Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"As on a Darkling Plain"

It's not exactly the cheeriest of poems, but I've always been fond of it.  I refer of course to Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach."  It's one of those poems high school students were required to read in the distant days when I was in high school, so it is a kind of "oldie" to me in the manner of old popular songs.  But it was a poem I admired at the time, and there were not many of those.

The poem isn't cheery at all, in fact, though it begins mildly enough.  Unsurprisingly, it takes a dark turn when you encounter the reference to "human misery" which the narrator opines was brought to the mind of Sophocles by the tide or waves of the Aegean, crashing onto the shore.  Those waves which crash upon the shore at Dover Beach, presumably, brings human misery to the mind of the narrator of the poem, in any case. and from there he's off to the lugubrious races, referring to the world, so apparently beautiful, as having neither joy nor love nor light nor certitude nor hope of relief from pain.  From that the poem concludes with reckoning that we exist on that damned darkling plain, "swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night."

Perhaps the poem's appeal was to the romantic, alienated teenager in the me of that time.  But Arnold was a sturdy Victorian for the most part, pontificating magisterially on art and other things.  And why, if angst makes it admirable, would I still find it admirable now, when I aschew angst and romanticism of any kind?

I suppose because it seems a particularly apt description of the world of our times, if not that of Arnold, if we take the short view.  The short view is one taken naturally, though.  The world does indeed seem at times to be one vast plain on which we ignorantly clash, here in God's favorite country and elsewhere.  "Ignorance" is the word of the hour.  The word of the age, perhaps.  We have, after all, elected as president a preening ignoramus.

It's doubtful we've ever been so ill-informed now that most of us always have information at hand, instantly.   Maybe a lot of information is as dangerous as a little knowledge.  Maybe it's more dangerous.  Too much information is daunting and encourages us to look for what meets with our expectations and no more than that.

The plain on which we clash so ignorantly, however, is the world with us in it.  We do the clashing.  The clashing is not due to the rest of the world but to a particular, and very small, part of it (infinitely small if "world" is taken to mean "universe").  We are similarly ignorant due to our own fault.  The rest of the world has no responsibility for our ignorance.  We're responsible for it.

An aspiring Stoic will find the belief that we each of us possess a part of the Divine Reason or partake of it a hard one to accept in these times and no doubt did at other times.  Our capacity to be irrational seems boundless.  The traditional Stoic response, I think, is that those of us who fail to follow reason and instead indulge in the passions do so because of their ignorance, not because they're inherently bad.  Ignorant armies which clash at night or at any other time, therefore, are made up of those who are not Stoics, who do not follow the Stoic path.

I think that then as now, the clashing occurs because of the very un-Stoic tendency to concern ourselves with things which and people who are not in our control.  It seems to me that the acceptance of this very simple precept--that some things are in our control and some are not, and those which are not do not have real significance--would eliminate anxiety, fear, envy, greed, hatred; the reasons for our clashes.

So would be the acceptance of other precepts, I suppose.  Some have long maintained that if we were all true Christians, for example, all would be well in the garden which, somehow, exists within our darkling plain.  Or if we all love one another, or all do onto others as we would like them to do to us, etc.

Such precepts strike me, however, as more difficult to understand or follow.  We aren't all Christians and we never will be (very few of us are to begin with, if one is Christian if one follows what Jesus said as best as we can determine).  We simply cannot love one another, if love is what we feel for those close to us.  We love people because they're close to us.  We simply treat those who are not close to us differently; we don't have the knowledge of them, trust in them, admiration in them needed to love them.  As for doing onto others, etc., that would certainly serve, but until such time as we treat things beyond our control as insignificant I doubt anyone would consistently apply that precept.  Without it, we desire or fear those things too much.

I view the Stoic precept as fundamental to a reasonable course of life.  It's simple, easy to understand (relatively speaking), has no necessary connection to acceptance of a particular deity, and eliminates the anxious pursuit of or flight from things not in our control which is otherwise a constant preoccupation.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Whither Classical Music?

Last weekend, I attended a performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during one of my solo sojourns to the downtown of The City of Broad Shoulders, the Windy City as it's also called.  Charlie Kane said of it to his friend Jedediah that "the wind comes howling in off the lake and gosh only knows if they ever heard of lobster Newburg" but it wasn't for that wind that it earned the latter nickname.  According to what I've read, an East Coast journalist called it that because of the tendency of its residents to boast of it, rendering them and their city "windy" in the parlance of the times.

It's interesting that although I visit River North and the Loop with some frequency, and enjoy classical music, I haven't been to a performance previously.  I'm not even certain why I did so in this case.  I had been to Winter's Jazz Club the night before and enjoyed what I heard and was checking for other live performance of music or a show, and thought of the symphony and am glad I did.

An orchestra at work is an impressive and powerful thing to observe.  It would seem to me that composing for a full orchestra is onerous and creating a composition which can be played and enjoyed by musicians and audiences is a remarkable artistic achievement.  Hearing an orchestra play great music is a notable sensory experience, or is for me. 

Listening to the CSO that evening prompted me to wonder, though.  Is classical music still a living art form?  One can of course still listen to and enjoy the work of great composers of the past as played by capable professional musicians, and that in itself, I would think, will always keep some of us listening to and appreciating the music.  But what of new composers and compositions and how they compare to the those of the past?

I was about to write that I'm unfamiliar with modern classical music (it seems difficult to even write those words as what is classical would seem on its face or by definition as not being modern or new).  But if we include within it the classical music written by 20th century composers, that wouldn't be entirely correct.  I have some familiarity with Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Schoenberg, Ravel, Debussy, Elgar, Benjamin Britten, Respighi, Berg, Poulenc, Richard Strauss, and Rachmaninoff so perhaps it can be said that as to classical music of the first half of the 20th century, at least, I'm not altogether ignorant.  But I know virtually nothing of what's gone on in the last 60 years or so.

I can't say I've liked some of the modern classical music I've heard.  Atonal and twelve tone music annoy me, for the most part.  To my doubtless unschooled ear, some modern classical music is mere noise.  It is I'm sure highly complicated noise, and may even be organized noise, but I don't associate noise with classical music or music of any kind.  I'm aware of the fact that certain composers have invited musicians to more or less do what they please, or select certain chords of phrases randomly and play them haphazardly, or laugh and shout or honk while others in the orchestra do something more traditionally associated with their instruments. 

That sort of thing has led me and perhaps others to speculate that classical music has played itself out.  That's to say that what has been done has pretty much covered all the ground which can be covered by orchestras or quintets or quartets or trios of a melodic nature by past masters of the various styles popular prior to the 20th century or the more melodic styles of the last century, for example the tone poems of Richard Strauss and Respighi.  And so, classical music composers now in a kind of despair resort to musical chaos.

I don't see how that can be, though.  I'd think that the variety of instruments available traditionally in classical music, combined with what technology now allow for, means it's likely still for new classical music to be made.  And, I think that it could still be music and not be wholly derivative of what has been done by the great composers of the past.

It's not a question of whether there is classical music which can yet be composed and played, then.  It's more a question of whether there will be patrons of that music.  Will those who now grow up with modern popular music even be exposed to let alone appreciate classical music?  Will they be musicians willing to play classical music?

The experience of being at a live performance of an orchestra would, I think, convince some of them at least to be patrons of it, because it can impress and can even be profound.  And, it does so without the need for the light shows filled with dancers, musicians pretending to play guitars and stars who most likely lip-sync their way through songs which are so over-produced that they can't be duplicated in a live venue.

Monday, May 29, 2017

"As Swimmers Into Cleanness Leaping"

I was reading some of the so-called "War Poets" last evening, preparatory I suppose to Memorial Day, or perhaps more properly inspired by it.  Those poets were, of course, poets of the First World War.  Rupert Brooke, from whose poem Peace the title of this post is taken, was for me the most able of those poets.  He was also the most inclined to write of the war they called the Great War as truly great, as it seems to have been to him in some manner grand.  Not in showy sense, not in a glorious sense, but profound.  A means he may have thought by which men also became great.

It's unfortunate, then, that he died as he did.  His death wasn't grand, or inspiring or profound.  He died of a mosquito bite which became infected, on a ship on its way to Gallipoli.  In those days infections of various sorts could turn out to be fatal. 

That said, the image of death invoked by the title to this post is striking.  It's said Brooke was an atheist, but it's difficult to think of him as such while reading this poem, or sonnet.  If I interpret it correctly, which is always uncertain, one is blessed by the peace of death, transformed into a part of something very great indeed.  Something different from and finer than humanity or the world we humans have made.

His poetry is his memorial.  Is it a memorial of war, though? 

It's interesting in considering Memorial Day to wonder just what memorials of war are supposed to be, what they are and what they have been.  It seems to me that war memorials now are something different from what they were in the past.  It's likely we've always made such memorials, but for a different purpose or different purposes.  Ancient Roman war memorials abound.  There are the arches of Titus, Constantine, Septimius Severus; there are the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.  They and most if not all ancient war memorials honored great victories of great men.  Although soldiers appeared on the memorials, particularly on the columns, they were not memorials of the soldiers themselves.

War memorials came to be erected to honor those who fought the wars only recently in the scheme of things as far as I can tell.  We see them beginning in the 19th century.  The late 19th century, I believe, is when they became common.  Even the memorial erected after the battle of Waterloo, the so-called Lion's Mound, though it wasn't intended merely to commemorate the Prince of Orange  but the victory over Napoleon, can't be said to be a war memorial as we know them now.

Perhaps they began with the U.S. Civil War.  That would seem to be when special cemeteries were set aside for those killed in battle, in any event.  Then came the First and Second World Wars, and more cemeteries, and tombs of unknown soldiers, and monuments, everywhere.

The memorials we're familiar with seem to be associated with war as it came to be fought not by professional or mercenary armies, but armies which were formed by conscription.  Or, perhaps, they came to be as war came to be fought by huge masses and came to impact on societies in general.  The losses incurred in the terrible wars fought beginning in the 19th century were so enormous and affected so many that it was felt necessary to memorialize them in ways that were different in quality and quantity from prior memorials.

Those memorials are altogether fitting, to paraphrase Lincoln at Gettysburg.  The sacrifices made should be honored, as they're beyond measurement.  And it's good we honor those who sacrificed themselves and not merely emperors and kings and generals who committed them to their fates.

Memorials are supposed to serve another purpose as well, though, or so it's said.  They're to serve to remind of those losses.  And doubtless they do.  It's curious, though, that while we remember we continue to wage war.  We don't forget the horrors of war but keep fighting wars, and then erect additional memorials to them and those who died fighting them.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Our Ship of Fools

Plato, in the course of describing and justifying his frightening ideal state in his Republic, used as an allegory what's been called ever since the Ship of Fools.  The Ship of Fools was intended to reflect a democracy, where all thought they could captain the ship or where they would select as captain whoever best thought as they did or would advance their selfish interests.

Plato seemed to have been fond of the ship allegory, as he used it again contra democracy, noting that those who would charter a ship would want an expert captain at the helm.  No doubt that's true, but those who would do so would also, I think, instruct the captain on what the destination would be, rather than leaving it to the captain to determine where it is best for them to go.

I'm not as adverse to democracy as Plato was, and am quite adverse to the totalitarian state he thought best.  But the Ship of Fools is useful as a reference to a nation, or company, or group that is being significantly mismanaged or directed by fools.

The phrase comes to mind almost unbidden when we consider the state of our Great Republic.  Regrettably, it's a kind description under the circumstances.  I've always believed that the mistakes of government are more likely the result of incompetence than criminal conduct, but whether that is true in this case is unclear.

It's possible that the curiously senseless statements of the Chief Executive regarding the investigations taking place are merely the result of his incompetence.  No sensible person in his position would so blithely undercut the explanations offered by those he so memorably described as his surrogates, particularly when they're clearly offered to explain his own conduct as something which doesn't implicate him in wrongdoing.  Alternatively, they may be expressive of a remarkable ignorance of his position as president, which though one of power is also one of responsibility and for which he may be held accountable.   This I would guess is something he's not used to, never having in his privately owned businesses been accountable to shareholders or a board of directors.

But if incompetence and ignorance explain what appears to have taken place, it seems that the result is little different from what would be the case if it was intended.  Perhaps reports of what's been said and done are inaccurate.  But the president has little or no credibility on any subject, for which he has only himself to blame (though he would no doubt blame his unfortunate advisers), nor does his administration.

U.S. Grant was president of a notably corrupt administration.  Grant seems to have been a highly intelligent man, judging at least from his very well written memoirs.  It's not certain that he himself was corrupt, but he was certainly far too fond of his friends and neglectful in overseeing them.  He might be said to have been na├»ve.  This president, though, appears to be lacking in intelligence to the extent that implies the ability to reason closely and thoroughly.  His dislike for reading indicates he lacks patience and is inclined to do and say things off the cuff.  Indeed, it indicates he doesn't like to make the effort to think deeply and is entirely reactive.

So it seems entirely possible that the chaos we see is the result of a scatter-brained, impulsive, thoughtless man used to getting his way taking on much more than  he can handle.  But, if he demanded personal loyalty of an FBI Director, asked him to drop an investigation, accepted as a close advisor a man working as an agent of a foreign government, there's something more involved.  Now we learn that man is relying on the Fifth Amendment to avoid a Congressional subpoena.  None of this bodes well for the Republic.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Sin of Knowledge

It's an odd tale, that of Adam, Eve and the Garden of Eden.  Odd and disturbingly influential.  The doctrine of Original Sin has its basis in this peculiar story which, to some of us at least, is the word of God, literally or metaphorically true depending on the religious brand in question.  It's the stuff of various artistic works, psychological and philosophical theories.  I can understand why, because it is the foundational myth of great religions.

Just what it means is unclear to me.  Who can guess the intent of its ancient author, or authors? We read into it what we want; interpretation is a matter of convenience, or doctrine, one or the other. 

With that self-serving characterization in mind, I present my less than definitive, or for that matter less than definite, interpretation.  That's to say, what I think about it.   I think that it's language is clear enough and don't believe much in the way of interpretation is required, unless one is dismayed by the plain meaning of the words.  I think one should be dismayed.

What the supposed first humans did that resulted in their banishment from the Garden and, according to Catholic doctrine in any case, tainted the human race forever after (in saecula saeculorum), was disobey a command of God.  The wrong, as far as I can tell, was to disobey.  That in itself merited punishment.  Whether it was good or right or beneficial to eat of the Tree of Knowledge is not an issue--it isn't considered, even.  Regardless of the reasons for the command, even if it was unreasonable, failure to obey a command of God is an evil in and of itself.

Plato in his Euthypro dealt with the question whether acting as commanded by God is good because God commands it, or whether God commands it because it is good.  It can be argued that this story is an expression of the view that whatever God commands is good, not because it is good but because God commands it.  Knowledge, after all, wouldn't seem to be necessarily evil.  What is wrong with knowing? 

Perhaps it can be argued that knowing, or knowing some things, causes us harm.  In that case it may be maintained that God was trying to prevent us from being harmed.  In fact, God warns Adam not to eat the fruit of the Tree because if he does, he'll die.  It's not clear to me why eating of the Tree of Knowledge causes death, and this isn't explained in the text.  Perhaps the knowledge gained by eating the forbidden apple in fact led to our undoing, if not death.  We came to think, and came to think of ourselves as separate and apart from the rest of the world, rather than living with nature in blissful harmony in the Garden.

If God was trying to prevent us from harming ourselves, though, it would seem perverse of him to cause us significant harm because we harmed ourselves.  Expulsion from the Garden exposed us to a life of pain and misery; doomed us to it, in fact, rendered us subject to eternal punishment if not appropriately saved.   It seems a remarkably high price to pay assuming a God devoted to our well being.

It's said that the knowledge gained was the knowledge of good and evil.  This is puzzling, to me at least.  It seems that in the blessed state of inhabitants of the Garden of Eden, the parents of humanity possessed no such knowledge.  Not knowing good and evil, they didn't even know what those words meant.  They lived not only without knowledge but without judgment or thought, which would be necessary to distinguish good from evil.  They were, it seems, much like the rest of the animals.  Thoughtless.  The knowledge of good and evil renders us like God.

It's difficult not to conclude that the Sin for which we were punished was that of having the capacity to think and to make judgments and decisions.  That view of sin is one which an autocrat or elite might find useful.  If thinking is a sin, thinking is something to be avoided lest we suffer eternal damnation.  This would seem to suit those in positions of power quite well.  Those who don't think are easily manipulated.

I'm uncertain of the origin of the phrase "ignorance is bliss" but this would appear to be what we can infer is the moral of the tale if we accept the tale as written, as told.  I'm certain, however, that this inference has been avoided for quite some time and alternate explanations offered.  I'm always suspicious when interpretation is made so lavishly of easily comprehended language, however.