In any case, the emergence of new technologies plays a central role in these shifts in habits and values. I am reminded of this right now, having just seen a Times headline: "If your kids are awake, they're probably online". Here's the first line: "The average young American now spends practically every waking minute — except for the time in school — using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device, according to a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation." Gives pause, no? I am also reminded of a recent conversation with a colleague who has a young son. All his friends have... I don't know what you call it, some hand held video game device. Should he get one too? It's very hard, but I'm all for parents who try to resist the onslaught. Vargas Llosa writes about the declining importance of ideas as a cultural force. The well considered use of reason. He declares himself a pessimist. I'm still an optimist, so one of my tasks is to articulate why my optimism is justified. Stay tuned.


Avatar vs. Carmen

Last weekend we went to see Avatar at the multiplex up the street. It's great entertainment, incredibly rich visually. It's a pretty long film, but to me didn't seem so. We left the cinema happy and satisfied. Yesterday we went again to a multiplex, but this time to Harrisburg, and for the purpose of seeing a live simulcast of Carmen from the Met. Wow! I've never been a big opera fan and have only gone to see professional opera a few times in my life. I've never been to the Met. But in a sense, yesterday we had a more close up experience than anyone who was actually at the theater. The technology is stunning. The audio is excellent and the HD cameras bring you amazing detail and close up focus. I'll take this over a film any day. The production: above all, the Latvian soprano Elina Garanca in the title role. Olé, Elina! This girl has it all. What a voice! And what acting! She owned that stage. (In that regard, and certainly in that regard only, she reminded me of another performer I love to see on stage...) Roberto Alagna as don José was fantastic. Of course, I don't know anything about opera and so maybe it would have all seemed wonderful to me regardless of who was performing. This new production also included some dancing, created by renowned choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. Interesting, but I don't think it added anything significant. (The New York Times review of the season's first performance is here.) After the show I found myself thinking about the technology that makes this possible and its general implications for culture. It's just another example of a potential democratizing force: now, the greatest manifestations of high culture can be experienced by just about anyone, potentially, almost anywhere. You don't have to go to New York (or Paris or London) to see the great artists of the day perform. Yes, it's true, it is not the same as being at a live performance, but it sure is an extremely high quality and worthy experience. This is nothing like, for example, seeing a video on a smallish tv screen. And it's a lot cheaper, too. More expensive than going to a movie, but a lot less than the cost of going to NY. So, Avatar or Carmen? I'll take Carmen, without a doubt. (We saw several familiar faces at the theater, and Asun ran into a former colleague. It was a typical friends of friends linked to colleagues, neighbors, etc. situation.) We ended up having a really lovely time with a fun and ecclectic group: people from Spain, Mexico, the US, and Latvia. Amazingly, our new Latvian friend, Linka, a professional pianist, has a direct connection to Elina Garanca: she gave lessons to Elina's mother. Small world! I have a feeling Elina is on her way to becoming an international megastar. That's her, above, in the photo.


Heberto Padilla

Heberto Padilla was a Cuban poet who gained international fame, unfortunately, as the protagonist of the notorious "caso Padilla", a series of events between 1968 and 1971 that led to Padilla being briefly incarcerated in Cuba along with his wife, Belkis Cuza Male. After a few weeks of prison, during which time he was tortured, Padilla was released, but forced to make a grotesque, Stalinesque "act of contrition", confessing to his "counterrevolutinary" attitudes and writing. These events led many leftist intellectuals to break with the revolution. He left Cuba in 1979, taught briefly at Princeton, then ended up at Auburn University. He died in 2000. I've been reading a good deal about Padilla and these events in the past few days in preparation for one of the classes I'll be teaching this semester. (If anyone who happens to read this feels sympathy towards the Cuban Revolution, please see the film Improper Conduct, a documentary that focuses on the repression of homosexuals and other "undesirables" in Cuba.) Yesterday I came across Belkis Cuza's blog, where I found her detailed account of the morning when the Security Police came to arrest her husband. I was reminded of the experience suffered just months ago by renowned blogger Yoani Sánchez. Yoani was briefly detained and intimidated by Castro's thugs. She is repeatedly denied visas so she can travel.



I just saw the headlines about the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Haiti! Just the other day I saw a few minutes of some news program on Haiti and attempts to improve the lives of Haitians. So, a cruel, cosmic joke? I routinely hear people talk about how good things happen to them because of the direct participation of God. God makes these things happen. I say: bullshit! We better get to work. Now!


Warhol meets Van Dyck

Last night I read an interesting essay in The New Yorker about Andy Warhol. The essay, by Louis Menand, reviews Warhol's career and reevaluates his role in the emergence of Pop Art. (Actually, one of the most fascinating details for me was the bit of outrageous moralizing performed by Time magazine on the occasion of the shooting suffered by Warhol at the hands of a paranoid schizophrenic in 1968: "Americans who deplore crime and disorder might consider the case of Andy Warhol, who for years has celebrated every form of licentiousness. Like some Nathanael West hero, the pop-art king was the blond guru of a nightmare world, photographing depravity and calling it truth. He surrounded himself with freakily named people–Viva, Ultra Violet, International Velvet, Ingrid Superstar–playing games of lust, perversion, drug addiction and brutality before his crotchety cameras... As he fought for life in a hospital, pals insisted that he had not brought it on himself." Oh my! Little Andy brought down Western Civilization all by his lonesome!
In reading the essay I was reminded of a comment I heard a choreographer make recently regarding the "difficulty" of appreciating contemporary dance. I'm paraphrasing: 'people, stop intellectualizing! Do you like it? If so, great. There's nothing to understand and there won't be a test after the performance.' But, beginning with Abstract Expressionism, painting does become about intellectualizing. (Of course, the visual arts have always involved conceptual considerations, but in the second half of the XX century the dominant trend becomes a kind of self-immolation: look? see: Nothing here!) There often isn't much to look at. Inside jokes. No one needs to go to a museum to see a big monochrome canvas. It's just as well, and more convenient, to simply have it described for you. Now, Van Dyck. That's another matter. His Portrait of Frans Snyders is a masterpiece I could contemplate again, and again, and again. (The zoomable image available at the Frick Museum website is a wonder! How it brought me back to my encounter with Snyders at the museum: Aldrich, I am me. Who are you? I think! Do you think? What do we share?!) The notion that one's face is a window to the soul is affirmed with such mastery. When I contemplate a work such as this it performs the healthy miracle of handing me a most useful illusion: that I actually know something of what it is to be human. Velázquez performs the same miracle, but with a style and technique that seems to me quite noticeably different. Velázquez, too, reaches for the soul, and never more so than in the self-portrait he incorporates into Las Meninas. I can imagine a conversation between Van Dyck, Velázquez, and Warhol. Van Dyck and Velázquez would want to talk about craft, but Andy might keep pushing things towards Kraft. Above, Van Dyck's portrait. (Another day, I would like to consider the paired portrait Van Dyck did of Margareta Snyders, Frans' wife.)


Exile, Home

Towards the end of his essay on exile, Edward Said quotes the twelfth-century monk Hugo of St. Victor: "The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land." This sentiment reminds me of the sixteenth century Spanish mystic poets. Forget the world, our souls yearn for a reconnection with the divinity, and the divinity clearly is not here. St. Teresa, for example, outlines the journey of the soul away from the here and now, towards a connection with God. An Ascent. (Not for me: I like this world. I guess I'm a deist: nature reveals traces of its origins... back, back, back to the Big Bang. And thanks to Original Ignition, here we are! The sun feels good, trees and mountains are beautiful. Water, air...) Said then observes how Hugo does not advocate for a simple rejection of attachments, but rather a working through them. It could be interesting to trace the evolution of thought from Hugo to Teresa. Perhaps it is a worthy exercise to consider where one stands on this scale of place. Where is home? Back to triteness: it's where family and friends are. Well, yes, but not completely so. How strange would it be to suddenly find yourself dropped off in a truly strange and inhospitable environment? Take the family and go live in Greenland? Changes in environment, obviously, can be quite disruptive. There are places that are particularly important to me. Carlisle is one of them. Nineteen years. Well, just fourteen with a physical presence, but still... Familiarity. I'm grateful to not be an exile. In the photo, the Hamilton, on High Street, where I occasionally meet friends and take refuge.



It has been very cold this week. Whenever it gets like this I end up thinking about basic human instincts. Survival. Get food. Get warm. The other day my father-in-law's home heating system broke down. Not good. He's eighty-one years old. Thankfully, he has options, family, resources, etc. But not everyone does. I've always thought that societies should be evaluated according to how well they attend to the needs of its least fortunate members. I often think that organizing and fulfilling our collective responsibilities in a free and open society should not be quite so complicated. But apparently it is. We should do so much better. Ultimately it's the temperature inside that matters. I find it to be a constant struggle. Maybe I too am being affected by the cold. Stay inside. Listen to the Greeks. Go back to the Mediterranean. Fire. Heat. The Pleasure. Pleasure: "...the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul." Epicurus, I'm still trying, struggling to not struggle. (God is quite the humorist.) Today I've reread Epicurus' Letter to Menoeceus. It's easy to see the importance of translation here. Wouldn't it be fun to be able to read that in the original Greek! (In the photo: in Ronda back in November, 2008. Another cold day.)


The Frick

Yesterday I made my first ever visit to the Frick Museum in New York. Score that a ten for the wow factor. What a collection! Three incredible Ver Meers. Two astounding Turners. One of Velázquez's most impressive large scale portraits of Philip IV, El Greco's portrait of St. Jerome*, and a long etc. And that's just the painting! We didn't have time to really absorb the sculptures, the room designs, furniture, etc. I'd like to go back on my next visit to New York, for we only had time for a superficial, 90 minute visit. Daniela seemed to enjoy her class at the School of American Ballet and thought it went well. While we waited Asun and I had a very pleasant conversation with a woman whose daughter was also there. She and her husband have a dairy farm near Kutztown, PA and it was quite interesting to talk about that and about the efforts they have made to allow their daughter to engage her passion. The girl is seventeen now and studying with Peter Boal out in Seattle. Speaking of whom, the Pacific Northwest Ballet is in New York this week. Unfortunately last night's show at the Joyce Theatre was sold out, so after the visit to the Frick we went back to the car and headed back for Carlisle.
*And speaking of Jerome, Jay Ohlsten and I will be collaborating this year on a future, prize winning play, a tragicomic drama of everything. Jay is as yet unaware of this. Well, he is, but he doesn't know he is. It is a matter of his unaware awareness. More soon!


Hoplite Phalanx

This morning I learned something about the evolution of the Greek hoplite phalanx, the battle technique of infantry in very close formation, heavily defended with large shields. The word phalanx is Latin, and it comes from the Greek φάλαγξ. And then I realized, of course, the Spanish "falange", the Fascist inspired political party of 1930s Spain, took its name from this very concept-the armed force that will roll right over you. "Hoplite" refers to the citizen soldiers who made up the phalanx, and that word is related to the large shield they carried. All this I learned in listening to Donald Kagan's lecture online. (So I've tagged this entry "Readings", though that is not really the case.)
Of course, the important question is how can peoples around the world make effective progress in eliminating warfare from the human experience. War is a perversion, a madness. Is it hopeless? It certainly seems that way, but there has to be at least a speck of hope. Although the hoplite phalanx is a technique of the ancient world, the mentality of aggression, intimidation, and, ultimately, victory, through close huddling enjoys today robust health.
Enough of this diversion, it's time to get to work...


Donald Kagan and Ancient Greece

A new gadget for Christmas: an iPod shuffle. It's smaller than my pinky and weighs about an ounce. Amazing. Now I have music for my walks and workouts. Or lectures. the iTunes store has an impressive offering of free podcasts. One of the first things I downloaded is Donald Kagan's Introduction to Ancient Greek Civilization course at Yale. I've already listened to the course introduction and the first lecture, which talks about Mycenaean culture. (And while listening, sitting at the computer, I discovered this course is also available for free on video. Check out this spectacular website, AcademicEarth.org. I don't believe "revolutionary" is overstating it if we want to talk about the democratization of educational opportunities.Kagan, of course, has become a prominent neo-conservative, but he is best known as the author of a mammoth four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War. I started to read Thucydides' famous history once, but never got very far. This past year, Kagan published, most appropriately, a biography of Thucydides. A good review from the Washington Post can be found here. And if you're not sure how to pronounce the name of the famous Greek historian, listen here. Some other day maybe I'll write about Kagan's politics, but for today suffice to say I'm most happy with this new toy. (My first impression is that Kagan is not an especially engaging lecturer, but neither is he dull.) In the image, Thucydides.



Make sure you see the film Man on Wire. (It's currently on demand on the Sundance Channel if you have Comcast cable.) What a great way to start the new year. It's an excellent documentary about the French artist Phillippe Petit and his famous tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Fascinating, funny, dramatic. It's a really compelling story and the film is marvelously done. Petit is quite a character, and his enthusiasm tremendously endearing. Cristina made a great observation: there is almost no way that kind of genius could flourish today in our society because right away children like Petit would be diagnosed as ADD and put on medications. (Petit was an overly rambunctious child, was expelled from a number of schools, ran away from home, etc.) Then again, that kind of extreme daring-do does raise interesting questions. At what point should intervention take place? (In the case of Petit, he was very clearly at serious risk of killing himself.) How many risks should we allow our children to take? Are we overprotective? The answer to this last question is, unequivocally, yes, certainly we are, generally speaking, overprotective. Let's conform less and be more creative. Not a bad new year's resolution!